Arts & Writing Craft & Culture Interviews

“Write something you’re burning to tell the world” – SmokeLong Quarterly editor Christopher Allen on writing flash fiction

"Over the years, we’ve dealt with a fair amount of criticism for apparently encouraging smoking. But we don’t! We encourage reading flash fiction instead. Could you imagine? We’d go on our flash breaks. We’d have special areas at airports. We’d have flasher’s cough."
Christopher Allen - editor of Smokelong Quarterly
Christopher Allen – editor of Smokelong Quarterly

‘Flash’ fiction is many things; short, difficult to categorise, easy to read but so much harder to write. These mini narratives, stories that fit neatly in your pocket and can be read in the same amount of time it takes to smoke a cigarette, offer writers the chance to hone their ability to write precisely and concisely – condensing whole plots into the space of a few hundred words. When done well, these miniature stories can transport readers to far off realms and pack emotional sucker punches that leave you reeling.

If you’re new to the world of flash or desperate to learn more about this exciting writing form, you’re in for a treat. That’s because we’ve caught up with a flash fiction legend in Christopher Allen – editor-in-chief of SmokeLong Quarterly, one of the longest running (and perhaps most well-known) online journal dedicated to flash fiction.

Alongside his work with SmokeLong, Allen is the author of the flash fiction collection Other Household Toxins (Matter Press, 2018). His work has appeared in The Best Small Fictions 2019, Booth, PANK, Indiana Review, Split Lip Magazine and lots more. Allen is also a self-described nomad – and it was an absolute pleasure to catch up with him in a conversation where we discuss the craft of flash fiction, the publishing scene in general, as well as some excellent writing advice to anyone looking to launch their own literary careers and get their writing published.

Is writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

Thank you so much for these interesting questions. Writing is a tie with singing. That’s the easy answer. I was always going to be both.

What draws you to flash fiction?

Fate? When I was songwriting, people kept telling me my songs sounded like stories. At graduate school, my professors told me my essays sounded like stories. I tried cramming these stories into novels and screenplays for a while before I found the perfect fit of flash fiction.

Distilling a narrative into a few hundred words is an incredibly challenging task – how do the best flash fiction writers manage this?

Great question. I think you have to find a situation that moves you, the right moment and something profound about that moment—and then of course you need to have a feeling for compression and urgency. But for some flash writers it’s also a challenge to write longer flash-length stories. I’m actually teaching a workshop at the UK Flash Fiction Festival in June on expansion in flash with my fellow editor Helen Rye.

You’re the editor of Smokelong Quarterly, one of the most well-known and longest running literary journals dedicated to flash fiction. When reading pieces that have been submitted to your magazine, what are you looking out for?

Thank you. I’m very proud of SmokeLong’s history and honored to be at the helm. We—the 12 editors who read submissions—are looking for stories so engaging and so emotionally affecting that we can’t stop reading. We are looking for solid narratives that show what flash fiction can do.

Quick question: there was some historic debate about what to call what has become known as ‘flash fiction’. There was ‘micro-fiction’, ‘smokelong fiction’, and ‘flash’, among others. Has ‘flash’ definitively ‘won’ this battle? Why?

Yes. Flash has won. There were lots of others too. Palm fiction, little fiction, sudden fiction, short short stories. For years, “flash” seemed a bit flimsy to describe the form, but we have embraced it. I hope we have also helped to make it something bold, honest, and literary.

Not necessarily a question; but just for clarity, ‘smokelong’ sounds cooler than ‘flash’.

Doesn’t it? Last year I was in Hong Kong, visiting a fellow editor. She helped me find a reference to the idea of “the length of time it would take to smoke a cigarette” in Chinese (since the name SmokeLong is supposed to come from the Chinese for this length of time). We could have smoked six or seven cigarettes in the time it took us to find a reference in a ‘90s Chinese pop song. Over the years, we’ve dealt with a fair amount of criticism for apparently encouraging smoking. But we don’t! We encourage reading flash fiction instead. Could you imagine? We’d go on our flash breaks. We’d have special areas at airports. We’d have flasher’s cough.

Do you feel that there are specific challenges in marketing and promoting flash fiction compared to novels? How do you promote the stories you publish?

The flash fiction community is a cult. If we love a writer, we start chanting until an indie publisher picks them up. But seriously. There are a few superstars who have no problem selling very short prose to big publishers: snippets of this and that, paragraphs of random thoughts, thinly cut slices of life, philosophizing (and calling it flash fiction); but the overwhelming majority of flash fiction writers—who actually write flash fiction—rely on social media and the “loyal community” to get the word out.

The challenge is to get beyond this cult to get our work to the pretty novel readers who cringe and say “Flash fiction?” at a party. “What’s that? I’ve never heard of it. Have you thought about writing a novel?”

You look at some of the novels being published these days and, compared to the world of short & flash fiction, there are so many more sequels, prequels, and franchises. Do you think flash fiction allows writers to become more adventurous?

I’m not sure if flash fiction allows writers to be more adventurous, but the form does allow us to explore more situations, more various literary devices, more characters, more everything (except I suppose words) than the average novelist.

But flash fiction writers do write sequels and prequels and linked stories. Bath Flash Fiction has a regular novella-in-flash competition, and there are lots of chapbook competitions that welcome flash-length stories.

There’s an understandable focus in the writing community around rejection and acceptance in the literary sector. As one of the people in the industry who has the power to choose which stories get published, how would you advise writers to keep going?

Recently there was a discussion on Twitter about rejection. The question was “Why would you keep submitting to a journal who repeatedly rejects your work?” The question was in response to a tweet encouraging people to choose a GIF that represented the face a journal editor makes when they see the writer’s story in the queue. A few months ago SmokeLong accepted a story from a writer who had submitted to us 43 times. Never stop. But also be honest and ask yourself why your work is being rejected.

As an editor I have to think of the writer. Is this writer going to be happy 10 years from now having this story out in the world? I wish a couple of editors had rejected stories of mine 10 years ago.

What are three things a writer can do to write publishable short stories?

  1. Write something you’re burning to tell the world.
  2. Fully imagine the situation.
  3. Read other stories and learn from what you read.

Who inspires you?

Anyone who works hard and is kind.

Are there any specific collections or individual flash fiction pieces you’d recommend others read, and why?

A great place to begin is the current Best Small Fictions. It’s enormous.

The well-documented collapse of authors’ incomes makes it increasingly challenging for writers and artists to pursue their creative goals and also afford to, well, pay the rent. What’s your take on the state of the industry at the moment, and is there anything that can be done?

Some indie publishers of flash fiction are making a little money I think. It’s definitely a niche market. No one is getting rich, but there will always be innovators who manage to make money through publishing. As a writer and a publisher, I have to see this from both sides.

In May 2018, SmokeLong became a paying market. We’re doing our tiny part. All we can do as a journal is try to pay writers as much as we can while looking for ways to pay more. And we do that. This is always on my mind.

Do you have any suggested literary magazines or writing competitions that you’d recommend aspiring writers submit their work to, to help them get noticed?

Yes. And I think it’s so important to send work to competitions. In the flash fiction world there are so many respected contests with big prize money. Here are the biggest (but you can easily Google “Flash Fiction competitions 2020” for more):

The Bath Flash Fiction Award (300 word limit)

The Masters Review

The Mogford Prize (2500 word limit, but no minimum)

The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction

What’s next for you and Smokelong? Any exciting projects in the pipeline?

There are, but I can’t talk about them yet. Right now we are reading entries for the SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction. All the finalists will be compensated and published in the June 17th-anniversary competition issue. And some talented writer will win $2000.

At the end of April we’re also running another 7-week SmokeLong Quarterly Flash Fiction Workshop online with workshop leaders Sherrie Flick, Tara Laskowski, and Christopher Allen (me).

For your readers attending AWP in San Antonio, we are running a micro-fiction competition. Bring a story on paper (400 words or fewer) to the SmokeLong Quarterly table at the bookfair by 4:45 pm on Friday March 6. We’ll announce the winner on Saturday morning and hopefully hand over $200 right there at the fair.

Questions by Professor Wu

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