Interview with Tommy Dean

We’re thrilled to have you with us at NFFR Tommy as Director of Interviews! Will you tell us about what you’ll be focusing on with your interview series?

I’m so excited to be able to talk to writers I’ve long admired about writing flash and micro stories. I’ll be working with a forthcoming Norton anthology, New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction, edited by James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018), as primary text. I’ll be talking with participating contributing authors about the craft of writing microfiction, and specifically about their process in creating these pieces selected by the Norton anthology editors. My series started last week. I began by interviewing Meg Pokrass. Pokrass is a New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction contributor, as well as New Flash Fiction Review‘s Founding Editor.

As with this first interview, I’m hoping to have authors look closely at their craft decisions and talk about how these stories originated, the difficulties and the joys of writing on a small scale. When I first started working on my own craft, I scoured the internet and bookstores looking for interviews with writers talking about craft. There’s a beauty in a writer trying to distill the magic of creation into useful tips that could help other writers face the blank page. Though reductive in nature, interviews are closest the reader can get to being in the mind of the writer, to feel the frustration and sweet release of creation. I’m obsessed with peeking behind the curtain, learning anything I can from the masters of craft and narrative. I hope, too, that there are other readers and writers out there that are just as obsessed, that for a few minutes want to get inside the artist’s mind.

How do you stay creative? What are your tricks to get “unstuck?”

I work on a lot of stories or projects at once. If I get “stuck” (which really means there’s some form of anxiety or fear of not being up to the task) I switch to another story. I use a lot of photographs as prompts. A narrative is usually hiding somewhere in the photo, and it really fires up my creativity. With flash and micro, I usually have a line or an image and I try to write the rough draft as quickly as possible in as few sittings as possible. If I’m still really struggling, I go back to reading. I’m constantly seeking out new models for craft and inspiration.

At different points have you had mentors? Do you mentor?

This is an important question for me, because like a lot of writers, I don’t always feel like I fit in, that socially I’m between groups. My MFA didn’t quite provide the steady supportive cohort I was hoping to find, but I’ve found a very supportive group of writers on Twitter. They’ve become my creative lifeline. I try to be an active literary citizen. That’s one of the reasons I started doing interviews. I was reading all of these amazing stories, sharing them with my followers, and I wanted to do something more, add to the conversation in a way that would not only help me grow as a writer but help other writers promote their own stories in a natural, organic way.

I’m hoping to expand my own sense of mentorship. I keep thinking about what my needs were as a young writer in a small town in the midwest, how I longed for a deeper connection with more writers. It took me a long time to feel like I was a “writer” and I’d love to help more beginning writers. I look forward to the day I can help more. I really love to connect with writers of all skill levels while on Twitter, so please come say hello!  I’d like to teach some online flash writing classes in the future, too. I think I might be able to contribute in that capacity soon.

What things have you had to unlearn as a writer?

When I first started I fell in love with similes. I thought I was great at them and I’d throw them into a manuscript like shredded cheese on a taco. Less is definitely more. I’m still struggling with over-explaining. Giving it one sentence too many. You do this for every image, every feeling, and the writing becomes bloated, a slog for the reader. Flash is teaching me concision, to rely on the one perfect detail, image, action. I’m constantly trying to unlearn the feeling of anxiety, the pursuit of perfection that writing often engenders. There’s the constant guilt of not writing, of not accomplishing more. I’m learning to just try to put in the work, to trust myself.

Best writing advice you have ever had?

For flash, write a startling first line, follow that up with a line that is in opposition to that line or that challenges that line, continue until the end of the story. For longer works, just keep writing. Slog through the hard parts or the slightly boring parts until the story starts humming again. You can always fix or cut these parts, and you never know what you’ll find in your story from writing with abandon. It’s such good advice because some of my more startling revelations about character and plot often come from this willingness to stay engaged with the work on the page. I really don’t trust this process enough.

*Write whenever you can, even in short bursts, in those in-between minutes.

*Take whatever you’re working on with you everywhere, so you can follow the advice above!

Tell us about a favorite writing exercise.

When I was reading submissions for a lit magazine, I noticed that a lot of stories refused to start with conflict, especially those stories trying for a unique voice. I truly believe that stories are about characters facing problems. Flash requires that we get at least a glimmer of the occasion, conflict, problem as soon as possible. We’ve got to see characters struggling, fighting, gnashing their teeth, or politely refusing to lift their pinkies while drinking tea with the Queen. Find a story you’ve been working on that just hasn’t come together. Try to zero in on what the main conflict is, and get at least a glimmer of that conflict into the first couple of lines of the story. Really look at the exposition: is it needed to understand the character, plot, structure? If not, cut it. Should the exposition come much later in the story? How can you cut this exposition down to one line, one specific detail? What are your characters willing to fight for or over? What are their red lines? What are they willing to do to survive? What do they have to do to survive? You’ve created this character, what is the one moment in their lives that will speak for who they are, who they were, who they will be? You only get this one moment, how can you make it brief, startling, apt, poignant, and satisfying all at once?

What are you working on now? Where do you hope to be in your writing life at this same time next year?

I’m constantly working on writing more flash and micro. I have one of my best ideas yet for a novel, but the immediacy of flash keeps calling me back. I really hope that my writing is getting stronger, that I’m willing to take more risks, that my tolerance to live in/with failure will improve, that I’m willing to be satisfied with writing most days, of doing what Richard Bausch calls, “Putting in the days work.” And like most of us, I want to write the best novel, story collection, flash, micro, sentence, image I can, and find as many readers for this work that I can. I want to continue to do interviews, be in communion with writers, grow my writing community and be a good steward of my opportunities!

How long does it take you to finish writing a flash?

If I’m really focused, and the story is firing on all cylinders, I can have a pretty clean draft of a flash in an hour or two. But I’m learning to be more patient, allow my subconscious to do more work in the background. I often write 1 scene stories, with not much passage of time. I’m trying to break this mode, breath more life into my characters. But I’ll tell you it’s a struggle. One of the reasons I love flash is that it can sometimes be written very quickly. I like the sense of completion. I like the thrill of being able to write something one day, revise the next, and then send it out in the world. That’s probably why I’m struggling so much trying to write a novel. At the end of each writing day, I know that this work isn’t going to be seen for a very long time, maybe never.

And if I’m being honest, some just won’t ever be finished. But that’s the thrill of writing flash: some stories come to mind so quickly, while others linger in rough outlines until the ideas crystallize into the perfect startling, brevity.

What are your dream wish-list magazines?

I both love and dread this question. I hate leaving anyone out, and yet I love spotlighting writers, editors, and everyone in-between that are doing such an amazing job bringing such high-quality writing to the world. I’m so thankful for the places that have accepted my stories, have given them a small place in our writing community. So I’m going to list some flash journals that I haven’t placed a story in yet that I’m hoping to connect with soon!

  • SmokeLong Quarterly
  • Wigleaf
  • Passages North
  • Atticus Review
  • WhiskeyPaper
  • Cheap Pop
  • FRiGG
  • matchbook

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Tommy Dean is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program, his fiction has recently been published in New Flash Fiction Review, Split Lip, New World Writing, Spartan, Hawaii Pacific Review, the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Watershed Review, TINGE Magazine, and in other fine literary journals. Find him on Twitter @TommyDeanWriter.