Flash and Micro tips from the 2021 Prize Judges

We’re delighted to welcome Michelle Elvy and Tim Craig to the blog today with some helpful insights into their favourite flashes and micros and what they’re hoping to see from the shortlisted stories they read in this year’s Flash Fiction and Micro Fiction Prize. Amanda Saint asked them both some questions and here’s what they had to say…

Flash Fiction tips from Michelle

What’s the best advice you can give to writers looking to master the flash fiction form?

Take your time – and I mean this in every sense. Take time to let an idea simmer. Take time to examine and re-examine. Take time to see what may evolve, even in a short piece of writing. Take time to edit. Take time to let your own style bubble to the surface. Short does not necessarily mean fast; fast may mean forced. Writing flash is a real kick – but if you’re looking to master the form, learn to slow down and listen to everything about your writing: the rhythm and pacing, the sounds and phrasing. The best writing comes with patience, with letting things unfold more naturally.

From my own experience, I can say that both of my recent books came with short bursts of energy and then long periods during which I stepped back from them and waited for the rhythms to sing out. In ‘the everrumble‘, sound is the central thing that matters, so letting the stories that made up that novel take form, each in their own time, made a big difference to the final version of the book.

Same goes for my new collection, ‘the other side of better‘. Some of those stories are from a while back, and I loved coming back to them to see how they slowly morphed into a shape that fit the book. It’s something I live by: I am not one to rush. And in the case of flash, though it may seem like a bit of fast-paced fun, you can gain quite a lot from allowing yourself a bit of time. I find the short form allows a great deal of space for reflection.

Who inspired you when you started writing flash fictions? What was it about their work that resonated with you?

I’ve loved short stories, and then shorter stories, all my life: the way you can build a whole scene, a relationship, a world in space smaller than, say, a novel. I liked writers who could build something complicated in a small space – Steinbeck’s Cannery Row or The Pearl; Kafka’s Metamorphosis; Grass’ Cat and Mouse. Then, I read Nathalie Sarraute’s Tropisms and was fascinated by the way she moves in abstractions while still capturing something real. All of these examples were doing something new in their time – and that idea of breaking down boundaries seems to have stuck with me from an early age.

Flash fiction, then, was a wonderful new form to come to when I first realised what it was, and started writing it. I liked the constraint combined with the way such a small space makes you think outside the square: you’re in the box and you need to get out of it. I liked the freedom that the form suggests and encourages. I liked the way I had to think about the mechanics of writing alongside ideas. The challenge of form and content was irresistible – and still is.

What kinds of stories do you hope to see when reading the shortlist for the Flash Fiction Prize?

I like stories that push their limits – not by mere gimmick, but with layering and critical thought behind the story on the page. Those are the ones that stick, because you find yourself thinking on different aspects of the story, even after the story has ended. I encourage writers to take risks, to try something different – but again, to see where their own explorations might take them.

And I imagine I’ll be reading stories that speak from a real and resonant voice. Being aware of and developing your own way of writing is very important. Even if you are experimenting, keep true to yourself. Your stories will shine – and those are the ones I hope to read on this short list.

What elements will make a story stand out for you when you read the shortlist?

To start: strong character, memorable setting and mood, excellent attention to detail. Something off-beat and sharp-witted will certainly stand out. The poetic nature of the small form is often the thing that drives it: attention to sounds and rhythms on the page. Language- driven stories can be so moving. Adventurous storytelling, too, as well as sensory awareness and wild imagination. And I’ll mention this too – not as glamorous but certainly as important: the mechanics of how we construct realities on the page in terms of the openings and endings, and all that stuff in between.

There is no one right way to write a good piece of flash – another reason I love the form – but there are many elements that can make a small bit of writing really work. And then, a piece that shines has a special lift to it: something that pulls it right off the page and holds it in the air between you and the reading of it.

Who are your favourite flash fiction writers and what do you like so much about their work?

Too many currently writing to name! But two whose work I admire include George Saunders and Sandra Cisnero, both masters in their own way. I like the dry humour and wit alongside warmth and humanity that both manage so beautifully in their work. In the last few years, I find reading any of the Best Micro Fiction or Best Small Fictions volumes a wonderful lesson in concision – with so many different examples of how to go about writing flash fiction. Just pick up any of those volumes: you will not be disappointed, and you’re guaranteed to learn something new with each read.

Micro Fiction tips from Craig

What’s the best advice you can give to writers looking to master the micro fiction form?

Obviously, I would recommend reading a lot of good micro fiction (start with the annual Best Micro Fiction Anthology, the Wigleaf Top 50 and of course the excellent Retreat West Competition Anthologies! But also I would say read a lot of prose poetry: I know that ugly scenes of violence have been known to break out when writers try to agree on the difference between the two things, but don’t let that put you off.

Who inspired you when you started writing micro fictions?

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Jude Higgins. She encouraged my writing and, in organising and inviting me to the Bath Flash Fiction Festival, she introduced me to an entire community of talented short-short fiction writers I am so happy now to call friends.

What kinds of stories do you hope to see when you read the shortlist?

The kind I’m not expecting. Having read for a few micro competitions of late, I would counsel against the commonest themes; i.e., cancer, dementia, my wise Granny, and Aren’t Men Bastards? I’m not saying don’t do them; it’s just a fact that, for a judge, these kind of stories have to work harder to stand out from the crowd.

Is there a micro fiction you wish you’d written that completely blew you away when you first read it?

So many! But ‘Repair Man’ by Kathy Fish would be right up there. A huge amount going on in the spaces between the words. (Read Kathy’s story here)

Who are your favourite micro fiction writers and what do you like so much about their work?

The waters of micro fiction are teeming with talent. For me, it’s the usual suspects: the mighty Kathy Fish, the legendary Meg Pokrass; also Nuala O’Connor, Christopher Allen, Fiona Mackintosh and Stuart Dybek (check out especially his book, ‘Ecstatic Cahoots.’) Geniuses, all.

Michelle Elvy

Michelle Elvy is a writer and editor based in Aotearoa New Zealand. She is founder of National Flash Fiction Day NZ and Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction, and Reviews Editor of Landfall. Her anthology editorial work includes Best Small Fictions (since 2015), Ko Aotearoa Tātou | We Are New Zealand (2020) and Love in the Time of COVID: A Chronicle of a Pandemic, which she is presently curating with Witi Ihimaera. 
Her work has been widely published and anthologized, and her books include the everrumble and a new collection, the other side of better, forthcoming in 2021 from Ad Hoc Fiction.  michelleelvy.com

Tim Craig

Originally from Manchester, Tim Craig lives in London. A winner of the Bridport Prize for Flash Fiction, his stories have placed three times in the Bath Flash Fiction Award and have appeared in both the Best
Microfiction Anthology and the annual BIFFY50 list. He is a
Submissions Editor for Smokelong Quarterly. (Twitter: @timkcraig)

Many thanks to Michelle and Tim. Get reading and then get writing your entries for this year’s prizes! You can win great cash prizes and get published in the annual anthology. See all the info here.