Today, I welcome Tim Stevenson to my blog. Tim is a 1000words National Flash-Fiction Day Competition winner and the author of the flash-fiction collection The Book of Small Changes which I reviewed here on Monday. In case you didn’t read my review, let me summarise it for you: The Book of Small Changes is very, very good. I enjoyed the writing and the stories immensely, and so I have invited Tim here today to talk about both … as well as a few other things.
Hi, Tim. Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. I know it’s a long time ago now, but can you tell us what prompted you to enter the 2013 1000words NNFD competition?
Hi Natalie, thank you for having me.
I had found out about Flash-Fiction through a course at New Writing South run by Vanessa Gebbie and Tania Hershman (many thanks to my wife for driving me down to Brighton for the day, we had a wonderful time and she has just learned she has been short-listed for the Bridport Flash-Fiction prize so they must be doing something right). Months later, after many false starts, I found I had been placed in the top 10 in the National Flash-Fiction Day 2012 100 Word competition. It was the first writing competition I had ever entered. The NFFD experience showed how vibrant the Flash Fiction scene is and soon I found plenty of websites and blogs that were dedicated to – or at least very interested in – the form. The 1000Words site in particular caught my eye as it used photographs as prompts rather than calling out for general submissions. This was an interesting starting point as the photos opened up the scope of what was possible rather than narrowing it by using a theme or a title as a prompt for entry.
Congratulations on the publication, earlier this year, of your flash-fiction collection, The Book of Small Changes. I enjoyed it very much and was delighted to discover that two of the stories had been originally published at 1000words. Can you give us an insight into how you get from an image prompt to a final flash-fiction?
Thank you. I can’t tell you how marvellous it was to have an entire collection published by Gumbo. (Cheers to Calum Kerr!)
The collection came less from image prompts than it did from the text of the I Ching (an ancient Chinese divinatory method that’s like a cross between rune throwing and astrology that reads like badly translated stereo instructions such as “Please to be pressing the clock of setting three time for the start” and so on). However, I had written some of the flashes previously and simply found they were a good fit. Maybe it’s cheating, maybe it’s not, but it worked and I didn’t waste any words.
For the two flashes that appeared in both 1000Words and The Book Of Small Changes; the picture prompts were simple ones – an old man feeding the pigeons and a red flower in the snow.
The old man made me think of a veteran, and the pigeons, therefore, became carrier pigeons relaying messages to the front. My great-grandfather Tom was gassed in the trenches in the First World War and lived with the after effects of mustard gas for the rest of his life, so I began to think about him and about chemical warfare and how a pigeon could be used to bring a subtle and infectious end to the enemy’s generals. Once I had filled the carrier pigeon’s canister with fleas (so to speak) the rest of the story came easily.
The story that sprang from the flower in the snow was quite different, and I’m less sure of its origin and the reasons for my choices. I saw a splash of blood against the white, but no footprints around it, the beginning of a good murder mystery, and then a man fleeing. The man was running before the battle to get help, he hasn’t seen the blood (because it hasn’t happened yet) and he wants to avoid any being shed. Who would a man flee to that he would value above his own men? That was the question that led me across the valley through a snow storm and up the mountain to the witches and their wise mercies.
In general I use a lot of free-association, a lot of asking myself “What If?” and “Why?”. An image is only, after all, a collection of objects in a setting. I remove the setting and concentrate on each of the objects in turn and think about their uses, their context, other places they might appear, colour, texture, sound etc. and usually I will see a connection two or three steps down the line that might make something interesting once I get started.
Or, sometimes, it just happens, and there is no why.
Other than images, what inspires your writing?
Other people’s writing. It is so important to be a good reader – and by that I mean a reader that explores many genres and many authors. A good writer has a little of the magpie about them (so says Phillip Pullman), a phrase here, a descriptive turn there, to twist and redraft and make your own. I read everything – non-fiction works on consciousness, decades old manuals for foreign diplomats, dictionaries of pickpocket slang (the excellent and quite hilarious “The Vulgar Tongue”) to any novel or short story collection I can get my hands on. You never know where a good prompt will come from. Try and get outside your comfort zone into genres you wouldn’t normally read (some examples in my case were Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”, Mary Robison’s “Why Did I Ever” and Andrew Kaufman’s “The Tiny Wife”). These have been my biggest surprises and best inspirations.
Which writers (or other creatives) have inspired you?
Now, that is a long list.
For writers I’ll start with M R James and H P Lovecraft, Conan-Doyle and Dickens. Then go via Italo Calvino, Hunter S. Thompson, Alice Munro and Elizabeth Taylor, Roald Dahl, T H White, Douglas Adams, Richard Matheson and Philip K Dick – all the way to William Gibson, Murakami, Roberto Bolano, Yoko Ogawa and Neil Gaiman. Every single one of them gave me three things: a love of language, a indefatigable desire to be a writer and and ear for a great story.
Also, I like to listen to music when I write, usually something to match the mood of the piece and instrumental for preference. Movie soundtracks, Tangerine Dream, a bit of classical, a bit of electronica and repeats of Radio 3s “Late Junction” on iPlayer.
Lastly, to give art a mention, Edward Hopper’s 1942 “Nighthawks” – I am convinced that you could write an entire novel about the single moment in that painting. Pablo Picasso’s 1905 “Girl In a Chemise” – for exactly the same reason. Lastly Mark Rothko’s 1958 “The Seagram Murals” because they scare me if I think about them for too long.
What is it that you like about reading and/or writing flash-fiction?
I’m amazed at how much can be done with so little. Flash gets straight to the point and tells the pure story. Less is indeed more. That last sentence was intentional.
What tips would you give to aspiring flash-fiction writers?
Read. You never know where a good prompt will come from. Try and get into books you wouldn’t normally read. Expose yourself to as many writing styles as possible and see how the writer has taken the language and made it entirely their own and learn what ever you can from them. Even if you only learn one thing from reading a story or a novel it will have been worth the effort.
Write. I find good flash comes from Writing Long and then Editing Short. Adding words, I find, is always harder than removing them.
Listen. Get feedback from people who also write and be open to that feedback. Join a writing circle, take part in forums, go to festivals and open mic nights and any readings you can. Take part. The best feedback comes from getting involved. Take all good advice into account. And my wife has just reminded me that “you all can’t please all the people all the time” as you will end up writing by committee and losing your own voice.
Don’t explain. If your work needs an explanation as to why the reader has misunderstood it – rewrite it until no further explanation is required. (I know some work is ambiguous, but this must be a choice rather than a bi-product of poor writing).
Re-write. Resubmit. Get new feedback. Decide when enough is enough and any further tinkering will detract from the writing rather than improve it.
Keep a notebook. Carry it everywhere. Never leave writing an idea down until later, it will be too late. I learned this the hard way.
Read your work out loud. This will help you get a sense of the rhythm of the words, the lengths of lines, the breaks, the dialogue. Reading aloud also helps catch mistakes that you might have missed on the page.
Enter competitions. There are plenty to choose from. Read the entry criteria carefully and read previous entries / winners to get a sense of what the judges are after. Try not to bite your nails too much while waiting for the results.
Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Remember to thank your wife.
Thanks again for agreeing to be interviewed. Before we let you go though, is there anything else you’d like us to know, any new writing projects you’re working on?
I have finished a collection of thirteen longer short stories called “On Cleanliness and Other Things”, one of which “Watching” has just won runner-up in the Synaesthesia 2014 Short Story Competition and two others are already published elsewhere. The collection has been submitted to several publishers and other stories from it are currently in competition.
I am also halfway through a rather large novel called “All The Secret Names” – that should be finished next year.
My collection “The Book Of Small Changes” is available here and you can follow me on Twitter here.