Sun 30 Sep 2012
The Jim we know is the Markets Editor of Flash Fiction Chronicles – Flash Markets Page, and the man who poses Six Questions For. . . writers and editors in his blog. You can read his stories on his blog, Jim’s Fiction. In Jim’s own words, he “discovered flash fiction in 2007, and has read, written, studied, and agonized over the form since.” But how many of us knew the Jim that was a band director at the elementary and high school levels for five years before he decided teaching school-aged kids wasn’t how he wanted to spend the rest of his life?
While living in Albany, NY, in the 70s, Jim played in the house band for a local summer theater. He got to back up top performers from the era, including Rita Moreno, Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Ben Vereen, Bob Hope and Tom Jones. What a blast! He also played with the Albany Symphony and a number of other groups in the area.
In Jim’s own words: “I was born and raised in southern central New York Sate. I’m married, have one married daughter and two grandsons. I earned a BS in Music Education, an MS in Music Education, with a concentration in performance (trumpet), and, fifteen years after this degree, returned to school full time and received an MLS in Library Science. After eleven years in Albany, my wife was transferred to Rochester, NY, and four years later to Buffalo. It was then I returned to school.
Two years later, I began my career as a librarian. Subsequent transfers took us to Orlando, FL, and Dallas, TX. We moved to Huntersville, NC, in 2005 after we both decided to retire early and move near our daughter. She wasn’t too keen on the idea (she hoped we’d return to Florida so they’d have a place to stay when they went to Disney World) until she realized she and hubby could get free babysitting for a date night anytime they wanted! I took a year off to recharge before I began to write. Given my musical background, it shouldn’t be a surprise that my first love is classical music, followed by jazz and good old 70’s and 80’s rock and roll. ”
Thank you Jim for letting us see this other side of you! I understand that you are currently taking a break from the six questions after having interacted with 747 editors and publishers since the first post in December 2009. Bear with us at Flash Fiction Chronicles, as we felt that it was high time we belted out some questions for you!
Rumjhum Biswas: You say that you discovered flash fiction in 2007. Please tell us about your first reaction to this form.
Jim Harrington: My first reaction? It might have been Alleluia! I didn’t write much until I enrolled in a Masters’ in Music Education program. For one class, the final grade was determined by five papers. I remember getting the first one back with a grade of C and the comment “too short.” Each paper after that got longer–in word count, not content–and I got an A in the course. Later, I had to write a pre-thesis (I chose to perform a recital instead of writing a full thesis). The professor handed it back to me with the comment that it was short–only twenty-five pages long–but he and one other professor he asked to read it couldn’t think of anything I’d left out. So, when I came across flash fiction, I knew it was the form for me, one in which concise writing was expected.
RB: Do you remember that first story you read? Please tell us a bit about your early days of reading flash fiction.
JH: I don’t remember the first story I read. Actually, at first, I spent more time reading about flash than reading actual stories. Once I did start reading stories, I read a variety of genres to get a feel for what each had to offer.
RB: Who were your favourite flash writers then, and has the list changed since?
JH: Since I was reading stories from many journals in the beginning, I didn’t concentrate on certain writers. I remember reading a few of Gay’s stories at Every Day Fiction. Jeanne Holtzman was in the first writing group I joined. I always looked forward to reading her stories. Dow Ford was another writer in the group I liked very much. Yes, the list has changed, but there are too many I follow to list here. There wouldn’t be many, if any, names that people who read this wouldn’t know already.
RB: What was your first experience writing flash like? Have you written other forms of fiction and also non fiction?
JH: A blast. My first published story was “Yesterday’s Promise.” It came from a prompt to choose one of three titles. Yesterday’s promise” clicked with me. I spent a few minutes thinking about the kinds of promises people made to each other and decided on a husband promising his wife he’d go on a diet. I don’t remember how the story developed from there, but it sure went in a strange direction.
My wife was a controller for Sears, and we moved a number of times as the company consolidated various departments. Shortly after moving to Rochester, NY, I bought my first computer. It was a Kaypro 64 luggable (a portable, but not one you could rest on your lap). The main reason I purchased it was because it was the first computer to come with an Office-like bundle of software. I was a stay-at-home dad and spent a few hours each day teaching myself how to use the machine and the software. I decided the best way to learn was to create something. So I developed one database to track our spending and another to organize coupons. I also taught myself to program in Basic and wrote a simple game of Yahtzee. I got a bit carried away with the word processor. I had just read the deadly sin series of books by Lawrence Sanders and was so inspired I wrote a 60,000-70,000 word detective novel. My wife still has it in a drawer somewhere. There’s another mostly-done novel lurking on my current computer’s hard drive that I doubt anyone will ever see.
I wrote a novella (or maybe a novelette?) a couple of years ago called The Towers of Morton to send to family and friends as Christmas presents. The idea for this work started as a flash story with a tale too big for 1,000 words. I have published a handful of short stories.
I’ve written a lot of non-fiction (although some would probably categorize them as fiction). I wrote the user’s manual for a piece of software written by a friend. Shortly after that, I returned to school full time for a second Masters’ Degree in Library Science. I ended up being an automation specialist. Part of my job was to train other librarians how to use computers, which required documentation. I also worked in a corporate library and wrote a number of proposals, reports and, again, training materials.
RB: What is your favourite flash fiction from the many that you’ve written and why? Please take us through the creative experience.
JH: I can’t pick just one. My favorites tend to be the ones that contain a hint of humor like “Do Unto Buzz” and “What’s a Father to Do? ” or ones that use an unusual format, like “There’s a Rule for That” and “Testing, Testing.”
When I get an idea for a story, I spend time thinking about it and (sometimes) jotting down a few notes. For “Testing, Testing,” an opening phrase came to mind — “I awoke sweating like a.” I wrote down things that would cause someone to sweat, including some bizarre ones. I crossed out the “normal” responses and attempted to limit the final list to one. That’s when I got the idea to write the story in the form of a multiple choice test. Next I needed a reason to cause someone to sweat and ended up with a nightmare and a list of things that might cause someone to have a nightmare. So, I had a beginning and the start of a middle that, hopefully, would lead to an end–even though I had no idea what that would be yet. If research is needed to improve the accuracy of an element in a story, I wait until I’ve finished the first draft and pondered the story a bit. This ensures I don’t waste my time looking up something that may not end up being a part of the tale.
That’s pretty much my writing process. Anyone who reads my stories will notice that many of them are in the crime/mystery/horror genres. I understand the first two, since that’s what I like to read for fun. I’m not sure where the horror tales come from. I’ve never read a lot of horror stories. Heck, I’ve yet to make it through an entire Stephen King novel!
RB: You have interviewed scores of editors and publishers in your six questions blog. What according to you do they most commonly encounter from submissions, both sets – the ones they accept and the ones they reject.
JH: Most editors say they look for good writing and stories that hold their interest (i.e., stories that provide an original approach to a theme and ones that do so in a polished manner). As for those they reject, I was shocked to read the biggest complaint was that writers didn’t read the magazine’s guidelines. I’m one of those nerdy types that actually reads the manual. On my initial visit to a site, my first stop is to the guidelines page. I want to know if the zine and I are a fit–as either an author or a reader–before I get overly involved with what is published. If a site only accepts stories about space zombies, it’s not someplace I will be submitting a story. The second most expressed complaint was about sloppy writing–poor grammar and lack of attention to detail.
One of the reasons I didn’t like writing when I was younger was because I had a poor grasp of grammar. This was true to a point in 2007 when I began writing flash, but I made the choice to correct the problem. It was a two step process. First, I bought a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style as a reference source. Next I grabbed a couple of novels and read them for grammar, especially in dialog, and word choice.
RB: Do you have any favourite magazines on flash? Can you tell us why you enjoy them more?
JH: There are so many fine publications out there, that I don’t really focus on one or two. Currently on my iPhone, I have Smokelong Quarterly, Pure Slush, Liquid Imagination, Storyglossia and Fictionaut bookmarked (I usually read a few stories while walking on a treadmill), but the list changes every few months.
RB: Who were your favourite authors as a child?
JH: When I was in high school, I remember reading a lot of Hemingway and Steinbeck. During my junior and senior years of high school, the librarian and I had our own book club where we’d suggest books for each other to read. I remember reading The Old Man and the Sea. I imagine there are a number of school libraries where this book isn’t allowed on the shelves now.
RB: Did you always know that you would write? (If so, who were your first mentors etc.)
JH: I hated writing, mostly because I was grammar-phobic. Is that a word? It should be. And writing was/is a slow process for me. I like writing 50-word stories because I can finish them fairly quickly, although, some may take me 45 minutes to an hour to get the writing to the point that I’m wiling to share the story with others.
As for mentors, I’d have to say Pam Casto and the members of her Flash Fiction-W critique group. It was the first group I came across that dealt specifically with flash. I received many helpful comments from the members and found many of Pam’s posts enlightening.
RB: Tell us a bit about your writing routine. What is your writing den like?
JH: Writing routine? Did you say writing routine? Well, it used to be that I wrote every afternoon for two to three hours. I know. You wonder why the afternoon. I tried writing in the morning, but my mind kept wandering off to all those other things that needed to be done. So, now I do them first and write after. Life has gotten in the way the past couple of months, so my routine hasn’t been as routine as it once was. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get back to “normal” in the fall.
As for my writing space, I work in a bedroom converted into an office. I sit facing a window that looks out over a green space that I like because it allows me to stare at something besides a blank wall when I need to let an idea or scene percolate.
RB: Where do you think the future lies for the various forms of flash fiction? And will paper books go out of fashion?
JH: I don’t see paper books going away anytime soon. According to a 2011 New York Times article, there were 2.57 billion books in all formats sold in 2010, only 6% were e-books. I imagine this percent will increase year-over-year, but it still should take a long time before e-book sales overtake paper.
As for flash fiction, I see this form growing in popularity, if for no other reason than there are still millions of readers and writers out there who are unaware of its existence. E-books will help fuel the rise in popularity of flash, as more authors publish their stories in this format.
Rumjhum Biswas is a writer currently living in Chennai. She has been published all over the world, and her work has won prizes and commendations in India and abroad, including first prize in the Anam Cara Short Story Competition June 2012.