Charmaine Wilkerson is an American writer who has lived in the Caribbean and is based in Italy. Her award-winning flash fiction can be found in the Best Microfiction anthologies from 2020 and 2019 and other anthologies and magazines, including 100-Word Story, Bending Genres, Fiction Southeast, FlashBack Fiction, Litro, Reflex Fiction, Spelk and elsewhere. Her story How to Make a Window Snake won the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award in 2017 and the Saboteur Award for Best Novella in 2018. Her debut novel Black Cake is due to be published in 2022. She is represented by Madeleine Milburn of the Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency. Read in Full
I would like to thank Jude Higgins and the team at BFFA for inviting me to judge this sixteenth award. I’d also like to acknowledge the hard work early readers do, presenting independent judges with fifty long listed stories within a tight timeframe.
It has been a pleasure reading these pieces. The quality indicates how well contributors craft their stories, producing shining gems of literature that show this genre is not only alive and well, but is thriving. The range of topics and styles on offer shows practitioners of this form can still find something fresh, or interpret ideas in a novel way. Read in Full
As chief editor at Fish Publishing Ireland plus running over five courses on writing flash in its various forms, I can say that I read a lot of Flash, and when I read the BFF longlist, I thought there had to be some mistake, I must be reading the shortlist instead so high was the quality of work I was looking at. This made the judging process incredibly enjoyable on one hand – to see so much variety, so much stimulating and original work, a wonderful willingness to experiment, and on the other hand, so difficult to choose, so difficult to say this piece is stronger than that piece. So how to choose a shortlist and then winners and commendations? When the work is this strong, it is hard, in fact almost impossible. You might think that subjectivity plays a part, that a judge will be drawn to certain themes and certain styles, but those are two things I never really consider, perhaps because of my editorial background. For me it comes down to two things – primarily that the craft not just the idea drives the work – the title is working for the story, the first line raises expectations and won’t let the reader go, the beginning asserts pressure on the ending, every word is pulling its weight. Secondly something that that writer Sam Ruddick sums up more concisely than I could, the joy of finding a new way of seeing, or a new way of saying something you’ve seen and been unable to articulate. I lived with these stories, read them over and over again at different times of the day. If I could, I would have kept them all.
Comments on the five winners:
First prize, ‘Sea Change’
I think it was Nancy Kress that said that a piece of short writing should contain four things -conflict, character, specificity and credibility. ‘Sea Change’ contains all these and more.
The scale and physical presence of the flash creates a robust tension of containment and expansion that brings to the fore the flux of life represented by growing these small mollusks against grief’s vastness (like the sea) and the death of the narrator’s loved one. This play of scale and the prose’s control of movement and soundscape shows significant confidence and poise.
Details anchor your story in concrete reality. Here, this story’s strength lies in its fresh, sensory observation of this unusual craft married with the surreal quality of the actions – the person returned from the dead, the kitchen objects that appear. Gabriel Garcia Marquez stated that one striking and true detail may be enough to lend credibility to the entire story, but it only takes a single piece of information that doesn’t ring true to invalidate a whole narrative. Bruce Holland, in his excellent article “Get Unreal” explains why:
Start with an emotional truth that you can express with a metaphor. Make the metaphor objectively true. Let the characters act out this reality as if there were nothing unique in the situation, as if this were the very thing that happens. That is, don’t let your characters think it is no stranger to float on the ceiling than it is to fall in love.[have a dead loved one return and grow sea creatures] How the metaphor develops, how the story ends, is simply a question of how such emotions work themselves out in the characters.
The writer of ‘Sea Change’s’ ability to suspend disbelief has been extremely successful in this regard. Original, concise, and poignant.
Second Prize, ‘The species of pangolin compromise their own order: Pholidota.’
The title was an immediate draw. Titles are your first conversation with a reader/publisher and
if you read as much as I do on a professional level, something a little different works well to catch the eye. The second plus point is the form. I consider this to be a Hermit Crab flash, a term coined by Brenda Miller. As she explains: ‘This form appropriates existing forms as an outer covering, to protect its soft, vulnerable underbelly. It deals best with material that seems born without its own carapace—material that is soft, exposed, and tender, and must look elsewhere to find the form that will best contain it.” This story of the endangered pangolin (even more so now I imagine with its link to Covid-19) and a mother and daughter’s exit from an abusive relationship has exactly filled this remit. The information about the pangolin marries wonderfully with the emotional, factual and physical actions presented by the narrator, while the ending drawstrings the fate of both parties to bring a dramatically satisfying ending, one that feels inevitable and yet totally surprising.
Third Prize, ‘The Man you didn’t Marry’
Time-compressed flashes and second-person-perspective flashes are both challenging forms and yet ‘The Man you didn’t Marry’, compresses with brio, a great deal into a short space while the perspective brings great immediacy. The pacing is perfectly pitched and the writing in terms of flow is doing what it is essentially showing – spiralling like a body swirling down into the depths of the sea. David Capella’s thoughts on what makes crafted poetry I think are relevant to what makes crafted flash. He says ‘it is above all a physical experience. It is the stuff of sound and rhythm and speech…of breath and pulse. It affects us physically when we speak it and listen to it.’ This is what I felt we have here, and so gracefully ended with that beautifully choreographed last line.
Commended, Not Now Universe
This piece’s ability to guide the reader’s perception of mood is well-crafted in this Flash. There is a real sense of voice and connection between the speaker and the confidante. The writing is making sure that the reader is an active participant in this story; it is almost as if we are eavesdropping on the conversation and this gives the work real immediacy as well as giving rise to a strong sense of empathy that underscores the emotional arc of the piece. There is a real feeling of what Jennifer Peroni calls ‘smart surprise’ here driving the animating tension: the way the girl’s underwear is removed and then posted back, the near crash, the lobsters, the karaoke club – images when placed side-by-side produce something out of the ordinary. The open-ended last sentence ensures that the story lingers. Nice Touch.
Commended ,The Price of Gingerbread
Myth, fable and fairy-tale when repurposed, subverted or retold are all effective shorthand methods of telling a story and therefore particularly suited to the confines of Flash. This story effectively frees the original from its confinement to bring a deliciously unsettling transformation. The strong opening paragraph, in three short bursts, gives us both the dark surface conflict and a hint of a troubled backstory. The elemental strength of this piece is how the writing negotiates the horrors of what is happening to these children by not tackling them directly but letting them bubble up from under the surface of the actions and images presented. This Hitchcockian approach, along with the tight pacing and poignant last line, left a great impression.
Michelle Elvy teaches online at 52|250 A Year of Writing, edits at Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction and Best Small Fictions and chairs National Flash Fiction Day NZ. Recent anthology work includes Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (Canterbury University Press 2018) and Ko Aotearoa Tātou | We Are New Zealand (Otago University Press 2020). She has guest edited and judged competitions for SmokeLong Quarterly, Flash 500, Reflex Fiction, Bath Flash Fiction Award and the Whangarei Poetry Walk, among others. Her book, the everrumble (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2019), launched at the 2019 UK Flash Fiction Festival. Michelle lives in Dunedin, NZ.
- We thrilled Michelle has agreed to judge the 2021 Novella-in-Flash Award, which will be open for entries shortly and will close in mid January, 2021. Results out April, 2021 Read Jude’s interview with her below if you want to write a novella in the next six months for our Award. Michelle has many interesting things to say about the form and the process of writing a novella-in-flash.
Michael Loveday, who is judging the Novella-in-Flash Award for the second year running, has been busy reading and re-reading the long list of twenty-seven novellas blind for the past seven weeks. We thank him very much for his very thorough work and can recommend anyone on the longlist or shortlist approaches him for his editing services if they want to do further tweaks to their novellas as he will have a good sense of them all. We agree with him that the standard was very high and we so appreciate all those who tackled this form of fiction and sent entries in to us in this our fourth year of the award. It is so exciting to see who the winners are this year. Many congratulations to our first prize winner, Mary Jane Holmes from the UK with Don’t Tell The Bees and our two runners-up, Tracy Slaughter from New Zealand with If There is No Shelter and Erica Plouffe Lazure from the USA with Sugar Mountain. Michael has given special commendations to five authors this year. From the UK, Eleanor Walsh, our 2019 winner from the UK, with Tears In the Paku Paku, Alison Woodhouse with The House On the Corner, Karen Jones with When It’s Not Called Making Love Louise Watts with Something Lost and from the USA, Nicholas Cook with Elvis In The Back Yard. We will post bios on all these authors on the website soon. Read Michael’s initial comments in the first paragraph and his full report and comments on all the novellas-in-flash below that.
Michael’s comments on the longlist
Every manuscript had genuine merits and I feel for those authors who haven’t made this shortlist; there were some very marginal calls.
My initial “long shortlist” of manuscripts I thought might make the final shortlist (based on a first read) had two-thirds of the novellas on it! There are some astonishingly good novellas in the list of fourteen. The overall consistency across the longlist made for some tricky/tough/brutal [delete as appropriate] decisions. My expectation is that many of these novellas, including some on the longlist, will eventually find publishers and that other readers will experience the same visceral thrill as I did when encountering these stories.
Michael’s full report, April 11th 2020
The overall consistency of quality in the longlist this year made for a near-impossible judging process. Even beyond the shortlist of fourteen novellas, there are manuscripts on the longlist that I believe will interest publishers and with barely a little tinkering will read beautifully. It was noticeable this year, when compared to 2019, that many authors were now grappling with the novella-in-flash form almost as a novelist would – conjuring sustained story arcs across individual pieces, creating convincing ensemble casts of characters, and immersing the reader in fully developed world-building. This of course isn’t the only way a novella-in-flash can be written, but it did suggest an increasing commitment to treating the novella-in-flash form as something more than a collection of flash fictions – a unified story-world. Each novella on the longlist felt unique, utterly its own, and had qualities that drew the reader in. When judging, I’ve been trying to balance criteria such as readability, quality of characterization, linguistic surefootedness, flair, formal innovation, world-building, shaping of story arc, depth after repeat encounters, and insight into human experience. Looking at any single measure alone would surely create a different winner each time. It isn’t feasible to reach final decisions by any measurable ‘scientific’ process and ultimately judging comes down to such fractional margins that it’s almost absurd to proceed. I’m mindful that the process inevitably disappoints more authors than it pleases. It takes courage to write a novella and submit it to a competition, so my commiserations go to those who have missed out, including those who didn’t make the longlist that I read. It’s been a privilege to act as judge and I’m grateful for all the writers who were inspired to share their imaginative worlds during the past two years. I’m very glad that they made my role so difficult. Readers will have so much to enjoy and admire when this year’s manuscripts eventually make their way into the world.
Winner – Don’t Tell the Bees
The winning novella is a story of a young girl (called No-more) and a village community in France, around the time of the Second World War. It’s full of nostalgia for old rural ways, and, in passing, a nuanced description of the impact of industrial progress. There’s a charming fairy-tale quality, a satisfying come-uppance for a villainous character, and every page positively oozes with fondness for its characters. The novella adopts a classic novella-in-flash form, with each chapter a self-contained world of its own, a distinct moment in time, but its absolute originality is expressed in the characters’ eccentric qualities, the richly textured language, the blending of history with fable, and the way that its fragments collectively evoke the whole story of a village and way of life. Amongst a raft of brilliant manuscripts, this was the story I found myself most eagerly returning to, cherishing each time the writer’s deft skills.
Runner-Up – If There Is No Shelter
A remarkable story of a woman’s life in an unnamed city in the aftermath of a series of earthquakes. It’s written with claustrophic, relentless and urgent conviction. What’s most compelling is how the story is gleaned mostly through flashbacks, as though, like the city’s buildings, it’s been broken into fragments and we are picking our way through rubble. Gradually, like rescue workers, we uncover the situation of a hospitalized husband, a lover lost to a building’s collapse, and the tender domestic bonds the woman shares with her father and his colleague. Other haunting scenes leap out from the overall portrait of a ruined city – almost like twisted updates on Wordsworthian “spots of time” – a neighbour with a dead bird in a birdcage, a couple glimpsed making love in an office building at night, a street artist daubing impressions of the surrounding wreckage onto canvas. This is a dark, oppressive story but, through it, the writer explores how humanity responds to crisis – and has produced a metaphor for our own times.
Runner-Up – Sugar Mountain
A stunning sequence of stories about childhood shot through with irresistible yearning, beauty and humour. It’s written in a freewheeling prose that unfurls with detail after gorgeous detail piling up in the sentences. Quirky behaviour, teenage mischief, letdowns, unfulfilled dreams, romance – this novella really gets to the heart of what childhood feels like. The writer has a real gift for endings – chapter after chapter ends on a lovely resonating note that succeeds in creating the “speaking silence” of the unsaid – something so important to the experience of powerful flash fiction. Vivid chapter titles include: ‘Saved by DJ Big Man with Beard’ ‘This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things’, ‘Why My Mother is No Longer a Hairdresser’ and ‘Why We Stole the Disco Ball from Satellite Skate’. A sentence from the latter offers a glimpse into this novella’s skillful evocation of childhood experience: “And then as the end of ‘Thriller’ began, I thought maybe this sparkle ball was a time machine, and all we had to do was skate backwards long enough to undo the awful of the awful week.”
Special Commendations –
I feel like each of these novellas deserves to be published. Although they didn’t quite make the top three, the quality of the writing was extremely high and they deserve a wide audience.
Special Commendation – Elvis in the Backyard
Simultaneously a narrative about family life and an affectionate boy-meets-boy love story. Quirky characters and written with a sense of humour and charm. Gotta love a story that mentions an Elvis wig.
Special Commendation – Something Lost
A clever and entertaining first-person tale of family strife and growing into adulthood, where the reader enjoys reading between the lines of the teenage boy’s narration. Funny, disarming and deep.
Special Commendation – Stormbred
An ambitious, startling psychological portrait of a teenage girl obsessed with the photo of a refugee from the Bosnian war. Haunting insight into the main character, written with elegant skill.
Special Commendation – The House on the Corner
Personal tremors large and small unsettle the foundations of a middle-class, nuclear family. Exquisite sentence-making, with each individual chapter beautifully sculpted and shaped.
Special Commendation – When It’s Not Called Making Love
Vivid, raw and immediate – a poignant story of a bullied and harassed girl’s struggle towards adulthood. Left me bruised and heartbroken. But also written with great wit –made me giggle many times.
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.
- 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.
Our 14th Award Judge, Santino Prinzi selected the short list of twenty from the fifty titles on the longlist we sent him. We very much appreciate him for his hard immersive work over several days reading and re-reading the stories, to achieve a very fast result. Read his general remarks and specific comments on each of the five top stories below. You can read all of them on our winners’ pages now and they will be published in our 5th Bath Flash Award anthology in December, this year.
Santino Prinzi’s Report
It’s always an honour to be asked to judge a competition. It’s thrilling and fun, even though it can be daunting. When an author sends you their work, they are entrusting you with something special, so I want start by thanking and congratulating every single author who submitted to this competition, who trusted us with their words. Thank you for sharing your stories with us.
In my interview about judging this competition I said I had no idea what I was looking for, however, I wanted you all to share with me something you truly love. Reading the fifty longlisted flashes I received, I knew these stories were – are – loved by their authors. But they were also so much more than that. Each story had its own distinct quality, its own voice, its own style and structure. Each had sentences I underlined and words I circled. Not knowing what I was looking for, I found everything. This made my decisions unfathomably difficult, and I’m indecisive at the best of times…
In the end, finalising the everchanging shortlist and deciding the winning and highly commended stories it came down to which stories I gravitated towards more, which ones woke me up in the middle of the night, which characters and their worlds I found my mind drifting off when I was supposed to be doing other things. I chose the stories that simply pulled me in and wouldn’t let go.
It’s tricky to quantify what qualities a story needs to have this unrelentingly pull on a reader – and there are certainly different qualities that will appeal to different readers – but I’m going to try my best. Failing that, there are the stories and the words themselves that these writers have generously shared.
First Place: Eight Spare Bullets
I love flashes that are structured as a series of fragments because the fragments allow you to piece together the wider story, to read between the segments. I’m a sucker for stories told in this way. The fragments used to tell this story have been meticulously arranged to form a stirring depiction of a relationship between two individuals living in the world’s most northernmost town. Each fragment drew me in so deeply I felt like an intruder. The images – so clear, so vivid – that the author has used fills me with both admiration for their precise rendering and foreboding at the reality they contain. This is a haunting flash that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about.
Second Place: The Dissolution of Peter McCaffrey
It will be difficult to forget this flash, too. A man is faced with the remains of his family’s legacy after the ravaging Australian fires, and is burdened with the weight of his promises. There is so much in this story that lingers after reading, so many sentences that are so honestly wrought and alive from beginning to end. I’d even go as far to say that they pulse with urgency. Again, the images in this story were so clear and vivid, and I felt the heaviness of the protagonist’s responsibility, the heat of the unforgiving fires, in every word. The ending is especially powerful.
Third Place: Dressage
Likewise, this is another flash I kept coming back to. I love the movement and musicality that brings this one to life. I was immersed each time I read it, and I found myself savouring each reading and discovering something new every time. The structure and repetition are incredibly effective and well-executed, enhancing and enabling this story a real impact by coming “full circle” in its own way. Each word feels handpicked, which makes this is a delicate and wonderfully crafted flash fiction.
Highly Commended: Valentine
This flash has a filmic quality that really appeals to me. Both its action and how this action is structured allows this story to unfold in a truly evocative manner. Nothing is lost through the different shots being shown. I could see and feel the protagonist’s realisation at what he has lost, I could see the climactic moment blooming in slow motion and hear the song’s chorus blaring. Deceptively straightforward, this is an enjoyable, effective piece with so much woven between the lines.
Highly Commended: [No Audible Dialogue]
What I love about this flash is the distance the author adopts for the onlooker narrating this event, and how this distance doesn’t sacrifice the emotional impact of the story’s ending. I’m confident we have all played the game while people watching where imagine the conversations between people that we cannot hear, and this flash uses this as a device to tell the story of a family. A powerful moment with wider implications.
Santino Prinzi is a Co-Director of National Flash Fiction Day in the UK, is one of the founding organisers of the annual Flash Fiction Festival, and is a Consulting Editor for New Flash Fiction Review. He writes flash fiction, prose poetry, and is currently working on a novel. His full-length flash fiction collection This Alone Could Save Us is forthcoming from Ad Hoc Fiction. His flash fiction pamphlet, There’s Something Macrocosmic About All of This (2018), is available from V-Press, and his short flash collection, Dots and other flashes of perception (2016), is available from The Nottingham Review Press. His work has been selected for the Best Small Fictions 2019 anthology, and he has received nominations for the Best of the Net, the Pushcart Prize, the Best British and Irish Flash Fiction, and the Best Microfiction anthology. His stories have been published or are forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Jellyfish Review, 100-Word Story, Bath Flash Fiction Award anthologies, National Flash Fiction Day anthologies, Reflex Fiction, and others. Twitter (@tinoprinzi)
Read in Full
Thank you to Nancy Stohlman for judging our 13th Award and for all her comments on the longlist, shortlist and winners.
From lush description to plot surprises to current events and complicated relationships of all kinds, every story on the long list had some memorable and intriguing quality. Some looked backwards, some looked forwards. There were themes that were visited and re-visited from various angles and through various doors. There was also a wide variety in everything from subject to style to form — a wonderful cross section of flash fiction. The one commonality was seriousness, a predilection to drama over comedy. But choosing from such high quality work was not an easy endeavor — really great work, flash community!
I wasn’t looking for a particular kind of story, but I noticed in the shortlist of twenty that I chose many stories that were straightforward and active—happening now as opposed to constructed through memory. I was also enjoying language that didn’t call attention to itself, language that felt like more than ornamentation and seemed to perfectly serve the story without breaking tension. Endings were often the deal breaker — if it came down to two stories, it was the one with a powerful ending that would often make the difference. And finally I paid attention to that intangible quality of resonance and memorability: is this a story I’ve heard many times or something new and fresh, an exciting and original window into the old? Every story on this list stayed with me long after I was finished reading it. And each one continues to stay with me.
Comments on the winners:
Wow. This one took my breath away on the first read and haunted me throughout the entire judging process. As with many of my final choices, this one had an extremely powerful ending. The story was deceptively simple at first, distracting us from the impending tension just as the father is distracting his young daughter. The reader, too, is lulled into a calm curiosity, only momentary chinks in the facade giving us insight into not only what is going on but the devastating impact of what is to come. Politics in stories can become too heavy handed, but this author perfectly balanced the political with the personal, giving us a story that is urgent, empathetic, and timely. A necessary story for a haunted world.
‘The Wild West’
The narrative voice explodes in this story—full of energy and confidence and the vibrancy of childhood with the nostalgia of an old television show. The reader eagerly joins the playtime fantasy, sinks into the nostalgia, delights at the imagination of children and the boundless freedom of play, which is why the ending is as devastating for the reader as it is for the characters. An abrupt loss of freedom, a crack that will never be mended, the story juxtaposes the amazement of the imaginary world against the hollow ending of the real one. Like the characters we are so lost in the pretend we don’t see the real world intruding until it’s too late.
‘The Games People Play’
“War-games…those two words don’t belong near each other.” I loved the freshness and originality of this story, culminating in an ending both hopeless and hopeful. I was drawn right into the clean straightforward prose, the subtle ending dangling, evoking a question on so many people’s minds: what can we do? This story is strong in its simplicity and resonates well beyond the page, reminding us of the urgency of those moments when you cross paths with an opportunity—and you take it.
Another story that stopped me cold at the end. The final images recall both a shameful history and a continuing, if perhaps more discreet, present. The last line seems to reach out from the past and ask to be recognized today, now, in this familiar moment. A warning.
‘Mo Bhuachaillin Beag’
The strength of this story came from the narrative voice—both the flippant and the fearful, the youth dragged into the reluctant adult. The prose, like the story, landed in the crossroads of put together and punk rock, a musicality and sense of lyricism that couldn’t be contrived. A reminder that grief stretches across oceans and so, too, does the human spirit of survival.
Nancy Stohlman is the author of Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities (finalist for a Colorado Book Award), The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories, the flash novels The Monster Opera and Searching for Suzi, and three anthologies of flash fiction including Fast Forward: The Mix Tape She is the creator and curator of The Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Series, the creator of FlashNano in November, and her work has been published in the W.W. Norton anthology New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction and will be included in the 2019 Best Small Fictions. She lives in Denver and teaches at the University of Colorado Boulder as well as co-facilitates flash fiction retreats around the world. Find out more at www.nancystohlman.com
We sent Nancy these questions while she was at the end of her writing sabbaticaL. And since then we’ve seen her at the Flash Fiction Festival, 28-30 June, in Bristol, teaching and performing her flash. She ran some great workshops on performing work and we got to hear her read and saw her in a special video created by our last judge Christopher Allen and his husband. So much fun!
- You have recently been on a writing sabbatical for three weeks. Can you let us know how it went? What was the most worthwhile thing about deciding to take some time out in this way? And has the time resulted in another collection ready to go?.
It was amazing (actually I’m in my final days right now). First of all I can’t remember being alone for 3 weeks—maybe ever. Really alone. So I went through a lot of creative levels—excitement, possibility, self-doubt, fear, breakdown, breakthrough, acceptance, and lots and lots of gratitude. I think my biggest discovery is how essential boredom is to creativity. I just wrote a whole essay about Holy Boredom here
But staying in the same place for a long time is different than the usual travel, where we are rushing past things and quickly taking pictures, barely skimming the surface. I recognize the townspeople now, they recognize me. We wave like friends passing on the street. I can spot the new crop of tourists, fleshy and pink and overeager. I’ve been here so long I know who the town crazies are, know that they are harmless. The waiter asks: how is your book, you find inspiration yet? Just today he brought me my coffee exactly how I like it before I even ordered. When I needed a new snorkel the shopkeeper takes it out of the wrapping—you pay me tomorrow he says.
Are you sure?
Did you come here to steal? You pay me tomorrow.
It feels like acceptance.
New manuscript? Let’s hope so…I’m leaving with a nearly completed draft of…something. Time will tell.
- Can you tell us more about your collection Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities (which was recently a finalist in the literary section of the prestigious Colorado Book Award) and how it came about?
Yes, another crazy impulse that turned into something. As usual I didn’t set out to write a book, I just started writing the pieces as individuals and then collaging them and then realized that indeed I was writing a bigger story. Many of the pieces in Madam Velvet are my shortest ever—tiny stories, micros. And they started to play together and create a cabaret of their own, a variety show with an impulse running from beginning to end. A traveling freak show on the page.
I often use theatrics as a framework for my writing. I wrote another flash novel (published back in 2013) called The Monster Opera, where the story was an opera within an opera. Super weird. I’ve actually performed both Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities and The Monster Opera as full shows with full casts and original music composed by Nick Busheff. You can see clips from both these on the links.
And the Colorado Book Award—yes! I was especially excited because of course there was no flash fiction category so I submitted the book as a short story collection, which isn’t exactly right but close enough. Then I was told that all the short story entries were going to be combined with literary fiction and I thought: Well shit. Now I have no chance! So to have this book, this very strange, out of the box book, be a finalist in literary fiction, was a double and triple win for me and I feel for flash fiction in general.
- I recently attended a writing retreat you led with Kathy Fish in Italy and saw you perform some of the pieces from this collection wonderfully. Reading a story outloud is always good for revision purposes, and do you think performing it as if to an audience might help a writer learn more about it?
We loved having you! And thank you — you not only got to see me perform but you got to see me accompanied by Nick, so that was an extra treat. And yes, because I have a performance background — I’ve been on various stages, singing, acting, etc—since I was 10 — it naturally bleeds into my work as a writer. I think it lends a certain ear for musicality, dialogue and timing.
Can we learn how to edit our work through reading to an audience? Definitely. Many times I’ve been reading something to an audience and instinctively know during the reading that a sentence is going on too long, or I need to change a word. And I’ll do that on the fly. Then, as soon as the reading is over I’ll make those same changes on the page. Pay attention to the audience’s cues: Where they laugh. If they didn’t clap at the end because they didn’t know it was over. Etc.
In 2013 I started the Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Seriess in Denver (and helped facilitate the NYC spinoff in 2016 with Paul Beckman). One of my goals with that series, besides creating a dedicated showcase for flash fiction, was to help writers get better at reading their work. It’s not something that comes easily to a lot of people. But it’s so important.
- You have been teaching flash for many years. Can you tell us more about your current online workshops and how writers may join them?
I’ve been teaching flash fiction since 2009 and teaching online flash workshops since 2012, and in that time there have been so many evolutions! In some of my earliest (online) classes we actually had telephone conference calls (!), which of course no longer worked once the students became international.
My online offerings for the summer are just about full. I’m about to launch a new Flash Novel class in July—it’s full with a waiting list we we’ll see how it goes. The best chance to work with me this summer is during my weekend workshop “Through the Back Door: Absurdism as a Way to Truth” hosted by Bending Genres August 23-25.
I also have a Writing Flash Fiction self-paced generative workshop that has rolling registration—it includes 5 self-paced lessons with accompanying prompts, readings, and videos.It’s a great starter to flash and/or a jump start if you are feeling in a rut and want to shake up your creativity. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to find it. It’s a good introduction to me as well. And then there are always the in-person workshops—I’ll be teaching with Kathy (Fish) and Randall Brown in Colorado this August. Unfortunately I’m beholden to the university schedule so I load up my classes during the summer and winter, mostly. But look for me to run FlashNano again in November (8th year!) and I’ll be offering a new crop of classes in the winter break Dec/Jan.
- What do you like about teaching flash fiction?
Well, and I’m not alone in this, as a teacher it’s extremely helpful to guide students through entire drafts from beginning to end, something that’s tough with long works. And of course the best is the a-ha! Whether it’s the a-ha! of a new idea brought to fruition or the a-ha! of finally unlocking the key to a story that hasn’t worked yet (I’m crazy about revision). The great thing about teaching for so long is I have worked with writers who were new to flash fiction once, and then over the years I have watched them publish, then win awards, then publish books, then have those books win awards! It’s super rewarding.
But mostly I love being on the front lines of the flash fiction movement, seeing how this tiny little genre is changing all of literature, changing how we tell stories.
- What sort of micros would you love to see among the entries?
That’s hard to say because I’ll just know it when I see it. I’ll tell you want I don’t want to see: stories that are trying too hard. Trying too hard to be: cute, clever, weird, poignant, traumatic, intense, etc. I can always see through that.
Actually, you know what I really want to see? The story that arrived for you seemingly out of the blue, the one you drafted in just 15 minutes because it just poured out of you, almost effortlessly, almost as if you weren’t the one writing it. That magical gift-from-the-muse story. Those are my favorite because they feel like they spring from a deep well of creativity that isn’t always easy to tap.
- A tip for a writer finessing a micro of three hundred words or under?
I hesitate to give absolutes, like “don’t try to do too much in a micro”, because as soon as I say that then someone writes a story that does “too much” and it’s brilliant and it works perfectly. So in the end, write what wants to be written (see gift-from-the-muse story above). The story that chooses you as a midwife, not the other way around.
But my very favourite tip for editing in general is to cut the story in half. Then cut it in half again. I was first inspired to do this exercise by Bruce Taylor, and since then I have had many students do it and have done it myself many times. That doesn’t mean that either of the “cut” version are THE final version; the final version might be somewhere in the middle. But forcing yourself to make the hard decisions of what stays and what goes when you cut in half is extremely revealing. It’s an excellent way to get honest with ourselves.