- Can you tell us how your first-prize winning story came into being?
It started with just a short phrase, ‘The Cartographer’s Daughter’. I can’t remember why this came into my head! I liked its sound and rhythm, the character it suggested and was interested in the power inherent in mapmaking and who controls it.
The first sentence also came early; that set the tone. The title became ‘The Mapmaker’s Daughter’ for a while. Originally, I imagined the daughter working in secret. But that narrative was far too complicated for 300 words and, in any case, I grew to prefer the idea of father and daughter working together. In the end, I dropped the original phrase completely and settled on ‘Terra Incognita’ as the title: it seemed to encompass all the different unknowns in the piece.
Only after I’d finished did it strike me this tale is actually about writing. Most of my stories start like that: a phrase that appeals or an image of someone in a setting rather than a big idea, though broader ideas may come through the writing process.
- This piece, your story, ‘Health and Pleasure, Glorious Sea!’ in A Box of Stars Under the Bed, the National Flash Fiction Day Anthology, 2016 and your micros ‘Telegraph’ and ‘Undelivered’ that won Ad Hoc Fiction, all have historical themes. Is that something that particularly interests you?
I only noticed this myself when I heard about the NFFD anthology and the BFFA shortlisting at around the same time.
One of the appeals of flash fiction for me is trying to capture the essence of a life within such a restricted space. Historical settings – with their distance and perspective – lend themselves to that. For my two Ad Hoc micros, I did draw on fascinating firsthand accounts from Spitfire pilots and a manager in charge of laying the American telegraph. (Thank you, Google!) I did some background reading for ‘Terra Incognita’ and my NFFD piece. But they are very much ‘imagined history’ and wouldn’t stand up to much historical scrutiny. I’m more interested in exploring what connects us across time than getting every historical fact just so.
My second BFFA entry (which was longlisted) is about a businessman using iPads and mobile phones as he jets round the world. So I don’t specialise in historical stories; they just seem to be the most successful. Perhaps I should write more!
- Does your work as an editor and freelance writer, influence your fiction writing?
Very much so. I’m a firm believer that you can learn about how writing works anywhere, from packaging to political speeches, arthouse films to adverts.
I spent years editing complex social policy research projects into under 2,000 words, with front-page summaries of at most 300 words. So there’s an obvious connection in working to strict wordcounts and to deadlines. Non-fiction must present clear messages; my fiction is much more about leaving gaps for the reader to fill in. But I find they share some core writing principles:
Manuscripts aren’t fragile, delicate creatures. They’re tough beasts and come out fitter, healthier and happier after the exercise of a vigorous editing regime.
Remember that busy, distracted reader: why would she read this instead of something else? Is there enough to catch and keep his interest? Have I made my meaning clear? How would I like readers to respond, what would I like them to think, to feel, even to do?
Ask what each phrase, each word adds. Every word must count, have a reason for being there.
Edit, edit, edit. I love editing. It’s the stage of writing I enjoy most. The most painful part for me is just getting down something – anything! – that I can then reshape. I go through loads of edits on each draft, putting it down, coming back, even for the odd word.
- Amazingly, you say you only discovered flash fiction writing on Twitter last year. Have you written longer short stories. Or in other fictional forms?
When you asked that, I did check! My first flash was for the Faber Academy weekly ‘QuickFic’ competition in January 2015. I saw it on Twitter and, with New Year enthusiasm, thought I’d have a go. I was surprised to be runner-up and that encouragement was enough to set me off. The weekly discipline of both ‘QuickFic’ and ‘AdHocFiction’ has been a fantastic way of developing my writing. They are relaxed, supportive spaces to experiment with lots of different approaches in subject, style and form. If you want to try flash fiction, they are great places to start.
I have written a few short stories in the past. (My NFFD anthology piece was a very whittled version of one of those: it felt very flabby when I revisited it.) I’ve also written poetry and still love reading it, but I’ve found flash fiction a much freer and more satisfying way of writing in very short form.
- Which short fiction writers do you currently love?
Angela Carter, always. Kirsty Logan takes forward that same bold and disruptive richness in her collection, The Rental Heart. But the writer who inspired me to try something different with ‘Terra Incognita’ is Carys Davies, with her extraordinary collection, The Redemption of Galen Pike. If you haven’t read that yet, do!
- What are your next writing ambitions?
Winning was a genuine surprise. It’s given me the confidence to take my fiction writing seriously, but I’ve still got a lot to learn. I’m not going to give up flash, but I’m working on some short stories too.
- We’d love to know your favourite tip on writing to a very short word count.
Get away from your desk!
Most of my ideas come when I’m not thinking about writing: on the bus, out walking, emptying the washing machine. Those moments when your mind stills and thoughts bubble to the surface. This week a breakthrough on a knotty plotting problem I’ve been chewing over for ages popped up while I was mowing the lawn.
Stories of 300 words or less are perfect for this. They’re so short, I can carry most of the text in my head. I often mull over ideas, sentences or plotting if I can’t sleep or wake up early. Some of the work I’m happiest with has come then. Much of my composition and editing happens first away from either page or screen, then I write it down.
Otherwise, I’d say take that leap and enter. I nearly didn’t submit ‘Terra Incognita’. I thought there wasn’t enough narrative drive, that it wasn’t quite the ‘right kind of thing’!