You write in a blogpost published on Words in Place titled ‘JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: From Miss Harrison to Twitter’ that you have always written flash fiction but the industry wasn’t ready for short pieces under 1000 words when you first started writing. Could you describe your journey to publication and your experiences being involved in flash fiction’s development/acceptance in literary circles?
Back in the 80s when I was starting to put stories together there were no ‘short shorts’ – as they were called then – published in the UK, or only as part of longer collections. No magazines, at all. Then in the late 80s I came across the anthologies edited by Shapard (Sudden Fiction, 1983; Sudden Fiction International, 1989) and they were a revelation: very short prose pieces could work as stories! Encouraged, I started sending my longer flashes (over 500 words) around and in 1992 one was picked up by Bete Noir a mainly poetry magazine based in Hull University that lasted a few years: my first ‘flash fiction’ success. That was it until after 2000, when I noticed a number of sites on the web taking what were now called flash fiction.
I had several under-100 word pieces and got five accepted in Flashshot over a couple of years in the early 00s, and longer ones (100-1000 words) in In Posse review, taint magazine and Vestal Review, and in print places like Falling Star and Buffalo Carp. All American or Canadian. It’s only in the last 5 or 6 years that British sites started to appear. Wufniks, Litro, Oblong, Hark, Flash Fiction:The International Short Short Story Magazine (based at Chester University), and lately Spelk and Postcard Fiction all accepted pieces of mine. The U.K. is now catching up, with its National Flash Fiction Day and associated publications and even has a flash fiction festival in Bath. (First of its kind in the UK). Most of the national short story competitions, like Bridport, Fish and Bare Fiction now have ‘flash’ sections. It’s about time. It’s good to see individual flash collections out from U.K. writers such as Gary Duncan and David Swann. We still have a long way to go before we reach the acceptance of the form that exists in North America (see their ‘Best Short Fictions’ series etc.). I’m almost ready to get a collection together, and hope that I can find a U.K. publisher, something that wouldn’t have been possible until fairly recently.
You go on to say: “From the very start, I was writing what are now called “flash fictions” – pieces under 1000 words that were complete. Actually some did provide the germ of longer stories, but most stubbornly refused to, and insisted they were finished.”
What do you think it is that makes any work you do ‘refuse’ to be longer stories? Is it about the way you approach your work, or your style, or something more elusive?
I write in short passages, and some I thought worked as complete pieces, but hoped that they would develop into something longer (and therefore publishable), but just didn’t. They seemed finished. After a while, I realised they were, and I shouldn’t attempt to expand/develop. I’d send them out and if nobody wanted them, so be it. Luckily the market opened up (see above): but many of the pieces I am now having published were written in the 80s and 90s (with revision and sometimes complete overhauls). I had written them off as unpublishable, although I liked them – as much as you can like your own stuff – and kept them together in a handwritten collection.
“Beard’s stories avoid cartoon terrors and verbal trickery, and instead rely for their effects on honest observation and sharp declarative sentences…he achieves a startling poignancy.” – Times Literary Supplement
How do you think you achieve this poignancy in a technical sense, and is ‘sharp declarative sentences’ something you aim for while you write/edit?
I don’t really aim for anything when I write, just accuracy. Does this sentence really convey what I’m after? Does it evoke the right emotion, is the description accurate? I may have learnt my style from the British ‘kitchen sink’ writers I grew up reading. In the 60s at school I discovered Sillitoe, Barstow and Hines. They use sharp declarative sentences I notice – particularly Hines. But what I was interested in was the milieu they portrayed – working class characters in all their glory, not just background noise. I come from a working class family, mum and dad were both factory workers, we lived on a council estate attached to a massive factory that produced pit props and valves for engines, albeit in a rural setting. I revelled in seeing the mores and problems of men and women similar to my neighbours and family being centre stage, in films, music, books, plays. It’s been a shock to see all that recede (with honourable exceptions), and literature and other arts move back to be about the middle classes.* In the 80s I discovered the ‘dirty realists’ in America, and Carver (again a proponent of short declarative sentences) became my hero. So, it’s not a question of aiming for poignancy, it’s more a by-product of my attempt to write the best – the most accurate – stories I can.
*there’s nothing wrong with fiction about the middle classes, of course, and I read and admire much of it, and I am now middle class myself, being a librarian, and my fiction has expanded accordingly to cover teachers/office workers etc.
Your stories seem to focus on characters in the middle of raw/emotionally charged situations. Where do you get your inspiration for such characters and how do you build their lives into such short pieces?
It’s funny because many people describe my stories as ‘not much happening’, but to me ordinary lives are as thrilling, as interesting, as those full of unusual adventures. However there does need to be some emotion to give the stories their charge, some drama to give them shape, so I would try and find the points in the people’s lives I was depicting where there is a choice to make (eg to stay with her husband or not in ‘Above the Shop’), or where the characters are forced to react to – or forced to accept – the machinations of larger agencies (eg the man being made redundant in Taking Doreen out of the Sky or the family not able to get into their house due to a riot in Dad, Mum, Paula and Tom). It’s not something I consciously think about too much, it grows from the notes I make about what I see around me. Inspiration comes from many sources. Mainly not seeing the people I know depicted in stories, as I talk about above. A lot of stories grow from real life events, a particularly fertile source is local newspapers, or stories told to me by (extended) family.
What do you think is the most important aspect of a good short story, if there is such a thing? ie characterisation, setting. And why?
Short stories can take risks, due to their length, they don’t need to conform to the rules of plot, because they’re not hanging around too long. Successful ones can capture a mood, a colour, a glow: do it sharply enough, and you will leave the reader happy (well this reader anyway). Setting to me is always important and probably the starting point for most – eg a factory, a room above a shop, the bar of a pub, a reservoir on the edge of the city. Characters need to work immediately without too much introduction – none in fact, just drop the character into the middle of the action – so strong characterisation helps.
Would you say that writing flash fiction in today’s publishing industry is a viable career/way to make a living, or does it still have a ways to go?
I don’t make a living from either flash or longer stories; I’ve worked as a librarian throughout my writing ‘career’. Altogether in 30 years of writing I have earned about £16,000. Very few writers make a living – most I know have day jobs like creative writing tutors, teachers, editors, waiters etc. Having said that flash seems to be everywhere these days, many competitions, festivals (eg Bath), and finally books coming out, so things are looking up.
What is your writing process and how do you cultivate ideas? Ie differentiate between ideas that can be developed and others that should be discarded?
There’s a bit of a ritual involved: I write in hardback A4 page a day diaries, and I have to fill at least 5 pages every session (I don’t write every day, usually once a week: I am far from being a role model for anyone). This is in the back of the book. Often it’s just crap – things overheard on buses, the weather, something off the radio. Anything to fill up the pages. Then I go through it all looking for a phrase, a sentence, an idea that sticks, and pull that out and write it out again in the front of the book. Gradually, painfully, a story emerges: phrases seem to want to belong in each other’s company, characters develop from a line of description or a repeated phrase. From these beginnings I write them out again in a separate hardback diary I use for first versions or stuff I don’t want to throw away (just yet). I accumulate and write the ‘stories’ out over and over again after the first version book. I can complete 15 or more versions of stories (even flashes, although they tend to be done in 5 or 6 rewrites) before moving on to a third hardback diary where I will write what I think might be the finished version of the story. Often it’s not.
At this stage I finally type it out and take it along to my writers’ group and read aloud and take in the criticism. Although I sometimes bristle initially at critical comments, I trust the group and find (usually) their comments to be very helpful.* After digesting the reaction and adjusting accordingly I’ll type out a version which I normally leave for a month or two while I mull it over, change again, and send off. The whole process is around a year per story, but sometimes I can work on stuff I wrote years ago.
*The group is Tindal Street Fiction Group and I’ve been a member for over 30 years. It’s a very successful group, which has many excellent novelists and story writers as members, including some who are Booker and Orange prize listed, or have won Costa and many other awards, and appeared in numerous anthologies including several Best British Short Stories anthologies. I’ve been lucky to belong to such a prestigious group. Tindal Street Press, which operated for 13 years until it was taken over by Profile Books in 2012, grew out of the group.
What advice do you have for flash fiction and short story writers?
Stick at it, really. Join a group – the best ones are those with selection criteria, so that you know the members are capable writers themselves. I did attend a couple of ‘open’ groups before Tindal and found them to be a disaster, because they were dominated by individuals, or the focus of the group was too wide. If no group exists, start your own. Feedback is essential, and it’s good to have it before you send away. Also reading aloud to an audience is very helpful – you can locate any hitches to the flow, see the impact on listeners. The other advice is read, read and read some more. I read a book a week (because of work and other commitments) which is not enough. I’m looking forward to impending retirement when I hope to read much more. Read the kind of stuff you think you want to write (eg I read a lot of American short story writers), but also outside your area of interest. Follow instincts on this. Or join a social media site, I joined ‘goodreads’ in 2008, which some people call ’Bookface’ and have picked up many recommendations from there).
Alan Beard writes stories and flash fiction. He has two collections out: Taking Doreen out of the Sky (Picador, 1999) and You Don’t Have to Say (Tindal Street Press, 2010). He won the Tom-Gallon award for best short story, and his work has appeared in Best British Short Stories 2011 (Salt) and Best Short Stories (Heinemann, 1991), and in numerous UK, USA and Canadian magazines. He is currently completing a collection of flash fiction. He can be found on Twitter: @AlanBear4
Samantha James is an Australian journalist, creative writer, avid reader and sometimes-artist. She graduated from Curtin University with Honours in Media, Culture and Creative Writing. As a student she volunteered at creative literary journal dotdotdash. After working as a journalist for a few years, she moved to South Korea to teach English, opening up whole worlds of possibilities. In 2016 she is planning to leave behind her life of structure to focus on creative writing, hoping new travel experiences, impulses and cultures will inspire her words on the page.