Monday, 1 March 2010

FLASH! TO CUT A SHORT STORY LONG...

For a post about flash fiction, this is going to be ironically long. But my guest has a lot to say and it's all worth hearing. So, get a coffee and put your feet up. And at the end you'll be rewarded by a stunning flash of talent from Nik Perring.

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.

About Tania
Tania's first book, The White Road and Other Stories, is published by 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.

Tania's interview
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.

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. 
NM: What do you like about 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.

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. 
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?
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).

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!
NM: What about the reader's experience? How is this different (other than being shorter!)?
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 n@nicolamorgan.co.uk 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.

When You’re Frightened, Honey, Think of Strawberries
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

26 comments:

Dan Holloway said...

I'm delighted to hear what you say about readers filling in the gaps in short fiction. I have always thought the form allowed the writer the chance to tease and tantalise that wasn't necessarily there in a novel (apart from anything else, because readers forking out 8 quid demand resolution). It's sometimes hard to persuade readers to put in any effort at all when reading a story that's not written by an estalished "name" - there is an assumption (as in the art world) that "known" authors are capable of the most breathtaking allusiveness, whereas the rest of us have one layer only, and anything else is just laziness/lack of skill (probably true in most cases, certainly mine, but it's frustrating nonetheless).

On the question of flash novels - I absolutely concur - I think many serialised novels will have this flavour because they cannot afford to lose the reader for a moment. I often hear people say that in a short, you can't afford to lose the reader for a second the way you can with a novel, which I've often thought to be more a comment on poor novel writing than the form of the short. Novel length is no excuse for authorly self-indulgence - I think it would be very good for more novelists to approach their novel as if it were a series of flashes. As you say, that doesn't mean stripped down prose - it means not wasting a word. It shouldn't happen in novels, but sadly it often does. For examples of this kind of "flash novel" I'd suggest the works of Banana Yoshimoto.

Simon Kewin said...

Fascinating read and a wonderful little piece of flash fiction. Is there a sense, do you think, in which flash fiction sits between more conventional fiction and poetry? Flash fiction seems very often to be about capturing a mood or a moment in time, as poetry often does, rather than conveying a full story with beginning, middle and end etc.

Nicola Morgan said...

Simon - I think that's a good point. It feels like that to me (as a reader).

Dan - I agree especially with your point about a novel not being an excuse for indulgence.

I do also know what you mean re the point about "losing your reader for a second" being ok in novels but not shorts - but it makes more positive sense if we take the view that a good novel will have had more chance / time to draw the reader in and therefore can afford the luxury of the occasional extraneous sentence. Bit like a marathon - you can afford to turn around to watch the people behind you, whereas if you do that in a sprint you'll lose (unless your name is Bolt!)

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Really lovely interview, both.

And T - I never knew all that about the flash writing on The Workhouse, and the - er- effect it had on you. Who knows - if we'd been writing epic novel blasts, you may be writing 400,000 wd memga-tomes now!

Seriously, a great glimpse into a great art form. I do find it hard when people want to 'define' and 'stick art into boxes' ... because to me, art isnt the right shape for that. Ever!

And isnt Nik's story marvellous...

Thanks Nicola.

Tania Hershman said...

Dan,
I absolutely agree with you that in an ideal world every piece of writing, however long or short, would work to the same principle of not losing a reader for a second. How often do you hear someone saying of a novel "once you get past the first 40 pages it's really good..."? Huh? Anyway, great recommendation, thank you!

Simon, there is definitely some flash fiction which might be more accurately called "prose poetry" but it really is a form all to itself which can't be so neatly packaged! It can be everything and anything, as can the short story, the poem, the novel. Read more flash and see what's out there!

V - I can't quite imagine it, me writing 400,000 words? And epic novel blasts sound interesting :)

helencaldwell said...

I enjoyed this interview and I'll be listening out for Tania's stories on the radio in June.
Great piece of flash fiction from Nik Perring too. All in all a very inspiring post!

Vanessa Gebbie said...

T - here's something to make you smile - courtesy of Randall Brown's blog - the US Government's attempts to put flash fiction in one of their neat boxes...
----------------------------------------------

an interesting excerpt from the United States Department of State publication, Outline of American Literature, 04 May 2008.

Quote follows:

The short short is a very brief story, often only one or two pages long. It is sometimes called "flash fiction" or "sudden fiction" after the l986 anthology Sudden Fiction, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas.


In short short stories, there is little space to develop a character. Rather, the element of plot is central: A crisis occurs, and a sketched-in character simply has to react. Authors deploy clever narrative or linguistic patterns; in some cases, the short short resembles a prose poem.


Supporters claim that short shorts' 'reduced geographies' mirror postmodern conditions in which borders seem closer together. They find elegant simplicity in these brief fictions. Detractors see short shorts as a symptom of cultural decay, a general loss of reading ability, and a limited attention span. In any event, short shorts have found a certain niche: They are easy to forward in an e-mail, and they lend themselves to electronic distribution. They make manageable in-class readings and models for writing assignments.

---------------------------------------

crackers, to try to simplify it like that! What do you think of 'plot' being all important?!

SF said...

This was a fascinating interview. I never would have thought so much could be said about flash fiction, but I enjoyed learning more about it.

The strawberries story was lovely too.

I like Dan's idea that authors maybe have to 'prove' themselves before they can be allusive and make the reader work hard! I personally like to work a bit when reading, but no too much.

And I would love to see the results of a bodice-ripper flash fiction comp...

HelenMHunt said...

Fantastic post, and I loved Nik's story. I've never had any success writing flash fiction myself, but I do like to read it.

Anna Bowles said...

I have to admit I'm not that keen on flash fiction because I think that if a story is that miniature, the nuts and bolts of its construction show up perforce. The Nik Perring story seems to me a case in point – beautifully done, but it’s so neat and clever that I think about the neatness and the cleverness rather than feeling the story. I’m thinking ‘aha, behold the skilful use of the strawberries image’ rather than enjoying it. On the other hand, if a story of that length wasn’t neat and clever, it wouldn’t work

I probably have this problem because I’m a writer and can’t step back from things!
It takes longer than a couple of hundred words to make me forget that I Am Reading a Story and get involved.

Nik Perring said...

Yes - a brilliant and interesting interview - thanks Tania and Nicola (and Nicola - thanks for having me here again!).

And what brilliant comments too (I'll leave Tania to answer those), but I will say thanks to all those who said nice things about my story.

Anna, thanks for your kind, and interesting, comments. What I find particularly interesting is that I firmly believe that when reading a good piece of fiction, regardless of the length, the author shouldn't be noticed, and yet, as you say, because by its nature flash is very short, any craft, trick (god forbid!) or technique will stand out because there's nothing to hide it. And while I do think that's more noticeable if you're a writer (that's our curse, isn't it!) I also think that some forms of fiction, or genre, simply aren't for everyone; and that's probably as it should be. If that makes sense! Thanks for giving me something to think about, and best of luck to all with your writing!

Nik

Nicola Morgan said...

Vanessa - re your first comment: I agree that art doesn't like to fit in boxes, but the trouble is that readers need to know where to find it. It's great that books no longer need to fit on physical shelves but they still have to fit on metaphorical shelves - we can work to change readers' perceptions but I think there's something inherent in humans that they need to "sort" things and categorise them. Good to push against that but self-defeating to push to far, as we will then be lost in the chaos? Or something.

Re your second comment - I agree that that's ludicrous! "Detractors see short shorts as a symptom of cultural decay," (!! What? As in "dumbing-down"?? Good grief!) "a general loss of reading ability, and a limited attention span." (In terms of time but not of effort and intelligence. Besides, since wehn di length = quality? Apart from in Russia in the 19th century.) "In any event, short shorts have found a certain niche: They are easy to forward in an e-mail, and they lend themselves to electronic distribution. They make manageable in-class readings and models for writing assignments." (How very patronising!)

Anna - I'm guessing you can't engage with poetry either, in that case?

SF - I think the bodice-ripper ff comp will have to happen!

Tania Hershman said...

HelenC -thank you, I'm looking forward to hearing them too!

Vanessa - I am speechless! And as you know, I am such a great fan of plot ;) Cultural decay??

Sf - it is interesting about authors having to prove themselves. I am reading Janice Galloway's Collected Stories for review on The Short Review and you can clearly see her becoming more experimental as she gets more experienced, leaving more to the reader to fill in. It's about writer confidence as well, I guess, you do see it in first collections too.

HelenMH - it's all practice, it really is - it's about pacing yourself differently, like a marathon runner deciding to become a sprinter. And it's a real rush!

Anna, no problem with that, luckily not all readers like the same thing otherwise we would all be in trouble, eh?! It isn't possible to get lost in a short story in quite the same way as something 400 pages long, clearly; the purpose, the aim of reading needs to be a bit different.

Marisa Birns said...

Wonderful, wonderful post!

I learned about flash fiction when I joined Twitter last summer and found a link to a site where writers posted their short short fiction on Fridays.

Many were quite amazingly well written. I've since joined the group and found that despite its "shortness" writing flash is every bit as wonderful as writing longer pieces.

Nik, I really liked your story. Will read more of your work.

Thank you, Nicola and Tania Hershman for this interview, and links to places that accept flash.

Ms. Hershman, I will get a copy of your book and check your blog!

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Nicola - I shall bow to your greater perception - and of course you're right, otherwise where do the books go in the bookshop?! Put it down to my current situation, struggling with linking 36 short stories, which will then not be called linked short stories at all, but a novel, should it get out there - a bit like Cloud Atlas, which is on the novel shelf but is also a series of novellas spliced together very visibly...I'm lost!

Simon C. Larter said...

Oh, fun! I love, love, love flash fiction. All three of my publication credits thus far have been flash (okay, one's still pending, but I'm counting it), so I'm rather attached to the form. It is rather addicting, too, for sure.

Cathie said...

This has been a real education. Thank you all. I am often asked what is flash fiction, how long is it, does it have a beginning, middle and end? There is an huge need for some people (and the US govt. Blimey...) for rules. It's so good to hear you all talk so energetically and with such breadth.

Great story, Nik. I'll look at the next strawberry I meet in quite a different way.

Teresa Stenson said...

A brilliant and exciting interview that has me all revved up to write. Thank you!

And Nik, what a great story. Love it.

David Griffin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Griffin said...

I also "discovered" flash fiction only last year or year before; up until then I had never heard the term. For interest, I've "had a go" 3 or 4 times with flash fiction, being my writing group "homework" (not that I knew I was writing flash fiction, I thought they were called short stories!). I'm really grateful for that, as it kick-started my writing again after so many years.

I enjoyed Nik Perring's flash fiction story; I thought it very good.

:-)

Kirsty Logan said...

Great post and interview – I particularly appreciated the Fractured West shout-out! I'm so passionate about flash fiction, and I'm thrilled that you wrote about it.

hampshireflyer said...

In general I find the idea of writing flash fiction quite offputting... get all that plot *and* worldbuilding into a thousand words, when normally five thousand feels like a bit of a squeeze?

That said, I recently *had* to write a 500-word astory for something and I felt it made me come up with such a coherent plot (there really isn't any space to hide) that I'm thinking about writing everything as a flash story before I turn it into the length it was actually meant to be!

Tania Hershman said...

Ms Birns (!), thank you so much! I hope you find something to enjoy in my book, and that, more importantly, you find flash writing stimulating and exciting!

Simon, I love your enthusiasm, that's wonderful to hear! Keep at it, those publication credits will grow and grow....

Cathie, funny how people want "rules", isn't it? The more you read, the more you see that there are no rules and that it's those who are aware that there are no rules who are producing the most exciting fiction, in whatever form they write. By the way, this is only my take on flash fiction, there are, I am sure, those who would disagree with what it is, how it "should" be etc..., but I don't believe in "should"!

Teresa, that's the best compliment, if this made you want to write. What are you waiting for??!

David, it's great to hear that, flash fiction is an excellent way to get yourself producing without the larger commitment of several thousand words, or more. Not that it's a finger exercise, but it is a different way of approaching writing that fills me, at least, with excitement and a zest to keep writing.

Kirsty, twas a pleasure! I'm excited to see your first issue.

Hampshireflyer, that is precisely it - nowhere to hide! If you have that constraint imposed on you, you can be amazed with what you do produce. In the essay I wrote for Short Circuit, I quote from Carol Sheilds' beautiful short story about sonnet-writing, and how her character relishes the extreme constraints of the sonnet form because, somehow, they free her. I think I feel quite similar about flash. But, as I said above, it's also about pacing. And once you pace yourself as a "sprinter" you might start looking at your 5000-word stories and saying "Wait, I don't need this... and this..." and once you start cutting, you realise just how little you actually need to convey what you want to convey. And... how readers are far more intuitive and intelligent than we may give them credit for, able to read a great deal into something very small. Enjoy!

Mike Smith said...

What an entertaining read. And, if I may say so, what a wonderful blog. So useful for any aspiring writer!

SueG said...

I'm so glad I finally got the time to read this. I love Tania's work and I really welcome her explanation of what flash fiction is and how she writes it. Having Nik's piece on the end is like the chocolate on top of the strawberry. My writing tends to be wrapped up in long, time and emotion-consuming projects like novels and poetry collections and plays. I'm definitely going to try my hand at some flash now. Thanks to you all.

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