With the Bumblebee Contest drawing to a close on February 15th, flash fiction maestro and Bumblebee contest judge, Bob Thurber, sat down to give his thoughts on constructing short fiction, the importance of flash fiction, and his process in judging entries.
Pulp Lit: Judging flash fiction stories sounds harder than picking a favourite flavour of gelato. How do you manage to sort through to find a winner? What kind of stories do you gravitate towards?
When I’m judging a contest entry I have to read each submission several times. It’s a tad obsessive, but I like to hum the tune, so to speak. A superior entry is a song I can’t get out of my head.
I wrote a lot of fragmented prose during my apprentice years. Most of it was exercise, practice for some principle or model. Twenty minutes to do such and such. Or forty minutes to build a scene. Over time I developed a nose — and an ear — for a paragraph packing a punch, or a tense sense built by a few weighty lines. (My earliest years were spent reading and rereading stacks of comic books). I’ve always been drawn to and fascinated by how compressed prose, and even sections of longer stories or novels, shifts mood and emotion by throwing the reader slightly off balance, how a stunning line disturbs or redirects, or a compact phrase elevates a character or propels the story with an inference that is bit stranger than one expects. Call it the edge. For me, the sharper that edge the better.
I love the power of a concise prose work that hints at a larger story, one not on the page. This fuller, larger story may be alluded to by the strength and authenticity of the text, by the severity of a rocky voice or unreliably smooth tone, or some other unsettling detail, or some comforting eeriness. Whatever aspect rises up and stands out and overpowers so that I can not help becoming engaged, absorbed, occupied. That’s what I crave as a reader and as an author.
PL: Our Bumblebee contest is up to 750 words. Do you think the longer stories have a better chance at winning?
I wouldn’t say the longer ones have a better chance, no. Though I will say that, for me, the ‘word limit’ defines the size of the canvas. So I tend to fill up the space allotted.
PL: The winner of the contest gets $300 CAD and a year’s subscription to Duotrope. Have you used Duotrope and do you recommend it?
I’ve found Duotrope to be a fantastic resource, great for discovering new markets and finding venues receptive to your work. I’ve watched it grow over the years, and I’ve used it many times, and I highly recommend it.
PL: Why do you think flash fiction is more important than ever for the human race?
Excellent question. And honestly, I don’t have a clue. Brief pieces are certainly more compatible with small screens and busy people. A healthy bite of fiction is always a good thing. But how much and how often one craves another, depends on the reader’s appetite, I would guess.
PL: Have you ever tried to write poetry? What’s the difference for you between poetry and flash fiction?
I’ve written several hundred poems over the years. I’ve sold a few. I studied a lot of poetry early on. I used to jokingly refer to myself as a Sunday Poet, because I’d regularly draft a few poems in my notebook on Sunday mornings. A dozen or so stories that went on to win a prize or find publication were developed from some of those drafted poems. Case in point: ‘Simple Decoration’, which Pulp Literature republished online recently, started as a short and simple poem. (My wife still has a copy). Over time I kept playing with it, adding lines. And it puffed up to a few hundred words. I still had it broken up into a long poem, then it puffed up some more and saw it was clearly a prose piece. But through all the drafts, the first and last line of ‘Simple Decoration’ never changed. It was all Jack that Christmas …
PL: Is there a career to be had in writing short fiction?
As a vocation, yes. As a regular paying occupation, hardly. My first agent, who was a former editor and a remarkably smart and savvy man, told me (rather emphatically) that there wasn’t much demand for short fiction writers. And accordingly, not much fame or fortune. He warned that I’d be hard-pressed to make a name for myself unless I turned my focus to publishing novels. But I’ve never been a good listener.
PL: Tell us what you’re working on. A new novel? Another short story collection?
I generally shy away from discussing any work in progress, but I currently have two more story collections ready to go. Part of my problem is since my agent passed away I’ve been remiss about reaching out to publishers, and I tend to approach them only one at a time. But I also have two novel manuscripts nearly completed, so I’ll need to get my act together fairly soon.
Submit your flash fiction before February 15th — all of us are eager to see what precision-made prose you’ve crafted!