It’s the latest trend in all the spec fic magazines. Flash fiction! Write a short story that’s anywhere from a hundred words to the upper limit of a thousand words or less. Check it out! More stories in one issue! Isn’t that spectacular?
Except that it isn’t. It’s really a scam by magazine publishers. It’s an excuse to pay writers less. It’s the literary equivalent of part-time split shifts with no benefits.
Let me explain.
I’m actually a great admirer of the art form. It’s challenging to write a complete story in that few words! It’s a bit like haiku, really. You have a set format, and somehow, with as much brevity as possible, you have to tell a story with a plot, a beginning, a middle, and an end. It should somehow be interesting enough that it holds the full attention of the reader, too. Lois McMaster Bujold finished her outstanding novel in the Vorkosigan Saga, Diplomatic Immunity, with a series of one hundred word flash fiction bits that, in knowing the context, made me weep.
The thing is, I don’t think it’s any less challenging for a writer than a good five thousand word short. It’s hard work. And I think it takes about the same amount of time that the five thousand word short did.
Here’s where the problem comes in. The magazine market — the real market, the one that actually pays more than a token, if you can break into it — pays anywhere from five to seven cents a word.
Do you see the problem? No? Okay, let me lay it out.
If I write a five thousand word short and submit it to a magazine that pays five cents a word, I get paid $250. Not bad for a couple of weeks’ worth of work!
If I write a one thousand word flash fiction piece and submit it to a magazine that pays five cents a word, I get paid $50.
Did the thousand-word story take me less time? Probably not! I had to come up with the idea, write it while choosing my words even more carefully than I did the short story, edit it, and send it in, just like I did with the short.
It gets better. Did you ever hear of any flash fiction story winning a Nebula? No? How about a Pulitzer or a Giller? No? Hmm, me neither.
No one makes a name in flash fiction! The only time flash fiction gets you any attention, which increases the value of your writing “brand,” is when it’s by somebody who’s already known, or when it’s for a contest; which you probably had to pay to enter.
All the experts will tell you that the way to break into fiction writing as a full-time career is to write for magazines. When you’ve got some acclaim behind you, you can market your book to a publisher more effectively. But they’ll all tell you that it doesn’t make any real money, either. It’s like an apprenticeship. You get paid less than you’re worth so that you can move up and become a journeyman and maybe, eventually, a master, and that’s the only way you really make money at writing.
Since flash fiction takes as much time to do as a short story, and carries no weight in building up my brand, tell me why I should waste my time working on it again?
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t keep writing it if you like it and if you’re good at it. Why not? It’s fun, and the truth is that even those of us who want to make a living at this write for fun. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t do it, and no one would buy it if we did. As I’ve said, I really admire the art form!
But the problem is that more and more magazines are turning almost exclusively to this form to try to save costs. Once again, the desire of the company to make a profit is passed on to the worker, and their labour is farmed with little or no benefit to them.
I think we should rebel against this trend. Readers, if you value the work of writers and want them to keep doing it, you need to make it into a career that pays reasonably. Support magazines that pay market value for full short stories!