Writers increasingly turn to Twitter and Facebook to share their stories. And sometimes they strike gold. In 2009, Justin Halpern, semi-employed and living back home, used Twitter to post in 140 character increments the hilarious and potty-mouth things that came out of his father’s mouth. Shit My Dad Says went on to be a bestseller and a TV show starring William Shatner.
Author Matt Stewart also used Twitter. This Yale University graduate had written a book set in San Francisco with an unusual and memorable cast of characters. He shopped around for a publisher but received rejection letter after rejection letter. So he began tweeting his unpublished novel in 140 characters at a time. Twitter users loved it! Word of mouth spread, and Soft Skull Press released The French Revolution on July 14, 2010.
Now we have Lou Beach. Instead of employing Twitter, though, Beach turned to Facebook, where he posted little vignettes in 420-character status updates. That is the creation story for his new book 420 Characters. Beach is not the first to use flash fiction, but he does it like he owns it.
Flash fiction has other names, such as microfiction or short shorts. It is really short bursts of words, sometimes only 100 or so. In a world where billions of stimuli constantly vie for our attention, its length is perfect. However, flash fiction is not for everyone. I like to connect with characters, and a reader just cannot do that in a short short. I will say that Beach does use a few recurring characters, but I had to go back if I thought I recognized a place or a name I had seen before. The recurring names and places did not jump out at me.
I will say some of the short shorts are unusual. For example:
His chute failed to open and as he fell he struck a pigeon, pinning it against his chest as they rushed toward the ground in tandem. He felt the pigeon’s heart beating against his own. He closed his eyes and imagined he had two hearts, one outside his body and one inside, beating like a train.
Beach, as you can tell from reading the above vignette, is a very visual writer. I love that about him. Some of his pieces are beautiful. Many of Beach’s shorts felt like free-verse poetry to me. I want to share with you my favorite one:
I lay the book on the floor, open to the middle. It’s a lovely volume, green leather covers, engraved endpapers. I remove my shoes and step into it up to my ankles, knees, hips, chest, until only my head is showing and the pages spread around me and the words bob up and down and bump into my neck, and the punctuation sticks to my chin and cheeks so I look like I need a shave.
If you go to Beach’s website, you can listen to several recordings by Jeff Bridges, Ian McShane, and Dave Alvin. I loved hearing Bridges’ gruff voice give life to the words on the page.
I easily finished 420 Characters in one sitting. It’s only 176 pages, and it keeps you reading.
Is flash fiction the future? I hope not. It’s different, yes, but it should never replace the novel.