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!