Friday, April 13, 2012

An Interview with Melanie Faith, Flash Writer and Poetess

Melanie Faith

      Today I'm delighted to post an interview I recently conducted with author Melanie Faith, who writes both flash fiction and poetry. I first met Melanie a little over a year ago and she was my online instructor. In that class she introduced me to writing flash and I loved it. So today she's going to share about writing those types of pieces.

      A little bit about Melanie: Melanie Faith holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte, NC. She has been a small town journalist and an ESL classroom teacher for international students. Currently, she enjoys teaching creative writing classes through WOW! online, as well as tutoring literature and writing at a private college prep high school, and freelance editing. Her writing most recently was published in Mason's Road (Winter 2012 issue) and Origami Poems Project. Her photos were published in Foliate Oak (May 2011 and forthcoming, March 2012), Epiphany Magazine (October 2011), Up The Staircase (Fall 2011), and Ray's Road Review (December 2011). Her poetry was a semi-finalist for the 2011 James Applewhite Poetry Prize, and an essay about editing poetry appeared in the Jan/Feb 2011 issue of Writers’ Journal. An instructional writing article is forthcoming from the British Magazine, The New Writer (Spring 2012). In 2011, her poetry and essays was featured in Referential Magazine (July and June 2011), Tapestry (Delta State U., Spring 2011), and Front Range Review (U. of Montana, Spring 2011). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work won the 2009 Anne E. Sucher Poetry Prize for the Iguana Review.

      And now, the interview.  Enjoy!

     Thank you for talking with me today, Melanie, and for sharing your experiences and insights with my readers. You are very well read and certainly enjoy diverse writing styles. I, myself, really love reading and writing flash and note that this is an up and coming style of writing for young adults. But I see that there are two flash forms. Flash and micro flash. What's the difference between the two?  Flash fiction is a marvelous art form, relying on compression, imagery, and plot twists (what one may call zingers).  There is also a resonance in flash, because there’s little or no time for explication, multiple plots or subplots, or slow rising action—so each word carries extra weight (and sometimes reminds the readers of words not used).  There’s a precision and exploratory nature to writing and developing a good flash story—often involving careful editing for unnecessary details or wordy phrases as well as choosing words for the best connotations.  

The central difference between flash fiction and micro fiction is length.  While there is some debate about how long a flash should be as well as how long a micro flash should be, as the names suggest—flash fiction stories are longer (at a few hundred to a thousand words) and micro fictions are generally under 250 words (although I’ve often read much shorter micro flashes of between 25 and 100 words).  I just read and shared with students some excellent micro fictions of under 250 words each from a volume called Hint Fiction by Robert Swartwood. Micro fiction also tends to rely on suggestion much more than flash fiction.  For example, a flash story is more likely to more than one character and to develop the setting or central conflict much more than in a micro.  Other than length constrictions and fewer directly stated images, settings, and characters, flash fiction and micro fiction share far more than they differ.  J  

·          Sometimes when I read flash, I think there's a subtle link between it and poetry. Yet they are distinctly different. I know that you write a lot of poetry, but what inspired you to write and teach flash? I first became interested in flash fiction when I studied the genre in a grad school seminar. After grad school, I read through several excellent collections of flash fiction, including Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories and Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories (which I’ve used as part of the courses I’ve taught).   Here was a genre which had the keen appreciation for imagery that poetry has while also the best features of fiction—strong characters, intriguing plot(s), focused dialogue. At the same time, flash fiction is super compressed and tends to have a quirky, twisting ending or a slightly surreal setting.  Each piece is like its own world, waiting for the reader to open the door to enter into the narrative’s room. J  I love the joy and challenge of sharing tips for writing students’ own flashes as well as appreciating the flash stories other authors have already penned.

·         I like your idea that flash can be likened to entering the narrative's room.  When you said that I imagined that flash is the room while longer pieces can be more like roaming through an entire house. Poetry can possibly be shorter still, such as looking into a very interesting closet in a room. So I see why you would be as interested in flash as you are in poetry. When did you start writing flash? I started writing flash fiction in grad school, six years ago.  While I have an MFA in creative writing, concentration in poetry, part of the program I attended involved taking seminars in other genres (including fiction, drama, and creative nonfiction) as well, which very much appealed to me.  I began my writing career, years and years before graduated school, as a fiction writer and still read quite a bit of fiction.  Flash appeals to me in that, as in poetry, so much narrative is accomplished in such a small space.

·         Flash always seems to have a title. How important is the title in flash writing? As flash fiction must be under 1,000 words (although many publications even suggest under 500 words for flash fiction submissions), there is very little space to spare. An excellent title can not only save space in the body of the story itself, but may also set up a setting, a key theme, or a central image.  It’s very important, as in other fiction, that the title not give away entirely the central mystery of the plot.

 That makes the title critically important, then. So how do you come up with a good one? Another great question! I was just discussing with a few friends last week how challenging crafting titles can be.  I usually wait until I’ve written most (if not all) of the first draft before creating titles. For my own flashes, I tend to highlight a key visual image or the central conflict in my flash titles.  For instance, I just wrote a 300 word flash a few weeks ago about a couple on tour who are escaping a soon-to-erupt tsunami.  That particular flash is entitled “Tsunami Morning.”  After noting the storm in the title, I was free not to take up space noting the storm directly again, while also pinpointing the central conflict from the get-go.  Sometimes, I will point to settings for titles, such as in another of my recent flashes I’ve called “The Home Place,” after a rich family’s garden a teenager is hired to landscape which the reader soon discovers should actually be his own land but (for various reasons) is not. 

 I'm going to have to re-think some of my own titles. In reading and writing a piece of flash, how much of it is realistic? While it depends upon each particular writer’s vision for her/his piece, I’d say that flash fiction stories tend to have more surrealistic and fanciful elements than more traditional short stories do, particularly with zinging endings.  On the other hand, much like in all other genres of fiction, flashes rely on realistic dialogue, characters who are undergoing life changes, strong and focused narration without extraneous tangents or images, and a central conflict.

 I know you've read a lot of flash and it would be hard to remember them all. What pieces have stayed with you the longest? Russell Edson’s piece, “Ape,” which is sometimes considered a prose poem and sometimes considered a flash, is searing and startling.  Since hearing it as part of a grad school seminar, I’ve never forgotten it, and I’ve shared it with both my high school students and my online students in a few courses.  Also, “My Date with Neanderthal Woman,” by David Galef, inspired me and cracked me up enough that I remembered it and included it into my flash fiction course handouts, to share with my students.

 In our lives all of us can point to teachers or people we admire and wish we could just keep around to give us advice, support us, and sometimes even encourage us when we feel stuck. In the world of flash writing, if you had to choose, which flash writer would you consider a mentor, even if you could never talk to the person? Great question!  Might as well just shoot straight to the tippy-top and site Hemingway’s “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.” That story just phenomenally moves me every time I read it—with a one-two punch to the gut.  There’s tension, inherent in the grief. There’s that powerful symbolic image of the child’s shoes.  There’s a suggested narrative. There are at least two characters if not three—a parent or parents and the recently deceased child.  Without a doubt, Hemingway’s example is a masterpiece.  Still, there are many other flash authors who may not be quite as well-known outside of literary circles whose work impresses and inspires me, from Padgett Powell to Russell Edson, David Galef, and Etgar Keret.

You're been very generous in sharing the work of others in this interview, but what are your own current projects?  Thanks for asking. J   I’m quite excited to be in the midst of putting together a chapbook of my poems, tentatively entitled (for the moment, at least) To Waken is To Begin. Some of the poems are brand-new (written in the past three months) while others are favorites from the past four or five years.  It’s an amusing and ongoing process, noting how various narrative threads run through pieces written in vastly different time periods and literary influences.  The poetry chapbook, however, is just one of my projects in the works.  I have an article coming out with The New Writer, a British magazine for writers, in the Spring of 2012, and I’ll be teaching two more classes for WOW!, including a poetry writing seminar that kick-starts for National Poetry Month on Friday, April 13th as well as offering the fantastic Spark and Sizzle flash fiction writing course again, beginning on June 1st.  I’m also sending my own flash fictions to literary magazines and working on some other prose I’m pitching to magazines.  I like to keep several types of writing projects going at a time, submitting three submissions a month to editors’ desks so there is a batch of my work in circulation while I get back to work and writing new pieces. J

      Can you share a little of your current flash work with us?
Sure.  Here are the first two paragraphs of my (aforementioned) recent flash fiction, “The Home Place.”
     Knee-deep in the yarrow and sawgrass, I’m sweating it out on Old John Slade’s property. After school.  75 cents an hour. Bobby Slade cuts me a check every other Friday.
     “Avoid running that tiller into the slops, boy,” Bobby Slade warns, handing over the key on a frayed shoelace.  “You do and you’ll rue the day.”
      I'd like to read the rest of that. It looks like the kid and the slops may somehow collide and that can't be good, but maybe it might be. What is the hardest part of writing flash? For me, the most challenging part is compression. I love what Michael Wilson, author of Flash Writing: How to Write, Revise and Publish Stories Less than 1000 Words Long, writes: “It is far easier to write a long story, wasting words, wandering off on tangents, introducing interesting characters that have nothing to do with the main story. But flash fiction is coiled like a spring. There is no wasted energy in flash fiction.  Every word in your story counts and drives you toward the conclusion.” Here’s my general flash writing and editing process, especially for editing for compression of narrative: after the rough draft, I spend three or four drafts going through the work, with a fine-tooth comb so to speak, editing out unnecessary phrases, omitting images which don’t contribute to the tension as well as repetitions, and cutting down on wordy prepositional phrases.  Then, I print out a copy of the flash-in-progress, to read through the work offline.  It’s amazing how much a hard-copy can bring to light. After making notes on my hard copy, I go back into my computer draft and tinker a bit more.  I usually write between eight and ten drafts until I feel that the flash is ready to submit to literary journals, but the biggest challenge in the process is being terse enough for the word limit.
 Eight to ten drafts. That's a lot of dedication and determination. When you're working through those pieces, what do they teach you as you go along?  I love the exploratory nature of writing flashes. Generally, I receive a bolt out of the blue piece of dialogue or a character, and I’m off and writing a rough draft. Once, last September, I awoke from a nap to a line of dialogue from a single father trying to take care of his dog and his daughter amidst a washer overflowing, and I ran to my laptop in a mad dash (not brushing my hair or changing out of my pjs, and barely even putting on my glasses).  It was such fun meeting my characters on the page! J  I love that feeling and to hearing similar stories from my flash-writing students.  I think that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned from writing a flash piece—at its best writing flashes is pure play, like a kid in a candy store (at least until the first draft is finished, then it’s editing time, which can be challenging but amusing in its own right).   
      I like the idea of meeting your characters on the page. Do you have any advice for flash writers and aspiring flash writers?  No matter what-- keep writing! J  Also, it can’t hurt to revisit your flash drafts and edit for compression and focus of imagery.  Cut down on prepositional phrases and unrelated phrases which might sound interesting but are unrelated to the actual conflict of the flash story.  

      Thank you, Melanie, for taking the time to be with us today and giving us a broader understanding of flash and the process of writing it. I'll keep my fingers crossed about your current submissions. Also, congratulations on the publication of your latest book, To Waken is to Begin" set for publication in September 2012.


       Readers, please leave a comment about your favorite flash ideas or stories.


  1. I enjoyed reading the interview. As a non-writer, it was very interesting to learn exactly what flash writing is all about. It almost makes me want to take up the pen (or keyboard). :) I will be looking for some of Melanie's writings.

    Colette Ledford

    1. Thanks for reading the interview. I write a lot of flash and while it can sometimes be tough not to max out on word length, it always feels like a "doable" piece of writing.

  2. Dear Colette,

    Thanks for your wonderful posting. I appreciate your kindness. :) As Holly says, the word count for flash fiction is limited, but "always feels like a 'doable' piece of writing." :) Once you start to write one or two, they become addictive.

    It was a joy to be featured at Holly's blog. :) Wishing both of your writing well!

    Melanie Faith