- K.M. Elkes is based in the West Country, UK. His flash fiction collection All That Is Between Us (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2019) was shortlisted for a 2020 Saboteur Award. He is a previous winner of the Bath Flash Fiction Award, and the Fish Publishing Flash Prize, as well as being published in more than 40 anthologies and online literary magazines. His short stories have won, or been placed, in international writing competitions, such as the Manchester Fiction Prize, Royal Society of Literature Prize and the Bridport Prize. He was longlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award in 2019. His writing has featured on schools and college curricula in the USA, India and Hong Kong and used by bibliotherapy charity The Reader. He has an MA in Creative Writing from Oxford Brookes University.From 2016-18 he was Guest Editor of the A3 Review literary magazine. As a writer from a rural, working class background, his work often reflects marginalised voices and places.
- You won First Prize in the Bath Flash Fiction Award in June 2018, have won first prize in the Fish Flash Prize, second prize in Reflex Press flash fiction contest and had successes in other flash fiction competitions, including the Bridport Prize. Is there some special advice you can give to writers entering stories in a competition to a strict word limit?
1. A small word limit doesn’t mean you have to write a small, limited story. Be bold and take risks, whatever the word count.
2. Prioritise your story first, not the prize or competition. There’s a big difference between editing hard to improve a story and butchering it to fit a word count. Give your stories the words and space they need there will always be another competition or publication down the line.
3. Before submitting your story, brush its hair and tie its shoelaces. In other words, give the opening and the ending extra attention. The opening is your first contact with the reader, so it has to be attractive and compelling. Even the quietest opening needs impact, voice and assurance. Endings, meanwhile, can be ambiguous, they can be abrupt, they can be surprising, but they should not trip up the rest of the piece by fizzling out or feeling fake and unearned.
- Judging flash, micro and longer short stories is something you have done many times. Have you seen many stories on similar themes? What makes a stand out story for you? And what lets a story down?
If I scooped up an armful of stories from just about any competition, I would bet money on finding some of the following themes:
Funerals are sad
You miss you loved ones when they die
Breaking up is hard to do
Infidelity is naughty
Nature is healing
Nature is doomed
More recently, pandemic and lockdown misery.
It’s inevitable that some themes and situations recur – they are common experiences which offer dramatic potential and, for some, the catharsis of release through writing. But this commonality means the writer has to work really hard to find something fresh – no matter how heartfelt the sentiment.
My experience is that weaker stories are those where the colour balance is wrong. There’s the grey or beige stories which have a ‘could be written by anyone’ feel, with archetypal characters, generic settings, and a listless pace. Or there’s the ones that are overdone, where the writer in pursuit of emotional resonance, has created melodramatic situations and writerly language, where they filled in all the blank spaces and left no room for the reader.
So what does work? For me, the stories that ‘stick’ are those where the writer has a forensic eye for the particular and peculiar details of a moment or scene or situation. Stories that, like the characters in them, have a specific voice. Stories with the confidence to release the reader’s imagination.
- Your collection of flash fiction All That is Between Us launched at the Flash Fiction Festival, 2019, was shortlisted in the Saboteur Award and has five star reviews in many places. Stories within the book have been nominated for Best Small Fictions and included in Best Microfictions 2020. We interviewed you about the collection on this site just before publication. Do you have a current favourite story within the book?
I don’t really have a favourite story, to be honest. What I say in my original interview still stands to a great extent – when you have a book published, you do want you can to ensure it looks good and reads well, then you try your best to get people interested in it. After that it’s time to turn to the next project and use what you’ve learned to write something better.
Don’t get me wrong, I still care about the book. I still hope more people in the future will buy it and enjoy it. And going through the whole small publishing cycle has been an interesting learning curve. I sometimes think I could have pushed harder for more people to leave a review or at least a star rating on Amazon or Goodreads (and of course, dear readers, you still can!). Having a decent amount of reviews or ratings is both legacy and affirmation that the book has done its job — that it has been read, and the stories within it thought about.
- You run courses on flash fiction and short stories and writers who have taken your classes have done well in the Bath Flash Fiction Awards and are published in the anthologies. Can you tell us more about your courses and if you have any coming up soon?
I started the online courses in 2020, partly because I needed money to furnish my opulent writing garret, or ‘back bedroom that I share with the cat’ as it’s sometimes known. But mainly because if you’ve had some success, modest though it may be, then it’s only right to pay that forward by helping others. I also wanted to create something genuinely useful, where writers felt connected with their peers and were supported to be bolder and more daring with their writing.
As for the course content, I keep things off-beat and innovative, looking at aspects of writing craft from (hopefully) fresh angles. Learning to read better through intensive analysis of text has helped me greatly, so I emphasise this aspect. The exchange of feedback is another priority, as proper, considered feedback (rather than a few lines of ‘I really liked this” support) can help not only the author but also the person giving the feedback – they begin to recognize the elements they need to work on while editing their own work.
My next course is coming up soon – it starts on March 22 and runs until May 21. I wanted a longer course so that writers could be part of a like-minded group, for support and encouragement, over an extended period. There’s lots of time to complete tasks and add to discussions, but there will still be enough structure in place to ensure focus is maintained. It’s an asynchronous course, which is the spiffy new word for courses that fit real-life work and home schedules – you take part when you have time, not when a timetable demands it. And I will be joined by ace author Angela Readman as a guest tutor, so I’m looking forward to it.
- What do you like about teaching flash fiction?
I’m not really sure what I do is teaching. I see it more as facilitating the talent and ideas of the writer and about encouraging writers to read more and read better. I think you can ‘teach’ people how to write up to a certain level. After that it is about guiding them towards their own voice and supporting them to take more risks.
Since I started doing online courses, a number of writers have had publishing success in both short story and flash competitions with stories begun or developed on the course. I definitely like that aspect of it!
I also enjoy the benefits to my own writing that I get from my courses and workshops – you have to drill down into your own technique and knowledge (and the gaps in it) in order to produce something worthwhile for others, so I’m learning along the way too.
- You have been concentrating on longer form writing and we know you are writing a novel. Tell us more about this?
I’ve been lucky to travel a lot over the years (albeit mostly the backpacking variety rather than the tour guide and posh hotel kind). A couple of years ago I went to Japan and visited Yoyogi Park in Tokyo ,which has a large area of woodland around its Shinto shrine. Strolling through the woods that afternoon, I heard the sounds of musical instruments and singing, because Japanese musicians often live in small apartments and are too polite to disturb their neighbours, so they go into the woods to practice instead. This strange, beautiful experience became the catalyst for a novel about a former musician who has separated himself from his past life as a form of self-punishment, until he hears a singer in a patch of woodland in an urban park and his life begins to take a different course.
I haven’t totally abandoned the flash fiction form though. The book, particularly the early part, is written in short episodic, flash-like passages.
It’s been a very different challenge to write a novel. Though some elements are familiar, the change in scale, and trying to get a sense of the whole thing as it develops, is tricky. A lot of it is pushing into darkness, hoping to see a guiding light somewhere ahead. I also really, really need to stop having new ideas all the time, otherwise the thing will never get done!
- Finally, a quick paragraph on what would you tell a writer who thinks their flash is ready to submit but might need that added something?
Look at the language of your piece. Diction and syntax are the salt and pepper of writing – they season what you have created to enhance its flavour. Language add specificity to tone and voice, it makes telling details come alive, it makes dialogue sharp, it can defamiliarise situations to add interest. Most of all, language and word choice are crucial in the search to find your own unique writing voice and style.