A conversation with Gail Ingram and Eirlys Hunter, judges of the NFFD 2019 youth competition.
This month, we bring interviews with this year’s NFFD judges. James Norcliffe sat down to talk to Siobhan Harvey, and Michelle Elvy talks with Lloyd Jones. We also bring you a discussion between the two youth judges, Gail Ingram and Eirlys Hunter.
The NFFD competition opens February 15 and runs through April 15. More information is available on National Flash Fiction Day website.
On risk taking, experimenting and attention to detail
Gail Ingram: Is it tautology to say I like flash that is experimental?! I do find flash different than poetry in that it leans towards the narrative — it usually starts as story, and it looks like story — but my reaction to great poetry and great flash fiction is the same. It surprises me. Often I don’t get it on the first read, though I know I want to get it. The language is striking. I have to go back and check the title or the detail that I know will make me go “oh no!” or “oh god that’s good” or “oh, oh, oh”. It elicits a visceral response. I’m very lucky to be an editor here at Flash Frontier; I get to read those stories. Some authors from our pages I recommend are Heather McQuillan, Rachel Smith, Frankie McMillan, Nod Ghosh, Patrick Pink, Anita Arlov. What inspires my own writing is more often than not reading. I’ll write a response to something I disagree with or I’ll want to add my own version. Some of my best flashes and poems have come from free writing – trying to make a habit of writing something every day.
Eirlys Hunter: Yes. Experimental, risk-taking, boundary-pushing writing is exciting, and flash fiction is where it’s happening. I also really like your idea of flash fiction as a kind of conversation between writers – one responding to another.
As to what inspires my own writing, I think it’s a sense of place. In order to start a novel I need to know where I am: the detail of the landscape, whether urban or rural, is critical. And it’s the same with short stories only on a much smaller scale: a frozen bay in Arctic Russia, a bach on the Kapiti Coast, another on Waiheke Island, the remains of a goldminer’s crib sitting in the tussock in Central Otago… If I can see the where in my mind’s eye, then I can imagine the who and the what.
EH: Full disclosure time: I haven’t written a short story for several years, so I’ve not really had to shift between forms. I began writing when my children were very small, first just shapeless snatches, but as they grew, and I got more time for sustained thought, I gradually wrote longer. Now I’m more of a plodding long-distance novel writer – though I admire flashy sprinters enormously. I love reading flash fiction. It has the same impact as poetry on me as a reader, but I feel more secure with narrative – I understand it.
GI: I’m training for a marathon this year and that is what writing a novel must be like – sustaining characters, motivations, place and time in your head while all the time keeping the plot fresh. I admire the endurance it takes to sustain this whole world you’ve created! I have written some intermediate children’s novels but they’re safe in the bottom drawer. I learned after a few years that I liked little things – tiny orange spiders, lichen in the cracks on the footpath, the colour of the dirt under my fingernails – and poetry was the best form to communicate the wonder of discovery in these little moments. Flash fiction came after that. A lot of my poems told a little story. I tried writing them in prose, rather than with line breaks, and some of them worked better; they were meant to be stories, but I think they also benefited from the poetical pruning.
Many of my poems start as prose and I break them down into poetry, but sometimes they come out fully formed as a little flash story. I particularly love the sharpness of flash – the way it moves from one idea or image to another with no explanation. There’s so much more room for the reader to work out what’s going on, and the joy that comes from working out what’s in between those spaces the writer has left makes flash one of my favourite genres.
On knowing what to eliminate, arriving at the moment of surprise and trusting your readers
EH: Many young writers seem to be exploring the form and testing its boundaries – I’m very impressed by the quality of last year’s shortlist. Advice? Sometimes students want to shoehorn too much into a short story. I suggest that they tease a strand of thought from the bigger picture they want to explore and have confidence that one moment can stand in for a whole battle. Also, trust your reader. You don’t need to frantically signal what the story is about – make us do some of the work, make us feel clever!
GI: I agree with Eiryls to focus on that moment of terror or surprise, stretch it out, come at it from many angles and keep returning to it, both on the page and in your mind. Is that word or expression really capturing that moment you experienced or imagined, exactly? And also, as Eirlys, said, you don’t need to explain how your character got out of the car to enter the zoo: start the next paragraph with her in the elephant cage. Often, when we’re starting out (all of us, from experienced writers to first-timers), we explain too much. It’s a way of getting us into the story and working out what we want to say, so this is where redrafting is so important. Go back and get rid of that first paragraph, and the last sentence. The reader will figure it out. I think this is especially true of flash fiction. Many young writers I’ve taught haven’t come across much flash (or poetry) and so haven’t practiced writing in this taut way around a single moment. The best teacher, of course, is the flash story itself. Read, and then write.
GI: I love the uninhibitedness, their honesty about the chaos they’re facing and, most of all, the way they surprise. I was encouraging my students to write metaphor one time and a girl of about ten was comparing a sewing machine to her mother. She came up with an image about the mother having a needle in her mouth. With a startle, I saw my own mum bent on the floor, doing up my hem, the needle she was working with held in her mouth. Wonderful! I wish I’d come up with that!
EH: That’s great! I love being taken by surprise as well. I love being surprised by language, by imagery and by ideas.
Young writers have access to a point of view that’s unique, though they may not realise how valuable it is, or how transient. I’m always thrilled when I read something by a young writer that shows me exactly what it feels like to be ten, or thirteen, or sixteen.
On allowing yourself space and time – and the art of trimming and editing
EH: Read last year’s winners – they’re wonderful. Notice how much the best stories leave out – they’re full of space that allows the reader to picture what’s going on, and join the dots for themselves.
The great thing about flash fiction is that you can consider every word and make sure it can’t be improved on, so give yourself plenty of time. Pruning a story to make it stronger is so satisfying!
And don’t forget the title – it can be an important signpost to the story.
GI: Yes I agree, a great place to start is by reading the youth winners of our previous competitions. They might inspire an idea as well as give you a way to structure your story or tell it in a new voice. You may have told a conventional story but it can be made fresh and surprising by structuring it as a shopping list, instruction manual or putting it into the voice of a sales assistant or horse-racing commentator.
The second piece of advice I’d give is to redraft, polish, edit. Cut out as many words as you can so it still makes sense; replace adjectives with similes or metaphors. Then, get someone to read it over to check boring things like punctuation, as well as more important things like if the story is believable and convincing. The person who reads it shouldn’t be your best friend because they won’t tell you if they don’t like it or if you’ve made a mistake. Ask another writer who is as serious as you, or your teacher. Overall, stories that are convincing, and that need very little editing, are appealing to judges!
Good luck, everybody – from both of us!
She teaches the Writing for Children course at the IIML, Victoria University of Wellington, and runs workshops in schools. She also helps run Hooked on NZ Books He Ao Ano, a website all about reviewing and NZ books, for young writers and readers. She can often be found reading on the sofa, or hanging out with her grandchildren.
Gail combines teaching at the School for Young Writers with various and enjoyable editing work. She has a first class Masters in Creative Writing from Massey University, and lives on the rim of a rocky crater in Christchurch with her rat-catcher tabby and family. More on her website.