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 She is currently studying for a creative writing PhD at Newcastle University and she has an unpublished flash collection knocking about that was recently short-listed for the International Beverly Prize for Literature.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.