My guest expert is Tania Hershman, of the fabulous The White Road and Other Stories. I loved lots of the stories but the first one most sticks in my mind. Tania has pointed out that it's too long to be flash, but I don't care - it got right under my skin anyway.
Salt Modern Fiction. Now based in Bristol, Tania is current Fiction Editor of Southword literary journal and a judge for the Bristol Short Story Prize, the Brit Writers Awards and the Sean O'Faolain short story competition. She has just started as writer-in-residence in Bristol University's Science Faculty, and hopes to be writing and encouraging others to write science-inspired flash fiction. Tania is founder and editor of The Short Review, an online journal reviewing short story collections and interview authors. She blogs at TitaniaWrites.
NM: Can you define flash-fiction? There must be something more than extreme shortness?
As far as I am concerned, it is purely about length. Just as a short story can be almost anything except long (and the precise maximum is something wrangled over), for me the definition of flash fiction is a story under 1000 words, with no minimum. What is a story? Well, that's not something I am prepared to attempt to answer! However, I did mention something in a writing forum discussion about having read novels which I felt were flash-fiction-like in their intensity, their absolute economy with words. So flash fiction could be a type of writing, too, regardless of length, but I think I'm just making that up right now. I'd love to hear what other people think,NM: What else are you trying to achieve, that may be different from a longer story?
A great short story, for me, is one where the writer requires the reader to work - not everything is simply handed over so the reader can just watch the story unfold as if it was a television program. The reader has to fill in gaps - not in a frustrating way, but in an exhilarating way that makes them feel involved in the story. This is what I like to read, anyway. And the beauty is that different readers read the same story differently, which is what I find when people want to talk to me about my stories.
So, flash fiction is this taken to an even more extreme degree. The kind of flash stories I love are those that plunge you straight in and 5 minutes later you have finished the story and it feels as though you have been punched in the gut. There is no room in 1000 words, or 100 words, for preamble, sometimes even locations, names. But this doesn't mean, as I wrote in my essay on flash fiction in Short Circuit, that it is stripped down prose. Grace Paley's two-page story, which I quote from in the book, has some beautiful descriptions.
It also doesn't mean that a flash story necessarily has to take place over a very short space of time. There are really no limits to what you can do in a limited space, and I personally find the constraints very refreshing. I was trained as a journalist and I think that's why I love the ability to say what you want to say in as few words as possible.
What I find you can do in a flash story is ask the reader to step into more surreal situations than they might be prepared to enter in longer pieces. I feel freer to play with words, to makes less obvious "sense" than in a longer story. I think it's easier for me to sustain writing that kind of oddness over a flash story too.NM: Is all flash fiction "literary", however we define that? I mean in the same way as some novels are. Can you have genre flash fiction? Bodice-ripper flash fiction??!
It’s certainly not all literary! First, I think there is a misconception that all short stories are somehow "literary" - something perhaps hard to read, and "worthy". I quoted recently on The Short Review blog's Lit Bits from a library blog encouraging readers to borrow short story collections because "they make you look posh". Huh? Not at all. As you can see from the collections we review on The Short Review, short stories are everything and anything - comic erotica, mystery science fiction, dark feminist historical fiction... And so is flash fiction. I've read wonderful science fiction flash stories, for example. And the most recent flash collection I read and loved, Stefanie Freele's Feeding Strays, made me laugh out loud at various points, as did Sean Lovelace's How Some People Like Their Eggs. I haven't come across bodice-ripper flashes yet, but why not? How long does it take to rip a bodice? I sense a Nicola Morgan blog competition here! (Excuse me, we'll have no bodice-ripping here. Ed.)NM: When did it start, do you think?
Kafka and Borges wrote very very short stories, so it's not a new phenomenon invented to fit onto mobile devices, which is what people often think. It's not something dreamed up for our apparently short attention spans, because you actually need to pay more attention to a shorter story. If you skim... it's over!NM: How did you get into it? Accidentally or on purpose?
I somehow found out about Creating Reality's 300 word short story competition about 5 years ago. As a journalist then, I was very aware of word count and I liked the challenge. I went in for it, and got nowhere. So I tried harder. Something went right because the following year, 2006, I won! That was my second ever flash story, Plaits, my first competition win, and a cheque for £300. Certainly a great incentive! But the other vital thing that came out of that competition was the second place winner, a certain Ms Vanessa Gebbie, who decided to email and congratulate me.NM: What do you like about it?
We struck up a long distance friendship (I was still living in Israel then) and she was about to set up her own online writers' forum. I joined, and then participated in my first ever Flash Blastette. Sounds exciting? It was life-changingly thrilling. Over 24 hours, inspired by 24 sets of prompts - words or short phrases made up or borrowed from poems etc.. - you write as many flash stories as you can, knowing that all the other forum members are doing the same worldwide, feeling that energy. The idea is to incorporate the words or phrases into your story. You start to write and then every time you feel you are coming to a stop, you grab another, often incongruous, prompt and put it in, letting it take you off somewhere else.
What I found was that I could write a pretty much complete flash story in about 30 minutes, and that the prompts led my writing into very quirky and surreal territory. I loved it! And, when I then found homes for many of these flash stories in various publications, I saw that this was not just some writing exercise, this is writing for its own sake. I now set myself my own prompts and do it alone, as well as with friends. Anyone can try it.
It's highly addictive. The process by which I learned to write flash is highly adrenalin-producing, and it's also almost instant gratification. 30 minutes to write something almost publishable? Who wouldn't want to? This process also enables me to go into The Zone for that 30 minutes, keeping my Inner Critic at bay, and stop before IC has cottoned on! I love freeing the more surreal side to my writing, the way I have no real clue what I am writing about until I finish - and sometimes not even then.NM: What's the market for it? Where would someone start to offer their work? On-line places? Seriously, if someone loves this idea and wants to dip a toe, where's a good place to start?
Also, the other beauty of it is if you know you can write one in half an hour, then if you don't like a particular flash story you have written, you are not so wedded to it as to a longer piece you may have been sweating over for months. It is not your Most Precious Baby.
There are many online and print journals that want your flash. Some of them even pay. If you do a search on Duotrope for markets that want flash fiction, you get 1154, and looking down the list, all genres from literary to experimental, horror, fantasy, magic realism, science fiction, erotica.... Some of the excellent journals I read are Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Elimae, Dogzplot, Quick Fiction, Sleeping Fish. The Americans are definitely ahead here, but the UK market is catching up, with several new publications just launching now, such as Fractured West, Fuselit, and Flash magazine. (No, they don't all begin with F).NM: What about the reader's experience? How is this different (other than being shorter!)?
There are also more and more competitions where you can win a lot of money per word. Ambit magazine in the UK just ran a 200-word writing competition where the first prize is £500, the Fish One Page Short Story Prize for a 300-word short story is 1000 euros, and a very welcome addition for 2010 is the renowned Bridport Prize's new flash fiction category, with a prize of £1000 for 250 words. I say: why not try it? There are also many places to read great flash fiction, not to know "how" to do it but to get an impression of the range of what is possible. I have a list on my book's website to start with.
I am also thrilled that BBC Radio 4 will be broadcasting a week of my flash stories in the Afternoon Reading Slot in June, the first time, I believe, that this traditional short story 15 minutes will have featured very very short fiction, 3 or 4 stories each day. I am intrigued to see what the Radio 4 audience think!
If you want to read something that will take you weeks to finish, clearly short stories and flash fiction won't satisfy this. But why not read everything? Read a short story while you are having a cup of tea, read a piece of flash fiction while you're on the train. Excellent short and short short stories will make you gasp. You will be astounded at the intensity and vivid imagery that can be conveyed in such a short space. You might not find it so easy to forget what you have just read. And you might just get addicted to the rush!NM: What are you working on now? And what else would you like to point readers towards?
Half of the 27 stories in my first book, The White Road and Other Stories, are flash stories. I am just getting 70 flash stories into shape for a collection. I am also writing more of them, as well as adapting my existing short stories into various forms such as short plays and films. If I can plug something: I was the Grand Prize winner of last year's Binnacle Ultra-Short competition for 150 word short stories, and the Ultra-Short edition of the journal has just been published. They have done the most beautiful job in previous years, each tiny story printed on its own business-card-sized card, and I am sure it will be a stunning issue this year. A great place to start reading!NM: Oooh, I like the business card idea. I also like an idea I've just had myself: put the business cards inside bars of chocolate....
HUGE THANKS to Tania for giving up so much of her time. I know she'll answer questions from you if she can, so do ask.
Tania also recommends the book recommended on last week’s post about short stories: Short Circuit, A Guide to the Art of the Short Story edited by Vanessa Gebbie.
Salt are offering readers of this blog an additional 10% discount on the purchase of The White Road and Other Stories. Visit the Salt page here and enter the coupon code GM18py7n when checking out. A very useful discount and if you buy through Salt you are also helping a small publisher.
I definitely think I should have a flash fiction competition soon, but not now because I’m snowed under. And I can think of several excellent judges. Just need to butter them up a bit because I'm all out of favours right now.
HOWEVER, there is still the competition that Vanessa offered in my short story post last week. To remind you, Vanessa offered a copy of Short Circuit to the person with the "most creative/engaging way of telling me why they want to write a short story that is more than just a yarn". Hooray! Please email your entry to email@example.com before March 12th. Please put SHORT CIRCUIT COMP in the subject line. 50 words max.
AND FINALLY ... I’m going to give a well-deserved plug to Nik Perring, short and short short fiction writer, who has a collection here.Click the link on the right which asks What's in the Fridge? He has kindly given me permission to reproduce one of his stories here. It was originally shown in Ink, Sweat and Tears, here, and there are some great comments, if you'd like to take a look.
by Nik Perring
She remembers now what she was told when she was small: When you’re frightened, Honey, think of strawberries.
So she does. She’s been thinking about them ever since he started talking. While his words bite her she thinks of their spidery tops. She thinks of strawberries as he explains, justifies, tells her why this isn’t working, why this must end. Strawberries: she thinks of all the shades they could be; as pink as her lips or deep, dark, like the blood when he cut his finger dicing onions yesterday. The red of his wound soothes her.
Strawberries she thinks, as he unlatches the door, and she remembers how cold their skins can be. She could think of them in a bowl, cream folded around them, but she doesn’t. She’d rather see them on their own; almost heart shaped. She pictures their seeds, like a hundred lonely eyes. And she wishes they had pits so she could spit them at him.
And because all she can think of are strawberries and pits and colours and leaves, she is unable to reply. There is nothing to say.Reproduced here by kind permission. Copyright © Nik Perring 2009