Cotton Xenomorph is a new literary journal produced with the mission to showcase new, and ecstatic art while reducing language of oppression in our community. We are dedicated to uplifting new and established voices while engaging in thoughtful conversation around social justice.

Manifestos: Six Principles of Flash Fiction

By Holly Lyn Walrath

I’ll be honest. For me, the idea of a Manifesto is somewhat the antithesis of what contemporary flash fiction represents. Flash fiction’s one defining feature is that it’s short. In my humble opinion, the best of today’s flash fiction is coming from women writers who are questioning the status quo.

Perhaps the one association we might make between the word manifesto and flash fiction is resistance. By presenting itself in a format that’s easy to read, easy to share, and applicable to the robot-run world we live in (Yes, I said it, flash fiction is thriving because of technology), this form allows for conversations that can actually enact change.

I started writing flash fiction as a failed short storyist. Flash is my way of sneaking poetry into prose and distilling speculative elements down to their bones. This list is what I’ve learned along the way. I don’t really believe in rules so I’ll be a bit more mercurial: These are the elements of a good flash for me.

  1. Empathy
    Really, this rule can apply to any art. But I think with flash in particular, it’s important to consider empathy for my characters, my form, my message, my words above all else. Empathy is knowing that someone else will read my work and approach it with their own experience. It’s about loving my villains as much as my protagonists. It means never picking a character trait because you want to make a joke or a statement out of your characters.
  2. Defy Definition
    For me, the best flash fiction is the kind that doesn’t quite fit into a neat mold. Take Kathy Fish’s Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild. I asked Kathy whether this was flash and although Kathy said it might be a prose poem, we both couldn’t find an answer, perhaps the answer is both and neither. After I write a flash, I often look back during revision and think about structure: Is the form doing as much work as the content itself?
  3. Wholeness
    When I know a flash is complete, it’s because I can feel it radiating a sense of wholeness. Even if there’s not a beginning, middle, or end in traditional order, something in the story has to say to me, “I’m done, I’m whole, I’ve found my purpose.”
  4. Liminal Space
    So much of flash fiction is what the reader fills in. This liminal space of what we don’t know is just as important as what we do. It can shape how we write the piece but also how our reader sees it. The reader will complete the gaps—and that is where true experimentation can come to play.
  5. Avoid gags and gimmicks
    Every once and a while I find a story that can manage a tricksy step just right—but it is quite rare. This is not the same as a turn or twist—those are just fine. But if a reader feels cheated in some way by my work, I haven’t done my job right.
  6. A Story within a Title
    The title of a flash fiction should bear as much weight as every word in the story. This is not to say that I try to make flash titles do more work than the title of say a poem or a story, but it does acknowledge that there’s something different in a flash title. One of my favorite things to do is make the title a bit hidden, so that when the reader reaches the end, the title suddenly adds up. There’s a lot of work you can do with a flash title, even if it’s only one word.

Maybe I could distill this list and all writing advice to a six-word story. “Write what you love; love yourself.” That #1 rule up there? It also applies to your own writing as well.


Holly Lyn Walrath’s poetry and short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Fireside Fiction, Luna Station Quarterly, Liminality, and elsewhere. Her chapbook of words and images, Glimmerglass Girl, will be published by Finishing Line Press in 2018. She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. She is a freelance editor and host of The Weird Circular, an e-newsletter for writers containing submission calls and writing prompts. You can find her canoeing the bayou in Seabrook, Texas, on Twitter @HollyLynWalrath, or at www.hlwalrath.com.

Manifestos: Hannah VanderHart

Confession with Night Vision and Soap Bubbles