Ask A Flash Fiction Editor: Vignette vs. Flash Fiction

First off, much thanks to Peter Cowlam for his professionalism and generosity in letting us see the flash fiction process in action! Thanks for being brave, Peter! Read the full text of “Googled” below and follow the links to learn more about Peter and his work.

I’m particularly thrilled to have “Googled” on the docket for our first discussion of flash fiction because it exemplifies one of the biggest questions many writers have when crossing over from other genres—how is flash fiction different than a vignette?

The answer is quite simple: Urgency.

Go with me here a minute…

While the impressionistic vignette is expected, even encouraged to languish in its vocabulary, setting, and mood, flash fiction has an almost desperate need to tell a story before it’s too late.

Imagine flash fiction as a lifeboat: Literature as you know it is drowning in a flood of Biblical proportions, and flash fiction is here to save you. But there isn’t enough room for all your words. Suddenly all those beautiful descriptions, exotic settings, amazing metaphors and thoughtful characterizations must be reexamined in a crucial moment of discernment: what is the urgent message of this story?

Sure, we could call it “tension” or “plot”, but it’s really about storytelling—the story bends with urgency like a fish caught at the end of a pole. And in a novel, there is plenty of time to deal with this story arc, 100,000 words or more. In a short story there are only 20,000 words, perhaps, but still no rush. Plenty of time to take in the sights along the way.

But in flash fiction you have strapped yourself into the Japanese bullet train of storytelling—a complete experience in as little as 500 words. And some of the joys of both writing and reading flash fiction are the literary acrobatics that happen when plot arcs are forced to bend in such a small space. Conversely, I’ve seen writers begin a flash fiction piece slowly…and then realize they were quickly approaching the 1000 word ceiling. Suddenly they make a shift into a new sort of voice…and that new voice is flash fiction.

So Peter, let’s look at “Googled” as an example of flash fiction in progress: (pasted below).

The strength of “Googled” is your ability to word paint—you clearly have a poet’s love for language and a novelist’s love for setting and scene. The linguistic “cinematography” in this piece is exquisite: The atmosphere and mood of the wine bar, as well as the internationalism of both your characters and descriptions allow the reader into privileged worlds, a neo-bohemian wonder akin to a child peeking into an adult party after bedtime.

But let’s return to our initial question here: what’s the difference between flash fiction and a vignette? A vignette is a slice of life, a snapshot, a moment, a piece of poetic prose aimed at capturing an emotion or a feeling. A vignette does not have to concern itself with plot.

And this is still a weak point of “Googled”: While there is certainly an implied story arc—Google is doing something terrible that will have repercussions—the driving urgency of the story as well as the clear bend of the story arc is often lost under your beautiful imagery and lush vocabulary. Remember that a single flower takes on an immediacy that two dozen roses spilling abundantly from vases cannot, and the inherent constraints of the form forces the flash fiction writer to be discerning—every word left must be absolutely necessary.

Peter, my biggest suggestion to you with this piece is to strip away much of the story setup and the lush language and ask the essential flash fiction question: what is the urgent message of this story?

I would offer that the most urgent message in your story as it stands now is this:

Nikolov paled at Lucetta’s message: Google planned an extension of its free book downloads.

Or, in my own words:

“Oh shit,” Nikolov thought, looking at Lucetta’s message. Google had won.

Again, your plot is there, but the urgency of that story is still buried under the weight of its own beauty. And once you understand what is driving your story, what makes it different than its vignette cousin, it’s going to be much easier to clear away the excess and develop the real story arc.

My homework for you, Peter, as well as anyone else who finds their stories in this position: Identify the one sentence where the urgency of your story begins, and make that the first sentence of your story.

Remember: the lifeboat is coming. You’ll have to leave something behind. So what do you really need to say?

Thanks so much, Peter, for trusting me and allowing us to see your process!

Happy Writing!

~ Nancy Stohlman

Next up: Diane Klammer! (Contact me on Facebook or at if you’d like me to consider your story)


“Googled” by Peter Cowlam

(665 words.)

Only Lucetta Campanini can tell us, supposing she wants to, just why she chose Boris Nikolov’s wine bar for her latest mortar fire into the enemy camp, which as far as she’s concerned harbours all things open source. Lucetta, as everyone in literary London knows, heads up one of the most prestigious authors’ agencies, with offices in St Katharine’s Docks and in Manhattan (a brownstone house in fact, built in the 1890s in Fifty-second Street).

Nikolov, as must have been explained elsewhere, had always wanted to name his wine bar In Luglio, but already some were calling it Imbroglio. All the same, it wasn’t at all necessary to don helmets and battle fatigues, as, with all those habitual snipes and missiles into that vast terrain of the great unwashed, Lucetta was never less than charming, and was always so punctilious when it came to moments of etiquette, social and artistic.

That said, I’m not so sure a wine bar – In Luglio’s, Imbroglio’s, whatever – is quite the best place (and at an hour precluding cocktails) for a highly important press release, this one delivered in the full caress of an early autumn morning. I am not one of those reporters gagged to the prevailing propaganda, so when I say it was issued on behalf of the Republic of Letters in general, what I really mean is her firm in particular (an array of Booker laureates she boasts).

The ever willing Nikolov had surpassed himself in order to make the occasion memorable, and had regimented his waiting staff to pass round among all those assembled the best of his capacious silver platters, a sort of guerrilla tactic. These came piled with diced pineapple, sprinkled – according to family cuisine, and impeccable connections way back East – with a hint of muscovado. Then of course there was filter coffee aplenty.

Yet it was Nikolov himself who paled at the gist of Lucetta’s message. Lucetta was responding – and very promptly so – to the news that the ubiquitous Google planned an extension of its free book downloads. That corporation, I shouldn’t need to add, at the same time assured a suspicious book trade that this involved only material out of copyright. Such magnanimous gestures do not content the Lucetta Campaninis, whose premise seems to be – superficially at least – that such a move only raises expectations among the electronic community, the most astute of whom already predict the availability of all intellectual property everywhere gratis over the internet.

Nikolov knows that Lucetta is not being quite ingenuous, and this he has learned from me, over the many hours after midnight when, as a straggler well past closing time, I have sat at his deserted bar, with endless cold coffee slops and the laptop wired to the blogosphere. Often he stands at my shoulder, with his Slavic stress and emphases on all the wrong syllables, voicing – as detached from my own as it’s possible to be – these lonely syntagms I’m wont to dispatch to the steppes of an ethereal Cyberia. Books, you see, are a core subject, as amenable to those same self-fulfilling destinies as all those blue-rosetted candidates he couldn’t ever overcome in his bid to contest a safe vacated seat.

Problem for Nikolov is twofold, and has very much to do with this great classless class society the West has turned its capitalism into. That I’m sure he ought to remain philosophical about, yet it is rather personal when Lucetta not only hires his imbroglio, but does so specifically for the perpetuation of combat. For her that means upholding an advance system whose inflexible rule is this, that a handful of author constructs – a mesmerising fraternity whose books it is difficult to sell – command stupendous sums nonetheless, all so pleasantly negotiated on their behalf by this Campanini or that. It can’t go on. It can’t go on indefinitely.

Ciao, as the radicalised Boris Nikolov might put it: ‘Who can wonder that the open-source revolution is here, now, and in England?’

Peter Cowlam is a writer and critic. His brief stint as a commissioning editor saw two issues of The Finger, a journal of politics and literature. His latest book is his novella Marisa, a heady concoction of first love recalled. His latest play, Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize?, is a satire on literary celebrity. His poems and short stories have appeared in a range of journals and litmags, most recently The Liberal, Turbulence and Epicentre Magazine. He is a founder member of the writers’ collective CentreHouse Press (, publishing memoirs, plays and novels.

Learn about his book, Marisa, here.

2 thoughts on “Ask A Flash Fiction Editor: Vignette vs. Flash Fiction

  1. Thanks so much, Nancy, for comment and analysis. As you point out, I do not deal in the demotic, regarding attention to detail as of value, and not there merely as ornamentation. The writer can’t assume for any piece of work (or at least this writer can’t!) the luxury of film or TV treatment, where the camera eventually fills the visuals. What film very often can’t achieve emotionally the writer can, in the relationships formed with the objects and texture of the everyday environment, however much these relationships exist in the remoter reaches of consciousness. Of course, the writer may impose writing, but cannot impose reading, so my interpretation of my own text might indeed be the wrong one. For what it’s worth, this is how I read it, not so much that Google has won, but that one monopolising force is gearing up to supplant another. Lucetta represents the constructed world of author celebrity, one underpinned by the system of agenting she has made her profession, and that we as writers are saddled with, like it or not. For me the focus is in her summing up, ‘It can’t go on. It can’t go on indefinitely.’ What she means by ‘it’ is the attack on her own little empire.

  2. Peter! First off, I must emphasize that you are the writer and you always know ultimately what is best for you own work. My suggestions are only suggestions, AND sometimes it’s good to sit for a day or two with suggestions before taking any action. And that said, it’s absolutely important to remember that flash fiction is different than other types of storytelling: hence the new set of skills required to pull it off. I think it’s great that you are already clear about the focus of your story: It can’t go on. Therefore, what you might want to focus on is how to get the reader there, so that by the end of the story the reader herself is saying to herself: Oh my god, this just can’t go on! As it reads right now the reader is still a degree away from the tension, looking in at a scene, setting and character as if through a window, which is why is still has the feel of a vignette. In order to bend this into flash fiction, you must take the reader on the whole ride in this short space, so that, at the end, we arrive at the same conclusion in our very muscles and bones: Oh my god. This can’t go on. Does this help?

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