Enter a Great Writing Competition! (Deadline 11 March)

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Winning or being placed in a writing competition is a great way to add credibility to your author CV, and I’m delighted to share with you the opportunity to enter a well-established and ethical writing competition which not only rewards authors but also raises money for a very good cause: Words for the Wounded.

I met one of its founders, Margaret Graham, herself a published author, at the Chorleywood Literature Festival last year, and she’s here today to tell us all about it.

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How To Sell More Books: Start A National Awareness Day – with flash fiction writer Calum Kerr

About a year ago, not long before my book promotion handbook Sell Your Books! went to press, I was bowled over by an audacious publicity ploy called National Flash Fiction Day (NFFD).

Calum Kerr, director of the UK's National Flash Fiction Day

Calum Kerr, director of National Flash Fiction Day UK

Now, I’d never really heard of flash fiction, but a lively campaign on Facebook made me click through to find what all the fuss was about, and hey presto, I learned all about flash fiction. (Fiction you can read in a flash, essentially – there’s a fuller explanation of it on my YoungByName blog here.)

I was late coming to the party, but not too late to pick up some free downloads that drew me further into the genre. Before long, I’d befriended two great flash writers, Helena Mallett and Bart Van Goethem, who I interviewed on Off The Shelf a couple of weeks ago. I’ve even started writing it myself. You can imagine how pleased I was when one of my flash stories, Clean Linen, was selected for the edition of FlashFlood Journal that went live on NFFD itself.

This year, when the publicity fanfare started up for the second National Flash Fiction Day, I was delighted to discover that one of the biggest national celebrations of this diminutive genre would be taking place just half an hour’s drive from me, in Bristol. So, feeling self-consciously artistic, and wondering whether I should be wearing a beret, a turtleneck sweater and smoking Gauloises, I sloped off to the upstairs room of the designated pub to join in the fun.

There I met Calum Kerr, writer, editor, lecturer and director of National Flash Fiction Day in the UK. He was celebrating the publication of his latest book, Lost Property. Good thing I’d foregone the existentialist poet outfit, because Calum turned out to be a jovial, cheery chap in a Dr Who t-shirt. I also met his lovely writer wife Kath, to whom, as a wedding present, he gave a published book of her own flash stories. How cool is that?

I’m very pleased to welcome him to Off The Shelf today to tell us all about how and why he invented this special event, where it’s heading next, and how it ties in with the promotion of his own excellent collections of flash fiction.

Debbie: First of all, why flash fiction? What do you love about it?

Calum: I love the way that a small story can conjure so much more than the words on the page. By implication and by tapping into our knowledge of life, the universe and the way in which stories work, they can create something huge in as little as a hundred words. Or fifty. Or fewer! I love the power of that.

Debbie:  How much time and effort did it take you to launch the first NFFD and how many other people were involved?

Calum: In the first instance, it was just me. I had the idea around the time of National Poetry Day. I was looking to see if there was a day for flash-fiction that I could be involved with. There wasn’t, so I asked around among some flash-fiction writers that I know to see if they would be interested. They were, so I set to.

I set up a website, email address, Facebook page, Twitter account, picked a date, and started encouraging people to be involved. For the first few months it was a hobby, but it really took off and grew beyond all expectation. I brought other people on board to help with various projects that I thought up, such as the FlashFlood journal and the anthology, and after we got some funding I was able to pay a part-time PR person to help out.

In the end it was my job to co-ordinate the whole thing, with loads of volunteers running their individual events and competitions. In the run-up to the first NFFD, I was putting in 18 hour days doing that. It was exhausting, but worth it.

Debbie: What were the three most effective things you did to bring the event to public attention?

Calum: I think the most effective was social media, it gave me a huge reach and led to events happening in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, America and beyond. I could never have reached those places without Facebook and Twitter.

Traditional media was also useful – I managed to get onto BBC Radio 4’s IPM programme and Radio Solent to promote the day and other organizers of events were on their local radio stations and in their local papers. David Gaffney, a writer from Manchester, also had an article in The Guardian. These were great methods of promotion.

And finally, it was the individuals. Dozens of events and competitions were run by volunteers and they used their various media outlets, social and traditional, as well as good old word of mouth, to spread the word.

Debbie:  How long have you been writing flash fiction?

Calum: Well, the answer to that depends. The first ever stories that I submitted to a magazine (a thing called FEAR that ran in the 80s) were tiny things of about 50 words. So you could say I have always written it. However, I first came across the term in a workshop at a conference in late 2009, run by Vanessa Gebbie. In that workshop I wrote two flashes which were acclaimed by other members of the workshop. Both of those have since been published, and both appear in my new collection, Lost Property.

Debbie: How has the flash community changed since the first NFFD?

Calum: One of the things I found when organizing the first one was that many flash-fiction writers were doing so in isolation and if they were aware of other writers, didn’t know much about them, or what they were up to , and weren’t in contact with them. NFFD has very much brought them together and it feels now like there is a coherent community of flash-fiction writers. That’s something I’m particularly proud of.

Of course, now it has a day and is all ‘official’ some people have decided to pull back a little and are questioning, if not the form necessarily, then the strictures put on it by the name and definitions. But, that’s writers for you. We don’t like to be pigeonholed! It all leads to healthy debate though, and that can only be a good thing.

Debbie: Tell us about your IPM experience – as a huge fan of the lovely Eddie Mair, I am dead jealous of your hook-up with him!

Calum: That came about, at first, when I was writing my flash365 project to produce a flash-fiction every day for a year and post it to my blog. I hit day 100 and sent out a scatter of press-releases. The editor of iPM came back to me, interested in what I was doing, and asked me to write a couple of stories based on the Your News snippets they include in the programme. I ended up reading those on the show and being interviewed by Eddie Mair. It was wonderful, but weird. It was like my radio had started talking to me…

After that, I devoted the December portion of my project to using those same Your News items and they took 22 of them, had proper actors record them (Rory Kinnear, Emilia Fox, Kenneth Cranham and Dame Diana Rigg) and put them out as a whole edition of iPM on Christmas Eve 2011. That was amazing!

I got to be interviewed by Eddie again for National Flash-Fiction Day, when they had me write a story during the recording of a show from a prompt they provided. It was a veritable roller-coaster ride and a wonderful one.

Debbie: What’s your favourite length for writing flash fiction?

Calum: I don’t aim for a length, I just write, but the majority of mine slot in somewhere between 300-500 words. I think, if they get longer than that, then they are moving away from true ‘flash’ and up towards a short story. I can and have written pieces shorter than that, but they tend to be that length after editing, rather than emerging at that length. iPM required stories of about 200 words, so lots of editing took place with those stories. I’m rather proud of those ones, though, I think they are better for the extra concision.

Debbie: Flash encompasses a huge range of styles and stories, from highbrow literary to surreal flights of fancy to down-to-earth one-page stories for popular women’s magazines. Where do yours fit it?

Calum: Well, in the course of flash365 I attempted to write in as many different styles, perspectives and genres as I could, so I probably did all of those and more. I found, though, when I looked back, that I seem to shift between the literary and the genre. I like dark stories, and metafiction is something I keep coming back to. That said, my most popular stories with readers are my version of a 1950s radio adventure serial. I don’t know where you’d categorise those.

Debbie: How on earth do you find the time?

Calum: I don’t know. Eighteen hour days,  and nowhere near enough sleep. And for a lot of that, I was teaching and marking at Winchester University. In fact, on the morning of NFFD 2012 I finished a batch of marking before I headed up to the university to host a write-in. I used my visit for the latter as a chance to drop off the former. That’s one of the reasons why the Day was a month later this year, to avoid the clash with assessment season.

Debbie: You gave your wife Kath, also a writer, a book of her own stories as a wedding present – did flash fiction bring you together?

Calum: It was one of the things. When we met we discovered that we both had a shared love of books and of writing. She wasn’t really that aware of flash-fiction but once I told her about it, she encouraged me with my work in it, came up with lots of ideas that helped, supported me with flash365 (and was, in fact, the instigator of its fore-runner, 31) and NFFD, and then, when I finished flash365, she took on the challenge herself. We got married a couple of months into her project, so I took the first month and made them into a book. It seemed appropriate.

She completed her 365 stories on 30th April 2013 and did a fantastic job with them. We resurrected our projects for NFFD this year, writing a story a day each for a week, and the moment we were done, on the Friday, I turned them into an e-book, Mr & Mrs Flash which I was able to make available the next day, in time for NFFD.

 Debbie: What’s your favourite story in your new collection and why?

 Calum: Aargh! That’s a horrible question. Can I not say all of them? Okay, let me think…

The problem is, because I roam around the genres and the styles, my favourite is going to change depending on the day of the week, hour of the day, minute of the hour…

I’m very fond of ‘Soaring’, the title story of the second section. It captures a beauty which I think I often strive for, but seldom reach so well. But I’m also fond of ‘Who’s the Boss?’, one of the iPM shorts, about a cat who is in charge of his owner. I love the character of the cat, and keep planning to turn that 180 word story into a full radio play.

But, well, all of them. Yes, all of them.

Debbie:  I love the way you’ve grouped your stories together by theme within “Lost Property” – and the notion of “pamphlets”. It takes a lot of flash to fill a whole book. Do you think pamphlets are the way forward (or e-pamphlets) for flash writers or should we all be saving up enough to fill a hundred pages or so?

Calum: Both. Is there not room for both? I think a pamphlet is a very fine thing for flash-fiction. It allows 10-20 stories to be gathered together, produced at low cost and sold at a low price. As with poetry pamphlets it is a really good entry level into being published. But, just as we have full books of short-stories, why not full books of flash-fictions? They are the next step up from the pamphlet and allow the writer to range wider and do more. I think, once a reader gets to understand the form, they will find that a collection of, say, 80 flash-fictions, can give them the same sense of world and story as the same number of novels.

cover of Lost Property, a collection of flash fiction by Calum Kerr

Calum Kerr’s latest collection of flash fiction was published on National Flash Fiction Day 2013

Debbie: I understand that US flash writers would like to share the next NFFD – I love the idea of a “flash around the world”. Will you now be taking it global?

Calum: Well, we already are global. Collaboration between us and New Zealand is now a normal thing, and this year saw the second annual event in Dublin. I tried to get into the US last year, but it was hard finding the person who could make things happen. That breakthrough came just before this year’s Day, so a bit too late to do anything, but talks are happening now and it looks good for next year. Taking over the whole world is a bit too much, even for me, but having a series of National Days that occur on the same date, and who share promotions and opportunities is much more manageable.

Debbie: What impact has being director of NFFD had on sales of your own collections of flash?

Calum: You know, I have no idea! I have had requests for stories from magazines because I am the director, and I think it has helped with getting things into print. But I think that the Radio 4 connection – which pre-dates NFFD – did just as much, and that my constant use of social media does a lot too. So, I don’t really know, but then again, that’s not why I do it.

 Debbie: Any other exciting future plans you’d care to share with us?

Calum:  Well, as well as all this, I run a small publishing house – Gumbo Press  – which produces flash-fiction pamphlets. I plan to continue with that. I’m also finishing off a novel for which I have high hopes. But I think, for the moment, I don’t have any huge ideas. Though, from time to time, I think about starting another 365. Writing those flash-fictions is just addictive!

 Debbie: Finally, with your university lecturer hat on – what is the difference between “literary fiction” and “fiction”? Lately I’ve seen some work classified as “literary” that struck me more as common-or-garden fiction, or even chick lit. Are the lines blurring or is there an easy way to tell?

Calum: I have a hard time with this one myself. I think a sometimes a piece becomes classed as ‘literary’ once the writing style reaches a certain syllable count! Sometimes, it’s to do with the story not being just about ‘normal’ things, but larger issues being addressed. Sometimes it’s just a way to differentiate realism from genre writing. But, as someone who writes in all genres, I’m maybe not a good person to ask. I see ‘good writing’ and ‘bad writing’ and what genre it’s in doesn’t really bother me.

Well, if that doesn’t tempt you to check out Calum Kerr’s new collection of flash fiction, I don’t know what will! And look out, this genre is definitely addictive…

Click here to visit Calum Kerr’s website where you can order copies of Lost Property and his other books.

How to Use National Events to Promote Your Self-Published Books (for National Flash Fiction Day)

Lightning clouds multiple flash

Lightning clouds (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Helena Mallett, author of Flash Fraction

Helena Mallett

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?

Helena: Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver and Lydia Davis, and www.paragraphplanet.com, http://www.nationalflashfictionday.co.uk and http://www.flash500.com

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.

Bart Van Goethem

Bart Van Goethem

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?

Helena: My website, Facebook and Twitter. I also have printed cards which I carry with me for anyone happy to display them.

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.

Cover of 75 x 75 = Flash Fraction by Helena Mallett

Helena’s book

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.

Cover image of the book by Bart Van Goethem, Life's too short for long stories

Bart’s book

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!

Do visit the website that brings it all together: National Flash Fiction Day. And if you’d like to read a bit of mine, you’ll find it on my personal website here.