There is a real artform to writing short stories, and even more with writing flash fiction. Sadly, it is not an artform I have ever mastered, and the vast majority of my own short stories read like chapters from longer works. That doesn't mean I don't appreciate well written short fiction when i come across it, though. it's just that usually while I'm reading it I'm also wishing I had the vaguest idea how to construct something that well for myself.
I was lucky enough to get hold of a pre-release copy of Nik Perring's debut short story collection, Not So Perfect. This stunning little book, published by the innovative Roast Books, is a group of short, short stories - many less than 1,000 words long - that nonetheless entertain and satisfy. let's face it, we've all read stories ten times that length that fail to entertain. There is a skill here, one that the lovely Sally Quilford and Della Galton have discussed in previous interviews, and it is a topic that deserves another visit.
Nik Perring is a writer, and occasional teacher of writing, from the north west. His short stories have been published widely in places including SmokeLong Quarterly, 3 :AM and Word Riot. Not So Perfect, his debut collection of short, short stories is published by Roast Books on June 2nd.
Hi Nik, welcome to the Literary Project! Have you always wanted to write?
Yes, I think so. But I don’t think I’d ever have done anything about it (ie trying to do it properly) had I not been made redundant eight years ago. That gave me the opportunity to give it a go. I am glad I did!
Talk about diverse! Children's educational fiction to your debut collection of flash fiction, Not so Perfect. What are the positives and negatives of writing in such differing styles and formats? Do you have a preference?
I must admit that I do feel much more comfortable and much happier writing the shorter form, and I think even my longer pieces, like my children’s book, are structurally made up of smaller bits – only in I Met a Roman they’re cunningly disguised as chapters!
As for pros and cons. I’m not sure really. I think I always try to put the story first and how it’s written is dictated by what it is. If that makes sense! I think I was much more conscious of my audience with the children’s book (no bad thing!) whereas my short stories are definitely more natural and have more of me in them.
Concentrating on Not So Perfect - could you elaborate on what flash fiction is for those who might not have come across it before?
I certainly can. Flash fiction, or short, short stories, or sudden fiction, are all names for very short stories. I’m not a huge fan of imposing word limits on anything, but as a very rough guide I’d say that flash fiction is a story of less than 1000 words. I should say that although none of the stories in Not So Perfect are particularly long, there are a number that are longer than 1000 words which is why, I think, I prefer the term short, short story; after all, they’re all short stories – just with varying degrees of shortness.
What are the particular attractions and challenges associated with this form?
What attracts me to short stories is their length. A short story collection can offer so many different things (and stories!) when compared to a novel. And that’s not a criticism of the novel in any way – I love them too, just for different reasons.
I think there’s an attraction in the amount of time spent reading them too, and in a way I think short story collections are more like albums. A single story can be read in one sitting (be that two minutes or ten, or whatever) or we can read the whole thing – in order or on shuffle.
Challenges? Well there’s the small number of words you can use. You have to be concise. But – and I do think this is REALLY IMPORTANT: I never set out to write anything of a particular length. I firmly believe that a story will be as long as it needs to be, and as a writer it’s my job to allow that to happen. Once you start trying to shorten a story or to make it longer then something’s lost – and that applies to novels too.
What do you think makes good flash fiction? What advice would you give to someone who hasn't tried their hand at this form before?
Good flash fiction, like any good fiction, should move the reader. It should make them care about who they’re reading about. It should make them laugh or cry or both. Or change them in some way.
And my advice to people who haven’t tried it? Try it!
As Kurt Vonnegut said: start as close to the end as you can.
Many of the stories in Not So Perfect combine the bizarre with the everyday. At the risk of using one of the worst possible questions to ask a writer - where do your ideas come from?
Gawd! Anywhere and everywhere!
I’m definitely one of those What if? writers. That’s usually where my stories, or the ideas for them, come from. You know, what would happen if a schoolboy played with a hand grenade?; or: what if a man told his flowers secrets? I’ll write to find out the answers.
Fiction writers make stuff up – we’re doing that anyway, so why not stretch things when we can? I also find it fun to make (or try to!) the unbelievable seem familiar. Sometimes we do feel like we’re fading, so why not go one step further and actually make that real?
I think it is a real challenge to write from the viewpoint of the opposite sex, yet you pull it off convincingly in several of the stories in Not So Perfect. Do you deliberately set out to write stories from a female viewpoint, or is it just that the characters formed that way?
Thank you! Definitely, definitely it’s that the characters are formed that way. As I said earlier the stories will come from me wondering about something so the characters are already kind of there.
This is something I’ve been asked about a lot recently and I find it difficult to explain, so I’ll try to explain it by showing you how one of the stories came about.
A couple of years ago I had an image of someone decorating their house with Post-it notes. There could be a story there, I thought. And then: Who’d live in a house where the walls were covered in Post-its and why? What are they there for? It didn’t take long at all to realise that it was a woman who was doing this to remind her of something she’d lost. This thing meant that much to her that she’d been compelled to put up all these notes. So the character came from the idea – it could only be her story.
I hope that makes sense!
Also, the themes and emotions I try to address in my stories are, I think (hope!) universal ones, and not gender specific; you don’t have to be female to experience loss, you know?
Can you talk us through your path to publication?
This is going to sound far more simple and easier than it was.
After having work published in magazines, newspapers, journals and on-line since 2003ish I, in 2005, wrote a children’s book. EPS was the one publisher I wanted to publish it (because it was quite specialised –educational, historical fiction, based on the curriculum). I sent it to them and they said yes.
It was a pretty similar story with Not So Perfect. I had all these stories that I’d hoped would be good enough to form a collection and I became aware of Roast Books. I read a couple of their titles (Lizard by L. Schick and An A-Z of Possible Worlds by A. C. Tillyer) and fell in love with what Roast were doing: producing books that were as beautiful and interesting as objects as they were to read. I’d not planned to submit my stories anywhere for a while but, after seeing what Roast had produced I sent them something immediately. They wanted to see the whole book so I sent it to them and got that wonderful ‘Yes!’ a little while later.
The point I should make though is that I worked very, very hard over a long period of time to make my work as good as it could be before I sent anything to anybody.
What are you working on right now?
I’m actually taking a short break from writing so I can concentrate on doing all I can to promote Not So Perfect on wonderful places like here!
The last time I stopped writing for any length of time was in 2006, so I think I deserve it!
It won’t last for long though. I’ll be back to writing stories very soon!
The internet is opening up a lot of new avenues and opportunities for aspiring and new writers, though people aren't always aware of, or taking full advantage of these. In your opinion, what resources / avenues do you think writers should be using more?
Brilliant point, Gemma!
As far as I’m concerned the internet’s a wonderful thing that we should be embracing and using as readers and writers. There are some wonderful on-line lit sites and the quality of work they publish is the same as some of the top print journals. And there is an incredibly large potential audience out there: anyone with an internet connection.
The best writing resource for the internet is, in my opinion, Duotrope’s Digest
And fellow short fiction writer, Tania Hershman lists all the literary mags (on-line and print) from her blog
And finally, can you tell us the best piece of writing advice that anyone ever gave you - and did you follow it?
When I was doing my GCSEs my English teacher, the brilliant Mr Wilson, said that ‘Good writing is apt writing’ and I couldn’t agree more. That was about the first thing that came back to me when I first started to write all those years later. So yes: say what you need to say in the most efficient way possible – use the rights words, no more, no less.
Thanks Nik, good luck with your writing!
Thanks so much for having me on, Gemma!
I hope this interview has inspired a couple of you to take another look at short, short fiction, both to write and to read. Not So Perfect is available here, Nik blogs here and his website can be found over here. Once again, big thanks to Nik for answering my questions, and I hope everyone enjoys Not So Perfect as much as me!