Talking Craft with Sherry Morris
S: What are the most important skills for writers to learn?
I: Once a writer has a good feel for the basics, I think one of the most difficult aspects of writing to master comes down to the question of what to include on the page and what to leave out. What does the reader need to know? What can we trust the reader to fill in, guess, or imagine? What do we want the reader to bring to the story? What is overkill? It’s such a delicate balance!
Many of the common struggles writers have – for example, uneven pace, unrealistic dialogue, poor characterisation, abrupt/overdone/unsatisfying endings, telling instead of showing (and also showing instead of telling), etc. – can be framed in terms of this balance. What can we cut and what do we need to add? Does every word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, section add something important to the piece? Are there questions raised by the piece that are not either answered, addressed, unanswered in a way that feels intentional, or in some way transfigured by the end?
I think really great writing has the power not just to take the reader from Point A to Point B, but to invite the reader to become a collaborator of sorts on that journey.
S: What is the best writing advice you ever received? The worst?
I: I think whether writing advice is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depends on who you are, when you hear it, and whether or not it is helpful to you at that particular moment, so this answer is very specific to me and my personal experience.
As for the best advice I received, when I was in my early teens, I read something along the lines of ‘I don’t know why or when my writing muse will appear, but I know where she’ll be when she arrives: at my desk, when I’m sitting at it, slogging away.’ (I’d be most grateful if anyone can point me to the original quote as I’d love to revisit it!) Whilst the occasional good idea pops up whilst I’m on a walk or in the bath, I have to put in the time writing, writing some more, then editing editing editing editing editing for any real magic to happen. Recognising that writing is a lot of graft and that I should just get on and do it rather than flit about waiting for some miraculous muse-inspired outspilling of glory was something that helped me a lot as a young writer, and is something that I am constantly reminding myself even now.
The worst advice I’ve ever received is to ‘consider my audience’ or ‘imagine my target reader’ (even when that target reader is supposed to be myself). For me, imagining my words being read is the absolute best way to choke flow, extinguish creativity, and evaporate all motivation to complete whatever I’m trying to write. Everything I’ve tried to write ‘for’ someone – myself included – has withered, suffocated, and died a tragic, ignoble death. I have to ignore the reader (again, myself included) and just listen to the story; in the writing and editing, the piece will become what it wants to be. Only once the thing is done (or at least far enough along that I can’t mess it up) can I start thinking about readers, markets, and how I might label it. Of course, when I have a commercial project, I find ways of tricking myself into keeping the client in mind without freezing up, but when I’m writing for myself, I do my best when I’m focused on the work and not thinking outside the words.
S: What are your top tips for getting words down on the page?
I: Many times, I have to write my way in to a new day’s writing, particularly if I’m having trouble tuning in to the story and turning off the other concerns of the day.
By giving myself permission to free-write with no expectations that it will turn into something ‘good’, something ‘relevant’, even something that makes sense, I can often tap into ideas or solutions that would not have occurred to me otherwise. For me, I have to be sitting with a notebook or a computer, plugging away. I let myself look up things on the internet as long as I can justify it to myself, but this is usually limited to Wikipedia searches. Social media and music tend to distract me, so when I have the choice, I like to write in a quiet place with notifications and alerts turned off.
Some of my most successful pieces were a result of pushing through a resistance to write, so I’m a big believer in writing whenever I have the chance, not just when conditions are right or when the words are flowing easily. When time is tight, I schedule in time to write, even if it’s only a handful of minutes here and there, and try to keep to that schedule, no matter what happens on the page. The more regularly I do this, the more quickly I can find my flow during an individual session.
S: You have editorial roles at both JMWW and Flashback Fiction. Tell us what you look for. What are the key ingredients in successful stories? Do you have any favourite themes you’ve discovered in your own writing?
I: I write about quite a variety of things; science, parenthood, shifting identity, and unusual juxtapositions of things. I love ‘hermit crab’ stories, or stories that adopt the form of another type of writing (say a recipe, list, or glossary, for example). I also like all manner of experiment and play.
As an editor, I’m open to all sorts of writing, be it ‘literary’ or ‘genre’, traditional storytelling or something more unusually structured. However, what I love reading most are those rare pieces where I get the sense that I’m reading something individual and unique, something that could only be written by this single person who has authored the piece. This isn’t to say that the piece itself need to be in any way autobiographical; the author’s personal fingerprint could come in the form of voice, style, rhythm, mood, imagination, subject and/or atmosphere. I’m always thrilled when a writer takes me to a place I’ve not been before, or helps me to see something familiar from a different lens.
S: Anything else you want to tell us about?
I: As usual, I have a few projects on the go in multiple spheres.
In terms of my own writing, I’ve been focusing on a couple projects involving linked series of flashes, and I’ve been continuing to explore ‘hermit crab’ and hybrid shortform techniques. It’s been both enjoyable and challenging thinking about the shape of longer projects.
I’m looking forward to reading for the 2020 National Flash Fiction Day Anthology alongside guest editor Sophie van Llewyn. Anthology and microfiction submissions open in mid-December and despite our name, we welcome submissions from anywhere in the world. https://nationalflashfictionday.co.uk/
Finally, I’m always on the lookout for ways to give something back to the writing community, and have been exploring different ways to work with other writers in person. I’m looking forward to the workshops and sessions I’ll be presenting at Swanwick Writers’ Summer School in Derbyshire https://www.swanwickwritersschool.org.uk/ and the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol. https://www.flashfictionfestival.com/
Ingrid Jendrzejewski currently serves as Editor in Chief of FlashBack Fiction, is an editor at Flash Flood, and a flash editor at JMWW. She also co-directs National Flash Fiction Day (UK). In her free time (!), she runs workshops on editing, prose poetry and hybrid forms, and is happy to speak on a variety of topics relating to writing and editing.