The Art of Flash Fiction with Mara
Last week, Mona shared Mara Papavassiliou's flash fiction piece, Dog Teeth. This week she sat down with Mona's Fiction, Poetry and Experimental Forms Editor, Lauren, to chat about crafting a perfect piece of flash fiction and the influences on her own process. Lauren hopes that Mara's wisdom will inspire Monas all over the country to submit their own short fiction to Mona's Issue Three.
Mara, you've recently had a piece of short fiction published on Mona's blog, Dog Teeth. Why did you choose to write that piece as flash fiction rather than the traditional longer short story form? What does flash fiction give the author the opportunity to do that a short story form doesn’t?
I find writing flash fiction to be a very different process than short story writing – it tests writing skills in a different way. With flash fiction, you need to be extremely frugal with your words. With novels and even short stories, you have leeway. But if a sentence or adjective in a 1000, 500, or 200 word flash fiction isn’t contributing to the narrative, it has to be culled, and often that means re-working an entire piece.
Having said that, writing flash fiction also allows for creative experimentation that might and otherwise be too ‘time-costly’ to commit to in a 3000 word short story, so it can be quite satisfying fun to write, especially as a beginner or emerging writer.
I also just love seeing the literary acrobatics writers can come up with under the pressure of those short word counts. For me personally, writing flash fiction has forced me to develop my narrative skills, and hone my eye for the essential ‘story’ I’m trying to tell—something that wasn’t a strong suit of mine!
It also helped hone trust in my own words, and in the reader’s ability to ‘read into’ my story. When you’re working with limited word counts, you need to have faith the reader will be able to ‘read into’ the story you’re trying to tell, and that also means having faith in the words you’ve selected to tell such a story. This has definitely helped me find my voice as a writer.
What are some of your personal favourite flash fiction pieces that have influenced your own writing?
Some of my favourites are:
Black Cockatoos by Katelin Farnsworth — Aniko Press – this is like a surrealist painting transformed into words.
https://rashidawritenow.com/2018/08/05/strands-of-jupiter/ - the understated sadness in this story stayed with me long after I finished reading it.
Heritage by Suzi Mezei — Aniko Press – I love the combination of horror and (spoiler alert) unexpected humour in this.
THROUGH THE WINDOW – Fractured (fracturedlit.com) – I really admire the expressive language in this piece.
Do you think there are settings or themes or characters that lend themselves particularly well to this form?
Thinking about it, I think flash pieces with some aspect of humour, horror, shock or surprise work particularly well, because flash fiction borrows the ‘punchline’ conventions you might find in jokes, but usually to tell a more elaborate story than what you might find in your typical ‘Knock knock; who's there?’ set-up. You can see that in the ‘Heritage’ piece linked above. But it doesn’t always have to be the case – the ‘Black Cockatoos’ piece doesn’t really have a sense of finality, but is still incredibly evocative. I honestly think any setting, theme or character can work with flash fiction. The only limit is the writer’s own imagination.
What are your tips for writing a flash fiction piece?
Good flash fiction combines the narrative force of short stories, evokes the beauty and tone of poetry, and has to be as pithy and punchy as a joke—I think that’s a pretty tall order for as little as 100 words (and something I am still working towards in my own writing). I’ve found working with timed prompts can really help kick-off flash pieces. You may find that after ten minutes of free writing, you’ve come up with eighty per cent of a complete story.
Writing using different prompts can also jolt new perspectives, moods and ideas in your writing, perfect for experimenting with (very) short fiction. Once you’ve fashioned a story under 1000 words, try condensing it further – you may be surprised to find the kernel of the story can be reduced to 200, 100, or even 50 words—and it may work better with less words than you might expect.
Finally, I think leaving a piece alone and coming back to it after a few days or weeks can add useful distance, so you can see how your piece is being ‘read’. This really helps in determining whether the words you’ve selected tell your story as intended.
Mara Papavassiliou is a public servant by day, and writer by night. She currently lives in the Goldfields of Western Australia, where she is inspired by abandoned mine sites and the gothic landscape of the Great Western Woodlands. She has previously been published in Monash University’s Verge journal, and the Centre for Stories’ Under the Paving Stones, the Beach anthology. She aspires to write literary and speculative fiction.