An interview in which New Flash Fiction Review’s Meg Pokrass asks 100 Word Story’s illustrious editors Lynn Mundell and Grant Faulkner to talk about the creation of their thrilling new anthology: Nothing Short of 100, a collection of the best 100-word stories from 100 Word Story magazine.
Meg: When you and Grant set out to putting together your anthology, how did you define your criteria for selection?
Grant: We decided not to publish any multi-millionaires or people who owned third homes, but we felt that bribery was acceptable as long as we split the take (Lynn might owe me some money here).
Beyond that, we just came up with a big list of our favorites. Initially, we thought the collection would consist of exactly 100 stories, but there were so many good stories, so we decided to include more.
So our criteria was to choose good stories. Good stories that we both thought were good.
Lynn: We wanted the best stories that could stand alone, but we were also aiming for variety because we wanted it to be an interesting and even challenging collection overall. We had seen so much as far as form and originality in what we published over the years that we felt excited to show readers what micros can achieve. Choosing stories was an iterative process, where we would pull stories, discuss, add the ones we agreed on, and start again. We both read all of the stories we’ve ever published. Eventually we ended up with 116, a sort of odd number but representative of all of our favorites.
Meg: Give me some behind the scenes, dirt, or secrets about the creation of Nothing Short Of.
Lynn: We almost got a back-of-the-book blurb from George Saunders! We can attest to the fact that he is a very, very nice person.
Also, it is possible in this day and age to not find people, even writers. There were several writers we just could not track down in order to ask permission to use their stories.
Grant: I’d love to tell some stories, but Beret and Lynn’s lawyers have served me injunctions, liens, and cease-and-desist letters. I’ll just say there were intense discussions, liquor, late-night phone calls, punctured tires, a broken salad spinner, a kidnapped rabbit, and a missing (or perhaps stolen) bottle of lavender spray. That’s what it takes to produce a good collection.
Meg: Has being a reader/editor for 100 Word Story impacted your own writing life?
Lynn: I am not sure I would have ever returned to my creative writing if Grant hadn’t asked me to join him in starting the site. For that, I will be forever grateful.
Being a writer may make me more empathetic as an editor. And as an editor, I learn a lot I can apply to my own writing.
Finally, being part of 100 Word Story has deepened my involvement in the flash community—a fantastic bunch of people who mean a great deal to me.
Grant: Every time I read through our submissions, I marvel at how challenging it is to get published. We receive hundreds of stories, and we only accept the top handful for every issue, so a story has to really stand out and shine.
As a result, I’m more stringent with my revision process, and I never submit a story unless it’s truly all the way there. I imagine an editor reading my story after reading through so many other stories in the queue, and I consider how my story might make him or her pause and pay attention. I’m less forgiving with my writing than I used to be, which is a good thing.
As Lynn said, the value of the flash community has been a wonderful bonus. We didn’t know there was a flash community before we started 100 Word Story.
Meg: What are some unusual lessons about writing you’ve learned as editor of 100 Word Story?
Lynn: I’ve seen how the best stories can come from a seasoned pro or from a high-schooler. It is a very approachable genre, but also a demanding one. I’ve learned that it is not a good look to have a bio longer than your story. Also, that there are endless ways to tell a love story. Finally, that at their best, micros can achieve remarkable things, flying as high as poetry and going as deep as much longer stories. I am constantly astounded at what can be done in so few words.
Grant: In such a short form, you’ve got to nail the ending like a gymnast. If you waver, tip, or fall, you’ll ruin everything you’ve previously achieved. I read so many stories that are good … up until the last sentence. That last sentence matters far more than in a novel or a conventional short story. It can’t drop off in any way.
Meg: Many of us have been rewarded by cultivating a social media following. How do you feel about social media these days: friend or enemy?
Lynn: Frenemy. You can make dear friends and important associates over social media, and also learn about new literary journals, contests, and classes. But you can also become paranoid, delusional, narcissistic, and a bit of a wastrel if you hang out on FB or Twitter too much.
Grant: Friend. Enemy. Lover. Hater. Giver. Taker.
I miss the days when you had to call people, when you had to venture into the world to see them, when you put a letter into a mailbox with a sense of anticipation, and then you had to wait for a response, feeling the person through his or her writing on a page.
That past world is an exotic world, right? The world where postmen carried people’s love and memories around the globe.
In the past, I might have written stories about the people from my past who I’d lost track of because their lives beckoned with mystery. Now I look at their vacation photos and their kids’ graduations.
Meg: What’s the best writing advice you were ever given?
Lynn: Coincidentally, it was something you wrote online once, Meg. You said something to the effect that one should not try to write like others but to write like one’s self. That is something I remind myself of often. I write better when I am myself.
(Meg: Thanks Lynn! And I need to remember that advice of mine too. It’s so easy to read a great story and think: why can’t I say it that way)
Grant: When I first decided to become a writer, a much older writer told me to “always have something in the mail.” It was good advice because it spoke to the inevitable rejections I’d receive and how a writer has to be resilient and persistent. Having something in submission always gives you at least a glimmer of hope, and you need that glimmer, no matter how fragile or fleeting it might be, to keep writing, keep trying.
Meg: How does one go about writing an effective 100-word story? Let’s pretend there’s a recipe.
Grant: My favorite miniatures are those that reside on the blurry line of a prose poem and a story. I like shorts that evoke a definite mood, create an environment, but which also trace the subtle pivot of a character’s conflict. There must be character change, even if it’s just a breath of the slightest of realization in the last line.
I think the most meaningful moments of our lives reside in these small pivots. They aren’t necessarily the kind of moments we can express to others or recount over drinks with friends. They’re the moments we might go to sleep thinking about, moments a character might even fail to truly recognize. Is that a recipe?
Lynn: One-fourth character, one-fourth setting, one-fourth point of view, one-fourth plot. Fold all together gently, layering into a Pyrex dish. Heat it up in the oven or stow it in the freezer, depending upon how you want it to taste. The let sit overnight. Test with a tablespoon. If it stands up, the story is ready. If not, wait another day. Serve on a paper plate.
Meg: Do writers often start with a much longer draft and pare it down to the essentials?
Grant: When we first started 100 Word Story, I thought most people would write longer stories and chisel them down. That’s how I started writing them, but I rarely hear of this technique. I’ve now written so many 100-word stories that I have essentially wired my brain to write at that length, so my first drafts are usually between 90 and 110 words.
I think there’s a lot to be said for writing a long first draft and then editing it down because a miniature is about capturing the essence of a story. I think of how Kawabata re-wrote his celebrated novel Snow Country as a short story, “Gleanings from Snow Country.” He pursued the story’s essence, and to find it, he distilled the novel into approximately 10% of its original length.
The essence is what every flash author should search for. There’s the recipe you asked for in your previous question.
Lynn: I am not sure how others approach the stories. I hope with a sense of the small scale of the canvas. Otherwise, it would be a lot of work to peel away. But I do see fairly often that writers go much too broad, which makes for a less successful story.
Meg: Why do certain tiny stories stay with us? Why are some so memorable? Is there a key ingredient?
Grant: I think the best stories are those where the author becomes vulnerable on the page and reaches for a deep and risky truth. That’s what we read for, no matter if it’s a tiny story or a longer work—that’s what drew me to your work, in fact, Meg.
(Meg: Aw. Thank you Grant!)
Grant: Some tiny stories stay with us piquantly and poignantly because I think they have captured that pure essence, that intense, combustible, and beautiful distillation. The story is like a pin prick. It makes you pay attention.
Lynn: What a great question. And a hard one. I think it is a very original story and character, or characters, that tells you a new story at the same time it lets you feel something very identifiable and familiar. For example, there’s a story in the anthology called “What I’m Not Saying,” by Emma Bogdonoff. In it, the narrator is in love with a boy and they share all sorts of moments, but she never tells him she loves him. The last line is really perfect. That story could make you cry. It’s unique and original in its detail, but, wow, what a universal feeling—regret, deep, deep regret!
Meg: What are other pleasurable activities that one might compare to reading a book full of well-crafted 100-word stories, such as your new anthology Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story?
Lynn: Eating your favorite meal made by your granny that reminds you of your youth. Petting a cat you love very much as it drools on you and makes pudding, which results in a feeling of great peace and comfort. Getting the high of riding a Ferris wheel. Falling in love. Swimming far out in the ocean on a sunny day and seeing something underwater that is strange, a bit frightening, but also beautiful and thrilling.
Grant: Bowling is an activity perfectly designed for the flash fiction aficionado. It’s a sport designed around containment. Its boundaries are rigid. You can roll your ball into the gutter, but you can’t go out of bounds. You only get a certain number of chances. You can’t break the record.
But maybe napping is the better analogy. A nap is just a snippet of a deeper, more novelistic sleep, but a nap can be its own strange and intriguing interlude. A good nap invites mystery and wonder into the day while also being invigorating and refreshing. That’s the definition of a short short.
Meg: Who are your dream readers for Nothing Short Of? Who would you like to see buying this anthology who might not know about it yet?
Grant: I love when I hear from someone who is completely unfamiliar with the form. I love hearing the wonder in their voice, the sense of discovery, when they realize how brief stories can be, how stories can be written in a different way.
Lynn: I would like to see it get out beyond our flash community, where I feel it is becoming known and very warmly received. I would like to see college students immersed in it on my morning commute, babysitters in playgrounds scanning it as they feed toddlers applesauce, CEOs reading it aloud in board rooms, and Meryl Streep quoting from it when she accepts her next Oscar.
Meg: If Nothing Short Of… were an animal, what would it be—and why?
Grant: Not a chicken (although you can peck at the stories).
Not a badger (although some of the stories are tenacious).
Not a school of fish (even though the stories often swim together).
Maybe a cat that fits perfectly in your lap and purrs.
Or maybe a coyote that mysteriously appears in your back yard and stares into your kitchen window before running away. Many of the stories in the collection are like that—a wild animal that inexplicably wanders through a safe domestic space. You lock eyes, and the world is suddenly a little dangerous, a little less predictable.
Lynn: It would be a dog, probably a good-looking but not pedigreed one. Like all dogs, it would be loyal, low-maintenance, by turns adorable and shocking, act like a 1-year-old when it is 7, and be able to find and retrieve important objects, such as short stories.
Meg: Which came first for you? Editing 100 Word Story or writing flash fiction and microfiction?
Lynn: I had been editing the site with Grant for a year or so when we were still doing traditional issues with 10-12 stories a month. One month we didn’t have enough stories so I volunteered to write some Halloween-themed “scarytales,” where I took traditional fairy tales and make them hecka frightening. Grant was very encouraging and I had such a good time that I just keep writing.
Grant: I wrote fiction of all lengths before starting this big little magazine of miniatures with Lynn and Beret. I guess I’m a schizophrenic writer because I write short and long, and I write nonfiction and fiction, but my immersion in the short form has been wonderful for all of my writing. Everything I write has at least a trace of a flash aesthetic.
Meg: Flash forward: Lynn and Grant are in their 80s and in a retirement community. What does 100 Word Story look like?
Grant: There will actually be a 100 Word Story Retirement Community. It will be right next to the 100 Word Story Theme Park, which will be just down the street from the 100 Word Story Shopping Mall. Planes will write 100-word stories in the sky. Presidential candidates will be judged on 100-word stories they read at debates.
Yes, we plan to go big with this. The Oscars will have an award for 100 Word Story movies. Beyoncé will stop singing to write 100-word stories. Cistercian monks will chant 100-word stories. There will be a 100 Word Story TV station.
And we’ll just sit there and lead 100-word story workshops at our retirement community. It’s actually a perfect form for those who have Alzheimer’s.
Lynn: This is far, far in the future, of course, where you can put on glasses that have stories you can read yourself or you can turn on your hearing aid and Benedict Cumberbatch will read on demand. We will be in the midst of publishing our fourth anthology, called Short Circuitry: Yet Even More Tiny Tales from 100 Word Story.
Grant Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. His stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including Tin House, The Southwest Review, and The Gettysburg Review. His essays on creativity have been published in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. He recently published a book of essays on creativity with Chronicle Books, Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo. He’s also published a collection of 100-word stories, Fissures, which have been included in The Best Small Fictions 2016 and the new W.W. Norton Anthology New Micro: Exceptionally Short Stories.
Lynn Mundell is co-founder and co-editor of 100 Word Story and co-editor of its anthology, Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story, as well as a managing editor at a large health care organization. Her short-short stories and creative nonfiction have appeared in many U.S. and U.K. literary journals, including Tin House online, Booth, Superstition Review, Portland Review, Permafrost, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, The Sun, and Five Points, as well as in anthologies including New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (W.W. Norton & Company, August 2018). Lynn earned her MFA in Creative Writing from American University and is an advisory board member of the U.C. Berkeley Extension Post-Baccalaureate Certificate Program in Writing.