- You’ve judged many other flash fiction and short story contests in the UK and elsewhere and have also selected flash fictions for journals. There’s a wide variety of styles in the flash fiction genre, but can you tell us what stood out for you in the winning entries and submissions?
Things that stand out for me – and I am only one reader, with my own tastes and preferences – are a love for language, a delight in what words can do, especially in such a short space. Also, a sense that the story was made for the length it is, that it is not a longer story compressed, that it is wonderful not despite but because of its brevity. As for styles, I am open to anything at all, I love being made to laugh and cry, but the main thing is: move me, surprise me, delight me. This can be done without fireworks, without car chases, without much action at all. Or: with all these things! I am looking for stories that sing, that I can hear in my head as I read and for hours, days afterwards. But sing in your own way, not in a way to please anyone else. Send us your best.
- Have you found that entering competitions yourself over the years has helped you hone your writing skills and allowed you to take off in different directions?
What being placed in competitions has done for me is give me the most enormous validation – as does every publication, every time the creature that emerged from my head somehow connects with one other person who is not in my head, which has never stopped feeling somewhat miraculous. I never quite know when I’ve finished something – flash fiction, short story, poetry – whether it works, even if it makes me happy, so this validation, especially when it’s something very new I am trying, has been and is still very important to me. It gives me permission to not only keep doing the new thing, but to explore, reach beyond my comfort, stretch myself. Judging competitions has not, I am pretty sure, helped me win any! There is no sure-fire way, no “winning” kind of story, poem. But I do know that you have no time to lose in gripping the judge – who has a pile of stories in front of her and is looking for a reason to discard most of them – there is no space for preamble, for musings, whatever length you are writing to. Get in, get out. Be bold! Which can also be done in a very quiet way.
- You write poetry as well as flash fiction and have a poetry chapbook due to be published early next year. Can you offer some comments on any distinction between prose poetry and flash fiction?
Ha! No, not really! I was just on a panel at a poetry festival discussing the prose poem and what makes it “still” a poem, and we struggled. If anything it was something to do with the breath – in poetry, the line breaks are tied into breath, into where you breathe when you read it, where you want the reader to breathe, and prose poems have less of that, a quality of breathlessness, perhaps. For me, I count prose poems as under the umbrella of microfictions, I am open to seeing prose poem-ish pieces for this competition, I don’t know where the distinction lies. And, to be honest, I don’t care!
- Who are the short story writers you return to for inspiration?
Oh my, there are many. Most are American, that’s where I started learning about short stories and about writing and they live deep inside me: Richard Brautigan, Donald Barthelme, Grace Paley, Aimee Bender, Lydia Davis, Edith Pearlman, Anthony Doerr. Janet Frame’s short stories are stunning, and Rivka Galchen’s recent collection thrilled me. Ali Smith is my touchstone, she has been vital to me as a short story writer and as a person, and she has a new collection out. Shall I go on? I could…
- Finally can you give us your top tips for writing a piece limited to 300 words?
There are at least two ways to approach writing a 300-word story – write a longer draft and cut it down, or write up to 300 words. I think it’s the same as any piece of writing: do whatever you can to keep your inner critic quiet so that you can get the words down as close to you hear them in your head as possible. I keep my inner critic diverted by playing online scrabble while I write. That works for me. The fantastic American writer Ron Carlson says in his book, ‘Ron Carlson Writes a Story’, that a writer is the person who stays in the room. I know that when I write a sentence I love, all I want to do is get up, go and make coffee, bake bread, watch TV. I’ve found the thing that keeps me sitting there for the next sentence.
In terms of what makes for great flash fiction – when I run workshops I ask the participants what they think needs to be left out in a tiny story, and we come up with a list: characters, backstory, description, dialogue, etc… Then we read examples and we see that nothing needs to be left out, and anything can be done in 300 words. If you have a longer short story that isn’t working, perhaps it’s yearning to be under 300 words? Once you start editing, start cutting, as I’ve just been doing myself with an old story, you see how few words you really need. And you try and make every word work.