This month we listen in on two internationally known judges and longtime practitioners of flash as they share their expert perspectives on writing award-winning flash fiction, in conversation with Ethel Rohan and Nuala Ní Chonchúir. We then join Scott Prize short-listed writer Dan Powell to talk about his short fiction debut. Take your time enjoying this page; there are a lot of great bits of writing advice embedded in both conversations.
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On defining, judging and tuning flash fiction
Ethel Rohan and Nuala Ní Chonchúir are masters of the short form, winning numerous awards between them. We asked them to have a natter about what they look for when judging flash fiction for competitions, and we thank them for sharing their conversation with us.
Ethel: Nuala, we’ve both published a lot of flash fiction and I don’t know about you, but I’m often asked to define the form. It’s defined by word count, I tell people, generally works under 1,000 words. It’s also defined by compression and a certain kind of startling – everything whittled down to its most essential, nuanced and illuminative. Despite the confines of a tiny arena, the best flash fiction delivers a punch that sets off sparks in our heads.
Nuala: Yes, definitions are so various as to be contradictory. The best flash story is intense and elusive, and pays huge attention to language. And both the beginning and ending sing.
Ethel: Prevailing wisdom also defines flash fiction less as story and more as vignette and impressionistic. I’m a narrative storyteller and I approach all my fiction, including flash fiction, as story. Thus I prefer the term “short-short story” versus flash fiction for my work. Even within the confines of brevity, I strive to do what the short story and novel, done well, accomplish: build a series of intense moments – while advancing plot and revealing character – to the climax and turning point, and end with a shift in the main character.
There are limits, of course, to the short-short forms, particularly in terms of how much plot and depth of character can be depicted, but I believe short-short work made well can be as satisfying, skilful and meaningful as larger works of fiction.
Nuala: I agree, Ethel, I prefer the term “short-short story” too, but I can see that “flash” has become a useful and recognisable catch-all. What I like about the flash story is – and they are not sketches or vignettes – that much of the plot, or “the-thing-that-happens”, can be hinted at or alluded to, rather than spelt out. This means that when she reads a flash, the reader is required to work in ways that she doesn’t have to with the novel, say. Readers often don’t want to work, but if they can train themselves to enjoy the hit offered by flash (as opposed to the hit offered by a story or a novel), I bet they’d love it.
Ethel: How about the current state of flash fiction, Nuala? Many critics see flash as the “poor relation” to the abundant short story and novel. There’s cynicism that flash fiction is the stuff of amateurs, those who are practicing until they’re proficient enough to take on larger works.
Or worse, cynics decry flash fiction as the stuff of chancers who imagine the form to be easy and who dash off half-made work in a rush to get published. Of course there’s some truth to such claims (all forms of writing can be abused), but it’s also true that the best of short-short work is a valid and brilliant form.
Nuala: I definitely think that reductive attitude exists towards flash. “Oh, look, it’s tiny, it can’t be any good.” My hope is that the more prevalent good flash stories become, in literary magazines and newspapers, the more people will enjoy them for what they are. The endless comparisons to other forms (poetry/novels) wears me out.
Ethel: I’ve judged books, short stories and flash fiction for contests and for juried writers’ conferences and I’ve found there are ill made and deftly crafted works in all genres. Interestingly, I saw the same lacks and riches right across the board. Time and again, in the work that didn’t place well, the same mistakes appeared, related to one or more of the following:
- Know what story you are telling.
- There has to be something at stake. We have to care.
- Your main character must have a specific and burning desire.
- Your main character must act in the pursuit of that desire, and must reveal herself through her actions, interactions, dialogue, thoughts and emotions.
- Put your characters, in particular your main character, in increasing trouble and throw lots of obstacles in their path.
- Be interesting, twist expectations and cut the extraneous without mercy.
- Everything must build to a satisfying and surprising but inevitable conclusion.
- The prose has to sing.
Nuala: Yes, I’ve judged various comps and I am having a flash showcase in my guest-edited issue of this spring’s The Stinging Fly, one of Ireland’s foremost literary magazines, so I get to read a lot of current flash. Christopher Marlowe wrote in a play about finding “infinite riches in a little room” – that’s what flash readers want to find in a story.
What I look for in a good flash is:
- A great, lure-me-in title
- A strong opening
- An obvious delight in language – no clichés – and musical prose
- Startling subject matter
- A consistent mood/atmosphere
- Interesting/telling detail
- A touch of the surreal
- A killer ending
Ethel: I’m not sure if you agree, Nuala, but I do have to admit to a growing dismay at what I feel is an oversaturation of flash fiction getting published of late, particularly online – some of which all too often seems uninspiring, incomplete and/or gratuitous, and doesn’t help the plight of the often beleaguered form.
I worry many of these flash fiction pieces are chosen with little discretion as content fillers by some online magazine editors. There’s an almost alarming outcropping of new online lit magazines these days, sites that update content as often as daily, and there’s a sense standards have dropped. I don’t know. I just know there’s a hell of a lot more of what I would call failed flash fiction getting published these days. Thankfully, we’re also enjoying an era where more writers than ever before have become masters of the form and keep pushing its boundaries and its brilliance.
Nuala: Yes, there’s a lot of rubbish out there and it’s disappointing. Mundane stories about ordinary happenings rarely make good fiction. Writers need to be less lazy, editors need to be choosier. I’d like to see writers experiment a bit more with POV, sentence length, language.
Also, if you want to write flash, you must read flash. I recommend The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, authors Robert Olen Butler, Tania Hershman and Lydia Davis, and Tom Hazuka’s flash anthologies.
And don’t get all caught up worrying if what you have written is a flash or a prose-poem – write it, be attentive, and a bit of short-short story magic will touch it.
Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1970; she lives in East Galway. Her fourth short story collection Mother America was published by New Island in 2012. A chapbook of flash Of Dublin and Other Fictions was published in the US in late 2013 by Tower Press and Nuala’s second novel The Closet of Savage Mementos appears spring 2014 from New Island. www.nualanichonchuir.com
Ethel Rohan is the author of two story collections, Goodnight Nobody and Cut Through the Bone, the latter named a 2010 Notable Story Collection by The Story Prize. She is also the author of the chapbook Hard to Say. Her e-book, a short memoir titled His Heartbeat in my Hand, is forthcoming from Shebooks in 2014. Winner of the 2013 Bryan MacMahon Short Story Award, her work has or will appear in The New York Times, World Literature Today, PEN America, Tin House Online, BREVITY Magazine and The Rumpus, among many others. Visit her at ethelrohan.com.
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Working out what works best: the debut writer
We caught up with short story writer Dan Powell just before the launch of his Scott Prize short-listed debut collection Looking Out of Broken Windows, which is published next month by Salt. The twenty-seven fictions explore suburban life through varied, damaged perspectives and include relationship breakdown, bereavement, pregnancy and illness among their subject matter.
Flash Frontier: Dan, firstly, many congratulations on the publication of Looking Out of Broken Windows, a compelling, insightful and technically accomplished debut collection. Could you tell us a little about the process of getting a debut collection into the world?
Dan Powell: Thank you so much. The stories in this collection were written between early 2009 and late 2012, the first couple of them developing from assessment pieces for the Creative Writing diploma from the Open University I studied for between 2008 and 2010. During this period I began reading a wide range of short fiction as many of the course assessment pieces asked for finished short stories. Prior to this I had read probably a handful of short fiction collections but while working on developing my own stories for the course I fell for the form in a big way. At the end of the course I spent the whole of the next year writing short stories, with many of them being published online and in print. By the time I embarked upon the MA in Novel Writing I am currently working towards, I had amassed a body of stories that I felt belonged together.
I have long enjoyed Salt Publishing’s short story collections. They are one of the great champions of the short story in the UK, and the final motivation to put the stories together came when I decided to enter Salt’s Scott Prize for debut short fiction. Selecting the stories was a challenge, and along the way I removed a few that did not fit the overall tone and feel of the collection. Finally, happy with the selection and running order of the stories, I hit send and a few months later was delighted to find Looking Out of Broken Windows had made the Scott Prize short list.
Following the announcement that Kirsty Logan had won, I was thrilled Salt offered to also publish my collection as part of their 2014 line-up. The last week or two I’ve been busy with proofing and the like, and I am so close to holding a physical copy of my collection in my hands I can almost smell the pages.
FF: According to your bio, you travelled around a lot as a young person, and you’ve recently moved back to the UK after living overseas, but a lot of your stories involve archetypal characters in what is often labelled, in somewhat derogatory terms when referring to women who write it, domestic settings. You also write of issues concerning women’s bodies: the triptych “Ultrasound”, “Leaving What’s Left” – an imagined conversation with an aborted baby – and “Demand Feeding”; these subjects are traditionally the domain of women’s fiction.
Colm Tóibín springs to mind for subject matter and, in prose style, a touch of Carver to you both. But when Toibin was interviewed for The New Yorker, he was dismissive in his response to being asked if he enjoyed “writing from a woman’s point of view”. In fact, he’s critical of attaching any kind of label to himself. He’s said in an interview for Irish Writers in America (14:30 minutes onwards) that he thought that “if you start to think of yourself as a writer […] or as an Irish writer […] you start boring people badly”. Conversely, Toril Moi writes about the complexities for a woman to declare she is not a woman writer. Could talk a little about your perspective and what draws you to your subject matter?
DP: I don’t really make the distinction between men’s writing and women’s writing. I think that whole way of thinking is divisive and patronising. Really, for me, there is just good writing and bad writing and the gender of the author has nothing to do with which category an author’s work falls into. To me writing about domestic issues is, like all writing, just writing focused on a particular aspect of life. Great emotion and beauty can be captured by writing about the everyday and the domestic. One of my favourite writing tips, pinned to the cork board above my writing desk, is a quote from John L’Heureux: “Complicate the motive, simplify the action.” That for me is what prose fiction is all about: complicated, detailed interior emotional landscapes and there isn’t a better setting than the domestic for exploring that. In the end, the domestic setting – the home – is where most of us live out our emotional lives.
I suppose my perspective is heavily influenced by the the fact that, for the last nine years or so, I have been a stay-at-home dad. My eldest son was only twelve months old when I switched traditional gender rolls with my wife and began taking care of the kids and the home while she went out to work. Since then we have had two more children and I have been the primary carer for them all. It amuses me that now, in 2014, people are still surprised or pleased when they see a man doing the supermarket shopping with his three-year-old in tow, or, when the kids were very young, taking the lead with the nappy changing and the like. I suppose my interest in the issues and themes you identify has grown from the perspective performing this role has given me.
I would agree with Colm Tóibín in that I would not want to be labelled as any particular sort of writer, or to label myself as such. While this collection is very much focused on the domestic and features a host of, I hope, strong female characters, I would not want to be labelled as a writer of the domestic, or a women’s writer, as immediately that cuts you off from chunks of readers out there and there is the potential to be pigeonholed. I can already see, from the novel I am currently redrafting, and the new stories I have begun writing for a future collection, my view is now shifting a little to stories about what it is to be a man in the 21st century but these stories will no more be men’s writing than Looking Out of Broken Windows is women’s writing. I hope they are all just good stories.
FF: “What Precise Moment” is a story about objectification: a woman turns into a vending machine. It’s a deceptively simple tale that captures succinctly the received perception of the role of mothers and wives. Junot Diaz was quoted as saying “If you’re a boy writer, it’s a simple rule: you’ve gotta get used to the fact that you suck at writing women and that the worst woman writer can write a better man than the best male writer can write a good woman.” However, clearly, you can write women well. Would you describe yourself as a feminist?
DP: I am very happy to hear that you think the women in these stories are well drawn. I don’t think men are incapable of writing women, just as I don’t think women are incapable of writing men. Surely writers have a responsibility to make sure their characters, male or female, shouldn’t suck. They need to be believable. But yes, as a male writer, writing with a female voice is challenging. I have written stories that I scrapped simply because the female voice wasn’t working as I hoped it would. Which is why such positive comments regarding my female characters and use of female perspective are heartening to hear.
And yes, I would describe myself as a feminist. It’s sad that in this day and age we are still discussing feminism, that we haven’t managed to sort out the inequalities in our societies. I worry for my daughter, growing up in this still far too genderised world, but if she is anything like her mother, she’ll take it her stride and do her small part to change attitudes toward women in whatever corner of the working world she ends up in. And I hope my being at home, being a man who takes care of the children and cooks and cleans and does the washing and ironing and sewing, will be a positive thing for all my kids, will show my sons as well as my daughter that there are no pre-defined roles for people based on their gender, that they can go be whatever they want to be. Having said that, I can see this makes our home situation sound like it was a political decision, which it wasn’t. It was just a case of us working out what works best for us as a family.
FF: “Looking Out of Broken Windows” is the title story of your collection; it’s also the first story. There’s great humour to it (I’m thinking particularly of “naked Mike Zappa”); the comedy really brings the darker emotions into relief. You have a skill for raising a laugh. “Did you Pack This Bag Yourself” is another good example. Rowan Atkinson said that the three principal mechanics behind (visual) comedy are for an object or person to behave in an unusual way, be in an unusual place, [and/or] be of the wrong size, a consideration that when held against your story makes it all the more funny.
The men in the videos he downloaded from the internet when Mother was sleeping had driven him to such measures.
And then there’s Martin Amis who was reported to have said that only unenjoyable books win prizes: “And these are the novels which win prizes, because the committee thinks, ‘Well it’s not at all enjoyable, and it isn’t funny, therefore it must be very serious.’”
Looking Out of Broken Windows has both very serious and very funny content. How important is entertainment in fiction and does being funny hinder a writer’s chances of being taken seriously?
DP: I think it probably does, but that’s more to do with most critics’ blinkered attitude to anything that shows an ounce of humour or silliness but then, as with anything in writing, the good stuff will always be recognised as such one day. Whenever anyone talks about Chekhov’s short stories, they tend to focus their praise on his serious, realist fiction, yet there is a whole load of his short fiction that is absurd and comical. He is in fact a writer with a great sense of humour, particularly in his early works – something that isn’t talked about as much, that is overshadowed by the power of his later stories. Yet I would argue that some of these “silly” tales from his early years of writing can stand proudly alongside his more “serious” work. Chekhov’s story “Romance with Double Bass” is a prime example: it reads like a Carry On film about thwarted/unrequited longing. Again, to me it’s like the women’s writing vs men’s writing distinction. It’s not whether it’s funny writing or serious writing that matters to me – it’s whether it’s good.
I am glad that, regards my stories, you comment on the contrast between the humorous elements of some of my stories and the contrast with the darker emotions and elements running through them. Many of the more absurd elements in my stories – Mike Zappa and the broken windows in the title story, the tragicomic plight of Calvin in “Did You Pack This Bag Yourself”, the slapstick ending of “An Unimagined Woman” – are there because in life, even in our darkest moments, we are surrounded by humour. Often humour is even more vital and present as it kicks against whatever terrible thing is happening. I don’t see the distinction between the two states; in fact, many of my favourite stories bridge the gap between the two. John Irving’s The World According To Garp manages to be both hilarious and desperately sad in places. A short story like Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?” is beautifully absurd and yet speaks of something deeply broken in its characters. Moby Dick is a dark, dark book in places, and laugh-out-loud funny in others. Stories can do both, sometimes simultaneously. Chekhov is the master of this kind of writing. In my favourite short story, “Misery” (sometimes translated as “Grief”), a cab-driver, Iona, is so desperate for emotional connection as he grieves for his son that, in the absence of a sympathetic listener, his final desperate act is to talk to his horse. The image of this man, destroyed by grief and seeking sympathy from his horse, is at once ridiculous and painfully tragic.
FF: Being funny is unlikely to hold you back with this collection, Dan. Looking Out of Broken Windows is a book brimming with emotions, empathy and insight. We wish you the very best of luck with it. Finally, is there a question you haven’t been asked that you would like to have?
DP: Thank you for your kind praise and these thoughtful and thought-provoking questions. This is the kind of engaged response that writers crave. I am a regular reader of One Story, the American short story journal which publishes a single story in each of its additions, along with an interview with the author. The final question in those interviews is always: what’s the best bit of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
My answer would be something A.L. Kennedy wrote in one of her blogs for The Guardian. It’s probably the simplest and most powerful writing advice I’ve tripped over on the internet: “One word at a time.” Whenever I find myself struggling with a story, I turn to those words, scribbled on an index card and tacked to the cork board above my desk. “One word at a time.” The rest, I hope, takes care of itself.
FF: Thank you, Dan, for this interview.
Dan Powell’s work has won the Yeovil Prize for Fiction and the 2013 Carve Esoteric Award, been short-listed for the Salt Short Story Award and The Winchester Writers’ Conference Short Story Prize, and is published in Carve, Paraxis, Fleeting and The Best British Short Stories 2012. He teaches part-time and is currently working on his first novel.
For this month’s stories — themed one way — please click here.