For the Love of Flash: Interview with judge Eliot Li

In 7th grade, I started writing really depressing poetry as an outlet for adolescent angst, which I continued in high school (both the poetry and the angst). I was fortunate that my parents never discouraged me from writing. When I started college, I became a biology major instead. I didn’t return to a regular creative writing practice again until middle age.

10 years ago, the local chapter of my college alumni association organized a writing class taught by the novelist Mary Rakow. Mary’s writing insight and compassionate point of view blew me away, and I immediately approached her for mentorship and met regularly with her. I started out writing regular length short stories. But once, without even knowing about flash fiction, I wrote a piece for her that was only a few hundred words long. She loved it, and said I should consider writing flash, because the way I wrote was a great match for the form. 

Mary told me to seek out writing classes where I would be the worst writer in the room, some place that would make me feel both massively insecure and also super inspired by everyone else. I’d signed up for one of the SmokeLong flash workshops, and it was exactly as she said—I was the worst writer in the group! My early regular length short stories were very exposition heavy, and Mary would just take her pen and bracket a whole passage and write, “Condense.” My tendency to write boring exposition got so bad she set a rule that I could only use action, gesture, interiority, and dialog. I’ve been trying to write that way ever since.

That’s why I love flash – you just write these incredibly intense bursts of story, with all the connective tissue removed. I love a flash story that goes from point A to point B, that builds in intensity and urgency as it goes, perhaps moving back and forth in time or setting, that has elements from each section that resonate with each other or come back in a new and meaningful way, and that by the time we arrive at point B, something unexpected has happened, something that evokes strong emotion from the reader, or makes us feel a deep empathy for the main character.

That’s why I love flash – you just write these incredibly intense bursts of story, with all the connective tissue removed.

Eliot Li

Titles are hard. I don’t think I always get the titles right. In fact, there was one piece I just got back from a paid critique, and the first comment was, “Please change this title right away!” My feelings about what titles should do have evolved a lot. When I first started writing, I wanted a safe, short title that basically “fit” the story, often just one word, like “Barbarians.” Now, I use titles to convey information to ground or orient the reader to what’s happening in the story. It’s almost as if the title is the only introductory exposition I allow myself before jumping into the scene, so I cram as much succinct info as I can into them.

My story titles have gotten progressively longer. For instance, I have a story called “Mr. Ah Yup, Of The Mongolian Race, Applying For Naturalization.” I’m hoping it’s an attention-grabbing title, but it also does the work of telling the reader all the exposition they need so I can just go right into scene. Or there’s a 100 word story I wrote titled “It Took Courage For My Disowned Mother To RSVP Yes To My Uncle’s Wedding,” which again gives the reader everything I think they need to set up the scene that follows. At least that’s where I am with titles right now. 

My advice to writers is when submitting to a journal or competition, write something that stands out as unique from the other hundreds or thousands of submissions. A voice, a setting, a point of view that’s never been on the page before. A topic that nobody else is writing about. And then infuse the story with so much heart and guts that upon finishing, the reader has to just close their laptop and cry.

Eliot Li is a Chinese American writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work has appeared in CRAFT Literary, SmokeLong Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, trampset, The Pinch, pidgeonholes, and elsewhere. He was a finalist for the 2021 Pinch Literary Awards, and runner up for the 2022 New Flash Fiction Prize.

He will soon be joining the editorial staff at SmokeLong Quarterly. You can find him on twitter @EliotLi2.

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