It's good to catch up with Sharon Telfer to find out more about 'Eight spare bullets', her second first prize win for Bath Flash Fiction Award, and about her writing in general. The first time Sharon won with another marvellous story, 'Terra Incognita' back in June, 2016, we learned she had been walking in the Welsh mountains and only found out about her success when she got home. This second time, she wasn't checking emails and social media because she was completing a big work project and discovered all the excitement at the end of the day!
The 15th Bath Flash Fiction Award judged by Mary Jane Holmes ends in three and a half weeks on June 7th. Mary Jane gave some great writing tips in her interview with us and there's more tips from Sharon at the end of this interview and in the quote below, near the beginning. It is a wonderful piece of advice for the current situation we are in, and has a particular reference to Sharon's winning story.
"...If you’re not writing for whatever reason, don’t force it and don’t despair. Those seeds are lying dormant, just like in the Svalbard vault. Give yourself time and what light and warmth and good soil you can. Germination always happens first unseen and underground.
Good luck to everyone entering our 15th Award. Results will be out at the end of the June."
- At Bath Flash we think it’s wonderful that you won the Award this February and also in June 2016. Can you say how 'Eight spare bullets' came into being and how you arrived at the structure?
I’ve been wanting to write about the extraordinary Svalbard Global Seed Vault (picture here by Martyn Smith, Creative Commons: CC BY2.0) for years. It felt a huge topic, though, and I couldn’t find a way in. I’d been thinking in terms of short stories, but I’d bought an early bird entry for Bath and, as the deadline loomed and I still had no draft, wondered if I could revisit this not by going longer but by going very short indeed.
I ended up with a lot of fragments but no obvious story. In my research, I came across a common belief that you must, by law, take a gun and eight spare bullets if you leave the settlements on Svalbard. I’m not sure if this is true or an urban myth, but I love writing segmented flash, and this gave me the idea of how to thread a piece together. Coupled with a central narrative of a failing relationship, I hoped that segmenting the piece would reinforce that sense of dissolution and my core theme of the climate emergency. 'Eight spare bullets' is an odd and haunting phrase. It speaks of last chances and desperate situations, but there is a chilling sort of hope there too.
You have won other flash fiction contests and awards in the intervening years since June 2016 and have been published in many places including in all four of the Bath Anthologies. Can you tell us more about your writing journey during this period?
It’s been a strange stop-start one. I had an amazing year in 2018 winning the Reflex Flash Fiction competition and the Word Factory/New Writing North Apprenticeship. But the wheels came off at the end of 2018, due to a combination of personal circumstances. I wrote practically nothing in 2019; worse, I felt empty of ideas.
Almost a year later exactly, things had settled down. I started writing again and the ideas and stories flowed. I want to thank my Word Factory mentor, Jenn Ashworth, whose belief, understanding and compassion helped me keep my confidence and allow myself to recuperate.
If you’re not writing for whatever reason, don’t force it and don’t despair. Those seeds are lying dormant, just like in the Svalbard vault. Give yourself time and what light and warmth and good soil you can. Germination always happens first unseen and underground.
Not really! I always write about contemporary themes, but often use historical settings to do so. Telegraph, an early Ad Hoc Fiction story for example, was set in nineteenth-century America but was about loneliness and isolation in a chattering world. And I was bowled over by your story 'Wolf Moon', Jude, which we published at FlashBack. Set in thirteenth-century England, it said so much about how we treat the natural world today.
Historical flash isn’t a separate box to put certain stories in; for me, it’s one possible narrative approach. So much connects us to the past; we are built from it; history’s concerns are our concerns. Please give historical flash a go. It’s very rich and liberating to work with.
- I see you as someone who loves language and in ‘Eight Spare Bullets’ I thought there were some truly breathtaking sentences, weighted with underlying meaning. Has that way of writing always been of interest to you?
Thank you! I know for many people character or plot drives their writing but for me it’s always language. My first spark for a flash is often a phrase or sentence that survives into the final draft. The musicality of a piece is always important to me. I can’t give up assonance and alliteration. I have tried. Some people seem suspicious of a language-led approach; they view it as a conscious over-working. When I was blocked last year, I became quite anxious about this and it became something of a vicious spiral. But this beautiful quote from the poet, Kathleen Jamie, in a Guardian interview from October 2019, helped me get things back into focus:
“... Where does her simile-making come from? ‘I don’t know. I love it. I’m not always aware of it. If I’m writing something and it just comes out of the tip of the pen, I go, “Yes”!’
That’s just the way I write. Language is how we map the world, after all.
I loved Tino Prinzi’s open and generous Judge’s Interview for this round. It helped me start writing again. Take what you need from writing advice but don’t be intimidated by it. There’s no one right way to write. There are as many ways of writing as there are writers. That’s the joy of it.
I came up to stay with my Mum a week before lockdown so she wouldn’t be on her own. As a freelance editor, I’m lucky I could bring my ‘office’ with me, so I’ve been working too. I’ve not had the time or headspace to write fiction, though my non-fiction work does at least keep my editing pen sharp.
- You are also an editor for a FlashBack Fiction the magazine focussing on historical fiction which has only been going for a couple of years, but is already a big player in the lit mag world. What have you learned from seeing so many submissions on historical fiction?
First, I’ve learned so much from my fellow editors. They are such generous and insightful readers, and we all read and respond to stories differently. For me, on individual stories I’d say:
• Don’t cram too much in. Use your research lightly and give your piece a clear central theme.
• Make sure your story has movement and tension and something for the reader to care about.
• Find an original viewpoint. Picking an important historical event isn’t enough: we’ve probably all read about it before.
• Work those endings. As writers we hear a lot about arresting openings, but a lot of stories start very enticingly, then lose energy and fizzle out.
• Edit, edit, edit to make your story as sharp as it can be. My most frequent comment on subs is ‘this is a few bold edits away from being very good’.
In principle, these apply to any flash, historical or not.
It’s tempting to focus on how short 300 words is and how much that means you have to cut. Instead think about how much depth you can add. ‘Make every word count’ is familiar advice, but it’s more about making every word work as hard as it can. What does it add in meaning, tone, rhythm, surprise, emotion, association? How does that word work next to those around it? This doesn’t mean overcomplicate your sentences and vocabulary. Look at how a simple phrase like ‘Stay home’ has become so loaded now. Use the spaces between the words too. Think of these as an extra tool to expand your writing. Give the reader air pockets to breathe and reflect in. Competition stories have to stand up to a lot of rereading. Make sure those layers are there.