Flash Frontier Editor Rachel Smith talked this month with the 2022 NFFD youth judge about process and scratching out, on taking risks, and tips for writing small fictions.
Rachel Smith: Kia ora, Jack. Your first collection, Acceptable Acts of Arson and other very short stories, was published last year. Can you tell us a little bit about your process of writing – where you take your inspiration from, how do you edit and how you know when to end a story.
Jack Remiel Cottrell: I’m not sure there’s anywhere I don’t take inspiration. A lot of my stories come from my life because my life is ridiculous. Sometimes I borrow events from other people’s lives. I read a lot of different things and take long walks while muttering to myself like a weirdo. (I definitely recommend doing that, btw.)
I still write most of my shorter flash by hand, on every other line of a notebook. Then I edit it once by hand with a lot of crossing out and writing in the margins, and at least once on the computer. Depending on the story, I’ll read it aloud and edit after that, and then I might stop… but often I only stop editing because I cannot stand to look at it anymore or because the deadline has arrived.
RS: What are the stand-out elements that you are looking for in the youth entries this year? What do you value most from young writers?
JRC: I’m looking for stories that are interesting and unusual. Stories that take risks with the form or with the subject.
I want to be made to feel old – young writers should tell stories that are important to them, about the world they are living in, or which offer their perspectives on the past or the future.
When I was writing as a teenager, I thought all my stories were weird. So, I would like to see the stories which writers worry are too weird or won’t be understood. You only get so many years to get away with your writing being ‘raw’ – young writers should make the most of that.
RS: And, conversely, are there any elements in a piece of flash fiction that you would caution against?
JRC: I try not to advise against doing much, because somewhere there is someone doing that thing, and it’s awesome. But there are definitely elements that are harder to make awesome.
So, I will advise against using long fancy words just because you think they sound better. Often, they sound worse and sometimes they don’t mean what you think they mean.
And I’ll advise against trying to cram a whole epic into 300 words, or trying to make a story which is only 42 words long reach 300 words. Some stories are perfect at 42 words, and some stories won’t fit into 300.
RS: What are your top three tips for youth who may be delving into writing flash for the first time?
1. Have fun with it. Even if you want to tell a serious story, you can have fun with long titles, unusual formats, and with the words you use.
2. Be like Santa – write your story and then check it twice. Read it out loud (to yourself or someone else) and make sure it sounds the way you want it to.
3. Take your inspiration wherever you find it. That might be writing prompts, the things you read or watch, or from your own life. You don’t have to follow the truth or come up with a completely brand-new idea. Your story will be original because you wrote it.