Interview Transcripts

Welcome all.  I was really looking forward to a visit in the chat room with Ken Mullin tonight, but alas, insurmountable hardware and software problems have put an end to our plans.  However, I am impressed with his Flash Fiction and his dedication to the artform and I wanted to share a chat with him even without benefit of live-chat technology.  Below you’ll find my questions in blue and his answers in black.  I’m sorry we couldn’t include audience questions this time, but I did my best to guess what you all might choose to ask. 

 

Thank you, Ken, and I hope you all enjoy his excellent comments and suggestions!

 

            --Mary Rosenblum, Long Ridge Web Editor

 

 

 Ken Mullin lives in South Jersey with his wife and pets; he works fulltime in a hospital medical records department. His fiction has appeared in Inkburns, Inkspin, The First Line, Long Story Short, The SiNK, and The Drabbler.

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Ken, tell us a bit about yourself.  How did you get started in the world of writing?  What kind of fiction do you write?   

Well, Mary, I wrote my first short short in second grade, and the teacher thought it was great. There’s no telling how much influence a few kind words can have on a kid. I wrote and starred in the school Christmas pageant when I was in 8th grade, thanks to the enthusiasm of my English teacher. I wrote folksongs and poetry for a while, and then I started a novel, thinking that I might be able to publish individual chapters as short stories. Finally I discovered Flash which has been my main route of expression in recent years.

 

That’s an early start!  What do you enjoy and what leaves you cold? 

 I like wit in my stories, clever use of language, clever twists and turns, or clever insight that turns a common story into a lesson for life. I’m generally not fond of genre collections, especially those that rely on violence for their “surprise.”

 

 

 It sounds as if ‘clever’ matters to you on many levels.  J  You publish flash fiction…short shorts…as quarterly chapbooks, A Flasher’s Dozen and its sister publication The Lone Flasher.  Maybe you could explain what makes a story ‘flash fiction’?  Is it merely a matter of length? 

 I don’t think Flash Fiction has stopped defining itself yet, but every publication defines Flash Fiction in terms of its length: some publishers accept nothing over 100 words, some lower the bar to 55, but almost all top out at 1000 words. Some refer to anything under 500 as microfiction.

Other than word count, I think of Flash as a quick-and-dirty response to a prompt.

 

  What got you interested in this short short form?

 In the 1980’s I started writing what I called Narrative Sonnets—telling the whole story in fourteen lines. I guess you could call it rhymed Flash! Discontent to tell a story in one sonnet, I started putting sonnets together—a three-sonnet story, a five-sonnet story, a fifteen-sonnet story--culminating with a 116-sonnet murder mystery featuring a young King Arthur as the detective. A lot of fun but obviously not destined for a major publishing house.

 

When I was writing the novel that I mentioned above, I hit a “block,” so I took a virtual class one weekend. Irv Pliskin was in the class, and he convinced me to join the FlashXer list, an exercise group that provides three prompts per week as well as critiques on members’ submissions, and I’ve been mostly writing Flash Fiction since then. They’re a whole lot easier than sonnets … and people are interested in publishing them!

 [The FlashXer list is a Yahoo member-only group.  If you’re a serious flash fiction writer, you can visit the group and ask to join]

 

How does writing flash fiction benefit a novice writer? 

 A lot depends on what kind of a writer uses it. A character-oriented writer can create some characters and throw them into a variety of situations, something new everyday. An action-oriented writer can describe various aspects of the action, like a slow-motion trip through an event. A plot-oriented writer can try out little twists and turns in a few hundred words.

In any case, it’s a project that can be completed in one sitting. Got fifteen minutes? Pick a prompt—a word, a phrase, a character, a setting—consider your options, and then write, write, write. But don’t edit. That’s a whole different process. When you edit a piece, you “finish” it, and this piece isn’t finished yet. Instead let the story rattle around in your head for a while, maybe a day of more, keep a notepad handy to make notes. It’s amazing how much writing your head can do.

If novices can learn the discipline “Write Don’t Edit,” it will benefit their future writing. And the daily practice doesn’t hurt either.

 

Oh, I’m with you there, Ken.  I can’t remind new writers often enough, write first, edit later, don’t try to do both at once!  Is there any down side to writing this form?  What if you ultimately want to write novels?  Will this hurt you?  Or could it actually help you?  And why? 

 How does one write a novel? Words, sentences, paragraphs. Novel writers familiar with Flash can use it in several ways. For one thing, I’ve used it as a method of getting around a “block.” Don’t want to write a whole chapter? Write a Flash version and fill it in later. Or imagine what the characters would have been doing five or ten years before… or after. I have a feeling Audrey Niffenegger used an approach like that for her wonderful novel, The Time Traveler's Wife. Got an outline? Pick a point; write a Flash.

            Wow, Ken, that is a wonderful idea…that flash version of a difficult chapter!  I’m going to try that next time I grind to a halt on a chapter!   So how do you get started writing Flash Fiction?  Is there more to it than just counting words? 

 I think all Flash starts with a prompt whether the prompt is external or internal. Pick one of the seven deadly sins. That’s an external prompt because I gave it to you.  Now what can you do with it? I’d suggest using a character or characters that the reader is already familiar with because such characters come with a rich history that you don’t have to supply--and the reader has certain expectations that you can play with. How about a slothful dragon whose mate isn’t satisfied with the size of their horde? Or how about a vain beautician?

Which reminds me: not all Flash is Fiction. Like narrative poetry, it can contain large chunks of Memoir. Several pieces in The Spring Issue read like Flash Memoir to me.

The very last thing I’d do is count words. I once wrote an 800-word story in response to a publication’s prompt and then discovered that there was a 500-word limit. When I cut it, I thought I’d destroy it, but I really think the cutting strengthened it, made it strong enough to end up in the money! Maybe we should change the term from “cutting” to “pruning.”

 

Ah, pruning is a MUCH better term.  Cutting is surgery and you come out with less than you went in with.  Pruning simply shapes growth.  Do you strive for  a beginning, middle, and end in something this short? 

 Flash is very unlike “academic literature,” which, in my humble opinion, often tends to start in the middle and end in the middle after wandering aimlessly for far too long. With Flash, you need to suck your readers into the situation from word one—possibly even from the title—rush them through the middle before they can catch their breaths, and send them flying with a satisfied smile on their faces.

The beginning is absolutely critical. I can’t get all of my authors to appreciate this, but I usually publish their opening lines on my blog  (http://flashers-dozen.blogspot.com/), so, if you’d like to compare a bunch of opening lines, please give us a visit.

{And give it a visit anyway…it’s a great read! J}

 The middle is least important in many pieces; its best use is to build suspense—set up the doomful fate in the opening and then pick flowers until the tension explodes into the ending, an unexpected ending, if possible. The middle can also be used for back story.

The ending should be satisfying, not necessarily pleasant, but providing a sense of completeness. This can always be aided by referring to some element from earlier in the story, preferably the opening paragraph.

 

 What about characters?  How can you create a real character in a short short like this?

 Details! Details! Details! The stuff that makes great poetry great! Don’t just have your character “take a drink.” There’s a world of difference between “sipped Chardonnay from his Waterford Crystal” and “tossed back the remnants from yesterday’s cardboard coffee cup.” A lot of writers seem to take pleasure in littering their writing with similes, like a herd of bulls in a china shop. Frankly, I’d avoid similes unless they are relevant to the story; that is, the simile in a cowboy story shouldn’t refer to baseball or pirates or sushi—unless it’s relevant. 

 

What do you see as the most important element of a strong Flash Fiction piece? 

 How it begins: either the opening paragraph or the title or both. This is, of course, an oversimplification because, if the rest of the piece doesn’t support the opening, the reader will be disappointed. 

 

 What are some of the common problems you see as an editor of Flash Fiction? 

 Nothing jumps to mind. I’d say my biggest problem is trying to work with authors who wouldn’t recognize a good suggestion if it bit them. Of course, a suggestion is just a suggestion, but, if you don’t want to take it, tell me why; maybe we can work something out. Or maybe you’ll win me over to your side. Unfortunately, I’ve done line-by-line reviews of some pieces, explaining every suggestion, and received practically the same story back a week later. It’s very frustrating.

What usually happens, however, is that the author revises the piece based on some general suggestions. Then I do a line-by-line review, after which we play “word tennis” until we reach a mutually acceptable text. This is a lot easier with short pieces.

 

What about the story idea?  Do you have any tips for a writer whose ideas always seem to be ‘too big’ for Flash Fiction?  How do you ‘think small’ in terms of story ideas?

I don’t think there’s an idea that’s too big for Flash. Some of Jim Heynen’s stories are sheer gems, “simple” works about “common” people that really pack a wallop. He’s teaching at Split Rock in Minneapolis this summer; I took his course several years ago and would highly recommend it.

The problem is not the size of the idea but the number. It’s feasible to have two characters each make a “point,” saving the “best” for last, of course. Any more than two “points” requires the effort of a master.

 

 What do you, as an editor, look for in a Flash Fiction submission?   What matters to you the most?

 A story. You’d be surprised how many “poems” we receive!

But seriously, I think the quickest thing to catch my attention is the “voice,” the way the narrator expresses himself or herself, the way the author tells the story, as if we’re face-to-face and I’m being told about something that’s important to the storyteller, a certain urgency that almost makes me part of the story.

  

Do you ask for revisions?  What makes you decide to ask for that revision rather than rejecting the submission? 

 Sandra and I are great fiddlers, and one of our favorite tunes is “Can this story be saved?” Well, that was a bit too much of a metaphor for me!

The fact is that I want to publish about 17 stories in each issue; we had 28 submissions for The Spring Issue. Rejection is a liability. However, we’ve never rejected a piece without an explanation, and I don’t think we’ve ever accepted a piece without a few changes.

 

 Can a writer actually get paid for something this short?

 Yes, absolutely. Not enough to live on, I assure you, but sometimes enough to produce a sense of accomplishment. We pay $15—but only to subscribers, along with some other perks. I’d love to pay more, but my wife will only allow me so much leeway with our bank account!

I think some authors submit as non-subscribers thinking that I’d be more inclined to choose a story from someone I don’t have to pay, but this isn’t true. In The Spring Issue only three of the eighteen stories came from non-subscribers. I also worry that people may think it’s some kind of clique because the same authors appear in multiple issues, but that’s because they’re good writers, they tell a good story, and they’re willing to work with me to find a mutually acceptable text.

 

  How can writing Flash Fiction benefit a budding writer’s career? 

 Although I don’t put much weight on the “credits” some authors claim, it’s always good to have credits. This does not mean that we don’t work with novices. I know that a couple of my authors are high school girls, but the problem I usually have with them is that they’re not very open to suggestions.

I think the major advantage of Flash is that it can be reworked more easily than larger forms. The author can reconsider every word in a fairly brief period. Also a Flash piece can grow into something bigger if one lets it. Recently I started a response to a prompt; by the time I was done, I had 2400 words. I tried to prune it, but I think it found its own size.

Also, one Flash can lead to another. I responded to a prompt once by setting the story in the Garden of Eden. Three months later I had 60 stories about Adam, Eve, and Snake, almost all of them Flash!

 

 Can you suggest some places to publish Flash Fiction? 

 The market is constantly changing, so I hesitate to make suggestions. Several places that paid me for submissions have since gone under; I don’t think the two facts are related. The thing to do is to get a free subscription to Pamelyn Casto’s “Flash Fiction Flash Newsletter.” Just send a completely blank email to FlashFictionFlash-Subscribe@yahoogroups.com , and you’ll receive a monthly e-letter that includes an article about a publication that pays for Flash, publishing news with website addresses for places that publish Flash, and information about free workshops that deal with Flash and its related forms.

 

{I subscribe to that group and it’s well worth it, if you’re serious about writing Flash Fiction}

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Why do you put the time into your publications?  Why does it matter to you? 

 Has my wife been talking to you? Well, I wish I had an answer worthy of the question, but all I can say is that I think it’s worth doing. Also there aren’t very many hard-copy publications dedicated to Flash, so competition is slim. And besides, I think it might pay off some day in some way that I could never predict.

 

How has editing changed you as a writer?  Has it benefited you?  Hurt you in any way?  Changed your perception of ‘story’ in any way? 

 Everything I do helps me as an author. However, editing takes time--a lot of time—and that’s time I’m not writing. Instead of pouring my ideas into my own work, I’m pouring them into my authors. And instead of submitting work to others, I’m accepting the work of others. So my published credits have dropped off considerably over the last year.

 

 Which do you like better – editing or writing?

 I prefer writing. But I also love teaching, and, to some degree, that’s what editing is. I can’t tell you the number of authors—acceptances and rejections alike—who have told me that they learned something from my review. That’s a great reward!

 

Tell us about your own writing.  Can we go read anything right now?  Do you have something coming out soon? 

 A lot of my pieces have been archived. Two of my favorites can be found at http://www.inkburns.com/html/payday.html  and at http://www.inkspin.com/v02n02/

 I’d suggest Googling “KR Mullin” or “Ken Mullin” or “Kenneth Mullin” and seeing what you come up with. I’m often amazed by my “web presence.” In fact, you ought to Google your own name to see what’s out there with your name on it!

 

As an editor and writer, what is your advice to all our aspiring writers?  What do you feel is the most important thing to do or to keep in mind as you’re trying to break in? 

Be optimistic! Learn from your experiences! Keep practicing! And know that you can’t sell cauliflower to everybody, even if it’s the best that’s ever been grown. The trick is to find a cauliflower eater.

 

That’s marvelous advice, Ken, and something we all need to remember every time we get a rejection slip…that editor just prefers broccoli.  Go find the cauliflower lover.  Thank you so much for taking the time to visit with us, even vicariously.  I am delighted with the current rise of interest in Flash Fiction, I’ve found that it has helped me grow as a short story writer and novelist both, and I highly encourage all of you out there to give it a try…or many tries! 

 

Thank you so much, Ken.  I enjoy your blog! 

 

 

 

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