Meet the Author! A Conversation with Nancy Stohlman, Author of “Going Short”

Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction

Nancy Stohlman
Ad Hoc Fiction (2020)
ISBN: 9781912095797

Nancy Stohlman‘s book Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction, won a 2021 Reader Views Gold Award andwas re-released as an audiobook in 2022. Her other books include After the Rapture, (forthcoming 2023), Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities, and The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories, among others.Her work has appeared in the Norton anthology New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction and The Best Small Fictions 2019, as well as adapted for both the stage and screen. She teaches at the University of Colorado Boulder and around the world.

Hi Nancy, Welcome to Reader Views. What is your book, Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction all about?

Going Short is my 10-year treatise on flash fiction: what it is, what it’s not, how to get started writing it and why you should—(hint: because it will make you a better writer!) AND if you’re asking: what’s flash fiction? This is the book for you.

For those who may not be aware, what is flash fiction, and can you give us a flash history of the genre?

The accepted definition is flash fictions are stories under 1,000 words. The distinction “story” is important: there are many beautiful pieces of writing that are under 1,000 words, but they may not be telling a story and therefore may not be flash fiction. And conversely, there are many pieces written throughout history and across cultures that would be considered flash fiction now that we have a genre distinction (think fairy tales, even).

The term “flash fiction” has been around for about 30 years, really since Norton published the anthology titled Flash Fiction in 1992. That book and that term planted a flag and named a territory that many writers had been previously calling: Is There a Name for What I’m Writing? And it’s been exploding ever since.

You’ve written several full-length novels. What steered you to flash fiction and what motivated you to write a craft book on the genre?

It was an absolute life-changing moment when I discovered flash fiction—no exaggeration. The whole aesthetic of looking at your work through the lens of brevity, through the lens of what is NOT needed, changed my writing forever. Immediately I cut the novel I’d been working on in half (Searching for Suzi) and published it as a flash novel (more on that later). And I haven’t looked back. I confess in Going Short that flash fiction saved me from writing all those overblown novels.

I started writing Going Short in 2009-2010, at the same time I started teaching college and realized I didn’t have a good answer to the almost constant question: Can you recommend a book about flash fiction? I couldn’t because they didn’t exist. So I naively decided to write it myself—having no idea it would take me 10 years.

Who is your book for? Do you need to have previous writing experience to create flash fiction?

I purposely wrote the book with several audiences in mind. It is first absolutely for the novice flash writer, whether they are just new to flash or coming from other genres, but also it’s for established writers who may be wanting to refine their craft. One of the last sections I wrote was on “ordering your flash collection” and even some discussion of flash books like the novella in flash and the flash novel, specifically targeting the many experienced flash writers who felt lost putting their books together. Most writers in any genre appreciate a good craft books (myself included), as we are all students and we are all teachers, and sometimes you just need to hear something put a new way or be reminded of what you already know to snap you out of a writing funk. Going Short will definitely snap you out of a funk!

I’ve been surprised to learn that non-writers have also gravitated to the book: artists, musicians, crafters and others. Maybe it’s because the creative process is, after all, the life process.

How does flash fiction differ from other writing?

Flash works within constrains, similar to, say, a sonnet. And constraints, even fairly open-ended constraints like “under 1,000 words” and “telling a story” force us to come at our work differently. Like poetry, every word counts. Like novels or longer short stories, tension and plot count. So when we write flash we meet in the middle and end up with something highly crafted and very often highly inventive, too. When you only have 1,000 words, you become very clever at how and how not to use them. You will see where you lean towards excess, and you will become very good at discovering and cutting to the essence of a story to find its most poignant version.

Can you tell us about some of the forms of flash fiction [what in the world is a flash novel?]

There are many “spin-off” forms that take inspiration from flash fiction. Apply the 1,000-word + story rule to other types of writing and you get flash non-fiction, flash memoir, historical flash, speculative flash, 100-word stories, 50-word stories, 6-word stories, etc. And if you apply the basic principles of brevity and compression to a novel, you get a new sort of novel. Maybe, like my first flash novel, it’s been shrunk in half. Maybe all the chapters are stand-alone flash pieces linked by theme. Maybe it’s a micro-sequence, with flashes all collaged into a larger story. Michael Loveday’s recently published book Unlocking the Novella in Flash takes a deeper dive into many of these ideas.

But honestly, I enjoy the fluidity and lack of hard definitions at this point—it encourages innovation and imagination. I like planting flags to claim the space, but when definitions get too rigid and too academic, I think it loses some of that innovation. I most enjoy working in a space that says: let’s play and see what happens.

When beginning a piece of flash fiction, how important is the word count for the first draft? Does the cutting come later? How does it compare with writing the first draft of a novel?

It depends on the writer. I always overwrite my story drafts and then sculpt them back into shape like little bonsai trees. But even that process has changed for me over the years. Where once I had to cut back just to get the story under 1,000 words, now even my first drafts fall way short of that border.

Writing the first draft of a novel is also a process of discovery. But novel drafts are often written over a span of years, so the writer is growing and changing and becoming a better writer through the drafting process. This means some of the early stuff just isn’t as good as the later stuff, and much of the novel-editing process is bringing everything up to par and into balance, tossing out the immature darlings and re-attuning the whole idea as one like a big chiropractic adjustment. Because it’s usually only at the END of the first draft that we even know what we were trying to say at all!

Flash is the same process, but in miniature—a flash draft can be composed in one sitting, with one consistent voice and a natural thrust and urgency. The refinement and editing process also happens more quickly—and therefore we are less likely to get attached and caught in the weeds of the own darlings. As you attune your flash fiction eye, you become whip-smart at what is needed… and what isn’t. AND if you take that flash eye back to your novel drafts… you will be amazed at how your view changes.

How does flash fiction help someone write?

In addition to all that, writing flash fiction is going to give you another lens into your process and your product. It’s going to force you to ask your work hard questions, like: what is the point, here? Sometimes we become so enamored with making sentences and entertaining ourselves (both good things) that we lose sight of The Point. Apprenticing in flash fiction will force you to see your tendencies and your writerly quirks and allow you to be more conscious about your choices moving forward.

And finally, many writers feel a sense of liberation and play when they begin the form. It can be quite a playful experience, puzzling what you want to say into the little container of flash. And creative playfulness is always a good thing.

You discuss several flash myths in Going Short. What is the biggest misconception about writing flash?

I would say the biggest myth is a general dismissal of things that are small as easy or less than. Beginner. Many readers unfamiliar with flash think it lacks sophistication, like it’s some sort of parlor trick good only for young writers. Or there is a dismissive quality around it: (example from a large, established outlet talking about flash fiction: “the sudden fiction, the flash fiction, whatever it’s being called these days.”) 

But small does not equal easy (I mean—by those definitions we could say poetry is easy!). The general reading public has not yet developed a sophisticated eye or palate towards flash. There can be this sense that “any writer can do it.” I’ve often seen these bigger, respected outlets publishing flash fiction by famous writers…who are not skilled in flash at all!

What is the biggest mistake writers make when writing flash fiction?

In addition to the above mindset issues, I would say there are some tangible mistakes, like taking a long piece and trying to slice it up to fit into flash parameters, which is like putting line breaks in prose and calling it poetry. Or thinking anything short is suddenly flash. Or not reading enough flash to begin with: There are some stunning flash fictions being published out there, written by real masters of the genre. If you don’t know where to begin, I recommend anthologies: the annual Best Short Fictions, Best Microfictions, and the Norton anthologies including Flash Fiction Forward, New Micro and the soon to be released Flash Fiction America.

The chapters in Going Short are crisp and concise. Is this considered flash non-fiction or has your writing style been rewired for flash?

Both! I realized in the process of writing the book that it made no sense to be long-winded about flash fiction! That I should be demonstrating the form as I discuss it. It seems obvious to me now, but it was an important discovery and turning point in the manuscript.

Where does one publish flash fiction? Are there any flash publishers you recommend?

There are SO many small presses publishing flash, but I would say some of the best flash fiction is still in the underground. It could take me the rest of the week to come up with a comprehensive list, so I would say, as with any other genre, Google is your friend. Start reading flash fiction and taking note of who is publishing the kinds of stories you love.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in flash fiction?

Read a lot of flash. A lot. Don’t assume that because you might be an accomplished poet or novelist that you will slide seamlessly into the new genre without first genuflecting to the greats of that genre. And the more you read, the more you will get into the flash state of mind and discover which stories you really love and why.

Your passion for flash fiction is exciting. You made me want to write flash! Are there any workshops you can suggest for the beginning flasher (Are flash writers called flashers, lol?)

Aww, you are so sweet! And yes, I call them/us flashers too! I offer several online workshops per year as well as flash fiction retreats in some cool places (I’m lining up France and Iceland for 2023). You can get on my mailing list for all those offerings and announcements. And this November I’ll be doing my annual Flashnano challenge: Write 30 stories in 30 days (which is super fun and productive and free: sign up here)

So where is your writing journey leading you next? Do you have a new book in the works?

Yes! My new flash novel, After the Rapture, is coming out with Mason Jar Press in March of 2023. It’s a book I wrote before Covid was part of our world, and then in 2020 I watched as the book started to come to life. So now it’s impossible to read it without seeing all the predictions and correlations, even though it was not originally conceived that way. But I think the timing is right, and I’m excited for it to be out in the world. Pre-sales will be starting soon.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Yes! Since Going Short first won the Reader Views Gold Award, it’s been re-released as an audiobook, available on Audible and all the places where one listens to audiobooks. And yes, I am the narrator, which was an incredible experience! And having it available on audio has brought the flash gospel to a new audience. So whether you read it in print or listen to it on audio, I’m excited to welcome you to the flash journey! Once you go short: you don’t go back.



Read our review of Going Short

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