Flash Fiction

Interview with Mary-Jane Holmes, Judge, March-June 2020.

Mary-Jane Holmes is a writer, teacher and editor based in the Durham Dales, UK. She has been published in such places as the Best Small Fictions Anthology 2016 and 2018, and the Best Microfictions Anthology 2020 Her work can also be found in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Spelk, Cabinet of Heed, Flashback Fiction, Mslexia, Fictive Dream, The Lonely Crowd, and Prole amongst others. She is winner of the Mslexia Prize (2018), the Reflex Fiction prize (Autumn 2019) and the Dromineer Fiction Prize (2014).In 2017, she won the Bridport Poetry Prize and her poetry collection Heliotrope with Matches and Magnifying Glass was published by Pindrop Press in 2018. She is currently studying for a creative writing PhD at Newcastle University and she has an unpublished flash collection knocking about that was recently short-listed for the International Beverly Prize for Literature.
@emjayinthedale

  • You have been very successful in major competitions with your flash fiction over the last couple of years, winning both the Mslexia flash fiction competition and the Reflex Flash Fiction competition as well being listed and commended in other Awards most recently in the International Beverly Prize for Literature for a flash fiction collection. What do you enjoy about writing flash? And have you a favourite piece among your winners?
    I think flash fiction is one of the most flexible genres around given that it can occupy that liminal space between prose and poetry. It is also a place that can absorb risk and experimentation because of its brevity and of course it is a great discipline. I would urge anyone who wants to write in longer forms, to first cut their teeth on a genre that will teach them how concision and compression drive prose to be the best it can be. ‘No decorative humbugs’ as George Orwell said. Out of the pieces, that I have been lucky enough to have done well with, I think 'Down the Long Long Line' that will be in this year’s Best Microfiction Anthology is a favourite as it is very much tied with my PhD that deals with looking at history and the female voice.
  • You are a poet as well as a flash fiction writer. Do you find you can move easily between the two forms? Some people make a strong distinction between prose poetry and flash. Others don’t see much difference. Do you have a view on this? 
    I always set out knowing whether I am going to write either a poem or a flash fiction. There has never been anything I have written where I have thought - oh this isn’t a poem, it’s a piece of flash, so I must, on some level see a difference between the two forms although it is hard to pin that down. I suppose that something that has more narrative drive, suits flash fiction and perhaps that is where the distinction lies for me.
    • Which flash fiction writers do you currently enjoy reading? 
      Oh gosh - well pretty much all of the writers that Ad Hoc fiction published last year. Michael Loveday, Charmaine Wilkerson, Ken Elkes, Meg Pokrass. Amy Hempel is probably the writer that got me into considering the short form and Lydia Davies of course. There are many many others….
    • Teaching flash fiction is something you have done for many years, both single workshops, like at The Flash Fiction Festival in 2019 and longer courses. What do you like about teaching this form? In your longer courses, do you find that  there is a point where writers suddenly grasp what flash fiction is?
      I think that teaching flash fiction is ultimately so satisfying because it provides a writer with everything they need to know about narrative structure, style and the character’s dynamics of desire that are key to animating any story. Whether that writer wants to move to the longer form or not, the thing about flash is that the image rather than the idea (Nabakov said ‘all ideas are hogwash’)  drives the tension. Readers really only connect with the emotions a writer is trying to convey when the image is at the forefront, and students of flash fiction quickly understand this and use it to great advantage. If just starting out, this saves a lot of time realizing that summary and explanation aren’t as resonant as drama and action and that as writers our responsibility is to give just enough detail for the reader to build the picture and the story on their own. We want readers who actively participate in a story, not passive listeners being told everything, Flash Fiction is by far the best genre to learn this and to learn it quickly!
    • Have you got any up and coming workshops or courses, people can book on?
      I am really sorry to be missing this year’s Bristol Flash Fiction Festival but unfortunately it clashes with running the Casa Ana writing retreat in Granada, Spain which I facilitate two to three times a year. I have a new online Memoir Flash course that I will be running with Retreat West later in the year and I also run an online course with Fish Publishing Ireland which you can sign up to any time.
    • What makes a winning micro fiction for you?
      A great opening that will draw me in, after all in micro, we are finishing the story almost as we start it. After reading the story, I want to feel that the story’s ending was inevitable and yet surprising at the same time. That doesn’t mean that the ending needs to be nice and neat but I do want to say ‘Wow, of course!’ and not ‘where did that come from?’
    • Tips to help writers  create their best story of 300 words or under?  
      Zoom in on a single event;
      Begin in the middle of the action as close to the arc or climax of the story;
      Decide where your focus is – event, point-of-view, character?;
      Write using active voice and eliminate extraneous description;
      Remember that every word counts;
      Use a directive last sentence that gives narrative insight or opinion;
      Make rereads necessary or at least inviting;
      Close with a phrase that sends the reader back into the story;
      Know when you've made your point.
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  • Sharon Telfer February 2020 First Prize

    Eight spare bullets

    by Sharon Telfer

    1
    The front windows refuse to shut. The house droops, as after a stroke.
    They drink in the kitchen. Under the slanting floor, they catch the trickle of thaw.

    2
    Everything here is the northernmost. Town, church, store, pub. The last.
    She replays her field recording, bowhead whales, all booming fuzz and feedback.
    “Harmonics!” Erik applauds. “That’s freeform jazz.”
    The last blues festival.

    3
    He softens in her mouth. It’s okay, she whispers, though it’s not. She’ll be gone six weeks.
    From the boat, she had watched an iceberg tumble, head over heels, like a clumsy toddler. Not playing, but dying.
    Erik kisses her, has to go. Husky safari, tomorrow’s fresh batch of tourists.
    He kisses his dogs too. Erik loves his dogs.

    4
    Everything slides. The wooden stilts sink beneath the houses. A landslip buries the play park. The ground heaves the dead from their graves, sends coffins tobogganing down the road.
    She wakes. Remembers. Not a dream. Last summer.

    5
    Her breath freezes in her nostrils.
    Reindeer antlers heap by the roadside. They gleam in her torchlight, like bleached coral.

    6
    Time loses its way in the permanent dark. The once-white mountain looms black. Deep below, one million seeds – a world’s worth – lie buried. They called it the doomsday vault, fast as a dragon’s hoard. Nine years after opening, meltwater has already flooded in.

    7
    Beware of polar bears.
    A mother and cubs wandered down this street, past the last post office, the last chocolaterie.
    If you leave town, you must take a gun and eight spare bullets.

    8
    The plane spins her back into sunrise.
    She thumbs up a clip. Erik dancing with his dogs, a circling, shuffling waltz.
    At the northernmost, there are more polar bears than people. If you meet a bear, pull back quietly.

    About the Author

    Sharon Telfer won the Bath Flash Fiction Award in June 2016 with her story, ‘Terra Incognita’, and was commended in the February 2019 round. She has also won the Reflex Flash Fiction Prize (June 2018). Her stories were selected for the 2019 ‘BIFFY50’ and Best Microfiction 2019. She lives near York and was the New Writing North/Word Factory Northern Short Story Apprentice in 2018. She is an editor at FlashBack Fiction. She tweets @sharontelfer.

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    Simon Cowdroy February 2020 Second Prize

    The Dissolution Of Peter McCaffrey

    by Simon Cowdroy

    Heat-ravaged rivets explode off the corrugated iron roof of our milking shed like corks from shaken champagne bottles.

    A long drought wind scalds in from the north and the thermometer leaves 50 behind as pitiless gusts scour every nook of the farm. No easy pickings to be found; all that could be taken is long gone.

    Dad wasn’t a man you made a promise to lightly, his plea for me to stay burdened with the heft of eight generations. I crane my neck, spot his cross, remember the soil being so unyielding we used up all our dynamite. Not enough time or faith left over for funerals, so his pension cheque still ghosts in.

    I lost Annie to the highway a week back. No goodbyes, only the midnight creak of our front door, the bloom of liberated fuel as her car engine fired.

    Well rid of her two-faced grace, the lies that fell from those blue eyes as acid rain, but I can’t seem to shake that afternoon before she left. The brutal whisper of, ‘Pete, we’re in this together’, as my tired, fractured head folded into her shoulder.

    Joe at the Co-Op rings. The water tankers aren’t coming. He chews my ear about it being the start of Australia’s climate change but sure feels to me like we’re already at the end of everything.

    Three hundred cattle are all that remain and I’ve enough feed to get half through next week. The cull is almost a familiar dance now. I never remember grabbing my gun; never forget to keep a bullet in the chamber after it’s done.

    I’m not a brave man, and if soft bovine eyes ever boiled over in accusation it would unbind me. Turns out, their gratitude is what keeps me awake.

    About the Author

    Simon lives as part of a dog dominated family in the Yarra Valley near Melbourne, Australia. He returned to fiction in 2017 after a long absence and in 2018 two of his initial pieces of Flash Fiction were published in Bath Anthology Three (one of which was commended).In 2019 he joined @VirtualZine as editor/reader and can also be found tweeting away at @virtwriting (#VWG).
    His first crime novel,Cut of a Knife, was a Pitch Perfect finalist at Bloody Scotland in 2018. Described by a reviewer as ‘Dark, disturbing but startlingly humane’ this novel is currently out in the world looking for a home. His hobbies include writing, reading, the art of Caravaggio, lifting heavy objects and awful puns.

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    Christina Dalcher February 2020 Third Prize

    Dressage

    by Christina Dalcher

    And she rides.

    She prances the beast sideways, backwards, up, down, feet in the air, falling, balancing, tumbling, perfect circles carved on the red dirt of Spain. Ten years, twelve years, fourteen. Fly a thousand miles from home. Fly south, jump left, skip right. One, two, three. Uno, dos, tres. Één, twee, drie.

    And they watch.

    Pay your thirty euros; see the Andalusian horses dance. Piaffe, pirouette, travers. Impossible, unnatural gymnastics. Watch the braids in their manes and the flowers in their tails. Watch the girl, ten years, twelve years, fourteen. Watch her fly one last time.

    And he bucks.

    You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him dance. Because a beast is a beast, mare or stallion, Arabian or Andalusian. To its ears, Ravel and Offenbach and Sousa make noise, not music. Once a day, twice on Thursday, thunderclap roars of olé-bravo-jolly good show. So tired. Weary of spurs and bits and reins and weight.

    And she breaks.

    She breaks in the middle and at the ends, bones flattening, nerves singing. She breaks sideways and backwards, young flesh sinking into old earth. She dreams a dream of gold, silver, bronze. She wakes.

    And they gasp.

    Pobrecita-poor dear-die arme-shame-tragedia-so young. Dangerous beast-willful-cattivo-too green. Mobiles ping as news travels. This is Thursday. Next show at three o’clock.

    And she mends.

    At the sea, she sits, legs bound in plaster, braids in her hair. She sees the wild ponies lope and trot and gallop. Sees their manes free of flowers, sees their legs naked of wraps. Riderless, they fly to the rhythm of wind and waves, When they come to nuzzle her wounds, she wonders, Who is the trainer, and who is the trainee?

    About the Author


    Christina Dalcher is a linguist, novelist, and flash fiction addict from Somewhere in the American South. She is also the sole matriculant in the Read Every Word by Stephen King MFA program (which she invented). Find her sometimes-prize-winning work in The Molotov Cocktail, Whiskey Paper, and New South Journal, among others. If you’re looking for Christina, she might be here: @CVDalcher, www.christinadalcher.com, or hiding in a closet re-reading a tattered copy of The Shining. Also, she made a book called VOX and another one called Q (Master Class in the US).

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    Remi Skytterstad February 2020 Commended

    [No Audible Dialogue]

    by Remi Skytterstad

    The commotion and clamour of the airport is deafening. We are turned to lip-readers by the pack of people and their cacophonic humming composed and orchestrated by a medley of goodbyes / stay safes / I love yous.

    Like a ray of sunshine through a patchy carpet of clouds, is our attention drawn to a child / boy / son. The crowd of the airport manoeuvring around him—a crop circle of bodies—in unobtrusive / comfortable / safe distances.

    The child is fighting tears. His bottom-lip quivers, and it’s apparent he’s trying to be brave / strong / a big boy.

    He is embraced by a man / soldier / father. Together they ripple like a wave when he breathes in his son’s hair, to treasure / remember / survive. And for a moment time slows inside their circle. The crowds bend past them like light around a black hole—a time lapse of bodies, around their sculpturesque scene. The quivering lips—now still—are stretched from cheek to cheek, in a frozen, soundless cry, revealing gritted milky teeth.

    Like this we watch them, as the crowds pour and murmur around them, like a river around an islet.

    A woman breaks their event horizon, and the boy and the man come alive again.

    The son is nodding to the movement of the father’s lips. He straightens his back and wipes away the tears that forced themselves through—his skin darkened in their wake. He moves his mouth in whys / do you have tos / please don’ts.

    When the man / soldier stands, he leaves—like the shed skin of a snake—the father around the neck of the son. A translucent outline of a man, only hinting at who used to hold the boy.

    The boy is embraced by a woman / mother / widow.

    About the Author

    Remi Skytterstad is from Norway where he studies educational science. He writes in English as a second language. He is currently in recent issues of Barren Magazine, Flashback Fiction, and Lunate. Find him on Twitter @Skytterstad.

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    Claire Powell February 2020 Commended

    Valentine

    by Claire Powell

    The man steps out of his car. Tomasz remains where he is, both hands on the wheel, as though still moving.

    It’s black outside, but they’ve stopped on the high street, beneath a yellow lamp. There’s a McDonald’s on the corner, brightly lit, open.

    Moments earlier, while pulling out, something had caught Tomasz’s eye: a gift shop filled with teddy bears and glossy heart-shaped balloons. It seemed surreal at first, but now he realises, of course: Valentine’s Day.

    The man bends down, picks up his wing mirror.

    Tomasz remembers the card Lena once made him. A photo of them in bed, their faces close, pretending to sleep. Stupid really – he’d taken it himself. Had held his arm up high, touched his thumb to the button, closed his eyes before it flashed. To the man of my dreams, she’d written inside. Had he given one to her?

    The man opens his boot, removes some kind of tool. Get out, he’s shouting. At least, that’s what Tomasz assumes he’s shouting. He can’t actually hear since – somehow – the radio volume has increased. ‘Lady in Red’ plays out loud.

    Tomasz’s hands remain on the steering wheel. How strange. To be thinking of Lena in a moment like this. How surreal. He pictures her inthe crimson bridesmaid dress she wore for her sister’s wedding. She hated that dress, said it made her look like a heavy period.

    The man pulls at the handle of Tomasz’s door.

    A heavy period! Tomasz was disgusted at the time. He didn’t disagree or tell her she looked good.

    The man bangs Tomasz’s window. First with his fist, then with the tool.

    He didn’t tell her she looked good, though now he sees she was beautiful.

    Glass shatters into Tomasz’s lap. How strange it looks. Surreal. Almost like confetti.

    About the Author

    Claire Powell is a freelance writer from London. She has an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia where she was awarded the Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Bursary and the Malcolm Bradbury Continuation prize. Her short stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4, and published in The Manchester Review and The Standard Hotel Short Story Compendium. In 2017 she won the Harper’s Bazaar short story contest. She’s currently working on a collection.
    www.clairemeganpowell.com

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    Marissa Hoffmann October 2019 First Prize

    Angie

    by Marissa Hoffmann

    Her papa folds a crease into a flattened-out paper grocery bag, turns it over, folds it again, turns it, folds it, again, again. Her papa tells her, Paper dolls hold hands to keep them safe on a journey.

    The girl watches her papa. He folds two more bags, same and same. He draws a small doll, tells her, Paper dolls make paper beds, when the night-time comes when they’re walking.

    The girl checks with him, she says, Do they snuggle between their paper mamas and paper papas?

    Under the stars, her papa tells her. He’s nodding. He draws a smile, draws a flower on the paper doll’s hair, he points at the drawing, he says, Like you.

    On the second bundle of folded paper, the girl’s papa draws a tall, thin doll. He shades a black t-shirt, draws arms stretched up above its head, tells her, This one’s waving, this one’s strong. He presses the pencil into the paper doll’s arm, turns the point slowly, presses harder.

    The girl touches her papa’s bullet-sized scar, points at the doll, she says, Like you.

    The third doll has long, black hair. The girl leans in closer. Her papa draws more, he tells her, Paper dolls think of everything. The girl tilts her head. Her papa says, Paper dolls can even cross the Rio Grande, and around the doll’s waist, her papa draws a giant floaty doughnut. The girl colours sugar sprinkles, dot-dot yellow, green, pink.

    They cut, they unfold, they tape together—the mamas, the papas, the children.

    Her Papa crouches and she crawls up onto his back. The girl holds tight around his neck. Her papa hangs the paper doll chain. The girl asks, Can the little ones swim Papa?

    Her Papa says, The little ones don’t let go. Like you.

    About the Author

    Marissa's flash was shortlisted at Bath Flash Fiction in 2018 and has been highly commended or shortlisted at Flash500, Flashback Fiction and Flash Frontier. In the past year her stories have been nominated for inclusion in Best Micro Fiction and BIFFY50. Recent work appears in New Flash Fiction Review, Milk Candy Review, Reflex Fiction, The Citron Review, StorgyKids and Bending Genres. She is a fiction reader for Atticus Review and tweets @Hoffmannwriter
    website:www.marissahoffmann.com

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    Francis McCrickard October 2019 Second Prize

    The Wild West

    by Francis McCrickard

    We knew how to do lots of things back then.

    A friend takes a bullet? Easy. Start a fire; clean your penknife blade in the flames; get your friend to take a couple of slugs of pretend whiskey; find a piece of wood for him to bite on; pour liquor on the wound; extract bullet using penknife; put the blade in the flames again; cauterize the wound.

    We knew to keep our canteens full but if you’re without water in the desert, find a cactus. Cactuses have lots of water. Mrs. Brady has one in her window.

    No chow? Find a snake; pin the back of its head with a forked stick; cut its head off; skin it and roast it over your fire.

    A snakebite? Suck blood and with it the poison from where the fangs punctured the skin.

    We knew to treat our pretend horses well. A four-legged friend, a four-legged friend, he’ll never let you down. He’s honest and faithful right up to the end, that wonderful one-, two-, three-, four-legged friend.

    We knew to keep our guns close, especially in Apache country, Duke Street.

    We knew how to send smoke signals using grass, green sticks and Mam’s wet tea towel.

    We knew to destroy all evidence of our campfires, to shoot first, never to ride into narrow ravines and never to turn our backs on an Indian unless he’s a friend like Tonto.

    We knew how to read tracks that people had left: imprints on the paths, bent grass stalks and broken branches.

    We knew how to do lots of things back then.

    But we didn’t know what to do when we crossed the frozen pond at the old Hope Mine workings and Mikey Cullen fell through the ice and drowned.

    About the Author

    Francis is from Cleator Moor in wild West Cumbria. He has worked with young people in Britain, Zambia and Malawi and along the way has compiled educational programmes; written scripts for radio and television; novels for young adults — The Dead are Listening "was a stunner... one of the most intelligent teenage stories to be published for some time." — (Financial Times) and contributed short stories to several anthologies. In 2013 he was given the Observer Unsung Local Hero award for his environmental work. Most importantly, he has, with help, raised a beautiful family. He has recently discovered flash fiction.

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