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Coming up this Saturday is National Flash Fiction Day – which a year ago turned me into a fan of a genre I’m not sure I’d even heard of before. Since then, I’ve enjoyed reading several volumes and often dip into it online. NFFD 2013, as afficionados call it (well, it seems wrong for a day that celebrates brevity to have a longer title), is a great example of how national events or campaigns can raise the profile of a genre, how you can piggyback your book onto such events – and, just as important, how they help you make interesting friends to inspire your own writing.
Today I’m pleased to be interviewing two writers who I came across through NFFD, and whose work I now avidly follow. Whatever genre you write, look out for similar events that may provide a useful platform to raise your author profile.
First, meet Helena Mallett who, from her home in Wales, with mathematical precision, writes stories precisely 75 words long. I first read one of her stories on NFFD 2012 and ordered her book straight away! (I’ve reviewed it here.)
Bart Van Goethem emailed me out of the blue, (well, out of Belgium actually), having read my review of Helena’s book to ask me whether I’d be willing to review his. I was, and I was hooked! Here’s my review of his book.
Debbie: How long have you been writing flash fiction, and what got you started on it?
Helena: I’ve been writing flash fiction for a few years now. I submitted a 75 word story to www.paragraphplanet.com which was published online soon afterwards and that was it I was hooked.
Bart: I wrote the first story in 2009. I had been wanting to write a book for a long time, but I had so many ideas, half ideas, titles and first sentences, and so little time and – let’s be honest – confidence to actually start writing. At some point I wondered if I could turn all those little pieces into complete stories. I didn’t have time to write a book, but maybe I could write a short story that would sort of summarize a whole book. It was only in 2012, when I came out with the book, that I discovered this was called flash fiction. Or micro fiction, in my case.
Debbie: What other flash writers or websites do you read/admire?
Bart: As you know, Debbie, I have a busy life with a demanding fulltime job, two very young kids and we’ve also looked for and bought a house in the past few months. I basically don’t read anything anymore. Even on holidays it’s difficult. I did make time to start a tumblr blog. There I discoverd www.storyboss.com. I also went through the draft of the NFFD anthology and there’s some really good stuff in there, like the stories from Jonathan Pinnock, Jenn Ashworth and Siobhàn McNamara.
Debbie: When someone asks you what you write and you tell them, do they understand what you mean, or do you have to explain the concept?
Helena: Mostly I have to explain the concept but they’re usually intrigued and keen to read some stories.
Bart: I always say I write very, very short stories: a title and a sentence. I’m sure people understand the words I’m saying, but they still look puzzled.
Debbie: From your point of view, how useful has National Flash Fiction Day been in spreading the word?
Helena: Fantastic. I have great respect for its founder, Calum Kerr, and all his hard work.
Bart: I only discovered NFFD a month ago or so, thanks to you, so I can’t really say.
Debbie: As a former journalist, one of my mantras was that “it always takes longer to write the short version” i.e. copyediting a lengthy article or news story to fit a limited space. When you’re writing flash, do you start with a bigger story that you hone down, or do you naturally think in such a short format?
Helena: I naturally think in a 75 word format now. If the word count reaches 100 I immediately start the honing down process which I love.
Bart: It comes naturally. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this: too much work.
Debbie: How else do you promote your books and how successful have you been so far?
Bart: I’m on Facebook, Twitter and, recently, tumblr . But it’s difficult. I’m a first time writer, doing something that few people do and even fewer people seem to read. In essence that makes it very interesting. But at the same time very limited. It’s a niche product. So you really have to go looking for your potential audience.
Debbie: What are your three best pieces of advice that you would give to a new flash writer hoping to make his or her mark?
Helena: Ask yourself 1. Is it a story? 2. Do you really need that word? 3. Gut feeling – does the story feel right?
Bart: Follow your guts. Be yourself. You can only write the way you are. It’s what will set you apart from the rest. When I had ten stories, I thought “Who is going to read this? Is this even funny?” I stopped writing for a while, then I picked it up again. “Let’s just see where this goes. No pressure.” Ultimately it’s about believing in yourself. And if nobody likes what you’re doing, at least you’ll have one fan. I can tell you holding the printed book in my hands was quite an experience. That alone was worth all the effort.
Debbie: What is your preferred word count for your flash fiction?
Helena: No surprises here – 75! Well in part probably it’s because it’s become a habit after so long but also it just seems to fit right for me.
Bart: I don’t count words, I just try to limit myself to one or maximum two sentences.
Debbie: If you could wave a magic wand and have one wish granted to make it easier to sell flash book, what would that wish be for?
Helena: For agents and publishers to show a greater interest in shorter formats like flash fiction.
Bart: Conan O’Brien raving about my book during his talkshow.
Debbie: There is much talk of the revival of short-form fiction due to the popularity of smaller devices for reading e.g. tablets and smartphones. From where you’re standing, does it seem that as devices have shrunk, the reading public’s appetite for small stories has grown, or is this a myth/wishful thinking on the part of flash writers?
Helena: I think as a society we now jump very quickly between small bites (bytes) of information and Flash Fiction fits perfectly with this. Observe any public space and people are constantly reading texts and messages, so why not stories? Luckily each of my 75 word stories fit perfectly on a smartphone screen page.
Bart: Good question. If it is, my future looks bright.
Debbie: How long does it take you to write a piece of flash, from getting the idea to finalising the words?
Helena: Sometimes they are written in minutes and that’s a great feeling. Others can linger for weeks or longer as I search for that final right word.
Bart: The funny thing is what I do comes to me like a flash as well. Stories just pop up in my mind. I usually rewrite in my head if I think it’s necessary, then I put it on paper. I try not to overanalyse or overwork it too much to keep the spontaneity of the idea. For the book I did spend some time rewriting stories if I liked the idea but not the formulation. But never too long. It’s no use polishing a turd, right?
Debbie: It strikes me that flash lends itself very well to unconventional media such t-shirts, mugs, mousemats, car stickers, and so on. Would you ever be interested in putting your work into that kind of format, or would you find that too undignified, or unacceptable for any other reason?
Helena: I absolutely agree that Flash Fiction is perfect for unconventional media and would have no qualms at all about my stories being used in this way. Anyone interested?
Bart: I’m not Dostoyevsky, I don’t have any literary pretention, I am not An Artist, so yes, if the opportunity arises, I will merchandise the stories.
Debbie: What’s the most interesting or surprising comment anyone has ever made about your work?
Helena: When I told someone I was writing 75 x 75 word stories they said ‘So that’s really like writing 75 novels then?’
Bart: Someone I appreciate called it “a student’s joke”.
Debbie: Do you also read longer works for pleasure – have you ever read War and Peace, for example?
Helena: Yes, I read War and Peace in my late teens, and I’ve read many longer works in the past, but these days my preferred formats are flash fiction and short stories.
Helena: At the moment I’m halfway through my second collection of 75s to be published in time for Christmas. After that will be another book of flash fiction but with stories of varying lengths and I’ll even be including one with the heady count of 1500 words!
Bart: My favourite writers are Arnon Grunberg, Remco Campert (both Dutch) and early Herman Brusselmans (Belgian). I have all of JD Salinger’s books. In my twenties I read books by Bukowski, Kafka, Flaubert, Kerouac, Goethe, Tolstoy, you know, the big classics. I’m thinking about writing short stories/flash in Dutch. Not sure anyone else does that. Only question is: when?
Debbie: One mantra that I keep quoting is along the lines of “Think you don’t have time to read? You will when you’ve discovered flash!” How much do you think the growing interest in flash is a product of our over-busy, over-crowded world?
Helena: Hugely. It only takes a couple of minutes to read one of my 75s and who hasn’t got time for that? Although I hope my stories stay in people’s minds a little longer than that …
Bart: Again a good question. I use it as a sales pitch, but if it’s true, I don’t know.
Thank you very much, Helena and Bart. If you’re not already familiar with their work, do take time to read it – I promise you it won’t take long!
When I discovered that historical novelist Paula Lofting is a keen historical re-enactor, I wondered whether she used her hobby to promote her book. I always say don’t just sell your book, sell the author too - so I was pleased to discover that Paul does just that. For example, she engaged fellow re-enactors to help her launch her debut novel, Sons of the Wolf. I was intrigued to know whether her hobby also impacted upon her writing.
Her planned summer blog tour to promote Sons of the Wolf gave me the perfect opportunity to ask her in person about the synergy between her hobby and her writing. I’m very pleased to welcome her now to Off The Shelf to tell us more.
Debbie: How do you strike a balance between readability and authenticity when writing about times so long ago? e.g. use of now obsolete words, ancient names no longer in use, and general conversation. It must be hard to avoid phrases in conversation that would sound too modern. I must admit that, as a 21st century reader, the Anglo-Saxon names slightly did my head in – all those Wulf-somethings!
Paula: This is a great question Debbie, but first, let me start by thanking you for having me as your guest for my Blog Tour.
The concept of writing a historical novel that contains authentic aspects but effectively appeals to a modern reader has not been a problem for me. For me, using heavily antiquated prose affects one’s ability to convey the written word in a fashion that would be acceptable to the modern day reader. I prefer to use snippets of Olde English language, such as Waes thu hael, with the reply being (in modern English) “I am well” so the reader will understand what it meant. Another example:
“Good morning, Fleogenda,” he said. He always called her his ‘Little bird’.
I did get questioned a lot by my editor about using swear words that weren’t recorded until the until the 16thCentury, such as the often-used F word, so I decided to investigate the usage of cussing in pre-Norman times. I found that it was more likely that they would swear by rather than at, for example, it was perfectly acceptable to say “By Satan’s bollocks, I will kill you if I catch you!” The great Anglo-Saxon historian Stephen Pollington was very helpful to me with my Olde English. Generally though, as long as you don’t have people conversing with each other using words like “cool, man” and “dude” or other such modern speech, all is well.
As for names, I know that Olde English names and Celtic names can be a mouthful, but for me, it just adds depth to the authenticity of a historical novel. I used a pronunciation guide for Sons of the Wolf, but I think I could have expanded it and will endeavour to do so in the next novel. I know some authors have used anachronistic names for their historical novels because they believe their readers want that. To be fair to them, it’s a personal choice, but for me names like Bill and Bob just don’t cut it in a novel set in Anglo Saxon times!
Paula: It has to be writing about the fictional characters that I enjoy more than anything. I can do what I like with an imaginary character as long as it fits in with the time and place. However, I did enjoy writing about Alfgar, Gruffydd and King Harold.
Debbie: Is the Anglo-Saxon period the only era that intrigues you or do you plan to write about any others?
Paula: I’m very interested in writing a book about Queen Aethelfaed, King Alfred the Great’s daughter. I am also keen to write a modern day thriller that I have started working on and a novel set in the First World War. I probably will write more in the Anglo-Saxon period because it is my favourite era. Of one thing I am certain, the past is always more interesting than the present.
Debbie: I was fascinated when I heard you were a re-enactor, and when I read your book, I could see this was a real advantage – though I knew little about the era myself, it all felt true and real from the first page. How much do you think your re-enacting hobby has driven you and informed you as a writer?
Paula: In actual fact my writing drives me in my re-enacting! I started re-enacting because I wanted to be able to write authentically about this period. However, I love re-enacting so much now that the enjoyment that the hobby brings to me is on a par with the enjoyment of writing. I am so lucky to belong to Regia Anglorum, mainly because we have our own site located in Kent, where we have built a beautiful Saxon Longhall in which we can spend time just living the history. On occasions it is open to the public. We are also lucky to have six long boats as well. I am so grateful to the society to have been given these resources to draw on.
Debbie: Do you see yourself as a historian who happens to write, or an author who happens to be interested in history?
Paula: Definitely an author who likes history! It is my favourite subject in the whole world, but I am not a historian of any shape, size or width! I would love to be but I guess I just don’t have the time or patience for all that study.
Debbie: Given the choice, would you rather live in Anglo-Saxon times or the 21st century?
Paula: 21st century without a doubt! I couldn’t bear to have to use moss for toilet paper!
Debbie: Name three aspects of Anglo-Saxon life that you would like us to have in the modern age.
Paula: The ability to sew clothing, spin wool and weave.
Debbie: Do women get a raw deal when it comes to historical re-enacting?
Paula: There can’t be as many exciting roles for them to play! Women are allowed to portray men on the battlefield only if they make every effort to look like men. False moustaches and beards are not allowed though.
We sometimes do skits where women have major roles. Lots of women prefer to do girly things around the displays and we are always looking to improve our living history exhibitions with crafts and demonstrations of daily activities around the home.
Debbie: If you could choose who to be in the Anglo-Saxon era, who would you be?
Paula: If you are thinking about a major character in history, then I think I would have liked to have been Lady Aethelflaed. She is a little-known heroine of her day who helped save England from the Danes achieving a complete takeover. She led her troops into battle, probably did not take part in the actual fighting but was commander of her own army.
Debbie: How’s the sequel coming along?
Paula: It’s in the copy-editing stage. Really enjoying that. Hopefully it will be out in the autumn, if not before.
Debbie: Thank you so much for joining Off The Shelf today, Paula, and have fun on the rest of your international blog tour! I think you’ve really added point to my message of “Sell the author as well as the book”! I’m sure everyone will now be intrigued to find out more about your work, so here some links for further reading.
- Paula’s website: www.paulalofting.com
- The historical reenactment society to which she belongs: Regia Anglorum
- The link for the rest of her blog tour:
- My review of Sons of the Wolf
I’ve blogged before about how running author events can help you sell your books (and how attending other people’s events can give you ideas for your own), but this week I’m focusing on events based online. One of the great things about online events is that people can join in from all over the world – and if you make them sufficiently inspiring, they will!
A great example of an online author event is Satya Robyn‘s recent “What I Live For” online event. She staged it to draw attention to the change in her author name. Formerly known as Fiona Robyn , she changed her first name to Satya when she became a Buddhist priest.
In these days of search engines, changing your name is a brave decision, because by doing so you discard the visibility you’ve built up from searches on your previous name. In her blog, Satya referred to her name change as “the worst commercial decision I ever made” – yet she needed to adopt her new name for writing in order to feel true to herself. My respect for Fiona’s decision was one of the many reasons that I decided to take part in Satya’s online event – and I’m very glad I did. For me, as a writer, it was an enriching, heartwarming experience. For Satya – well, it made me (and many others) buy her book and take notice of her full back catalogue. I also helped her spread the word by telling other friends about her event and linking to it from a “What I Live For” post on my personal blog. I also read, reviewed and recommended her book Thaw (at the heart of the event) to friends.
I’m therefore very pleased that Satya has agreed to join me at Off The Shelf today to answer my questions about her event. I’m sure it will inspire you to create your own.
Debbie: Welcome to Off The Shelf, Satya! To set the scene for our conversation, can you please describe exactly what your What I Live For event was?
Satya: I invited people to write about what they lived for on a specific date (May 10, 2013) on their blogs, or on Facebook or on Twitter or wherever they wanted to. I compiled a list of links to participants on my blog, but many more people took part than I had a record of.
Debbie: What I Live For was the first of your online events that I’ve taken part in, but was it the first you’ve ever done?
Satya: I’ve done plenty! I did my first blogsplash in 2009 when hundreds of bloggers published the first page of Ruth’s diary (from my novel Thaw) on the same day. I also organised an online event for Small Kindnesses and The Most Beautiful Thing. With my husband Kaspa we’ve also curated three ‘Mindful Writing Challenges’ where people have written a small stone (a short observational piece) every day for the month of January.
Satya: I thought that, of the books in my back catalogue, Thaw was the most likely to stick in people’s minds – to be the one that readers were most likely to recommend to someone else.
Debbie: How many people took part, and, of those, how many were writers?
Satya: I think around 40 people took part – maybe a quarter to a half were writers.
Debbie: How many countries did your campaign reach?
Satya: Mostly the US, UK and Canada, and a sprinkling from Europe and elsewhere.
Debbie: How much time went into preparing for the event and running it on the day?
Satya: Maybe 30 hours.
Debbie: That sounds like an extremely effective investment of time. I suspect the effect was much more long-lasting than the day itself – do you agree?
Satya: It’s hard to know. On the internet these days, things seem to be ‘now or never’. When we post a blog, we’ll get a lot of clicks in that moment, but then that dramatically goes down. But I’m also sure that the event will live on in people’s minds too.
Debbie: Although the event was created to promote your name change rather than to sell books, any author is going to welcome extra sales! How did the event affect your sales of Thaw? Did the effect radiate to your other books?
Satya: I did see an increase in sales, but not dramatic – maybe sold 100 extra copies. There was a negligible effect on my other books.
Debbie: I suspect there will continue to be positive ripples from the event for a long time to come (e.g. this interview!) What mechanism was the main driver of the event – your website, Facebook, Twitter, any other social media, or was it a mixture of all of these?
Satya: A mixture of Facebook and Twitter as usual – combined with our newsletter.
Debbie: Did the event achieve all that you hoped for?
Satya: The results felt mixed. There was some beautiful writing on the day which moved me greatly, and people got a lot out of it. This was a success. The event had less effect on my sales than I hoped for, and I think this is because I didn’t tie in the event closely enough with the book.
Debbie: I really enjoyed writing my response to What I Live For and I had many lovely comments about my post from readers. I was also very affected by some of other participants’ posts. It seemed a shame that the event was over so quickly and we all went our separate ways again. Did you consider compiling the many contributions into something more lasting e.g. an e-book, or would that have broken the spell? (And I think spell is the right word, because it was a very magical event.)
Satya: Thank you, Debbie. It would have been a nice idea to do an e-book – but my time is very tight and I need to make sure I get my current novel finished…
Debbie: The event impressed me as a wonderfully innovative and generous way of promoting your new name, because it spread so much warmth and allowed others to share your stage and the glory. Is that approach a product of your Buddhist faith and way of life?
Satya: I think my Buddhist faith helps to point me in the direction of this kind of offering-to-the-world. I’ve also been influenced by many teachers and writers over my lifetime. Spreading warmth always feels good!
Debbie: Dropping into my inbox just the other day was an invitation to another of your events – a 31 Days of Joy email campaign. Is this kind of collaborative programme the way forward for your writing now, or will you continue to write conventional(ish!) books and publish them as before?
Satya: I have two (well, at least three!) separate lines of work – as a writer (writing novels and non-fiction), as co-owner of the Mindful Writing company Writing Our Way Home (which runs mindful writing courses, including the new one on Joy) and as a psychotherapist in private practice.
Debbie: Writing on your blog before the event, you referred to changing your name as “making a terrible commercial decision (and being glad)”. I have an inkling that actually it’s been a great opportunity for you to raise awareness of a book whose launch had already come and gone. It also made people examine who you are – and admire your courage and commitment, both as a writer and a buddhist. So – are you still glad, or has it proven to be a terrible commercial decision?
Satya: Thanks Debbie! I don’t think the decision has meant that I’ve lost out financially – my best selling novel The Most Beautiful Thing is still selling just as many as it was. We just uploaded a new cover onto the current slot on Amazon. Most people who knew me as Fiona now know me as Satya, and new readers don’t need to know!
Debbie: Apart from your 31 Days of Joy programme, what else is coming up in your writing life this year that we should look out for?
Debbie: Thank you, Satya, for that fascinating insight into the process of setting up a promotional online event – and I look forward to reading your new novel when it’s ready!