Patrick Pink: Reading what you would like to write is one of the ways to develop an understanding of the form and flow of particular types of prose. Readers observe how writers create a sense of story and move it along, how they fill it with rich descriptive language to immerse a reader in the sensory reality of the story and how dialogue brings the characters to life. Reading also provides opportunity to study the elements of writing such as themes, point of view, characters, setting, plot, suspense and conflict, to name a few. However, if we want to be writers, we need to write. A lot. Writing is a place of practice. It is the other half in developing an understanding of form and flow and those elements of story that connect to ourselves and to other readers. In the process, we learn to experiment and find our own distinct voice as a storyteller and once we learn the rules of writing, we can then learn to break them and test their boundaries.
Tim Jones: I don’t think there is a hard and fast dividing line between flash fiction and prose poetry – it’s a continuum, with some works being more clearly identifiable as flash fiction and some more clearly as prose poetry. I’d say, read both – and read and listen to “regular” poetry as well, because even if you think your interests lie solely in writing fiction, you can learn a lot from good poetry about how to make a relatively few words do a lot of work, which is a skill you need to write good flash fiction.
Most writers I know started out as readers – they didn’t leap from their cots with pen in hand and start scrawling flash fictions on the bedroom wallpaper. So I’d say, start by reading widely in a range of genres, and when it comes to writing, experiment: try different forms to see what suits you, or if you have a favourite form by the time you start writing (for me, it was science fiction short stories), try something different once in a while and see if it sticks.
PP: Writing flash can be daunting. How do I tell the story I want to tell in such a small space and with so few words? How does such confinement allow creativity to flow? I started writing flash as a progression from narrative poetry. My favourite poem is ‘The Death of the Hired Man’ by American poet Robert Frost. It takes place over one evening and is basically a conversation between a husband and wife. It’s poetry, it’s story, it’s a quick glimpse through a window into the life of Warren and Mary at that particular moment and in that moment we know them intimately and understand the struggle at hand they face as they grapple with themes of family and belonging. This combination of poetic imagery, rhythm of language and the use of symbolism with the elements of storytelling satisfies me as a reader and writer. Of course, how to do that in 250 or 300 words? The challenge of such confinement excites and stretches my skills. Sometimes, there’s success. Other times, utter rubbish. There is no room for waffling and hemming and hawing in flash. Every word is precious and precise. Writing flash has increased my vocabulary and love of words. It has heightened my editing skills. I get rid of more than I keep. My online thesaurus is my first bookmark on my computer. Flash has helped me to continue to develop as an artist.
TJ: I echo what Patrick says. When I started writing flash, I was generally working to a 500-word or even 1000-word limit. Nowadays there’s no such luxury: word limits have generally come down to the 250 or 300 word mark. Here’s a useful exercise: take a story idea that suits a flash fiction, and try writing a 500-word version. Next, cut it down to no more than 300 words, then get really scissor-happy and see if you can cut it down to 100 words. Which is best, in your view? When you cut down from 500 to 300, were you able to keep the core of the story? How about when you cut from 300 to 100? Unless you are a writer who can produce publishable first drafts – and I do know and envy some writers like that – you may find that a good story concept and structure can survive severe pruning during the editing process.
So, I like the challenge of writing interesting stories in a short space; I like seeing what elements of plot I can make function within a tight word limit; and I enjoy the freedom to experiment, to try out a technique or subject matter I might not normally tackle. If it works: great. If it doesn’t: no great loss in terms of time taken, and I’ve learned something.
Tim, your story ‘The Casimir Effect’ from the August 2012: MIRRORS issue, does a beautiful job of balancing between science and sentimentality. Tell us more about this story and the relationship you develop here – and how young people enter your work as subjects (in this story or elsewhere).
TJ: Thanks! This was very much an exercise in challenging myself to write a flash fiction incorporating a not-so-well-known scientific principle that had just, earlier in the year of writing, been shown by experiment, as discussed in this article. (It’s actually the “dynamical Casimir Effect” – I got the name a bit wrong in my story. And, for anyone who wants to have a go at writing a story about it, there’s a static Casimir effect too. You’re welcome, physics fans!)
The only way I could see this working in a flash fiction was to have one of the characters be a scientist working on this effect who would therefore have a natural reason to explain it, and to make a simplified explanation seem realistic, that suggested the other character should be a child. By making the child the protagonist, I aimed to mirror the scientific and emotional surfaces of the story. It’s a bit shonky, but I think it sort of works!
PP: The first line of the story came to me initially. It then sparked the image of a young man facing his truths alone in the woods yet he is also so close to his school and his peers who he feels he is and is not a part of. The solitary openness of the woods and the fishbowl scrutiny and judgments of the school become a crossroads for Luke. He remembers the words of his father that instructs him on what it is to be a man and he confronts that on his journey. He sees the crows, stark and similar to each other in the trees above him and wonders are they harbingers of ill or heralds of understanding and a possible hope to come. Such hyper-awareness, such pinpoint precision turned towards Luke’s thoughts and feelings and the imposition of the distracting outside world seemed to require a tiny space for examination and rejection or re-affirmation.
PP: As a teacher, I am constantly learning from young people. Not only about the unique experiences young people have living in this century but also those common ones that make us a community. Good writers tap into the times that they experience with all of its exuberance and passion, angst and confusion. Everyone has their stories to share. Tell your truth. Speak your mind. Reveal your heart and guts. It is those intimate actions as a storyteller that resonates and connects with others.
TJ: What I look for in works from young writers is what I look for in work from writers of any age: surprise me, make me feel, make me think. I don’t mind if you show off a bit – works of this length suit experimental writing styles particularly well – but I also love works that are told with simplicity and emotional truth. As a competition judge, I would add two things: write a story I’m going to remember when others begin to fade, and try to come up with a title that’s appropriate for the story but seizes my attention.
More can be found about Tim Jones and Patrick Pink at the National Flash Fiction Day site, where you can also see how to enter the competition!