Sara: So you currently teach an online course in flash fiction writing run by Fish Publishing, which I’ve recently completed (and can whole-heartedly recommend!). Tell us a bit about the course and why you decided to set it up.
M-J: The Flash Fiction course has been running since 2009 following demand from writers who wanted to explore the genre further but couldn’t find much guidance either online or through writing groups. At the time it was difficult to find workshops exploring Flash and few creative writing institutions offered a course solely dedicated to the medium. It caused a flurry of excitement when it was launched and since then has continued to be a very popular program.
Sara: Flash fiction is an interesting form of writing, something of a ‘niche’ or minority form, which seems to be gaining popularity at the moment. Why do you think that is?
M-J: Many writers on the subject suggest that this form of fiction is enjoying resurgence and renewed popularity as it fits in with the instant gratification and attention deficit driven culture that has arisen from technological progress. I am not wholly convinced by this argument. I think that our modern way of life means that we can access all types of literature ‘on-the-go’ with mobiles and tablets etc. and as we may not have a lot of time to read, Flash suits the ‘on the train, between appointments’ life-style; however good Flash is not for the lazy or the inattentive; like poetry it demands a strong collaborative bond between reader and text to unpack the story from its condensed kernel. It can however provide almost instant gratification and why not? The fact that Lydia Davis won the 2013 Man Booker Prize proves that the genre is less ‘niche’ than it once was.
Sara: What attracted you to first writing flash fiction? What do you think makes it special or important as a form of writing?
M-J: I fell upon Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm-of-the-Hand Stories and was hooked. From there, I sought out other short-short writers. Many celebrated authors have experimented with short shorts, including Washington Irving, Strindberg, Hemmingway, Carver, Grace Paley…the list goes on. This form has been around a long time; in China, it can be traced back to the creation myths of Nuwa Fuxi, and Pangu (dating from around 350BC). Why is it special? Well, in my opinion, the writing of flash fiction brings to the table a plethora of plus points for new and experienced writers alike. It is a rewarding exercise in itself and a great assault course for those writers wishing to branch out and go feature-length. The crafting of this condensed form is a discipline that trains the writer to scrape away the surface clutter of writing and focus on the essential. There is no time for rhetoric, rounded phrases or triteness. We need to get to the core of the story as quickly as possible and only tight, concise and highly charged language is going to get us there.
Sara: There does seem to be some discrepancy on what flash fiction actually is. Some people consider it to be any story under 1000 words, in other cases it has to be 300 words or under. How would you define flash fiction?
M-J: There is little consensus as to what, in real terms, is meant by “Flash” but invariably it comes down to word count and even then the range spans fiction enveloped in a few sentences up to the heady heights of 1000 words. Where we tip over into the short story is unclear but probably around 1000 to 1500 words. Putting word count aside, Flash is a fully formed narrative in a highly condensed form; and like poetry, if one word is removed from that narrative, the story will topple.
Sara: So, here’s one that confuses people: what’s the difference between a scene or fragment, and a piece of flash fiction? Couldn’t you just cut any good page’s worth out of a novel you were working on and call it flash fiction?
M-J: As I mentioned earlier, the narrative has to be fully formed – by which I mean that all the elements of story (conflict – crisis – resolution) have to play out. This may not be as clear cut as in a short story or a novel; we are dealing in something so distilled that really only the ‘essence’ of these elements will form but at the close, the writing has to take the reader further than simply the end of what happened – it has to take us to meaning. If you write a scene or extract a page from a novel, at best you might produce an interesting anecdote but in Flash there has to be an element of change; an altering in perspective.
Sara: What sort of thing makes a good subject for a piece of flash fiction, in your opinion? And is it possible to write flash fiction in any genre?
M-J:It is possible to write Flash in any genre but keep it small and focused on a single event; the “infinite riches in a small room” theory, as Keats put it. If your story idea relies on complicated plots, lots of characters or detailed description, another category of writing may better serve your purpose.
Sara: And finally what, would you say, are your top five tips for writers who want to try their hand at flash fiction?
Read as much of it as possible to get an idea of its range and flexibility.
Zoom in on a single event, image or object, nothing too big.
Keep it simple: no more than one or two characters and a simple plot.
Begin in the middle of the action as close to the story’s epicentre as you possibly can.
Allow the reader to build the story with you as you don’t have much space; purposeful ambiguity and the power of suggestion are useful tools.
Be a ruthless editor: adjectives and adverbs should be the first to go.
Sara: Thank you so much for your time, Mary-Jane. I’m sure our readers at Cafe Aphra will be really interested to hear your thoughts!
The Fish Publishing Online Flash Fiction Course
The course is made up of 10 stimulating modules to be completed in 3 months. Each unit focuses on a specific aspect of writing Flash and the exercises that follow are designed to isolate and work on that particular writing muscle. Mary-Jane’s role is to act as a sounding board and editor, highlighting areas of strength and offering objective advice to develop your skill. This is a tailored one-to-one program ensuring that each writer enrolled on the course receives individual tutoring. The course offers both new and experienced writers an extensive range of creative ideas and activities to consider. By the end of this course you will have completed a polished work of flash fiction that will be submitted for the prestigious Fish Flash Fiction Prize.
Mary-Jane has been the chief editorial consultant at Fish Publishing since 2009.