I’ve Got Questions for Kathy Flann

Editor’s Note: This exchange is part of a series of brief interviews with emerging writers of recent or forthcoming books. If you enjoyed it, please visit other interviews in the I’ve Got Questions feature.

Write On: Secrets to Crafting Better Stories by Kathy Flann
  • What’s the title of your book? Fiction? Nonfiction? Poetry? Who is the publisher and what’s the publication date?

Write On: Secrets to Crafting Better Stories

Stay Thirsty Publishing, May 2021

  • In a couple of sentences, what’s the book about?

This book is a collection of craft columns that appeared in Stay Thirsty Magazine. The topics include:  Characters Reign Supreme, The Ticking Clock, Suspense vs. Confusion, Betraying the Reader, and Should Writers Teach?

  • What’s the book’s genre (for fiction and nonfiction) or primary style (for poetry)?

Write On is a nonfiction guide to writing craft. Its target audience is emerging writers, but it could appeal to anyone who writes. No matter how advanced we are, we do tend to go back to basics over and over.

  • What’s the nicest thing anyone has said about the book so far?

A number of people have said the book has energy. They say, “It’s like I can hear you talking to me.” I feel relieved because I wanted it to be instructive without feeling didactic.  

A colleague who adopted Write On for a class wrote this great review:

“I teach writing in an MFA program and have recently begun using Kathy Flann’s book WRITE ON: Secrets to Crafting Better Stories (Stay Thirsty Press) in the classroom. I appreciate the readable humor, relatability, and stealthy brilliance of her advice. Flann’s creative observations and essential recommendations make writing a strong, authentic narrative more achievable–sooner. One grad student told me that her instruction helps him to ask the big story questions earlier than he might otherwise. I use the book in my own writing life as well. It’s a smart, comforting how-to for anyone drafting a new work, which all writers, at every career stage, must do.”

  • What book or books is yours comparable to or a cross between? [Is your book like Moby Dick or maybe it’s more like Frankenstein meets Peter Pan?]

Write On is one person’s accumulated wisdom about struggles that writers typically face, somewhat in the tradition of the iconic craft book, Bird by Bird, in which Anne Lamott provides strategies, not only for storytelling, but also for coping with our inner-critics. Her title is about setting small goals. My own theme is, basically, You already know how to do this. Trust yourself. Keep going. That’s why I chose Write On as the title.

  • Why this book? Why now?

I’ve taught fiction writing for years, and I developed little pep talks/stand-up routines about common writing challenges in order to reframe the issues in accessible and familiar ways. I did stand-up comedy in college, and I also write humor. Just as I was thinking, Hey, I ought to commit these mini-lectures to the page, the editor of Stay Thirsty approached about contributing a regular column. Initially, I just wanted to capture the best version of each lecture, creating a library to which I could refer my own students. But with the magazine and now the book, a broader audience can access them.

It has been one of the great privileges of my life to be intimately involved with other people’s creative processes. I see so many writers go through the same rough patches, all the while feeling as though they are the only ones.

Everyone has a story to tell. The well of human creativity has untold depths. Sometimes, we just need tiny adjustments to the ways we think about craft (and ourselves) to translate what’s in our heads into words that fulfill a story’s promise.

  • Other than writing this book, what’s the best job you’ve ever had?

Maybe it’s already obvious, but my favorite day job is teaching. There are many components to the job, but what I mean by “teaching” is the actual time spent with students. People’s creative preoccupations are never not fascinating.

  • What do you want readers to take away from the book?

I hope readers finish the experience feeling more confident than they started it. There’s so much that our brains already know how to do that is useful for writing. For example, it is a daily experience to have thoughts we don’t say out loud. I don’t mean we’re having offensive thoughts (although we could be) but rather that we are having thoughts that are incomplete or thoughts we are taking out for a test drive or thoughts that could drive a wedge into a relationship if spoken aloud. But a lot of writers, in early drafts, forget to let characters hold some thoughts inside their lips. We gain a great deal of tension in a story by showing the reader what’s not said. I try to demonstrate to writers that they already have a model for a believable character – their own brains. We don’t have to be published writers in order to write well. We just have to be people with skills of observation – and these can be honed.

  • What food and/or music do you associate with the book?

The book features many examples of silly, hypothetical plots I devise for illustrative purposes, some of which feature food or music. For example, I find the word sandwich to be somehow hilarious, as evidenced by this passage from “The Importance of Character.” Do I continue to talk about this sandwich through the entire chapter? Yes, I do.

“After many years of writing and teaching others to write, I’ve come to suspect that most of us are asking the wrong question:  What’s this story about?

Plot is easy to articulate.  The people I mentor often approach at the end of a session and rattle off the details of a current project. They tell me what it’s about: My story is about a guy who eats a poisoned sandwich and wakes up in outer space. The person beams, certain that the work has been done for a good story.

Okay,” I say. “So what’s the problem?” I’ve worked with writers long enough to know that the person wouldn’t be telling me about the story at all if things were going well with the writing.

Sometimes the writer just makes a face and lets out a weary sigh. Sometimes I hear, “Well, my brother (friend/writing group/rabbi) read it, and I don’t know. It just didn’t have much impact.” Most often, the writer says, “I’ve been trying to make it work. And I can’t finish it. I hate it.”

The relationships we have with our stories can be like bad romances. The concept had seemed so promising at first, but what a dud it turned out to be! We may fail to commit over and over, sure that the issue is with the stories. It’s tempting to keep scrapping idea after idea, to believe that the right idea will solve the problem. The old platitude, “It’s not you, it’s me,” might actually be true in this case. The writer may have faulty notions of what a relationship with a story is all about.”

  • What book(s) are you reading currently?

As it happens, my dog just had knee surgery. We normally go to agility classes every week, and he’s quite bored during his recovery.

I’ve picked up a copy of How Stella Learned to Talk: The Groundbreaking Story of the World’s First Talking Dog by Christina Hunger. The writer is a speech pathologist who adapted strategies from her work with kids to her dog training at home, relying on a small device with buttons to allow the dog to “talk.” She gives tips for readers to try it out with their own dogs.

At first glance, this book may seem unrelated to my own, but it’s funny you asked because it is strangely pertinent. I often discuss with students how, some days, we say to ourselves, “I don’t have time to write today. I’m too busy.” Whenever I hear this statement in my own head, I test out the truth of it like this:  “Well, what if someone offered me something really great, like the chance to communicate telepathically with my dog, but only if I found time to get some writing done today? Would I make time?”

If I teach my dog to talk, I suppose I’ll have to devise some other test! I think that’s the nature of the creative process – we find strategies to outsmart ourselves. But a self is a moving target. And ironically, that’s exactly what makes people so interesting to explore in stories in the first place.

Kathy Flann

Learn more about Kathy on her website.

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Buy the book from Bookshop.org or Amazon

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