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The Splonk Five: Interview with Christopher Allen

Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with flash? Why it appeals and what frustrates you?

I love that you’ve added frustration to the mix here; I’ll get to that. My relationship with flash began in graduate school. A professor wrote on one of my papers that my writing always felt compressed like little gems—you can imagine how this encouraged and inspired me. Neither of us knew then what she’d started in me. I’ve been writing and editing flash now for 15 years.

As an editor, I love finding the narrative with the tight, solid, and confident flow of flash. At SmokeLong we read around 12,000 submissions each year. Finding that gem is so fulfilling. As a writer I like arriving there, which can take years for some stories—which is the frustrating part. When some people say flash is fast, they might be confusing the process of writing with the moment of reading. Flash should be a burst of energy for the reader but can be a painfully slow slog for the writer. If there is one thing many (flash) writers get wrong, it’s that they send their work out too soon. I’ve certainly been guilty of this.

In terms of construction/technique, how is flash fiction different, in your view, from other genres – in particular poetry (including prose poems) and the short story?

A poem doesn’t need to tell a story, but I think the flash narrative does. Some very famous writers known for writing flash don’t actually write a lot of flash; they write pithy statements about life, eloquent musings, and paragraphs that are profound but lack the narrative arc of a story. In my workshops my students so often say the difference between flash and a short story is that flash is limited to a moment, like a still life or a snapshot. Nothing could be further from the truth. I wish teachers of flash would stop telling people this. Great flash is expansive not limited, energetic not static. The almighty Moment can be at the heart of great flash, but there needs to be story there as well—and that means something beyond the scene wants to happen, both in the interior and exterior worlds of the character(s).

While flash is not limited to a snapshot moment, it usually possesses the urgency of art that can be consumed in a moment: like painting, sculpture, and food. Short stories, as well as longer narratives, usually don’t read with the urgency of flash even if they are under a thousand words. Often, longer ‘page-turner’ narratives read fast because they are plot driven and skim-worthy; flash reads fast because of intuitive syntax and other narrative devices that pull the reader through the story with exciting language. Usually. There are always exceptions, and there is always—thank goodness—innovation. It’s important to maintain a broad, open-minded approach to flash, which takes us to the next question.

Fundamentally, for you what makes a flash piece successful?

Balance. If a narrative is driven solely by a character’s actions—he walked to the window, he put his coffee on the sill, he looked at the birds, he tapped his finger on that damn sill—the text will lack depth. Why not counterbalance all that physical movement with interiority so that the reader knows what’s at stake for the character?

If a narrative is told all in summary, it can lack the immediacy that scenes/dialogue provide.

A narrative with a pithy, innovative concept also needs to work organically within a larger purpose beyond the concept; otherwise the concept feels like a gimmick. A narrative that has something interesting to say about our wide world—society, a folk, the planet—but doesn’t land somewhere in a character’s personal story might not work in flash. I’m always open to someone proving me wrong here, but ultimately I think a solid sense of balance is a vital aspect of successful flash.

Composition. The flash writer is like a photographer who chooses the composition and perspective of the photograph to tell a complex, multi-dimensional story: the proverbial picture that’s worth a thousand words.

Brevity of course. The flash writer has no time for wasteful, loose prose. Think of yourself as a professional platform diver. Once your narrative leaves the platform—in your first sentence—the laws of gravity are pulling you towards the ending. You may manage to do the craziest, most acrobatically creative turns as you plummet, but you have just so much time to reach the water. If the spectators gasp when you enter the water, you know you’ve achieved something exciting.

What flashers do you admire and why? Are there any specific pieces that you found compelling?

I admire writers who put their heart into the form. The pieces I find most compelling are the ones that come from an honest place, which doesn’t mean they have to come from the writer’s own experience. We are actors in a way. Great art happens when great artists share something they are excited to have learned. I most admire writers who create art at the line level while showing me a new way of seeing the world. To name specific writers and specific pieces would be discouraging to the deserving writers I’d leave out.

What flash piece of your own are you most proud of? Where can we read it (if it’s available)?

Thank you for asking. I wouldn’t say that I’m proud of my work; I’m just glad (usually) that it’s out there. I’m very happy when people connect to my stories. I am a full-time editor and publisher, which leaves little time for my own writing. One of my most recent stories is HERE. Thank you so much for these questions.