Flash-Fiction. The art of connecting to readers in as few words as possible. It is a daunting prospect for many writers, myself included.
There are, however, a few brave writers that take the challenge with pride; who not only embrace the brevity of flash-fiction, but do so with a creative, thoughtful and sometimes humorous flare.
Tim Stevenson is one of these writers.
Winner of the UK’s National Flash-Fiction Day 100 Word Competition in 2013, as well as the prize-winner of 1000Words, The List Magazine and Synaesthesia Magazine, Tim is a rising name in the flash-fiction world.
He is now a permanent judge for National Flash-Fiction Day and has recently finished judging the 2016 Bridport Prize for Flash-Fiction. With three books of work, along with contributions to flash-fiction anthologies, it is clear that Tim has a wealth of experience in the craft of short fiction.
After reading Tim Stevenson’s latest flash-fiction collection Songs Without Music – a collection of fifty two flash-fictions, published by Gumbo Press, earlier this year – I knew I had to invite him for an interview.
So, without further ado, I give you Tim Stevenson and his advice on the art of flash-fiction.
If someone asked you to define flash-fiction, what would you say?
There are a few definitions and a few types of form that are part of the melting pot of Flash.
The first element is length; some say that a story of one thousand words or less is acceptable, some say five hundred, and then there are all the strange little sub-genres, such as Drabbles (one hundred words exactly), and Centipieces (one hundred characters exactly).
My view is that a flash is a piece of fiction that is written in one sitting, start to finish, soup to nuts. I think the length is less important, but I still try to stick to under a thousand words, usually about five to seven hundred in most cases.
As far as form is concerned, there is some debate about the use of a twist at the end of a flash. There doesn’t appear to be a hard and fast rule about whether a twist is essential.
I personally do not embrace the surprise ending, the ‘Aha!’ or ‘Gotcha!’ moment that turns a flash into a short form of one of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected. The ending should be surprising I think, but not a sudden conjuring trick that only serves to show the cleverness of the writer, rather than the sophistication of the story.
Of course, I could be completely wrong about all of this, but fiction is art, and therefore open to subjective interpretation.
How did you get interested in flash fiction?
My wife, the fabulous Michelle, bought me a seat at a Flash-Fiction workshop run by New Writing South in Brighton, a highly recommended place with excellent writer courses running all year. It was run by Vanessa Gebbie and Tania Hershman, both well-known forces in the field.
I had never heard of Flash before, and was staggered by the challenge and then the dawning realization of the possibilities of the form. We spent a happy and confusing day trying out new ideas and reading example stories until I was completely hooked. Two volumes of flash later and I still find it as fascinating as I did on that first afternoon.
At the end of ‘Songs Without Music’ I included the first flash I ever wrote based on a game of Word Cricket, where the group was given a title and then random words were shouted out for inclusion in the story.
Where did you get your start?
After a lot of false starts and experimentation where I tried my best to subvert the form and find my own style, I started entering small online competitions, the kind that have a photo or a quote as a prompt. I managed to place in quite a few and then started winning the odd one here and there. Then there was the big one. I entered the National Flash Fiction 100 Words competition in 2012 and got a “Highly recommended” for my story ‘Alterations’.
I continued with the smaller competitions, until finally, in 2013, I won the 100 Word competition with ‘A Handful’.
This success is what prompted me to complete my first collection ‘The Book Of Small Changes’, which was published in 2014.
If you had to choose two writers who inspired your writing, who would they be and why?
This is a long list and picking only two is extremely difficult.
I think I’ll pick Ray Bradbury, short story writer extraordinaire, who was my constant companion as I was growing up, and Haruki Murakami, the master of metaphorical oddity who has delighted me ever since.
Ray Bradbury taught me two very important things. That science fiction is really talking about the world we live in now, and that writing a thousand words a day is an essential exercise for any writer. You may throw a lot away but it’s the practice that unearths diamonds.
Haruki Murakami got under my skin in the same was that Mervyn Peake’s ‘Gormenghast’ trilogy did when I was younger. His writing has a dreamlike quality that again takes the mundane and the everyday, such as losing a cat and getting stuck in a well, and turning it into a metaphysical meditation on the nature of self, reality, and causality. I find his work astonishing and frequently tell people that, in some undefined way, his writing doesn’t seem to touch the ground.
In your latest collection, ‘Songs Without Music’, a number of your pieces have dedications to others. Would you say that your flash fictions are inspired by your life, and the people you know? Or is there another source of inspiration for your work?
Ah. Yes. Well.
The dedications in my book are for writers whose style I was using to tell a particular kind of story, such as ‘The Mr. Jones Emulator’ which was inspired by the work of Philip K. Dick (who wrote ‘Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep’ which then became the movie ‘Bladerunner’). Dick spent his writing and philosophical life exploring the single question ‘What does it mean to be human’, and this story is an attempt to add to that body of thought.
Another tale, ‘The Magic Trick’, is based on the style of Saki (H. H. Munro) the great social satirist. His mannered, strange, and very funny stories are a must-read for any aspiring short fiction writer. I wanted to craft a story of manners and mishaps, and as soon as I began his voice came pouring out.
Others, such as ‘Final Resting Place’, ‘Chicken’, and ‘Aloft’ were based on stories either told to me, overheard or lived through (in the case of ‘Aloft’) which, with a little embellishment, became something of my own.
Sometimes I relate the writing of Flash-Fiction with telling a good joke. These three stories are good examples of what I mean when I say that, all of them taken from life and reformed and retold to be something more ridiculous, and hopefully more ‘true’.
What, for you, makes a “good” flash fiction?
Again, a good question.
My opinion, and remember that it is exactly that, my opinion, is that flash needs more than just character, place and all the other sensations that make for good fiction.
I believe that ‘good’ Flash needs to also have an awareness of time.
What do I mean by that?
Good Flash-Fiction should use time to let the reader know two very important things: firstly, what happened before the story begins, and secondly, what will happen after the story ends. This extrapolation from the information contained in the story is essential to make a flash appear larger than it really is.
If a story begins with someone opening a letter, or answering the door (for example) then there is no sense of backstory, no sense of context or a larger narrative.
If the story begins with a line like ‘This was how it always went’ or ‘We were in the changing room after our swim…’ there is a sense of coming into the story as if interrupting a conversation, or telling a joke from the middle and using little details to work your way back to the beginning and onwards to the punchline.
Endings, similarly, need to be left to allow the reader to see the path the characters will take without necessarily spelling it out. You can open a drawer to reveal a knife without it being used (despite what Mamet says), and you can hint at the gun without it being fired (despite what Chekhov says). The hints and signposts are enough to guide the reader to the conclusion without actually finishing the story.
If I read a Flash-Fiction that is a whole world, with a distant past and future plain to see outside the borders of the story, then I really feel that I have read something special.
Drawing from your experience as a judge of flash-fiction competitions, what are the top three mistakes or pitfalls writers fall into with their entries?
Cliché: Obvious murders, broken hearts, werewolves, vampires, horror, all the usual suspect. These can be fantastic if done well, but I haven’t read very many that are subtle and nuanced enough to be called ‘good’ Flash-Fiction.
Spelling and Grammar: Nothing makes me discard a story faster than a spelling mistake or a ‘their, there, they’re’ confusion. Also lists, please use a colon. Oh, and apostrophes. And the Oxford Comma. The best resource for writers for these rules is the indispensable Strunk & White’s ‘The Elements Of Style’.
The last one is a little harder to pin down. I refer to it as ‘linearity’, or ‘shallowness’ if you will. All good Flash contains an element of talking about two things at once. Allegory and metaphor are powerful tools, and so is a little misdirection with the use of homonyms and other sleight-of-hand.
A ‘good’ Flash will take something as mundane as the announcement of an old man’s passing and metamorphose it into a deconstruction of a family dynamic and the fact that the old bugger loved his bees more than he did any of his children.
I try and write like this as much as I can, taking the mundane and showing the reader something unexpected about the nature of the world and the people within it.
What is the unique effect flash-fiction can have upon readers? What is the magic of flash-fiction?
The magic of Flash-Fiction, the appeal of this form that is distinct from all others, is the speed in which a good story can change your world view. You can look on the strange or ugly and find them beautiful, you can see another point of view, understand a motive, or merely gasp as the depth of meaning from a single word resonate throughout the story. All in five hundred words or so. That’s magic.
And finally, what is your advice for writers who want publish their own flash fiction, either through magazines and competitions, or with their own flash fiction collection?
A solid list of advice for any writer, gathered from many sources over the years, seems to be:
- Read. You never know where a good prompt will come from. Try and get into books you wouldn’t normally read. Expose yourself to as many writing styles as possible and see how the writer has taken the language and made it entirely their own and learn whatever you can from them. Even if you only learn one thing from reading a story or a novel it will have been worth the effort.
- Write. I find good flash comes from Writing Long and then Editing Short, Adding words, I find, is always harder than removing them.
- Listen. Get feedback from people who also write and be open to that feedback. Join a writing circle, take part in forums, go to festivals and open mic nights and any readings you can. Take part. The best feedback comes from getting involved. Take all good advice into account, but remember that ‘you all can’t please all the people all the time’ as you will end up writing by committee and losing your own voice.
- Don’t explain. If your work needs an explanation as to why the reader has misunderstood, it – rewrite it until no further explanation is required. (I know some work is ambiguous, but this must be a choice rather than a bi-product of poor writing).
- Re-write. Resubmit. Get new feedback. Decide when enough is enough and any further tinkering will detract from the writing rather than improve it.
- Keep a notebook. Carry it everywhere. Never leave writing an idea down until later, it will be too late. I learned this the hard way.
- Read your work out loud. This will help you get a sense of the rhythm of the words, the lengths of lines, the breaks, the dialogue. Reading aloud also helps catch mistakes that you might have missed on the page.
- Enter competitions. There are plenty to choose from. Read the entry criteria carefully and read previous entries / winners to get a sense of what the judges are after. Try not to bite your nails too much while waiting for the results.
Oh, and don’t take yourself too seriously.
Thanks again to Tim for this wonderful interview! If you haven’t yet, do check out his website for details of upcoming events and projects, as well as links to his flash-fiction collections. You won’t be disappointed.