Interview with 2014 Flash Fiction Contest Winner, Jennifer Vandenberg

Jennifer Vendenberg won first place in SFWG’s 2014 Flash Fiction Contest with her story, “Advice from Siblings.”  The theme of the contest was “Evil Christmas” but it was entirely up to the contestants how they wanted to interrupt that theme in 1,000 words or less.

For those that didn’t get the opportunity to read your story, tell us the gist of your tale and the source of your inspiration. 

“Advice from Siblings” is a story about two people who want to break up with each other and their siblings who are giving advice that may or may not be helpful. It explores the idea of what makes a person do evil things and are evil deeds that are done on Christmas too evil to consider.

I had started a dozen stories that were about evil Christmas but I couldn’t finish any of them. They were all heavily Christmas themed, with Santa and elves, and I just couldn’t make Santa evil. With the deadline pressing I started complaining on the page. This is something I often do when I feel I have nothing to write about. I just type all my fears and desires on the page. I am a discovery writer (a pantser) and I find that when I type about what is bothering me a story often emerges. This time my complaining turned into two guys talking over lunch and I realized I could finish this story.

We really liked how “Advice from Siblings” explored a different side to evil than the obvious slasher horror.  Could you maybe go into why you chose that approach?

I rarely read horror and I only watch light horror movies. When I heard the theme was evil Christmas I never thought it would be a slasher story. I always knew I would write about the evil that is more devious and emotionally destructive. This was one reason why none of my Santa stories worked. I could not convince myself or the reader that Santa had any evil in him.

Is flash fiction something you write regularly?  Why or why not?

I love writing short fiction but I find flash fiction to be much harder. The only time I write flash fiction is when I am entering a writing contest. “Advice from Siblings” feels like one scene out of a larger story. Most of the time I would write out the entire story. However, I really liked the challenge of writing flash fiction and I want to do it more often.

Any advice for those interested in experimenting with flash fiction for the first time? 

Keep the number of characters small and focus on one setting. If you do that then you can put a lot of detail in your story even though you don’t have many words to work with. Most of my stories that didn’t work were too complicated and would have been very shallow had I actually squeezed them into a thousand words.

Also, write many versions of the story. I think I was able to finish “Advice from Siblings” because I had written a variety of evil Christmas stories and I learned from those stories what worked and didn’t work for me.

Lastly, never give up. When I didn’t have a finished story two days before the deadline I could have decided it wasn’t important and stopped trying to find the right words. Instead I kept working on it and won. You only lose if you stop writing.

Thank you, Jennifer!  Be sure to check out her other work on Amazon.

Interview with Author Hugh Howey

Hugh Howey is the author of the award-winning Molly Fyde Saga and the New York Times and USA Today bestselling WOOL series. The WOOL OMNIBUS won Kindle Book Review’s 2012 Indie Book of the Year Award — it has been as high as #1 in the Kindle store — and 17 countries have picked up the work for translation. Look for WOOL in hardback in 2013 from Random House UK and keep your fingers crossed that Ridley Scott and Steve Zaillian will do something exciting with the film rights!

Hugh lives in Jupiter, FL with his wife Amber and their dog Bella. When he isn’t writing, he’s reading or taking a photograph.

Welcome to SFWG!  Wool began life as a work of short fiction. What are your thoughts about the status of the short story, the periodicals that publish them and where you think they are going in the future?

I’ve always been a fan of short fiction. I grew up on Philip K. Dick and Asimov and all the “Best of 1990 in Science Fiction” anthologies. It’s been upsetting to watch the decline of these periodicals, but I think the rise of the e-reader has the chance to revive short fiction. I have a Kindle Single that does very well. It sells month after month, and I can’t think of another outlet for short works that would keep giving like this. You’d usually get your 5 cents per word and that was it. You’d hope to get anthologized later.

WOOL is an even better example. A 12,500 word novelette that took off online at 99 cents a pop, WOOL inspired more stories in much the way that THE BATTLEROOM inspired ENDER’S GAME and THE FIREMEN inspired FAHRENHEIT 451. I released more short works in quick succession, combined them into a novel, and that work changed my life. It’s now in over 30 countries, optioned by Ridley Scott, being turned into a graphic novel, has sold over half a million copies, all because of a short work. Yeah, I’m a fan.

How can short stories give a different point of view? What can they explore that a novel cannot?

I have another short work, THE PLAGIARIST, that I don’t think would be as powerful as a novel. With short fiction, you can present an idea and a small cast without losing a grip on the theme of the story. There aren’t so many plot lines twisted around that central kernel. You can also take risks with unhappy or discordant endings, because the build-up isn’t so great. Twilight Zone episodes were remarkable for this. You couldn’t end an entire season of TV with the same ending without upsetting the viewer. With a small and contained story, you can do anything.

I, ZOMBIE is another example. Even though it’s packaged like a novel, it’s really a series of short stories from various POVs. It was going to be a part of the Kindle Serials program, but I worried readers might not get the philosophical roots of the story and didn’t want to drag Amazon down with me. The times I’ve taken the most risk, it’s been with the short form. And along with my greatest risks have come my greatest rewards.

Do you develop worlds to fit with your story, to be an interesting backdrop or create worlds to create conflict for your characters?  Which comes first, story or world?

I start with story. With my MOLLY FYDE series, story came first and world coalesced around that. The same is true of WOOL; the story is about a man grieving for his lost wife, grieving for a ruined world, and setting off in search of hope or at least something like finality. Genre fiction, in my opinion, is strongest when there’s a believable world for the reader to inhabit and most powerful when a story we care about is taking place in that world. You need both, but too often, story is neglected at the expense of some fascinating idea.

When talking about the layers of short stories and world building, how much thought do you put into social commentary in your shorts and how do the worlds you create lend themselves to that commentary?

I’m always thinking of social commentary. Always. A layer it in with my rough draft, and I continue to layer it as I revise. I’m only interested in writing if I can express my thoughts about the human condition. But it is usually subtle, and I don’t care if it’s discovered. It’s there for me and the handful who look for it.

I’m guessing you are a fan of classic science fiction, not much precognition required there.  What is your opinion of science-fiction today, in general?

I don’t read a lot of modern science fiction. I mostly read non fiction these days. I’ve read a few works, though, and enjoyed them. I think some of the classic works were more about the people, more accessible, and that appeals to me. I’m sure there are new stories like this; I just haven’t spent enough time digging through the genre.

Thanks, Hugh!  Interested in reading his work?  Find it here.

Interview with Author Theresa Weir

Theresa Weir (a.k.a. Anne Frasier) is an award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of twenty-three books and numerous short stories that have spanned the genres of suspense, mystery, thriller, romantic suspense, paranormal, and memoir. Her titles have been printed in both hardcover and paperback and translated into twenty languages. Her memoir, The Orchard, was a 2011 Oprah Magazine Fall Pick, Number Two on the Indie Next list, a featured B+ review in Entertainment Weekly, and a Librarians’ Best Books of 2011. Going back to 1988, Weir’s debut title was the cult phenomenon AMAZON LILY, initially published by Pocket Books and later reissued by Bantam Books.

Writing as Theresa Weir she won a RITA for romantic suspense (COOL SHADE), and a year later the Daphne du Maurier for paranormal romance (BAD KARMA). In her more recent Anne Frasier career, her thriller and suspense titles hit the USA Today list (HUSH, SLEEP TIGHT, PLAY DEAD) and were featured in Mystery Guild, Literary Guild, and Book of the Month Club. HUSH was both a RITA and Daphne du Maurier finalist.

Well-known in the mystery community, she served as hardcover judge for the Thriller presented by International Thriller Writers, and was guest of honor at the Diversicon 16 mystery/science fiction conference held in Minneapolis in 2008. Frasier books have received high praise from print publications such as Publishers Weekly, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and Crimespree, as well as online praise from Spinetingler, Book Loons, Armchair Interviews, Sarah Weinman’s Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, and Ali Karim’s Shots Magazine. Her books have featured cover quotes from Lisa Gardner, Jane Ann Krentz, Linda Howard, Kay Hooper, and J.A. Konrath. Her short stories and poetry can be found in DISCOUNT NOIR, ONCE UPON A CRIME, and THE LINEUP, POEMS ON CRIME. She is a member of Sisters in Crime and International Thriller Writers.

Welcome to SFWG! You’ve had a successful career in both the traditional publishing world and as a self-published author, how has short fiction, its audience and its viability changed since you began?

Self-publishing has made it easy to get short stories to readers. In the past, short stories had to sell to magazines, be part of an anthology, or be posted to blogs. It’s very cool to be able to write a short story and upload it to the Internet.

What advice do you have for writers beginning to write short fiction?

Short fiction is so different from a novel. I think of short fiction almost like a good joke, with a hook and a quick build and a punch line. I always try for a twist ending, but sometimes I don’t achieve it. I also think of a short story as a circle. I try to bring the story back to the beginning, but sometimes that’s not possible and the story ends up being more of a straight line. I think practice is the power behind a good short story. If you write one that’s not so great, write another one. And another. You will improve.

How is writing short stories different from novels for you, in terms of your approach, process and mindset?

Years ago I was invited to be part of a short-story anthology and I turned it down, saying I could never write a short story. But now I’m kind of addicted. I love being able to tell a complete story in a short space. And I love not having to deal with the sagging middle and a lengthy outline. I think short stories come closer to perfection than novels. With novels, I usually have something I wish I’d done differently. With a short story, there’s a lot less chance of that because short stories are so distilled.

Do you think an author can make a living off of being a short story writer alone?

I wish we could. I’ve heard of people making a living from it, but I think it would be really, really tough. Maybe if you have hundreds of stories available.

How often do your short stories become novels, or vice versa?

I don’t think I’ve ever turned a short story into a novel, but I did write a short story called Santa’s Little Helper with characters from one of my novels.  However, I have taken really short stories and expanded them to make long short stories.

Thanks Theresa!  Interested in reading her work?  Find it here.