Pushing the limits: How to write compelling flash fiction 

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An interview with Calum Kerr

Calum Kerr is a writer, a Teaching Fellow in Creative Writing at the University of Southampton, the Director of National Flash Fiction Day (UK) and the managing editor of Gumbo Press.

In 2011-12 he wrote a flash-fiction every day for his Flash 365 Project a selection of which were broadcast of BBC Radio 4.

For his current project (2014) Calum is writing a series of flash fiction collections. Each month of 2014 Calum will write a story a day which will come together within a themed collection. The first of these can be found here.

If you haven’t already done so, take a read of Calum’s handbook about flash fiction.

We invited Calum to Mash blog to discuss/learn from his success/achievements.

Jennifer Harvey: How does a piece of flash fiction differ from a short story?

Calum Kerr: Well, the most obvious thing about it is that it tends to be shorter. A more traditional short story might be in the 2-5000 word range, where a flash-fiction tends to be under 500 words. This restriction brings other things with it, however. For a start it means that the words carry more weight and have to do more work. As with poetry, a flash-fiction writer will tend to agonise over the choice of a word, making sure that it is working not just on plot or character, but theme also. And if ambiguity can be used to create a mix of meanings, then all the better.

In addition, it tends to be only a section from a larger story, rather than trying to tell the whole thing. Writing teachers go on about ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ (about which there is a whole extra argument that doesn’t belong here…) and flash-fiction definitely falls into this area. It tends to show a moment, or a section of a story, from which the reader can build up the rest of the story for themselves. As a result, it requires a lot of work from the reader’s imagination, and so leads to – in my opinion anyway – a more satisfying story, and one which stays in the mind for longer.

 Jen: Can you tell us a little about your current flash fiction project? Do you plan the collections in advance? How do you find the themes? In what way does a flash fiction novel differ from a novella?

Calum: The idea for this came out of the first Flash 365 Project. I wanted to do something similar, but didn’t want to just produce 365 unrelated stories. As part of that original project, I did one month where all the stories occurred in a motorway service station, and there was a man who dropped a tray of tea. This event occurred in all of the stories, allowing them to be simultaneous. A selection of these were gathered together into my first published collection – Braking Distance (Salt, 2012) – and I felt it was something more interesting than just a group of unrelated stories. So, I decided to find as many ways to build a collection as I could, and try them all out, one a month, for the year.

So far I have written Apocalypse – which brings together the end of the world, over about 6 weeks, and tells all kinds of stories from all around the globe, but also forms a single book. Second was The Audacious Adventuress – a serial, featuring a single character (Lucy Burkhampton, swindled-heiress and mountain-climber) and her constant adventures and cliff-hangers. March’s book, The Grandmaster, was essentially a crime novel, told in flash-fictions, using the gaps between stories and style-changes, to imply the larger tale. In April, with Lunch Hour, I returned to idea behind Braking Distance, and set everything in a single place – a office – during a single lunchtime. And in May, the stories were all to do with time travel – hence the title, Time – and a lose back-story held them together.

Writing these I’m learning a lot about how you can use the ‘showing’ characteristics of flash-fiction to build something much larger than the pieces. Apocalypse, for instance, uses ideas which would quite happily fit in a trilogy of novels – and which would generally overpower a single novel – but by using the suggestive powers of flash, it gets away with it. Similarly, The Grandmaster uses many different writing styles in the stories, reeling in the story in a way you couldn’t do in a novel without confusing the reader.

Jen: Both this current project and your first Flash 365 project strike me as very ambitious (and exhausting) endeavours. How do you stay focused and motivated? How do you maintain the discipline to write one piece a day?

Calum: The key is embarrassment. When I come up with a project like this I make a big noise about it. I tell people, post about it on Facebook, tweet about it, and generally tell as many people as I can that it is going to happen. Then, if I fail, I will have made a fool of myself. It’s amazing how motivating that can be. However, it’s also about enjoying the process. I love writing flash-fictions, but without the structure of a project I tend to procrastinate and nothing happens. However, the deadlines imposed by a project really get my juices going. And the more you write, the more you can write, and so on.

That said, some things have got in the way, and I am behind on June and July’s collections. June consists entirely of conversations between two characters, and July’s is meant to be a family saga. I’m about to take a few weeks leave from my teaching job, so August will be spent writing those two, plus the August book (a sequel to The Audacious Adventuress).

Jen: Do you have any quick tips for writers writing flash fiction?

Calum: Write, write, write. Read, read, read. Flash-fiction is quick to both write and read. If you don’t like what you’ve done, or what you’ve read, never mind here comes another one. Practise will always make you better. And you learn from reading. So write, write, write, and read, read, read.

Jen: How important would you say poetry is to flash fiction? Should flash fiction writers aim to have something lyrical or poetic in their stories?

Calum: I think there is similarity in the use of words, and sometimes flash-fictions can be lyrical, but I don’t think it’s essential. I think if you want to write poems, then do so, but however lyrical it might be a flash-fiction still needs to tell a good story.

Jen: Can you tell us a little about National Flash Fiction Day? How it started what you enjoy about it.

Calum: This happened while I was doing the first Flash 365 Project. I was aware of events happening for National Poetry Day and so I went searching for a National Flash-Fiction Day I could get involved with. When I found there was nothing, I sent out some emails to those in the flash-fiction world, and they all said ‘Great idea – when is it?’ and so I ended up running the thing.

I enjoy a lot of it, but my favourite part is that by setting up the day I have given flash-fiction writers a way to communicate and feel part of a community. They are no longer isolated and toiling away in their garrets, they are part of something bigger that they can share with like-minded writers.

 Jen: Which flash fiction writers or journals do you recommend people read?

Calum: Flash: The International Journal of the Short Short Story – from Chester University – is a really good journal, with lots of good stories. As for writers? David Gaffney, Tania Hershman, Nik Perring, Tims Stevenson and, oh, loads more. Just have a look at the list on the NFFD website, I recommend them all!

Jen: What is the best flash fiction story you have read this year or what is your favourite of all time?

Calum: That is an unfair question. The one which sticks in my head, and has been there for years, is David Gaffney’s story from his book Sawn-Off Tales, called Little Jan. As far as I can tell, it’s perfect.

Quick-fire questions

  • I know a lot about … science.
  • My childhood ambition was … to be a novelist.
  • I write because … I have to.
  • My favourite book is … The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
  • Recently I enjoyed reading/watching/listening to … all of the David Baldacci books/Luther/They Might be Giants. 

Many thanks to Calum for taking the time to talk to Mash Stories.  You can find out more about Calum over at his website or follow him on Twitter

Feel inspired by this interview? Then why not have a go and submit a story to us here at Mash. We are always open to submissions and we love to read your work.


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Jennifer is one of our judges at MASH. Her fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine and Stories For Homes anthology. Her radio drama won the 2001 European Regional Prize in the BBC World Service International Playwriting competition and a commendation in 2009. Her poetry has appeared in The Guardian as part of their poetry workshops series. Contact Jen via Twitter.

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