Read KM Elkes first prize winning story, 'Extremities' selected by David Gaffney in the June round of the Award for an example of great flash fiction. Ken's a writing tutor as well as a writer, and he ran an excellent workshop on 'voice', an aspect of writing he refers in this interview, at the recent Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol. He gives further useful writing advice, including "write hot, edit cool..., buy (or at least read) the publications you want to appear in (it creates a virtous circle. Pay close attention to language... don't submit your sense of worth as a writer along with your story." There are several more tips to inspire below. To stimulate his own writing, Ken frequently takes pictures of settings or objects that can evoke a mood and also photographs people and places when he is travelling. There's some very evocative photographs included here that are likely to spark off stories from anyone who sees them. We now expect entries in our next competition about older men, beaches and prayers for success...
- Can you tell us how your powerful and affecting winning story ‘Extremities’ came into being?
Ever had an earworm - a song that just won’t let go, that you keep playing over and over in your head? Extremities started like that - a single, crisp image of a hand lying on the floor of a forest while around it rain made a sound like applause. I carried that hand around with me a long time, but didn’t really know what to do with it. I put it in a notebook, like you might press a flower hoping to preserve it, but those fingers scratched against the pages until I had to pay attention. Eventually I went into the realm of What If? Along with prompts, What Ifs are the firestarters of fiction. What if the hand was just one of many limbs littering the forest, accidentally cut off in logging accidents. What if it was so common, people didn’t care that much. I found momentum, images coalesced, and with them came themes and tone and the big one (for me at least) voice. Not the voice of the hapless, handless Bobby, but his so-called friend, who has a distinct tone of detachment (see what I did there!). After all that, it took about an hour to write the basic text that formed the story.
- Three other stories you’ve written are published in To Carry Her Home ('My Father, Who Ate a Tree' and 'Carapace' and The Lobsters Run Free ('Flabberjacks'), the two first anthologies of winning and listed stories from the Bath Flash Fiction Awards. These flash fictions are all, like your winning story, quite disturbing. They make the reader think of many things behind the words. Do you think that is typical of your writing?
For me Voice is all in flash fiction and the timbre of a piece is very much part of Voice. A sense of menace, something unsettling or disturbing, a shadow passing across the page, is quite a familiar technique in short fiction. Think Raymond Carver’s A Small Good Thing, or Joyce Carol Oates’ Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been’. In my own work, it’s probably a coincidence that the stories for Bath Flash Fiction Award are like this (or maybe the contest brings out my dark side). I’ve written other flash pieces with different tone-music - melancholic, wistful, satirical, angry. What remains constant is that short fiction is all about suggestion, a collusion between the writer and reader, a tango of seduction. So for me it’s vital that there is something ‘behind the words’, even if it evades precise definition.
- You are also successful as a short story writer. Do you deliberately set out writing in a particular short form? Or does a flash or a longer story emerge when you have an idea and begin to write?
Etgar Keret once said, in a New Yorker interview, that writing is like surfing. You sit and wait for a good wave and when you catch it, you stay on that wave for as long as you can. Sometimes it’s a quick ride, sometimes it takes you all the way back to the shoreline. You just don’t know until you start riding the wave. I like that analogy because the writing process for me is very instinctual and it’s only once I’ve done an initial one-sitting draft that I can decide if a story is a flash or needs more room or is a terrible wave that’s caused me to wipe out in a fizz of redundant adverbs and gerunds.
- Following on from the last question, you recently ran a workshop at the Flash Fiction Festival and are also tutoring a short story course for Comma Press in Bristol. What do you like about teaching the short form?
Primarily, I like the money and fame associated with teaching the short form. Beyond that, teaching or mentoring covers the top three things you can do with short fiction – write it, read it share it. What better way to spend some time than passing on what you have learned about writing, helping other writers discover the beauty and craft of the stories you love, seeing people develop their own voice – it’s all gravy. Stories, and the telling of them, are intrinsic to all people and all societies and for me short fiction represents the apotheosis of language and narrative, so I enjoy sharing that passion. Teaching can also be a way of enabling people who may not feel they belong in the literary world to find their way and understand that short fiction writing is an open house and their voice is just as valid. Finally, it’s not an entirely altruistic endeavour – teaching makes you examine your own craft and helps you become a better writer. More gravy
- And a further follow on – what essential advice would you give the budding short story writer? And would you give different advice to those wanting to write flash fiction?
That it is all about Voice. Just as we all have unique speaking voices that deliver stories in a unique way, so we all have our own unique writing voices. No-one else can write like us if we refuse to settle for being merely competent. That’s a pretty special gift to dwell on when you feel like you’re not making progress, when everything is being rejected, when the game of Snakes & Ladders that defines progress as a writer has become particularly tiresome.
Oh and this lot too:
Time. It’s precious and finite, so find some for writing and use it well.
Write hot, edit cool.
Read widely and read closely.
Read the submission rules, dummy!
Buy (or at least read) the publications you want to appear in – it creates a virtuous circle.
- You worked for a couple of years as co-Editor of The A3 Review. Do you think this experience has influenced your own writing?
Yes. Working with poets as well as prose writers gave me not only more appreciation of poetic structure but also a closer attention to language, which is absolutely key to flash fiction. I also read a lot of pieces that were nearly there, but quite often faded without carrying through their early promise, or were too ‘on the nose’ about difficult subjects. I now more consciously try to avoid the same issues in my work.
- Any particular writing projects on the go at the moment?
Yes. I am seriously considering whether to publish a collection of flash fiction. I hadn’t really considered it before because I didn’t think there was any kind of thread running through them on which to hang a collection. I am also close to finishing a debut short story collection. And I’m picking at the edges of a novel. A lot, in other words, but I guess I’m catching up with myself. Since I started writing seriously in 2012, I’ve also worked full-time hours. As a result, particularly in the last couple of years, having time to write has been tricky. I’ve now stopped working a couple of days a week to concentrate on writing. Which is great, but also means I have no excuse for messing around doing squat when I should be writing.
- Where and when do you write? Music on or not? Special writing rituals? A muse.
I do a lot of my day-job from home anyway, so the deskspace for that doubles as my writing place. I live in a village just outside Bristol and the window in my office looks out onto a country lane. When I get bored, I imagine strange and beautiful things coming down that lane - a steaming herd of Cape Buffalo, members of a post-apocalyptic dance troupe, a shoal of gossiping parrot fish on stilts. You know, standard day-dream fayre. Otherwise I go out to write in the real world, where I can people-watch and steal their dialogue.
Sometimes, when I’m stuck on a particular story, I walk or cycle or run. Basically some form of exercise in the open air, preferably among nature. I always carry my phone on these expeditions. Firstly because I can record some words or lines if they occur and secondly because I can take pictures of settings or objects that could evoke a mood or create an incongruity that might be a catalyst for a story. The same definitely applies to travel trips where picture prompts crop up everywhere.
As for music, it has to be instrumental only. As well as classical (I trained as a musician) I enjoy finding new, obscure music from around the world. Not only does it provide a soundtrack to writing, but also – in its newness and difference - reminds me about the importance of elements like tone and texture, rhythm, surprise and the importance of a fitting ending etc.
- Finally a tip for anyone entering a short story into a competition?
Here’s two for the price of one. Don’t submit your sense of worth as writer along with a story, because if the story is rejected, you will feel personally rejected. Rejection, like acceptance, is about the writing, not you the writer. Secondly, remember the old adage about quality not quantity. What are you really achieving if you constantly submit to the same level of competition or publication? To be a better writer you have to challenge yourself to submit to bigger, more prestigious competitions. The risk of rejection is greater, but so is the reward if you do well.