27th Award Judge, Michelle Elvy

We’re delighted to have Michelle Elvy back to judge the single flash fiction award again in the year that she is also judging the Fish Flash Fiction prize. Michelle judged our Novella-in-flash award in 2021 and 2022 and she first judged BFFA in June, 2016, when she selected Sharon Telfer as the first prize winner, for Sharon’s amazing historical flash fiction Terra Icognita. Read more about Michelle’s latest projects and writing services below and tips for writing great flash.

Biography Michelle Elvy is a writer, editor and creative writing teacher originally from the Chesapeake Bay area and now based in Aotearoa New Zealand. Her books include the everrumble and the other side of better. Her anthology editing work includes the annual international Best Small Fictions series and, most recently, A Kind of Shelter Whakaruru-taha (2023), A Cluster of Lights: 52 writers then and now (2023) and Breach of all Size: Small stories on Ulysses, love and Venice (2022). Forthcoming are two new volumes of micros with an emphasis on languages of Aotearoa. Michelle is the founding editor of National Flash Fiction Day NZ and Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction. michelleelvy.com 52250course.com

Q and A with Michelle

In the last eight years, you will have read hundreds, or maybe thousands, more flash fictions in your role as editor for Best Small Fictions and your involvement with Flash Frontier and as a judge or an editor in other places. How do you think flash fiction has changed or evolved during this time?

    I think the form is very much as it’s always been – by this I mean holding the same characteristics, the same strengths that make it both a challenge and a delight. It is a resilient form. It may be sometimes short and sharp, sometimes soft and lyrical; it might go right to the heart of the matter or delicately skirt the edges; it’s inviting and fun for newcomers while also encouraging experimentation and play.
    The longer you write flash fiction, the more you might find yourself exploring different ways to arrive at a wholly satisfying result. So in this way change might occur for an individual writer: how one writer goes about writing small fictions will likely change over time. Certainly no one stands still. The increasing popularity of the novella-in-flash illustrates this well.

    I think it may be fair to say you rarely find a writer of flash fiction writing the same way over years. Most flash fiction writers enjoy playing across form and genre – from prose poetry to haibun to 100-word micros. There’s also creative nonfiction in flash. All of it requires discipline. I admire how people use the small form to write succinctly about the world and its many challenges. It’s possible that this offers solace, like poetry: we can observe and feel deeply, and express ourselves with a focused energy. I read equal amounts of poetry and prose, and I like the way both poetry and flash fiction find new ways to express something almost unsayable about our world. That may not be new, but I did notice the ways small fictions changed in the wake of Covid, for example.

    Last year, two anthologies came out that I co-edited. In Aotearoa New Zealand, A Kind of Shelter Whakaruru-taha was published by Massey University Press; I edited this volume with Witi Ihimaera and it was very much a collection in response to our changing and challenging world, born from an online project Witi and I had run starting in 2020, as a space for creative voices during our Covid lockdowns. The beautiful thing about the online project and the book, for me, is the way many forms can be held and honoured under the roof of the ‘meeting house’ we set up: there were novelists, poets, essayists, visual and installation artists, and flash fiction writers. Everyone has a place in that space. Everyone was invited to listen to each other. I love that this book represents such a wide range of writing and topics, but in a way that feels intimate – because it was about the fine art of communicating, of listening, of finding a collective sense of shelter in a wild and bewildering world. It turned out to be a volume of high-impact and intense forms and voices – and short fictions engage with the greater story as much as poetry and painting.

    Then there was A Cluster of Lights, an anthology with its roots in the 52|250 A Year of Flash project from 2010/ 11. The idea was to invite 52 writers to take a piece they’d written earlier and write a companion piece. In some cases, writers picked up the plot and characters and wrote anew; in some cases, one can see more of a conceptual response. Some writers repeated the form but found new ways of extending the ideas, while others expanded the form – but no one was interested in merely mimicking the past.
    I’m not sure I’ve answered the question. But it’s interesting to think about – this idea of how flash has changed, or where it earns its place.

What, in your opinion, makes a winning flash fiction of 300 words or under?
    This is a very hard question – and of course readers have different affinities and aversions. I tend to run away from the punchline ending. Bare scaffolding usually does not hold a story up but rather exposes weaknesses not yet fleshed out. I love a sharp ending, or an ending with a twist or unexpected turn; that’s not the same as that ‘aha’ that might compromise what might be a much stronger story.

    I suppose a ‘winning’ flash fiction, for me, is a piece that has nothing out of place. This means that, from the title to the final word, everything slips into place. You end up with something that is satisfying, elegant – finessed.

    But ‘finessed’ does not mean ‘perfect’. Many flash fictions are memorable because of their craggy bits, because of something unexpected and jarring, or because of something that may even feel unfinished, leaving the reader with a sense of something still to come. That is also an intriguing effect.

You were also judge for the Bath Novella in Flash Award for two years in 2021 and 2022 and the winning novella in flash you selected in 2021, Season of Bright Sorrow by David Swann, published by Ad Hoc Fiction, won the International Rubery Book of the Year Award,in 2023 What particularly impressed you about the flash fictions in that novella and how they fitted together?

    The novella-in-flash is a special form. I love the way it captures a longer and more suggestive story with smaller segments – and the flashes that make up the NIF can take many forms. With David Swann’s Season of Bright Sorrow, there was a rhythm and grace across the whole. The characters and place held onto the reader in sometimes haunting ways. As well, there was a strong sense of the power of the form: the writing moved between repetitions and lists, between dialogue and beautiful description. I had the feeling when I was reading it then, and subsequently every time I read this book, that there was tremendous care with each line, with each word. Again, I refer back to the idea of what makes a ‘winning’ flash fiction: nothing out of place.

  • We’d love to hear what services you currently offer to writers.
    I work as an editor and teacher. I edit manuscripts for people who are about to send them off to a publisher, or who have been told by a publisher to work on a more polished draft. I do a lot of anthology work – and I love the way each anthology creates a kind of community of creative hearts and minds.
    My 52|250 course (https://52250course.com – built on the practice we started with the ‘Year of Flash’ in 2010) is my weekly class. Students build focus and discipline, writing 250 words per week; they can sign up for a quarter or go the whole year, 52 weeks of writing in all. It’s a lot of fun – there is always a wonderful mix of poets, short story writers, novelists and essayists / journalists who wish to exercise their creative muscles a bit more. Sometimes by the end of it, a writer may have a new collection forming.

    In addition, I also teach short courses that last eight weeks, meeting in Zoom once a week, for two hours each session. We do a lot of reading and writing, week by week, to explore a specific kind of writing. New classes begin in early April and include Creative Nonfiction Flash, Humour, Memoir, Historical Fiction and Storytelling from Hybrid to Novella-in-flash, for people working on a collection or wishing to explore outside of their regular writing patterns.

  • Do you have  any of your own writing or publishing projects on the go at the moment?

I am currently completing a poetry collection and a connected short story collection. Two different kinds of focus, and yet I find each helps support the other. I move between them and really enjoy that. A lot of my work over the last year has focused around nature and sound – the physicality of our world, and the spaces and sounds that can be found between entities both large and small.

My anthology work is always ongoing. The next two projects are focused intensely around the possibilities of language with the small form. One is forthcoming this year – Te Moana Reo | The Language Ocean, a volume of multi-lingual micros edited with Vaughan Rapatahana. The other is a dual-language volume of flash fictions and prose poems in te reo Māori and English, forthcoming 2025. I’m editing that with Kiri Piahana-Wong and we are lucky to have such excellent advisors for that project, Māori poets Hinemoana Baker and Robert Sullivan, who set the bar very high indeed. These projects require intense focus and bring diverse voices together. I’ve always seen flash as form that is particularly good at exploring new terrain, and with these volumes we’re looking at how the small form engages specifically with language alongside the power of storytelling.

  • Finally for our 27th Award, can you offer a tip for creating a good ending to a flash fiction story?
    It is very hard to write a prescriptive account for ‘how to write’ flash fiction. But I usually suggest two main things:
    1) Take your time.
    If you can, write a draft and then leave it a while – and see what changes when you return. You might write very fast at first, but then let it simmer. When you do come back to it, consider the ending you’ve written and see if the phrasing fits – and here I mean the ‘fit’ in terms of content, form and rhythm. Returning to a piece after a bit of time enables us to view it with fresh eyes; it allows us more detachment so we can kill those darlings. The ending you loved at first may appear different; it may take on new shape. That space between the first and last draft can yield surprising results.
    2) Read your work aloud.
    I always think reading your work aloud proves useful, for you hear the sounds of the writing – the ways consonants and vowels link; the way we create percussive breaks or soft connections; the space we allow for both overt sounds and subtleties between breaths.

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