Maureen McHugh Talks Flash Fiction

By Lorinda Toledo
Maureen McHugh is best known for her short stories, but her resume is long. She has written two collections of short stories and four novels, including “China Mountain Zhang” which was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula award and won the James Tiptree, Jr. award. Her latest short story collection, “After the Apocalypse” (Small Beer Press), was one of Publishers Weekly’s 10 Best Books of 2011. It was the only short story collection to win the award.
This September, Maureen brings her expertise to Writing Pad in a flash fiction class. Learn the art of telling a complete story in 1,000 words or less and leave this 4-week series with a ready-to-publish piece.
Maureen took the time to answer some of our questions about this increasingly popular literary form.
Many people may not be familiar with the term flash fiction. What is it and where is it typically published?
Flash fiction is a really really short story.  The lengths vary (the most extreme may be six word stories (http://www.sixwordstories.net/) but the average length is about 1000 words.  A page of double-spaced story is usually about 250-300 words long, so we’re talking an entire story in less than four double-spaced pages.
Flash fiction is concentrated, intense fiction.  It often feels a little like a poem because when you have so little space, word count matters so the words have to work. 
What do you consider the most important element for a great piece of flash fiction or any short story for that matter?
The most important element is ‘does it evoke emotion in the reader?’  And the emotion shouldn’t be frustration (as in, ‘I don’t get this,’ or ‘This doesn’t feel like enough.’)  Flash fiction often startles the reader into strong emotion.
The most famous of those six word stories (attributed to Hemingway although there’s evidence that it’s been around longer) does exactly that: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” It’s the last two words that turn the story, that make it sad.
There are a lot of places that publish flash fiction—many of them online.  They range from literary to genre—places that publish science fiction or romance, for example.

You’ve written two collections of short stories and four novels. How does your short-form writing inform your long-form writing and vice versa?
That’s a difficult question.  Three of my novels started as short stories.  But for the most part, short stories feel different from novels.  They’re more contained.  I’ve been asked to turn a short story into a novel and my reaction is usually that I can’t. What’s there is there and it’s done what it needs to do. In fact, writing short stories sometimes makes it hard to write novels.  I like to wrap things up and novels do just the opposite. 
A lot of your writing is under the fiction umbrella. How often do real life people and events inspire your work and how do you translate that into fiction?
When I first started writing, almost none of my fiction had autobiographical elements to it.  Now much of my work does—although they are almost never strictly autobiographical.  I recently sold a story called “Dead Fads” about a girl who is going to art school and working in a bar.  The story feels autobiographical to me even though I never went to art school or worked in a bar because underneath that is that feeling of being twenty-something and terrified that I was supposed to be making my life into something and I might be going in the completely wrong direction.  It’s emotional autobiographical. I’ve also shaved the serial numbers off of real places and even my husband and used them in a story.  Especially places.  I like using real places.

You are about to teach a Flash Fiction bootcamp at Writing Pad. Can you give us a preview of some of the things that you might cover?
The nice thing about this little writing course is that we’ll write a couple of flash fiction pieces and then revise and polish one and when the class is done, everyone will have to submit it to something for publication.  Because it will be done!  A complete finished piece!
At Writing Pad, we’re always curious about writing routines. Tell us about yours.
Over the years it has varied a lot.  I don’t write every day but I probably write several thousand words a week.  Sometimes that’s a freelance job.  Sometimes it’s my own project.  I like having a writer’s group so when I moved out here to LA I started a little one. My apartment is very small so I write on the dining room table.  I write my first drafts on a computer.  When it’s time for dinner I have to clear the table and put everything in the bedroom.
Thanks, Maureen! That was so helpful and interesting. We can’t wait for your class Micro Short Stories: Writing and Publishing Flash Fiction (4 Wk) starting Sept. 17th in Westwood.