We're delighted that writer, editor and manuscript assessor, Michelle Elvy who we interviewed in January, has agreed to be our judge for this round of Bath Flash Fiction. Michelle reads and selects flash fiction on a daily basis for the online journals Blue Five Notebook and Flash Frontier and has judged many flash fiction competitions in recent years. She also organises New Zealand's National Flash Fiction Day competition which is now open for entries to New Zealand writers.
- You must have read thousands of flash fictions in your work as an editor and competition judge. What, for you, makes a flash piece stand out?
The subtlety of the form. A writer who really gets that will write beautiful flash fiction. You never have to hit the reader over the head with the point of it all in flash. You can rely on the reader’s intelligence. In this way, there is a kind of connection between writer and reader that works especially well in flash (and I mention here a review of the Best Small Fictions anthology that discusses the form in wonderful detail).
For me, the stories that stick are the ones that manage to create a lasting mood or impression, even after the reader has left the page. Writers who currently stand out for me are Frankie McMillan, Sherrie Flick, Tania Hershman, Kathy Fish (the list is actually quite long – see below for examples)… writers who sustain character and mood on the page with subtle detail and hints at what lies underneath.
In flash, you have room to move and experiment, even with the most common of stories. There’s a story by Meg Pokrass called ‘Helium’ in her novella-in-flash (Here, Where We Live; in My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash, Rose Metal Press, 2015) in which she weaves the idea of a boyfriend-turned-brute into a gem that’s really about a mother and daughter. Such a common tale, really. And yet there are several things to admire about this very short story: the way it plunges the reader right in with its unexpected opener; the way it hints at the painful shift from kid to not-kid; the way it uses images to conjure things that suit obliquely and perfectly (“We sit out on the fraying porch watching baby spider bubble out from the ancient wood floor.”); the way the closing image lifts the reader right off the page.
Other stories I’ve recently read that are exemplary are Liz Morton’s ‘Parting’ in Smokelong Quarterly and Gail Ingram’s ‘Whispers’ in Flash Frontier. In the former, the writer uses such wonderfully unexpected images to paint the scene of this cleaving in two – painful, subtly comical, real. In the latter, the writer reveals through a mother hare the world about to shatter, with all its layered emotional urgency. There is something so extreme about this small tale – something so beautiful in the way it captures maternal love and the thing that matters most, the instinct the hare feels to rush to her kittens. This story paints an intense scene in relatively light strokes: the suspense, the motion, the rush, the hint at the inevitable end. I also like how this story is told with such distance in the voice, allowing it to observe and create a heartbreaking scene without being sentimental – exceptionally hard to pull off. Masterful, really. And very much a Christchurch story – which adds to its flavour and urgency.
- At Blue Five Notebook you say you select edgy and experimental flash fiction pieces as a preference. Can you say more about this style of flash fiction?
Blue Five Notebook grew out of Bluefifth Review, the poetry journal founded in 2001 by Sam Rasnake. When we added flash to the journal in 2011, we didn’t set down precise rules as to what we were looking for, but we soon noticed that the flash submissions often reflected a strong connection to poetry. And we like flash that way – lyrical, absorbing, evocative. Plot is not our priority, even in stories up to 1000 words. We like work that moves differently on the page – either in the way it’s laid out, as in the case of Renee Chen’s story, ‘Flight’, or in the way it creates a mood or a scene, as in Dianna Henning’s ‘Absorption’ or Sheldon Lee Compton’s ‘The Ugly Cry’, which moves the reader beautifully through a set of experiences and moods in a few short lines. All three of those are stories we have recently nominated for awards. All three stand out for their experimental nature and form. And all three remain with you. They are subtle, quiet, strong.
- Do you think flash fiction can successfully encompass more traditional story arcs, or does the form require something different?
Flash can contain an expected story arc, yes – especially if a story is up to 1000 words. You can certainly have a beginning, middle and end; you can see character development and even temporal or geographical sequencing in a story of that length. The experimental nature of flash allows it to push against all rules – so who’s to say it can’t encompass a traditional story arc? The novella-in-flash is a marvellous new development, creating a whole arc (yes!) from shorts that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. And in my own writing I see how my novel is held together by what might seem tenuous threads from chapter to chapter – something I’ve learned to do from my experience with flash. Whether successful or not remains to be seen. But the influence of flash on story arc is certainly apparent.
But to get back to the question: flash as a discrete form has to do something a traditionally longer story does not: it has to be just as satisfying in a smaller space. It has to hint at the larger picture where it cannot sustain lengthy descriptive passages. A small feature may tell all we need to know about a character. We may not know the height, build or age of the protagonist, but those mismatched argyle socks (for example) will reveal just enough. The details – the ones you keep as well as the ones you leave out – are most important in flash fiction. At the end of the day, we may not recall whether the man (let’s stick with this same character, shall we?) resided in Ohio or Orkney, and we may not know whether he ever got together with his wife again, we may not know whether he was nice to his dog, and we may not know when he posted the package that never arrived, or why he was such a bad teacher even though he was a compassionate listener. But the lingering image of the mismatched argyle socks will matter more than any of that, because they will be placed off-center but occupy a space that is critical to the reader’s understanding of the story’s protagonist.
I may have to go write that story now. Those socks – see? They stick.
- Are there books or articles on writing flash fiction that you would recommend?
I recommend Rose Metal Press’ Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, ed. Tara L Masih, and Randall Brown’s Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction. Also by Rose Metal Press: My Very End of the Universe (with a forward by the publishers and essays by the five contributing writers).
Articles I recommend are Robert Shapard’s ‘The Remarkable Reinvention of Very Short Fiction’, Tania Hershman’s ‘Iridescent Insects: What is Flash Fiction?’, and Rachel Levy’s ‘The Excess of the Short-Short’. Also, David Gaffney’s ‘Stories in your pocket: how to write flash fiction’ – which includes the author’s retelling of his introduction to flash (trains transforming prose) and tips; I like how he compares adjectives to anthrax. And a recent essay by Claire Fuller about The Huge, Unwieldy Beast v. Flash Fiction.
Also check out this article which maligns the form but notes some useful points about the pitfalls of flash, and why writing excellent flash is actually harder than it looks. Whether you are an Etgar Keret fan or not.
There are also many good interviews with practitioners of the form, and they provide wonderful insights, too. For example: An interview with Robert Shapard at Word Riot, and an interview with Robert Vaughan at Smokelong Quarterly.
- In our previous interview, you gave us links to some wonderful flash fictions. We'd love you to recommend some more to inspire writers.
Oh, always a pleasure. Some stories from vastly different sources – stories I have read that I keep pondering, for various reasons:
* Zoe Meager, First Fish – A story with a beginning, middle and end. See, it can be done!
* Chris Okum, To Keep the Dark Away – I am a big, big fan of this writer. His work is always this good.
* Nathan Graziano, Headless in a Hole – Truths in a small package. Also in the author’s collection, Hangover Breakfasts.
* Elena Megalos, Mother – I like the strange, quiet energy of this piece, and the last line.
* Melanie Pryor, Salt Skin – Smooth pacing all the way through this quiet tale.
* James Claffey, Profession of Faith – Classic Claffey. For readers who don’t know him, this is a good place to start.
* Sara Lippmann, Charity Case – I admire the opening of this story very much.
* Tina Barry, Table Talk – One small scene. A lifetime.
* Rebecca Harrison, The Cloud Hunters – I like this story because I love clouds and maps. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.
* Sara Williams, I meant to tell you to dance – The voice and the pace keep this unsettling story moving, right to the very last image.
* Juliana Grey, The History Tour – A very small story with fine detail.
* Shannon Burns, Blue – There is something impressionistic and incomplete and yet compelling about this piece.
* And if you want a daily dose, go to Everyday Fiction.
Also (not online but worth finding – all of which are nestled in my bedside shelf):
* Tania Hershman, My Mother Was An Upright Piano
* Nuala Ni Chonchuir, Nude (in part because it references John Berger in the opening but also because it includes carefully crafted stories) and Mother America
* Susan Tepper, From the Umberplatzen: A Love Story (an engaging example of a collection of flash that works as a whole)
* Ethel Rohan, Goodnight Nobody (and also: her very short memoir, Out of Dublin, which defies the memoir form for its concise, almost flash nature)
* Robert Scotellaro, Measuring the Distance (I like especially ‘Behemoths in the basement’ and the closing story, ‘Measuring the Distance’ – a story that’s about one thing on the surface but quite another thing happening simultaneously and beside the main event)
* Nin Andrews, The Book of Orgasms (worth reading for its content and form)
* Marcus Speh, Thank You For Your Sperm
* Kathy Fish, Wild
* Sheldon Lee Compton, The Same Terrible Storm
* James Claffey, Blood a Cold Blue
* Sara Lippmann, Doll Palace
* Elizabeth Smither, The Mathematics of Jane Austen – not a flash collection per se, but I include it here as a nod to one of this year’s National Flash Fiction Day (NZ) judges – because we can learn a thing or two from profoundly good story tellers, flashers or not. In this case, I recommend Smither as an example of someone who knows how to set a scene and keep the reader there. Her characters come alive in a short space. Take the story, ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’: the opening of this short story (the first two small sections) could be a flash in itself, so perfectly bound are the elements of language and rhythm
And, finally, I recommend the December 2015 micro issue of Flash Frontier. There are some wonderful examples of control and pacing in these very short pieces. And two of them – Allan Drew’s ‘The smell of it all’ and Jonathan Cardew’s ‘The Season for Persephone’ – were included in the editors’ nominations for the Best Small Fictions anthology this year.
- Redrafting and editing a very short piece of fiction is a difficult task. What do you think writers should consider when getting their pieces ready to submit to a competition or journal?
First, on a practical note, consider what the publisher is looking for. Pay attention to the details. If a publisher is seeking stories up to 500 words, don’t send 750. If they are particular about how to submit, do as they request; in most cases, editors and publishers are working round the clock with large numbers of submissions. If they have particular rules, even down to font size, it’s nice to oblige. It’s usually not about being pedantic but about simplifying the reading process to ensure they can pay close attention to every single submission.
On a less technical note, I advise writers to pay close attention to the openings and closings of their stories. I myself agonize sometimes. The best story can be ruined by an overstated close. Just recently my daughter advised me to delete the last line of a story that I’d been struggling with, and, with a suggestion as simple as that, I saw how complete the story was. By deleting that last line, I unstitched it enough to let it breathe a little more.
Besides openings and closings, titles matter. A strong title can lead right into a story.
If you are practising redrafting and editing, start with word count – because it’s the easiest place to start. Try trimming, say, 50 words. Or if you are ambitious, try cutting a story in half. It’s actually quite fun. In the end, you may like the longer version better, but you will learn a lot from the trimming exercise. Remember Gaffney’s notion about adjectives = anthrax. Even if it’s overstated and tongue-in-cheek, it also points to the fun of it all.