Interview with Karen Jones, 20th Award Judge

Karen Jones is a flash and short story writer from Glasgow, Scotland. Her flashes have been nominated for Best of the Net, Best Micro Fiction and The Pushcart Prize, and her story 'Small Mercies' was included in Best Small Fictions 2019 and BIFFY50 2019. In 2021 she won first prize in the Cambridge Flash Fiction Prize, Flash 500, Reflex Fiction and Retreat West Monthly Micro and was short listed for To Hull and Back, Bath Flash Fiction Award, Bath Short Story Award and longlisted for Fractured Lit Flash Fiction Prize. Her work has been published in numerous anthologies and magazines. Her novella-in-flash, When It’s Not Called Making Love is published by Ad Hoc Fiction. She is Special Features Editor at New Flash Fiction Review.

We’re delighted that Karen Jones has agreed to be our 20th Award Judge. In this intervoew we learn what makes a stand-out flash fiction for her, more about her own writing journey, and at the end she’s given a great prompt to get you writing a new story.

    • You have been writing flash fiction since about 2004. How did you first get started and do you think your style of writing flash has changed a lot during this time?
    • In 2004 I joined a website called Get Writing, run by the BBC. At that time, I had written a very bad novel and had switched my attention to short stories. Someone on the site ran a group called 60 Worders – a challenge to write 60-word stories to specific titles. I joined and soon became hooked on those tiny exercises. But they weren’t referred to as flash. On that site ‘flash’ meant writing to a prompt for exactly one hour. Of course, I joined that flash group as well. As time went on, more groups popped up – 100 worders, 250 worders etc. I joined all the groups and got slightly obsessed with the form I’d later come to know as flash fiction.

      My style of writing flash has changed since then. I wrote more vignettes and more punchline humour, probably because there weren’t many outlets for flash, so I wasn’t reading good flash that could teach me how to do it better. My first two published pieces were in 2008 and they were straightforward humorous pieces. Over the years, I’ve learned just how versatile the form is, how to pay more attention to language and rhythm and how to use humour more effectively.

    • This year has been very successful for you as a writer — you won first prize in the Cambridge Flash Fiction competition, first prize at the Reflex Press Flash Fiction prize first prize at Flash 500, were highly commended in the To Hull and Back humorous short story contest as well as several long-listings and short-listings in other places, including our Award and the Bath Short Story Award. Is there something, do you think, that is connected in the themes and styles of these winning and listed pieces?

    • The Reflex and Cambridge Flash winning stories are connected in that they look at grief and death in a similar way, and both have touches of humour. About a year ago I started writing flashes that featured body parts appearing in odd places – I’ve no idea why – and both these stories, to some extent, come into that category although they were both written this year.

      My Flash 500 and Bath Short Story Award stories are both set in a Scottish village and are about young girls growing up. I’d say that’s true of about 70% of my writing – I just seem to go back to those places, those people and those times over and over again and I can’t see that stopping any time soon. I have so many memories to draw on and I am, obviously, very comfortable describing those places and people. I do think that shows in anyone’s writing – when you’ve lived somewhere, experienced the things you put your character through, there’s an honesty and rawness that helps the reader connect emotionally to your characters and their stories.

    • You’re a reader for The New Flash Fiction Review and have judged many other contests. I know you are very interested in titles and how they work with a piece. Can you tell us more about this and what makes a standout story for you?
    • When you’re faced with a long, long list of titles – two hundred or more stories – it’s hard not to feel your eye drawn to an unusual title. I love a title that makes me ask questions or gives me some back story of the flash I’m about to read.

      A great example is ‘The Grieving Gallery Attendant is Going to Quit’ by Anika Carpenter at TSS.

      You’ve got so much story right there. You know the character’s job, you know they’re grieving, you know they are about to make a life-changing decision, and you haven’t even read the first line yet. But you want to read on because you have questions – you want to know who died, has that influenced the decision to leave the job?

      One from our recent competition at New Flash Fiction Review that just jumped out at me when I saw the list was ‘Grandma’s Shrunken Head Decorates My Backyard Tiki Bar’ by Cheryl Markosky. How could you not want to read that story, not have answers to all the questions it makes you ask?

      Being clever with your title, using it to tell part of the story, or introduce a character, or fill in some details, can save you words you might need for your flash.

      In general, I love stories that take me somewhere I’ve never been or introduce me to something I know nothing about. If you have specialist knowledge of a subject, or an unusual job or hobby or just something that it’s unlikely anyone else will be writing about, go for it – if you write something that’s fresh and new, you’re halfway there. If you don’t have anything you feel is unusual, strange, or unique, then try to find a new way of telling a story to make it stand out from others who may be writing on the same subject or theme.

      Other than that, a stand out story needs all the usual things we look for in flash: precision of language, fresh descriptions and, as well as that great title and opening, a good ending. There’s nothing more annoying than loving a story and then it just fizzles out into nothing.

      Oh, and on a very personal note, I really dislike stories where anthropomorphism is used as a twist ending. If you’re thinking of writing a story where the MC turns out to be a cat or a gnu, I beg you, please don’t.

    • Your writing is often known for its dark humour. Any tips for writing a humorous piece?
      I think the main thing with writing humour is restraint. If you go headlong into trying to create a funny situation or have every line a gag, it can fall flat. Weaving dark humour into a serious situation is my favourite way to use humour, and it’s not easy to do without ruining the overall tone of a piece, but when it’s done well it can be so satisfying to read. Pulling the reader in, making them laugh, then hitting them with a sucker punch can be very effective.

      Try to avoid punchline endings as far as possible – they’re the humour equivalent of a twist and can really kill an otherwise funny story. The same goes for giving your characters ‘funny’ names as that can come across as forced and there’s nothing worse than forced humour.

    • Your novella in flash, When It’s Not Called Making Love was highly commended in our 2020 NIF Award, published by Ad Hoc Fiction last year and shortlisted in the Saboteur Awards this year. What do you like about writing novellas in flash and are you working on any more?
      I loved being able to take characters and develop them further, make their stories bigger but still fragmented by the form. I do tend to write character driven stories, and I found N-i-F perfect for that kind of story. Once I got into Bernadette’s voice, I found it quite easy to let the stories flow. Lots of the things that happen to her happened to me, or to people I know – pretty much every girl and woman could relate to Bernadette’s experiences of growing up and discovering sexuality, worries about body image, working out who to trust – so it felt like an important story to tell. I think in full novel form it might have been too bleak, but in flash form I could intersperse funny stories, give the reader a break from the harsh realities of growing up female and all the pressures placed on us.

      I’m working on two more novellas-in-flash at the moment. It’s all going far more slowly this time, but that’s mainly to do with real life intruding and not allowing me enough time to write. And, yes, they’re both set in a Scottish village. Maybe I need to find new material, eh?

    • Finally, I know you enjoy writing to prompts. We’d love a prompt from you inspire people to write for the competition.

      I do love prompts and think they work brilliantly for flash. A word of warning, though – when you write to a prompt, especially if you’ve been given a specific place or set of words to use, go ahead and write that story, but then disguise the prompt as much as you can before you submit, otherwise you and everyone else who followed the same prompt will stick out for the wrong reasons.

      So, try this one:

      Turn on the radio (or set one of your playlists to shuffle/random) and write a story based on the first song you hear. The story can be triggered by the song title, the lyrics, the band/singer, or the memories it evokes in you. Try not to overthink this one – just start writing as quickly as possible after hearing the song.

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