Flash In Five – November 2023 – Avitus B. Carle

This month our Flash In Five comes from Avitus B. Carle

How We Survive (click title to read)

Idea: “How We Survive” has gone through several revisions, which is why I struggled to remember the origins of the initial idea. I did some detective work and discovered that the story originated in Meg Pokrass’ microfiction masterclass workshop! The prompt was to write a story addressed to someone off the page with one of the examples being “You’ve Stopped” by Tommy Dean. I love repetition in flash and how the echoes of a word or phrase can portray so much of the character, whether that be an exploration of the truth, a signal of denial or a mind that’s been broken, or reflections on something that’s come to an end.

Development: I was deeply immersed in my apocalypse era of writing and wanted to explore the complexities of relationships, especially breakups. Since my character is addressing someone off the page, why not have them tell the story of their survival to the reader? My next question became, how to make this particular breakup stand out without relying on the apocalypse as the event or moment of conflict that makes this breakup interesting. In what way can I complicate this specific breakup that still makes my character unique and complicated enough to hold the readers’ attention without being predictable? I decided that my character and her love interest would be the last people on earth, she wanting a relationship while her love interest has already found love with someone who is unexpected, yet perfect, for a romance at the end of the world. I then wanted to focus on how my main character navigates an unrequited love and separation from the only other human left on earth.

Editing: Initially, this was supposed to be a micro. However, Lorraine is a force. The more I explored the lives of these three characters, the more I wrote until I exceeded the word count requirements expected for a micro. I posted a portion of the story for workshop, ending with Lorraine (a mannequin and lover of my main character’s love interest) leaning in the doorframe of my main character’s bedroom, and saved the flash-length draft to my computer. This workshop took place during the summer of 2021 and I didn’t return to the story until the fall of that same year. I still wasn’t sure what was missing until Tara Campbell suggested separating the repetition of “We Survive On…” statements to heighten the sense of isolation. I also added several more line breaks to allow the story to breathe, to create even more white space on the page, and italicize any dialogue between my characters so the moments in which the last people on earth connect really stand out amongst the chaos and conflict provided by Lorraine.

Submitting: I had two places in mind for this story. One I’d been receiving personal rejections from and thought, surely, this story would be the one to convince them! The other, Lost Balloon, I’ve been a huge fan of since I first started writing. Lost Balloon had also published one of my first flashes, “White Ribbons,” and I believed this story coincided with the inspiration behind the magazine’s name: “…those small and sad but whimsical moments in life.” Lost Balloon accepted the story and later nominated the piece for Best Small Fictions!

Reflections: Out of all my stories so far, I have the most fun reading, “How We Survive.” To quote a member from Meg Pokrass’ microfiction masterclass workshop, “To be dumped for a mannequin in an apocalyptic world…oof, that’s rough!” Watching the “oof” of realization show on the audiences faces keeps me coming back to this story, to Lorraine, and finding more ways to distort our ideas of relationships, even at the end of the world.

Avitus B. Carle (she/her) lives and writes outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Formerly known as K.B. Carle, her flash has been published in a variety of places including the Fractured Lit, ASP Bulletin, Five South Lit., Lumiere Review, -ette review, and elsewhere. Avitus’s flash, “Black Bottom Swamp Bottle Woman,” was recently selected as one of Wigleaf’s 2023 Top 50 and nominated for the O. Henry Prize. Her story, “A Lethal Woman,” is included in the 2022 Best Small Fictions anthology. She can be found at avitusbcarle.com or online everywhere @avitusbcarle.

Literary Agent Interview: Eli Keren

Eli Keren at United Agents is the judge for the 2024 First Chapter competition and the winner gets feedback from him on their submission package and a 1-hour Zoom meeting to talk about their novel and upcoming career as a writer.

Eli started his publishing career at Curtis Brown before joining United Agents as an assistant in 2016. In 2021 he became an associate literary agent, representing a growing list of clients across fiction and non-fiction, actively seeking books that are going to make a positive impact in the world in some way, big or small. Before working in books, Eli was a research scientist designing and synthesising novel drugs (white coat and everything), and science books remain a particular passion of his. He is also very interested in LGBT-themed books in both fiction and non-fiction. In 2023 he was elected treasurer of the Association of Authors’ Agents.

Ahead of the January deadline, we grilled him on how you can impress him with your entries!

Eli, thanks for coming on the blog and for judging the contest. When reading the shortlisted first chapters, what’s going to make a novel stand out for you?

The first and most obvious thing is really simple – when I get to the end of it, do I want to keep going? Do I want more? Am I hooked, is there a mystery I need unravelled, a crime I’m emotionally invested in seeing solved, a dramatic situation I want resolved? By the end of the first chapter I want to know what it is that’s going to propel me to the end of the book, where the driving force is. This applies to all fiction, literary and commercial. If it’s commercial fiction then the driving force is going to be rooted in plot but if it’s literary I still do need a driving force of some kind to be there, it’s just more likely to be rooted in an emotional investment. Other than that, I want to see originality, I want to know what your book is doing that’s fresh and new and not like any other book on the shelf at Waterstones.

When you receive a three chapter submission what gets you excited enough to ask for the full MS?

I’ve got a big thing about audience control. I want you, as a writer, to demonstrate that you can put me in the emotional state you want me to be in for your work to have the effect you want it to have. I want you to manipulate me! I want you to cause me to feel something, and I want you to demonstrate that you can have me right where you want me for your work to have maximum impact. I want to feel your confidence, I don’t want to have to work to figure out what I’m meant to feel or what I’m meant to follow, I want you to make it easy for me, effortless, more than effortless, I want it to be impossiblenot to feel exactly what you want me to be feeling. There are other boxes to tick – I need to feel confident a book has a place in the market and all the rest of it – but that audience control is really vital for me.

What types of novels and writers would you love to have on your list?

I love a novel that is both commercial in terms of plot and pacing, but that also achieves something over and above that plot. Books with something to say that will get people talking about it. It could be an important message, or it could be a novel use of form and structure, or it could be a high-concept plot that changes what I thought you could do with your chosen genre. There are a lot of books on the market, I want to be working with writers who are producing the work that we’ll all still be talking about decades down the line.

When reading for pleasure, which authors do you enjoy and why?

I don’t represent fantasy or sci-fi, so when I’m reading for pleasure, I love fantasy and sci-fi. Reading the genres I don’t work with lets me really switch of my editor’s brain, I can relax into a narrative without thinking about how I’d have edited it or which editors I’d have sent it to if I was submitting it. I mostly read for pleasure in audiobook format so I can’t even be looking out for typos. It can be very hard to stop myself from working, but that’s the danger of turning your hobby into your job! I recently binged Neal Shusterman’s Arc of a Scythe trilogy, and am hugely enjoying John Gwynne’s Bloodsworn saga, as well as working my way through Sarah. J Maas’s and Leigh Bardugo’s fantasy worlds. I love the classics too, Arthur C Clarke and Tolkien. I’ve even read the Silmarillion in its entirety. I love books that can transport me somewhere, worlds built confidently with relatable human stories at their centres. Ultimately reading always comes down to the same things for me – I want to learn and I want to feel. The easier an author makes it for me to do both those things, the happier I am.

So there you have it! You now have a couple of months to get polishing those first chapters to submit and be in with a chance of winning the feedback and meeting with Eli. He’ll be reading the ten shortlisted chapters to choose the winner.

For an extra boost on creating a novel opening that readers can’t put down, you can buy the replay of Amanda Saint’s popular Fabulous First Chapters workshop.

*The link to watch the workshop is provided on the Stripe payment confirmation page.

Flash In Five October 2023 – Christine Collinson

This month our Flash In Five comes from writer Christine Collinson

A Climmer’s Chance, (click title to read) published by Janus Literary (online) and in A Pillow of White Roses (Ellipsis Zine).

Idea: My sources for generating ideas are quite broad: non-fiction books and articles, historic sites, podcasts, period dramas, and documentaries, are some of my typical starting points. I was listening to a BBC History Extra podcast about birds when I first came across ‘Climmers’ (or Climbers) [Pets, pests & portents: birds through time, April 2022]. This led me to some early film footage of Flamborough Head in Yorkshire [The Egg Harvest of Flamborough Head (1908), Cricks & Sharp]. Although black and white, and silent, it was so absorbing that a story idea emerged almost at once.

Development: A routine working day, perhaps, but what more could lie behind a perilous life at a cliffside? At the time, I was often writing stories around the theme of livelihoods (more on that later). The Climmers’ life clearly leant itself to an atmospheric setting, so I just needed to find that unique character arc. The footage of the workers was my starting point. I then considered what might drive my main character. It’s the same basic question for the past as now: what makes people get up every morning? So, my character’s motivation (aside from earning a living), would be partly romantic endeavour; something to keep his spirits up when the going was hard.

Editing: This story didn’t require too much editing, as occasionally happens, which gave me some confidence that the concept held together well. The film footage was in my mind as I wrote the first draft, so those images really helped to frame the main narrative. I often use first person from the outset and it seemed to lend the immediacy I hoped to convey here. Describing the coastal scene was a joy, but as usual in my work, I tried to avoid common phrases. The one I did use, “As sure as eggs is eggs,” was part of speech, which meant I could get away with it!

Submitting:  I think this piece went out to one or two journals and was declined, initially. Declines affect me less than they used to and I’m fully accepting that historical fiction is not always easy to place. I didn’t make any changes after the declines. With time (years!), I’ve learnt to trust my instincts a little more and I was happy with it. Then, I was approached by Janus Literary inviting me to submit to their Editor’s Showcase. I sent three quite varied flash pieces. A Climmer’s Chance was selected from those and featured in the August 2022 Showcase.

Reflections: When I was compiling my flash collection themed around livelihoods for the 2023 Ellipsis Zine Novella/Collection Competition, A Climmer’s Chance was a natural fit. I’m so pleased that as a result of first prize in that competition, it found a second home in A Pillow of White Roses.

Christine Collinson writes historical short fiction. Her debut collection, A Pillow of White Roses, was published in 2023 by Ellipsis Zine (also available from Amazon UK). Over the past five years, her work has been widely published in online journals and print anthologies. Find her on Bluesky and X @collinson26.

Flash In Five – September 2023 Emily Devane

This month our Flash In Five comes from writer Emily Devane

The Word Swallower (2018) Ellipsis Zine (click title to read)

Idea: This story came about by accident. I wanted to write a piece of flash for the National Flash Fiction Day anthology, on that year’s theme of ‘food’. I still have my notebook, filled with abandoned notes. I wanted to write something that would stand out. It was in thinking around the theme that an idea came to me: what if I told a story about people who eat things that aren’t food? I was familiar with stories about pregnant women craving coal, earth or chalk. I have hypo-sensory tendencies, so this was something I could relate to, albeit in a small way. I went down a lengthy research rabbit hole, exploring the phenomenon of people eating non-food substances. Pica, as it’s known, is classed as an eating disorder. The story started life as a paragraph with the holding title ‘The Paper Eater’.

Development: At the back of my mind was the expression: you are what you eat. I became interested in the concept of a person eating paper, and somehow becoming the words on the page. The story set out in a playful direction. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this but the tale about the eaten lunch ticket actually happened to me, and it provided a humorous jumping off point. Then I thought of other things that might be eaten – and what might be rejected by the discerning paper eater (I had fun with that part!). But at this stage, the story was a series of anecdotes. As I worked on the story, it became clear that this character was eating paper due to a lack of something. By the final draft, this girl has become so shaped by the words she has consumed, she is now unrecognisable to her own mother. Everything slotted into place with that last line – another literalised metaphor. Sometimes that happens, and it feels like magic – a ‘ta-da’ moment.

Editing: During the editing stage, I switched perspectives. In the first draft, the story was told from the mother’s perspective but that made it harder to convey the final message. Third person allowed me to shift tones as the story progressed. I decided the title, ‘The Paper Eater’, wasn’t doing enough work. This girl wasn’t just eating paper, she was consuming words – and swallower seemed to have more resonance as a word. We talk of people swallowing a story whole or being swallowed up by something. That word seemed to better reflect the transformation at the heart of the story, and I felt it would prime the reader for something a little deeper. I still have the first draft of this story and it was one that grew and evolved rather than being honed and polished. I know I’m unusual in this, but I resist over-editing. First drafts have an energy and rhythm to them that’s hard to replicate.

Submitting:  I ended up not sending this to the NFFD anthology – ironically, in my attempt to think outside the box, my story had become too removed from the theme of ‘food’. I submitted the story to Ellipsis Three (the print edition), along with another story, ‘Night Music’. Steve told me he’d like to publish both stories – ‘Night Music’ ended up in the print zine, and ‘The Word Swallower’ was published online. I was thrilled when it was later nominated for Best of the Net and went on to be a finalist.

Reflections: I’m still fond of this piece because it reminds me to play. Too often, I forget that bit!

Emily Devane is a writer, editor and teacher based in Ilkley West Yorkshire. She has taught workshops and courses for Comma Press, Dahlia Press, London Writers’ Cafe and Northern Writers’ Studio. She has won the Bath Flash Fiction Award, a Northern Writers’ Award and a Word Factory Apprenticeship. Emily’s work has been published in Smokelong Quarterly, Best Microfictions Anthology, Lost Balloon, Ambit and others. She is a founding member at FlashBack Fiction. Emily co-hosts Word Factory’s Strike! Short Story Club and runs a monthly social writing group at The Grove Bookshop, Ilkley. Find her on twitter @DevaneEmily and @WordsMoor

Refraction: Combining Contemporary and Historical Fiction

Today on our blog we have a guest post from Jennifer Harris with a fascinating insight into the writing process behind her novel, The Devil Comes To Bonn. And we’re delighted that the book was written on our Novel Creator Course, a year-long online course with support and mentoring, plus the option for a lower cost un-mentored version too.

Straddling past and present via backstory is a standard novel writing tool, but some novels continue the past-present dichotomy throughout, therefore, requiring readers to jump between stories. Well known examples are Restless(2006) by William Boyd and Sarah’s Key (2008) by Tatiana de Rosnay. 

I thought frequently about these novels while writing The Devil Comes to Bonn (2023). I do not know how Boyd would articulate his technical aim in writing Restless, but mine was refraction. I wanted readers to read the contemporary story in The Devil Comes to Bonn as refracted or angled through the historical story.

My 2015 story of Stella, a woman who is bullied at a conference in Germany, was planned to be angled through the experiences of Hildegard, a woman who in 1941 finds herself pushed into the position of chambermaid to Hitler in one of his favourite hotels. By contrast, in Restless, the daughter discovers the historic story of her mother and thus must cope with the unravelling of the life she thought that she lived. In the other example, Sarah’s Key, the present resolves and heals the past as the contemporary story focuses on discovering what happened long ago. The two timelines of these novels have clear narrative links.

At first sight, the 2015 and 1941 stories in The Devil Comes to Bonn have little in common, but the differing responses by the women protagonists to life challenges are the links. In my novel, the women characters have different reactions to what has happened to them and make different life choices. There is no resolution. The refractive angling continues beyond the end of the novel. One woman seems honourable and the other not — or at best confused rather than dishonourable — but at the end who has taken more life leaps? Who has remade herself? 

Refraction in writing distorts and angles and thus creates new ways of seeing, sliding us sometimes subtly between stories, and sometimes brashly. Writing with refraction as my chief tool, meant that neither of the stories in The Devil Comes to Bonn could be told in a straightforward manner; they interrupt each other constantly, sometimes only a page separates them. The aim of the sudden halt of one story and jolting re-starting of the other creates a space for readers to ponder beyond the compulsion of the narrative drive of ‘what next?’  Refraction is a technique of rupture which propels readers into thought; the theoretical aim is for readers to use each story to reflect on the other.  This is not to say, however, that as a writer I want readers to be emotionally detached — far from it.  I want readers to feel strong emotional attachment to relatable characters. 

In Restless, Boyd brought the two timelines together via the plot as the main characters, mother and daughter, confront the antagonist. In The Devil Comes to Bonn, the two storylines come together differently: first via having the two protagonists talk to each other, and secondly by having them overlap in places. They meet repeatedly in the contemporary 2015 story on the shore of the River Rhine. Then they overlap in one room in Hitler’s hotel — but seventy-four years apart. 

I wanted the slightly secondary 1941 story to be as compelling as the modern story without overly reducing the presence on the page of the main protagonist, Stella. That was an on-going challenge. The two women protagonists have well-meaning, loving husbands who overstep loving relationships into the coercive. I use the historical-contemporary refraction to illuminate the long history of moral ambiguity that women often find themselves in — apparently loved and coerced. How should they respond?

My novel also contains references to other historical periods: ancient Roman settlement on the Rhine, and Japanese enslavement of Koreans during World War II. It was a risky leap to use these apparently extraneous historical times as plot points because of the possibility of diluting the central stories. I enjoyed the challenge of keeping readers close to the main protagonist, Stella, while she had life altering emotional responses to historical periods beyond either of the two timelines. With the main character being an historian, it was not unreasonable that she might think beyond the contemporary everyday. 

No-one has yet said to me that it is outside the scope of the intensity of a novel to invoke several other eras. I look forward to more responses.

About Jennifer Harris:

I write literary fiction inspired by the historic environment—not historical fiction, but fiction set in the contemporary era that responds to the past, remembered either publicly in monuments and memorials, or in subtle, private ways. My PhD is in Cultural Heritage theory and I have lectured in and researched cultural heritage and museums for many years. I have run a small museum, and worked as a journalist in Australia and London. I am from Western Australia and have lived also in France and the UK. In 2020 I relocated to Seattle in the spectacular Pacific Northwest of the USA. I enjoy water colour painting, hiking, skiing, dogs – and, of course, visiting heritage sites and museums. Website: https://www.jenniferharriswriter.com

Flash In Five

This month our Flash In Five comes from micro and flash fiction writer James Montgomery

Boys In Boxes (2023) (click title to read)

Idea: Satisfyingly, the idea for this flash started with the very final line: ‘our real lives are waiting, new and ours and unboxed’. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with that line for quite a while, but I knew there was something there, particularly in the use of the word ‘unboxed’. It intrigued me. Originally, I’d thought of doing some kind of story about dolls (?!) but – even before putting fingers to keyboard – I knew it lacked any kind of emotional resonance, at least for me. I hadn’t found the heart of the story. So, I left it alone for a while. A lot of my flashes start in this way; a phrase or collection of words that come to me when I’m doing anything but writing, which keeps me curious.

Development: One evening, I came across an article about those who had died from AIDS in New York in the late 1980s. Unclaimed bodies were sent to Hart Island to be buried in anonymity in a mass grave. The stigma and lifestyle associated with AIDS during this time meant many who died were estranged from their families. Furthermore, private burials were difficult to arrange, as many funeral directors refused to handle AIDS corpses or charged much higher fees. As a gay man, this broke me. Also, I couldn’t imagine how challenging it must have been coming to terms with your sexuality against this backdrop – although, having grown up in the 90s, I certainly experienced its aftereffects. The fact that so many victims were buried in mass graves, without even a coffin – or ‘box’… You can see how my brain started to join the dots together.

Editing: The decision to use first-person plural was fairly instant, as well as the title. I also quickly knew I wanted to use boxes as a repeating motif, to capture pivotal moments during the lives of these boys as they grow up and approach adulthood. I struggled with the first line to begin with, wanting to make the point that so many of these men were buried without even the dignity of a coffin, but it was a challenge to quickly orientate the reader and do all the things good flash should, plus include this kind of detail for the reader without any kind of context. There were also a couple of instances where I was trying to shoehorn the ‘box’ element in a tad too much. In an earlier form, that final sentence began, ‘We free our favourite cassette from its box’, but someone in my writing group pointed out that I needed to trust the reader more; they would recognise this motif even without it being explicitly stated. Also, it meant that the final ‘unboxed’ felt more earned when it arrived. My friend Sherry Morris provided excellent, thoughtful feedback, and my writing group Flash Corral helped further refine it.

Looking back, there were two editing tips that really helped me, which I can recommend. First of all – and we’ve all heard this one repeatedly – but I read it out loud again and again and again, which helped get the rhythm just right. Secondly, and this is a little more unusual, but I became obsessed with a certain pop song around the time when I was writing this story. I would have the song playing on repeat in the background while I worked on it. I’m not going to reveal which song it was, but the track has a yearnful quality to it, which absolutely complemented the tone of this piece. It also helped me find the voice and feel of this story when coming back to working on it. This may be a technique other writers find useful when editing?

Submitting: I’d submitted to the quarterly Reflex Fiction competition a couple of times and never had any joy. Then Reflex announced its winter 2022 round would be the final one, and I knew I needed to have this story ready to submit. Over time, I’ve learned that having a hard and fast deadline is the best motivator for getting anything finished.

Reflections: I feel there’s so much you can learn from just drafting a single story. With this one, I feel like I learned a lot about the power of a motif, the impact sound and rhythm can have, and how infusing sentences with double-meaning can do so much heavy-lifting. I’m still pleased with lines like, ‘as everyday as pouring the last remains of dust from a cereal box’, and what that implies in the context of the story, and these boys smoking a cigarette with ‘Tommy or Rico or Scott’, breathing in ‘how it smoulders – the hit, the rush…’ These kinds of dual layers make a story so much richer. It’s a special story for me and, as it stands, it’s probably the flash I’m most proud of.

James Montgomery lives in Stafford, England. He writes flash fiction and micro fiction. To date, his stories have appeared in Reflex Fiction,Gone Lawn, Maudlin House and elsewhere. He is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee. In 2021, he won the Best Micro Fiction Prize at the Retreat West Awards for ‘The Only Way I Can Make Sense of the Word ‘Recovery’ is to Smash it into Pieces’. He is a member of the Betas & Bludgers and Flash Corral writing groups.

Outside of writing, James works full-time for a leading and award-winning B2B marketing consultancy, directing energy, technology and engineering brands on their content marketing strategies. He has a CIM Diploma in Professional Marketing from the Oxford College of Marketing, an MA degree in Journalism from Staffordshire University, and a First Class BA degree in English Literature from Lancaster University.