Interview with Sharon Telfer, 19th Award Judge

We’re delighted that writer and editor, Sharon Telfer is going to judge our 19th Bath Flash Fiction Award, which is open July 1st and closes October 9th. Sharon, has some brilliant and encouraging flash fiction writing advice here, as well as news about her forthcoming collection from Reflex Fiction, The Map Waits. Do read the interview and be inspired.

Sharon Telfer lives in East Yorkshire, in the north of England. She won the Bath Flash Fiction Award in June 2016 with ‘Terra Incognita’ and again in February 2020 with ‘Eight Spare Bullets’. She has also won the Reflex Flash Fiction Prize. Her flash has been selected for Best Small Fictions 2021, the 2020 and 2019 ‘BIFFY50’ lists, and Best Microfiction 2019. She was awarded the Word Factory/New Writing North Short Story Apprenticeship in 2018, and placed second in the Bath Short Story Award 2020. She also has a short story in Test Signal, an anthology of contemporary northern writing (Bloomsbury/Dead Ink, 2021). Her debut flash fiction collection, The Map Waits, is published by Reflex Press in 2021. She’s a founding editor of FlashBack Fiction, the online litmag showcasing historical flash. She tweets @sharontelfer and posts terrible photos on Instagram, @sharontelferwriter.

Interview with Jude Higgins

  • I’ve quoted below the marvellous 100 word piece that you wrote when you were a judge for this year’s National Flash Fiction Day micro contest, which was for micros of 100 words max. This advice is also perfect for a 300 word story. Is there anything you would add about writing a story two hundred words longer?

Use everything. Use the title. Use the space between the title and the opening. Use the music of the language and the pace of the telling. Use the length of your words, sentences and paragraphs. Use segments or subheads or the headlong rush of a single paragraph. Use your reader’s expectations to complete patterns and to surprise them. Use those ghosts of other words hovering round the ones you put down. Use every comma and full stop. Use tenses and moods. Use that crystal ring at the story’s end. You have so much more than 100 words in your toolbox.

    Thanks for reposting that, Jude! And what an interesting question about the different lengths. Yes, I think all these stylistic points apply to any flash. But one distinction with a 100-word micro is that, as a reader, you can take it all in with a single glance. Literally. You can see the end before you start. With an extra 200 words, there’s a longer path to travel. So, as a writer, you need to persuade the reader to come down that path with you. Think about your sentences and how you end paragraphs. Do they keep your story moving? Ask yourself at each point: why would my reader keep reading here? Keep your reader curious and on their toes.
    • You are an editor for Flashback Fiction which publishes historical fiction. What are the essentials of a good historical flash fiction in your view?
    • Most importantly, as for any strong flash: empathy. You’re looking to make a connection between the reader and the human experience in your story. What connects us – or how do our lives differ? What might it say about how we live today? Make us believe in that world, make it feel entire and expansive, as if we could step into the story and away beyond the edges of the page.

      I take ‘historical flash’ as a very broad umbrella. At FlashBack Fiction (where I’m an editor), we ask for work that ‘engages with the historical in some way’. ‘Historical’ is one choice of subject or setting that offers particular options for a particular story.

      But, for general pointers, I would say: tell us a story we don’t already know, or find a fresh angle on a famous story; remember, it’s a story not a history lesson; do your research, then choose a few subtle but telling details – even just odd words – that let us know when we are. Beware of careless assumptions about your characters living like you do. It’s an easy trap: I described something, set in the 1550s, as ‘heavy as a basket of potatoes’ – but there were no potatoes in England until the 1580s. I changed this in a late draft to a basket of apples, but I nearly missed it. And keep your language within your world. When I wrote ‘Terra Incognita’, I wondered how medieval seafarers might describe huge waves. What was the tallest thing in their lives that would compare? I thought of cathedral bells.

      You can break any rules for deliberate effect, of course. You don’t always have to be accurate, but your story world must feel authentic.

      Some historical flash would be very welcome in the judging pile. But if you’ve got an amazing comedy about a ghost on a spaceship, send it in!

    • You’ve won Bath Flash Fiction Award twice, once in 2016 and once in 2020, and have had pieces shortlisted and longlisted for our awards several times. In 2020, you also won second prize in the Bath Short Story Award and have a very interesting interview up on their website about your second prize story and your writing. We’d love to know more about your writing and editing process and the themes and subject matters you choose.
      Oh dear, I am a Very Bad Writer. I don’t write every day. I don’t read as much as I should. I don’t carry a notebook. I sub very rarely. I can’t get my head round the idea of aiming for 100 rejections. I’ve muted people who tweet daily wordcounts because I find it so intimidating. I never write anything brilliant in workshops, or often anything much at all.

      One reason I write badly in workshops is that I do a lot of ‘head writing’ before setting anything down. I’ll get a spark of an idea – often from a phrase or concept I’ve heard in passing – and carry it around with me for a while, letting it ferment. When I’m ready, I’ll try to pour out as much as I can in one fizzy draft. I love editing and that’s usually where I spend most of my writing time. At this point, I’m playing with all those things I talk about in the first question. My favourite writing advice is something poet Ian Duhig once tweeted: write like a dog, edit like a cat.

      As for themes, I love flash that’s ambitious about what it can cover. Writing – and reading – about huge issues like the climate emergency (as I did in ‘Eight Spare Bullets’) can be daunting. Flash can open up a crack in these enormous stories that lets light flood in and leaves a vivid impression on the mind’s eye.

      I do have a weakness for word-playing – like making that first post on 100-word micros 100 words long. I have a private goal to see just how big a timespan I can cram into one flash. I’ve made it to 200 years in 500 words so far, in a family tree story. Sometimes these games pay off; sometimes I end up overcooking everything, but I’ve had fun and discovered a lot doing it.

      Every writer writes in a different way – and different ways of writing will suit you better at different times in your life. Take what you need from how others write, but don’t mistake these for rules. Find what suits you, writing now.

    • You have a collection coming out with Reflex Fiction, where you’ve also won first prize, this summer. Can you tell us more about it?
      Thanks for asking! It’s called The Map Waits, a phrase taken from ‘Terra Incognita’. I chose that title, because many of the stories capture characters at a turning point, that moment when what will happen as we move forward remains unknown and uncharted. Characters reveal a secret or reassess their lives. Perhaps they’re overturning imposed stories of how they should live. Some are confronting their lack of choice; others refuse to acknowledge a choice they’ve made. It’s my first collection and it brings together 48 published and unpublished pieces from when I first started writing. It’s fascinating seeing the common threads between the pieces, and I definitely have a literary weakness for salt! The longest is around 1,000 words, the shortest about 50. We haven’t set a publication date yet, but it’s coming soon!

      Before that, I’m so proud to be included in Test Signal, a brilliant anthology of contemporary writing from the North of England published by Bloomsbury/Dead Ink on 8 July. These are all short stories, but mine’s very much influenced by all my experience writing flash.

    • Do you have any further projects on the go?
      Like so many of us, I’ve written – and indeed read – very, very little since March 2020. COVID-19 has eaten my time and my energy over the past 15 months, bringing some unexpected personal upheaval and caring responsibilities, as well as just the staleness of lockdown. That’s OK. Sometimes other things have to come first, even for a late starter like me.

      Now my life is getting back on a more even keel, I’m pulling together ideas for a short story collection and a novella-in-flash that have been fermenting for a couple of years now. Also I’m working on being a Better Writer, and getting back to reading and writing a lot more flash.

    • You’ve already given some great writing advice but what is your top tip for those planning to enter the October Award?
      Can’t say it better than the mighty Human League: Open your heart.

      Every time I’ve had a story that’s done well in terms of selections, awards or prizes, it’s been one that’s come from somewhere deep, but I’ve hesitated to send in because it felt too odd. I nearly didn’t enter ‘Eight Spare Bullets’ for Bath, and only did so because of Tino Prinzi’s generous judge’s interview. (Do read it!)

      This can feel exposing, but you’re writing fiction, not memoir. It may be glaringly obvious to you what those giant spiders are attacking or why the hot air balloon is egg-yolk yellow or where that hidden cupboard really is. No one else will know.

      But a strong heart needs a healthy body to support it, so work those sentences into shape too!

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