Kathy fish, Writing Prompts & Craft Articles

A Prompt for When You’re Stuck: Give Your Character the Microphone

Often if we’re stuck on a piece of writing it’s because we’re tamping down some essential voice that is screaming (or whispering urgently) to get out. It’s useful to just allow that character to talk. So today I’d like you to write a MONOLOGUE. You may quickly set the scene for this monologue, but I want the bulk of your flash to be one person talking to an audience of one or more. Approach this any way you like. Your character may be a space alien or an animal or a child or a potato chip. Just give them the floor, the microphone, the podium, the flashlight around the campfire.

Examples of monologues:

Your character wants to make a case for something.

Your character wants to rally the troops against an enemy.

Your character wants to profess her love (or her hate).

Your character wants to defend herself.

Your character has a bone to pick.

Your character goes on a rant.

Your character wants a job.

Your character is simply telling a fascinating story.

Does this monologue qualify as a story? Remember my three essentials to flash fiction: Emotion, Movement, and Resonance. How you get there doesn’t much matter as long as you demonstrate these three. Write quickly without judgment and you will soon have a fresh draft that may surprise you!

Aim for 500 words or fewer! Go!

For inspiration here’s a great one, Charlie Chaplin from The Great Dictator:

Interviews, Nancy Stohlman

Gorgeous, Fast, Heartbreaking: A Flash Fiction Conversation with Chelsea Voulgares


We are delighted that Chelsea Voulgares will be traveling from Chicago to Colorado this August for our first Flash Fiction Retreat! So happy to welcome you to the Rocky Mountains, Chelsea!

Nancy Stohlman: The biggest challenge most writers have is finding the time to write. How do you “retreat” in your day-to-day life in order to honor your creativity?

Chelsea Voulgares: It’s difficult sometimes to find the time and energy to write. I have a nine to five administrative job, but I’m very lucky to have my own office at home. My partner Rob and I bought a cute Chicago-style bungalow two years ago, and I was able to claim one of the small bedrooms on the first floor for myself. I spend a lot of time in there on the weekends, and each weeknight I try to write for at least an hour, right when I get home from my day job. I also try to use a few lunch hours per week to write. A closed door and some earplugs, that’s my retreat most of the time, and it’s usually pretty effective.

Nancy: Yes–being able to close the door to your own writing space is so important! Tell us about your relationship with flash fiction?

Chelsea: I started reading flash regularly after Amelia Gray published her amazing collection Gutshot. I think I’d written a few micros before that. Once I read that book, I started following the online magazines that publish flash, places like Corium and Cheap Pop, and quickly realized it was a genre with a lot of energy. A big group of extremely talented writers were crafting these gorgeous, fast, heartbreaking pieces. I read more, started trying to replicate what I saw, and then began sending out my own short-shorts. My first published piece of fiction ever was a micro-fiction I placed in Literary Orphans.

Nancy: I love Literary Orphans! What is the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

Chelsea: A few years ago I attended an Anthony Doerr lecture at the Tin House Summer Workshop, where he discussed something he called “Two Placed-ness.” I’m going to butcher this, but his idea was that the most interesting stories always occupy two spots of space-time. So, for example, the main character is eating a sandwich in the present, but she’s also remembering how her mom always put pickles on peanut butter sandwiches when she was growing up. Those two moments exist together in the story. That idea of “two placed-ness” really cracked fiction writing open for me.

Nancy: Wow, I love that idea of “two-placed-ness.” What piece of your own writing are you most proud of and where can we read it (if it’s available)?

Chelsea: I have the most fun writing work that has a silly or humorous side. I’m really proud of a piece I wrote in another of Kathy’s workshops called “Berta.” It’s about a teenager who works in a Halloween-themed ice cream shop with her sister, with whom she’s fighting. The shop’s mascot is the titular “Berta.” You can read the piece online at Bad Pony magazine.

Nancy: React to this quote:  “This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” ~ Alan W. Watts

Chelsea: Wow. I feel like I could learn a lot from Mr. Watts. I’m constantly distracted, not zen at all. I recently began writing longhand—that helps immensely with direct engagement, but I tend to approach everything very seriously, as if it’s all work. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy writing—I love it—but I tend to be very rigid with it. Not very playful.

Nancy: Oh I’m happy to introduce you to Alan Watts! I put a video at the end in case you want more. Now tell us something we don’t know about you?

Chelsea: A lot of people may already know this, but I love love love horror movies. My favorites are Alien, this indie horror film called Teeth, and the original Halloween.

Nancy: Anything else you want to add? 

Chelsea: Yes! Two things, actually.

First, I run a literary magazine called Lost Balloon that publishes fiction, nonfiction, and prose poetry of 1,000 words and under. I’m always looking for submissions by talented flash writers. We have an open submission period the first week of every month, and our guidelines are on the website.

I also have a chapbook-length manuscript of flash fiction, and I’m looking for a publisher. It placed as a top-five finalist this year in the Gold Line Press Fiction Chapbook contest, and a different manuscript of mine (with a few of the stories from the current book) placed as Runner-Up in last year’s chapbook contest from Split Lip Press.

Nancy: Congratulations, Chelsea! Here’s wishing you success finding the right publisher and everyone check out Lost Balloon!

Chelsea Voulgares grew up in a Rust Belt town in Ohio, trapping lightning bugs and singing in the show choir. Now she lives in the suburbs of Chicago, where she edits the literary journal Lost Balloon. Her fiction has appeared recently in Passages North, JMWW Journal, Bad Pony, and Jellyfish Review. You can find her online at www.chelseavoulgares.com or on Twitter @chelsvoulgares.

NOTE: Want to join us on a Flash Fiction Retreat? Colorado is sold out but check out COSTA RICA and ITALY Retreats!


Interviews, Kathy fish

Weekend Inspiration: Tethered by Letters interviews Kathy Fish

How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, or intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path? 

Like so many writers, I began writing as a child and then put it aside to work on what I thought were more serious and reasonable pursuits. Two things set me on the literary path: First was a writing workshop I signed up for when we were living in Australia and my fourth child was still just a baby. I needed something to keep me from going crazy and that workshop was just wonderful. It set me on fire, creatively. Then I joined an online site called Zoetrope, the creative brainchild of Francis Ford Coppola. It was loaded with writers and poets and screenwriters and photographers, etc. all under one “roof.” There I was able to share my work and get constructive feedback from writers further along than I was and I learned so much, so fast. It was then that I began pursuing writing seriously and sending my work out.

Years later, and you’ve published four collections of short fiction—­what can you tell us about the publication process? How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work printed? 

My experience is a little unusual because I’ve never gone through the process of querying publishers and sending my work out. I’ve always been invited to submit. My first chapbook was published by Rose Metal Press and that was because it was a finalist in their contest and they wanted to create a book from the finalist chapbooks. So my experience has been pretty positive! If you go with a smaller press, you have much more creative control. The downside of a small press is that they really are doing it for the love, doing it in their free time, etc., and they often have to close down. But overall, yes, I’m happy with the books I’ve gotten out into the world.

That’s great to know because your stories are so good, so inventive—“Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild,” “Stop Dragging: A One-Act Play,” “I Have Not Pushed Back My Cuticles with an Orange Stick Since the Nixon Administration”— how do you come up with your ideas? How do you find a story’s structure when limited by word count? 

Thank you! It’s the constraint of word count that opens flash fiction up to experimentation and innovation. Faced with so few words, you want to make the most impact that you can and sometimes playing with form helps you achieve maximum impact in the briefest of space. My ideas seem to come from simply scribbling in a notebook, dreaming on the page so to speak. Something just clicks. I “hear” the rhythm of a story before words really come to mind. For “Collective Nouns” I just kept hearing the refrain, “The word for (something) is (something).” I think I’d seen something the day before about collective nouns, so I just riffed off that idea. Then the shooting in Las Vegas happened and I was struck by the idea that these people had been so excited to go to that concert. They were gathered to have a fun night out and became targets. So my feelings about that and this refrain going through my head sort of coalesced into that piece. And so many of my stories seem to come together like that.

That process sounds so organic. What would you say are the most important elements of flash fiction? What are some of the common missteps that can happen in a flash fiction piece?

Flash fiction is its own unique form. People get derailed when they sit down to write a flash fiction that follows all the traditional rules. It can be done, but they often find themselves stymied. Something’s missing. They might as well go ahead and write a short story.

To me, flash fiction is a very fluid form, particularly suited to experimentation. I always tell my students there are really only three “essentials” to great flash fiction (and 2 out of 3 can work as well). They are: emotion, movement, and resonance. Movement is my stand-in for plot. Something must change in a meaningful way. Resonance, because you have so few words on the page, means the story must in some way “live” beyond the last word.

There are lots of delightful flash stories that are not particularly emotional. They are more quirky and clever. I love those! But I think greatness comes from tapping into some deep emotion at its core, something that makes the reader feel.

Let’s say you’ve finished editing a story and it’s ready to go. You’ve been published in so many journals. Is there something in particular that you look for when approaching different journals with your work? 

If you love what a journal publishes, it’s likely you are writing something that fits their aesthetic. I say, send to the journals whose stories you read over and over again. I also look at where my favorite writers have published and submit to those journals.

Also, it’s important to me that a journal treats its writers well. Do they promote their issues on social media? Does the journal have a pleasing visual aesthetic? Is care taken with the words? Do they nominate for awards? These are all important to me when I look to send out my work.

Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing?

It would have to be that early chapbook getting published by Rose Metal Press. That is when I started doing my first readings and when I first began to feel like a legit writer. It gave me some visibility in our small lit world and gave me the confidence to keep at it.

You’ve kept at it and now you teach at an MFA program, and you run your own Flash Fiction workshops. What can you tell us about your experiences as a creative writing professor? Do you find that students today are taking more risks with their stories? Can you share one or two of the best writing exercises you use to get students to write outside of the box? 

I love teaching. I never expected to, but I love it as much as I love writing. I think students today take more risks if they are allowed and encouraged to do so! I am clobbered by the new work I’m seeing.

My most effective writing exercises are those that are not prescriptive but aim more at getting the writer to find her own material. Not just to find it, but to honor it. Honor their experiences and their pains. Honor their memories and dreams and what makes them unique. Once they get to that point, all I need do is show them what they can do with it, and there’s so often an “ah-ha” moment when I give them that freedom. For example, I have an exercise that has the students weaving disparate types of writing into a mosaic. First, I hear, “this is really hard” and then, “I can’t believe I wrote that!” They find their way into material they previously hadn’t been able to access. It’s very cool to watch.

I love how you say you “show them what they can do with it.” To me, that’s a sign of a great teacher, just pointing the student in the right direction. What writers helped point you in the right direction? What/who are some of your greatest literary influences?

So many. A lot of the writers I worked with on Zoetrope early on. Notably, Kim Chinquee and Pia Earhardt. I love Joy Williams, that strange, fearless brain of hers. Amy Hempel, Raymond Carver, Edward P. Jones, William Maxwell, Kazuo Ishiguro, Marilynne Robinson, Annie Proulx. Lots and lots of writers working now, like Amelia Gray, Amber Sparks, Lydia Copeland Gwyn, and Lindsay Hunter. I love the poetry of Khadijah Queen and Kaveh Akbar. Lately, I’ve been reading Sam Shepard’s plays, for that rhythm, just to see what action, gesture, and dialogue can do on their own.

What guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists?

Oh the usual: Work hard. Keep showing up. Be generous and kind. Connect. Be a good literary citizen. Don’t wait until you have a book to promote to make connections. If someday you want others to buy and read and help promote your books, get started doing that now for other writers. Seize every opportunity to learn and get better.

After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?

I want to keep trying new things. I’m actually at work on another play. I’m trying to write poems. I think they’re pretty bad, but I believe on some level dabbling in other art forms, risk-taking, and creative play, are all good for your soul if not your “career.”

And of course I’d love to publish lots more stories and books.

Nancy Stohlman

A Flash-Fiction Roundtable: Short but Never Small, featuring Nancy Stohlman


“Flash fiction arrived for me in 2007 as I was writing my third novel, agonizing over it like a relationship you really really want to work out, dammit! It was during my MFA at Naropa University—I took a flash fiction class with Barbara Henning, and after so many years of writing more—talk more about this, give more description here, more backstory here, explain this more—it was such a relief to write less. I feel like flash fiction saved me from writing all those novels. Because I never really wanted to say all that other stuff anyway. Six months later I co-founded Fast Forward Press…I read hundreds of submissions and I started to lean into flash with my body, listening for my own voice to emerge.” ~ Nancy Stohlman

Terrific discussion of all things flash fiction at The Millions, featuring Nancy along with Tara Masih, Grant Faulkner, and Lynn Mundell. Read the rest here: Flash Fiction Roundtable at The Millions


Strange Beauty & Writing Rituals: A Conversation with K.C. Mead-Brewer

Katie Author Photo (3)Hi K.C.! Nancy and I are so excited that you will be joining us in Costa Rica in January for our retreat. What has been your writing workshop/retreat experience in the past? How do you find ways to honor your writing in your day to day life?

This is turning out to be a big workshop year for me. Before this year, I’ve participated in a couple Hedgebrook Master Classes and a residency through the Vermont Studio Center (not to mention regular meetings with my writing group!), but I’d never attended an actual workshop until the Tin House Winter Workshop this past January. And then, this summer, I’ll also be fortunate enough to participate in the Clarion Workshop. (!

Day-by-day, I engage in a lot of small rituals for my writing. (See question 5!) For example, I draw a tarot card for the day to help focus me, I light a candle, fix a cup of tea, eat a piece of chocolate, read something new, etc. I’m a worshipper of the goddess Ritual.

Please respond to this quote by Krystal Sutherland: “Strangeness is a necessary ingredient in beauty.”
Veins in a rose petal / veins in a bat’s wing. The rippling of a skirt / the rippling of a serpent. The moaning of a lover / the moaning of the wind. The suppleness of flesh / the suppleness of flesh. A memory / a ghost. A beauty mark / a mole. Laughter / screams. Relaxation / vulnerability. Musk / sweat. Catharsis / The End. 

All beauty is strange. It’s just that not all strangeness is beautiful.

Oh that’s gorgeous. I love that response. Thank you. What is your favorite story that you yourself have written (“favorite” doesn’t have to mean “best” or more successful or whatever). And why is it your favorite? 

Probably my short story “Chameleons”. It isn’t the best thing I’ve ever written (anymore), but at the time it felt incredibly freeing for me–like I’d finally figured out the kind of stories I wanted to write. The kind I was good at writing. It’s the story that showed me I might actually really a little bit sorta kinda maybe possibly be pretty good at this.

(Read K.C.’s story here: Chameleons)

Have you been to Costa Rica before? What are you most looking forward to as a writer retreating to this beautiful place? 

I’ve never been to Costa Rica before, but I’m very excited about visiting. I’m usually more of a cloudy person, preferring places that are dark and rainy and stark. Really, I’m looking forward to being somewhere so different from what I know and might’ve chosen for myself. And of course the animals! I’m hoping to see a new reptile every day.

Tell us something we don’t know about you that you are happy to share. : )

I don’t talk about this often, though you might’ve guessed it about me: I’m oddly superstitious. I believe in signs, symbols, talismans, omens, and ghosts. I’m a pretty shy and private person, so I don’t mention this much, but it’s always there.

That’s so fascinating. Thanks so much, K.C.! We are so looking forward to retreating with you this January in Costa Rica!

Note: A few spaces are still available for Create in Costa Rica. Join us!

K.C. Mead-Brewer lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Carve Magazine, Hobart, and elsewhere. As an author and reader, she loves everything weird—SFF, horror, magical realism, all the good stuff that shows change is not only possible but inevitable. She’s participated in residencies, classes, and/or workshops through Tin House, Hedgebrook, and The Vermont Studio Center. She’s thrilled to be participating in this year’s Clarion Workshop. For more information, visit kcmeadbrewer.com and follow her on Twitter @meadwriter.