Q: What made you want to decide to start a journal for just 100 word stories?
Grant Faulkner: A friend introduced me to the form, and I became obsessed with writing 100-word stories. I had been working on a novel for years, so writing these smaller pieces was a nice break, and since I could squeeze them into a somewhat frenzied life as a working parent, they gave me a great sense of creative satisfaction. I could actually finish something.
As I thought about submitting them, though, I realized how few journals were truly dedicated to flash fiction. Since 100-word stories are such a particular form unto themselves, I thought they deserved their own publication. Also, I thought a 100-word story is the perfect length to read online, and we wanted to reach readers where they were.
Fortunately, my friend Lynn Mundell was up for a crazy creative endeavor as well, so we got together in coffee shops and living rooms and hatched this thing. And then the fabulous photo editor Beret Olsen came aboard. Her photos provide a wonderful interplay between story and image.
Q: What do you find the most exciting about this short form of writing? What draws you to it?
Lynn Mundell: I’m drawn to how with every word needing to count, it takes talent, control, and thought to truly succeed. Every time I open up a submission to read, I am fascinated to see where the writer will take me, and hoping that he or she can complete a full rotation of the story with 100 words. When a writer is able to do it, I sometimes get dizzy, I am so thrilled. It’s not so much that the themes are in miniature — we’ve published stories about love lost and found, death, and sausage-making! — but that the focus has to be extra fine.
A lot has been said about how society as a whole has ADD and our devices and screens are making us less able to commit to longer works. I read a lot — paperbacks and my Kindle, biographies and novellas … and flash. Just last week I read a collection of short-shorts by the gifted writer Etgar Keret, for example, who left me with a lot to think about ethics, family, God, and afterlife! I am not reading flash fiction because it is easier or faster, or somehow less. I read it the way I read poetry, because it crystallizes a moment or idea in a way that can be downright heady.
Q: In your opinion, what makes a really excellent 100 word story or a really excellent piece of microfiction?
Grant Faulkner: I think the best 100-word stories possess what Roland Barthes called the punctum—“the sting, speck, cut, prick.” It’s difficult to describe, but a good 100-word story startles the reader in a similar manner. It really bends the language, takes a chance in the structure, or has a distinctive voice.
Flash fiction is inherently experimental because such brevity changes the contours of a conventional story. A flash piece can be a prose poem, a list, a letter, an overheard conversation—as well as a story with a beginning, middle, and end.
I like stories that work with language and mood, and move with a sense of what is left out of the story. Flash fiction is so much about absences and gaps, after all. That said, there still has to be a sense of escalation. Each sentence has to carry a symbolic weight forward and tell a story.
Q: Each story that you publish is accompanied by a photo. How do you choose the photos—how does a photo enhance and evoke the story?
Beret Olsen: On the surface, the first piece Grant and Lynn sent for me to pair with an image (The Story of Us) was about two houses having sex. What could I possibly find that would look like that felt? Clearly this would not be a literal endeavor; I was going to have to surrender to a more non-rational process.
Generally, I read a piece several times, brainstorm lists of objects and ideas and images that appear in my head, and use the ones that resonate as keywords for my searches. Though I’m always looking for strong, provocative images, the visual should not overpower the story, or steer it one way or another, but rather sit in dialogue with it. Perhaps the photograph mirrors the mood or ambiguity, or shows a visceral slice from a single moment in the story.
Q: What are some of your own favorite one hundred word stories or longer microfictions that you’ve come across online? Feel free to include links so others can take a look.
Lynn Mundell: One of my favorite short-short stories of all time is Family by Jensen Beach, published in Necessary Fiction. Read it for the beautiful prose poem quality, the escalating dialogue, and to see how much fine detail within a moment he packs in at the same time he is telling you a huge truth about people.
For 100-word stories specifically, and to see how much a great writer can get done in that amount of space, I’ll turn you on to Hard Time by Courtney Watson, published by 100 Word Story, which gives you both the past and the present and also parallel descriptions of two confined spaces.
Grant Faulkner: There are so many, but in the interest of succinctness, I’ll mention Misty Ellingburg’s Chicken Dance, which was included in the recent Best Small Fictions of 2015. It’s one of those stories that just seems so purely true, and Misty amazingly managed to provide such nuanced textures and vivid characterization in such a short piece. The best 100-word stories do more than one thing, which is challenging.
Beret Olsen: Honestly, it depends on the day. I am continually astonished by what I read; by what can be tucked into so few words. One story that has lingered with me is Never Nine, by Rachel Fogarty-Oleson. Everything about it–the Roman numerals, the medical terms, the economy of language–seemed clinical at first glance, but each time I reread it, it slices deeper. I find it heartbreaking.
Another favorite of mine was from a photo prompt: an image of two identical, facing doors. Eric Skinner managed to write an entire life in 100 words–from beginning to end and even beyond. Called simply Door No. 1, Door No. 2, his piece is simultaneously giddy, painful, and moving.
Q: What kinds of things do you look for when you’re reading submissions to 100 Word Story and deciding what to publish and what not to publish?
Lynn Mundell: The first thing is that the story has to be complete. You wouldn’t tell part of a story and just stop writing halfway if you were a novelist. The same standard holds for a 100-word story. Second, I really like to be surprised — with language, with a truth, with whimsy, with the topic. Sometimes we will receive a number of stories all on the same topic — say, young love ending abruptly. We’ll choose the story that is told differently and goes beyond the obvious. Finally, I want that baby to be spell-checked, edited, and 100 words on the nose: I want that little gem to be loved and polished to a shine by the writer, so there are no obstacles in the way of my loving and admiring it, too.
Q: You publish a photo prompt each month, and then publish the winner. Why do photos and 100-word stories go together? What do you look for in a photo to spark a story?
Beret Olsen: Unlike painters, who begin with a blank canvas and decide what to put on it, photographers begin with the whole world and edit like crazy. Likewise, flash writers begin with an idea or a story and pare it to the very bones—not leaving the skeleton so much as the beating heart. Whether you have 100 words or a single frame, every decision matters: the shutter speed, the verb tense, the time of day. Flash and photography are just different manifestations of the same impulses, so it is not surprising they go well together.
As a visual person, I find looking at an image far less daunting than facing the empty page. It invites me to go inward in a particular direction, ferrying me past all of the usual internal obstacles I hit when I try to write just any story. Instead of limiting them, starting with a visual guide can push people to write something other than what’s on the tip of their brains. A good one gives just enough to hold onto–a gesture, an impression, a postcard–to help writers locate one of their many unknown stories.
Q: What is the best advice you have for writers who want to be published in 100 Word Story?
Grant Faulkner: The simplest and best advice is to read and write a lot–of everything, but especially flash fiction. Read everyone from Borges to Lydia Davis to Hemingway to Stuart Dybeck to many of stories in 100 Word Story (the good thing is that this doesn’t take a lot of time).
Since 100-word stories are so brief, it’s easy to think they’re easy to write, so we often see people’s first attempts. We receive hundreds of submissions for each issue, though, so it’s best to truly hone your skills and submit a story that’s the product of a thoughtful and thorough process.
We sometimes get stories that rely on gimmicks, such as an ending that flips the story with a contrived coincidence rather than through earned character development. We want every story we publish to illustrate life in an interesting, arresting way.
Also, in some ways, writing a good 100-word story is as much about revision as it is about writing. Brevity puts an intensity on every aspect of the story because of the compression of the form. There’s less room for error in a 100-word story than in a longer piece—not only does each sentence matter, but each word matters. So revise, revise, revise.
We encourage everyone to visit and read 100 Word Story to find out more.
Grant Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. His stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, The Southwest Review, PANK, Gargoyle, Eclectica, and Puerto del Sol, among dozens of others. His collection of one hundred 100-word stories, Fissures, has just been released. Find out more at grantfaulkner.com and follow him on Twitter at @grantfaulkner.
Lynn Mundell‘s work has been published in The Sun, Eclectica, Literary Orphans, and other fine journals. More is forthcoming this year in Jellyfish Review, Thrice Fiction, and Five Points. Lynn lives in Northern California, where she co-edits 100 Word Story.
Beret Olsen is a Bay Area writer, teacher, and photographer, the mother of two girls and two blogs, and photo editor for 100 Word Story. Beret’s photography has been shown at sfCamerawork, the Hatch Gallery, and overseas, and is available for viewing at beretolsen.com. You can find her essays at badparenting101.com.