Q & A with Sara Hills, Judge, October Award

We’re delighted to welcome Sara Hills as the judge for our 25th Award open today and closing in October. Sara is the author of The Evolution of Birds (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2021), winner of the 2022 Saboteur Award for Best Short Story Collection. She has won the Quiet Man Dave flash nonfiction prize, the Retreat West quarterly prize, and the National Flash Fiction Day micro competition. Sara’s work has just won second prize in our 24th Award, judged by Tim Craig. Previously, she’s been twice commended in our Award. She’s also placed second in the Welkin Prize, and was selected for the Wigleaf Top 50 in 2021 and 2022. Her stories have been widely published in anthologies and magazines, including The Best Small Fictions 2022 and 2023, SmokeLong Quarterly, Cheap Pop, Fractured Lit, Cease Cows, Flash Frog, X-RAY Lit, Splonk, New Flash Fiction Review and elsewhere. Originally from the Sonoran Desert, Sara lives in Warwickshire, UK and tweets from @sarahillswrites.

    Q and A

  • It is now nearly two years since Ad Hoc Fiction published your wonderful collection The Evolution of Birds, which, this time last year, won the Saboteur Award for the Best Short Story Collection.
    Are there any further memorable things that have happened with the book since its publication?
    Having my collection published was an absolute dream, and the reception it has received has been even more so. From publication and the online launch during the pandemic to winning the Saboteur Award, which was hugely affirming, I’m surprised my arms aren’t indelibly purple from pinching myself. It’s been such a delight to see photos of my book popping up in locations around the world. I’ve been overwhelmed by the reach and the amount of love people have shown my work. Since publication, I’ve also been invited to blurb several stunning collections and flash novellas; it’s a joy to give back and celebrate other writers and their words
    • Are you working on another longer project at the moment?
    • I have an affinity for long projects. I’m juggling a few big things right now, but the one I’m most excited about is a novella-in-flash that sprang from an old short story draft. I’ve been working on it sporadically for a couple of years and it has bloomed into a bit of a white whale project. Some of its themes are quite dark and a large portion of it is set in my old stomping grounds of the Sonoran Desert region, so it’s important for me to get it as right as possible. For the moment, I’m enjoying traipsing around the desert inside my head.
    • Your short fiction is notable for its emotional and multi-layered content and your beautiful sentence construction. Do you work on pieces for a long time to achieve this effect?
      The more I learn about craft, the longer it takes me to develop a story I’m satisfied with. I draft by hand, always, and I don’t feel drawn to the screen until I’ve found the heart of a piece, a central yearning or a tidbit that excites me. Sometimes it means going back over the same draft again and again, mind-mapping central metaphors, searching for new connections, interrogating each description and verb and syllable. I don’t always get it right, but I am fortunate to belong to the loveliest critique groups. Getting another pair of eyes on a story to check whether your intentions have made it onto the page is invaluable.
    • Can you give us a couple of links to any of your recently published stories?

    I’ve been holding a lot of my newer stories close to my heart lately, but I’ve been very lucky with a few publications this year. ‘When the teacher talked about rape and you laughed’, a story I originally drafted at last year’s Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol, won the Retreat West Quarterly Prize earlier this year. ‘Scientists are reporting a heartbeat signal in space’, which I drafted during last year’s SmokeLong Summer, placed second in The Welkin Prize. And, to my delight, New Flash Fiction Review recently published ‘Fucking John Wayne’, a piece from my novella-in-progress.

    • You’ve been reading and judging for several other contests and awards recently.
      What sort of stories kindle your interest?
      Most of all, I’m drawn to stories that have heart. Characters that hum with yearning. Stories that teach me something, inspire me, show me new ways to think about both ordinary and extraordinary things. It’s always nice to see humor and hopeful stories in a queue, but I like darker subjects as well. I won’t discount a particular style or tone if it feels honest. I love a good voice, a strong character, and arresting descriptions. I’m always looking for stories that I can’t stop thinking about, ones that fester a bit like a splinter, but in the best way.
    • I thought the title ‘Door Slam’ for your first prize win for the Quiet Man Dave CNF prize was perfect for the story. Evoking much (sound, the subject matter of the piece, being shut out or shut in) just with two words. Can you give a few strategies for creating a good title for a short piece?
      Titles are something I have struggled with in the past, as they can be tricky to get right. I feel they work best when they add something to the understanding of the story, either a nuance that re-informs the reader once they finish the story or as a necessary set-up for time and place-based stories. Some strategies I’ve picked up along the way include borrowing resonant images or descriptions from the body of the story or lifting the first line (which frees up word count). Concreteness, specificity and emotion can be just as important when considering titles as when writing the story itself. It’s great to have a standout title, but it should also match the mood of a piece. And, especially in competitions, it’s imperative that your title calls up a remembrance of the story so that a judge, when faced with a list of titles, might look upon yours and say, ‘Ah, I remember you.’
    • And following on from your tips on writing titles, as someone who has written stories of up to 300 words for Bath Flash Fiction Award on many occasions and had them shortlisted or placed numerous times as well as winning second place in the last round, we’d love a few tips for creating a memorable piece.
      The best advice I ever received was to write about the subjects you care about, characters or situations that intrigue or haunt you. Make sure there are stakes of some kind, as well as a sense of longing and movement. Use your senses too—incorporate specific textures, sounds, tastes. Can you use setting to inform the emotional core of your story? If your story were a film, what small details would feel resonant? Check your first and last lines. Check every line in between. Read it aloud for rhythm and pacing. And most of all, forget about what anyone else will think. Aim to surprise yourself. Write a story you love.
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