A couple of weeks ago, my local writers' group issued a flash fiction prompt, and I completely bombed it. I made four wildly different attempts. All were terrible. This isn't unusual; I write a lot of flash fiction, especially prompted or to theme, and I end up retiring most of it right away. This time, when I griped on Twitter about discarding all those bad stories, someone ended up asking: Well, how do you know if your story is a dud?
Is it really a story?
Most of my stories fail by not actually having all the elements that make a story satisfying and salable. They're oddly easy to skip. I like to use the definition Marion Zimmer Bradley gives in her essay What Is a Short Story?:
A LIKABLE CHARACTER overcomes ALMOST INSUPERABLE ODDS and BY HIS OR HER OWN EFFORTS achieves a WORTHWHILE GOAL.
This is meant to apply to commercial genre short fiction, and a genius can break any guidelines they want, but I write genre and am no genius. I could write reams about the meaning of "likable" in this context, but I take it as "someone you don't hate reading about" -- whether you'd actually want to meet them or not. Writing dark fiction, I also don't believe that achieving the goal is strictly necessary, although I do believe the failure to achieve it should be the climactic point, and that failure should be the character's own fault.
Personally, my failed stories almost always fall short on the points of ODDS and EFFORTS.
Here's a storyline I write a lot: a character wants something, does what it takes to get it, and succeeds. This isn't a story. There's no opposition -- the "odds" are unimpressive. People following me on Twitter know that I bake a lot, but I only tweet about the disasters. Nobody wants to hear about the time you made a cake according to the recipe and it turned out fine. They want to hear about the time your cat dropped something in the batter.
Here's another storyline I used to write a lot, when I was new and did more horror: something bad happens to a character, who tries to escape, but can't. The problem's not that they fail, but that a) the "odds" didn't initially spring from their own wants or actions, and b) the "goal" is a return to normal. It's hard to make a satisfying narrative out of such tenuous cause-and-effect and such a commonplace goal.
They look like stories: they're about yea long, they're fiction, they're made up of words. They sure feel like stories when I'm writing them. But taken as a whole, they don't hold up.
So if this thing I wrote is not a story, what is it? When I'm able to stand back and really evaluate a failed story, I can usually reframe it as a different form of writing. Maybe it's just a proof-of-concept for an interesting storytelling mechanic. Maybe it's a scenario worth exploring further. Maybe I was just test-running a new character type. I never regret having written what I wrote; something about it must have intrigued me enough to do it. Running a quick eye over Bradley's definition, however, tells me whether to retire it (NEVER to delete it -- nothing's THAT bad) or to send it on into the world.
I rarely manage to "fix" a piece of flash fiction. It's more efficient for me to just write another piece. Speaking of which, I finally got back on that local writers' group prompt. Fifth try, almost done. The main character wants something, and goes for it, but runs into unexpected opposition and has to either overcome the problem or change her goals. Sounds like a story to me.