Just before I began to write this post, I typed out two quick status updates on two different social media platforms. One was a tweet, and I had to re-word and condense the update so that it would meet the 140 character maximum. The other was on Facebook, where I experienced the same problem. In fact, I had to edit the Facebook update twice to get it down to 140 characters.
Because of what I had been writing earlier today, though, I was already in that mode of thinking. I’ve been seeing a lot about the genre of flash fiction lately, and several writers I follow on Twitter have been publishing short pieces that way. Flash fiction is basically a short-short story, ranging anywhere from 500 to 1,500 words, depending on what definition (or which publication) you consult. There’s a market for this, including several science fiction e-zines, and I decided late this week that I would take a shot at my first flash fiction piece this weekend. I mean, its two pages…I write that in just over an hour on most productive evenings, so it can’t be that difficult, right?
Actually, it is. My friend Renee had dinner with Karen and I Friday night, and told us of an odd experience she recently had, laughed about it, and moved on. The experience stood out to me, though, and I saw imaginative, “what if?” sorts of possibilities, so I decided that I had the inspiration for my flash fiction. I wrote it between late Saturday night and Sunday afternoon in two sittings. Part of it is very easy (back story is left out, and only the climax of your plot appears…no rising or falling action). Part of it is deceptively difficult, though: every word of every description has to count, almost like poetry. The theme has to be left for your reader to grasp…you can’t hint strongly at it even if you want to. And character development is minimal to non-existent. At least, those my experiences in my first attempt.
I remember my first semester in grad school, researching a term paper for one of the most difficult classes I’ve ever taken in my academic career. The assignment description from the professor in the class syllabus included a statement that brevity would be considered a valued quality in reading the paper. Essentially, he meant that verbose discussion of a point to take up space wouldn’t be tolerated. I learned to make points succinctly in academic papers, because going over your page limit was not looked upon generously in my graduate program (if they said 30 pages, then, as a rule, you could expect severe grade deductions for turning in 32).
Fiction, though, has always been different for me, because its a free and creative process. I don’t feel constrained by this or that convention (at least not until I start trying to find submission targets). That’s what made this genre a challenge.
But it also makes me a bit uncomfortable.
One magazine that accepted flash fiction submissions stated that the editors considered this the future of fiction, because modern people want quick, short reading material that easily works into the rest of their schedules. The unwritten implication: no one really has time for a novel any more. I’m concerned about that, because I see the same slippery slope that has occurred in the abbreviation of language to make it fit 140 character status updates. I cringe when I see text message language used in status updates (actually, I cringe when I see text message language used anywhere other than text messages). I worry that the English language is devolving instead of evolving.
Writing a story in 1,000 words or less is a challenge that made me think and be creative. Should that word limit become the norm, however, then I think literature will devolve similarly, and we will lose the appreciation for great novels that sometimes reach into the 400-500 page mark. Already, I find myself feeling a bit exasperated when I begin reading a book and discover it to have 400 pages instead of 300. There was a time when I was more interested in the story, and not interested in how long the time to tell it happened to be. Perhaps I’m already infected with the very Andromeda Strain I’m expressing concern about.
So, have we lost our language? Are we losing our literature? Tell me what you think…
Photo Attribution: mpk