Vol. 111 (2021) 

A Conversation about Writing with Author &

Lecturer Kathy Flann




Kathy Flann's short story collection, Smoky Ordinary, won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award and her collection, Get a Grip, received the George Garrett Fiction Prize. Get a Grip was named one of the Best Books of the Year by Baltimore Magazine and in the Top 10 Baltimore Books chosen by Baltimore City Paper. It also won the Short Story Category of The Best Book Awards, The International Book Award and the National Indie Excellence Award. Her short stories have appeared in more than 25 journals and anthologies, including ShenandoahThe North American ReviewBlackbirdThe Michigan Quarterly Review and New Stories from the South.


Flann has taught at more than 35 writing conferences and given over 40 readings of her own work at bookstores and festivals. Her advice column for aspiring writers appears regularly in Stay Thirsty Magazine. In addition, she has written columns about teaching writing for the UK’s Writing in Education and her creative nonfiction and feature articles have appeared in Baltimore StyleBaltimore FishbowlThe Texas Review and Monkeybicycle. She has also taught creative writing at Goucher College and currently teaches at Johns Hopkins.


Stay Thirsty Magazine was eager to ask Kathy Flann to reveal her secrets to writing better books when we visited with her at her home in Baltimore, MD, for this Conversation.


STAY THIRSTY: Your latest book, Write On, lets people in on the secrets to crafting better stories. How did you discover those secrets? Do they really work?


KATHY FLANN: These “secrets” are rather open ones. What I mean is that we all understand – cerebrally, at least – that stories have elements such as character, plot, setting, or point of view. That part is not a secret. However, when we’re in the thick of writing something, we can lose track of whether we have actually crafted these elements, the most effective ways to craft them, the order in which we’re presenting them, and so much more.


As someone who has worked with countless writers in universities and conferences, I’ve seen people work very hard on projects, only to discover that readers are totally bored. Heck, this happens to all of us, myself included.


In the book, I draw upon years of experience to help writers sift through their drafts for what matters to readers. Through successes and failures in my own writing, as well as in the writing of hundreds of people I’ve mentored, I’ve seen that there are simple adjustments to the thinking processes that can foster much better drafts. None of these changes are hard or complicated to make, but they can be challenging to discern on one’s own.

Writing is tough, and the simple fact is that I like to ensure more stories get into the world. While publication is not the only marker of success, it’s a tangible one. Quite a few of my students have enjoyed publishing success, both in books and magazines. To me, the success that’s most important is the improvement to a writer’s satisfaction with what she’s producing. That’s something harder to quantify, but that’s the main reason I took the time to write all of these ideas in the book – I’ve seen that these techniques work.



STAY THIRSTY: With great bravado people often announce they are going to write a book. What should they think about before they commit to such a large project?


KATHY FLANN: First, I would say – Yes! Write that book! I’m a big believer that the world benefits from well-told stories. I also believe each person has a story to tell that is hers alone. I would also want the person to know, though, that really good books make writing look easy – in much the same way as gymnasts make double back handsprings seem feasible. The would-be writer would do well to establish a writing community for support, partly to ensure that actual readers provide feedback along the way and partly to ensure the book gets written at all. Otherwise, the book is likely to end up a partially completed document that languishes forever on the writer’s hard drive. You can do it! And you don’t have to do it alone!



STAY THIRSTY: Is there a different thought process you use in writing fiction vs. nonfiction? Which one is easier for new writers to tackle?


KATHY FLANN: Neither form is easy. They are challenging in different ways. I do think some people might find one harder than the other, depending on how their brains work. On the whole, my experience in teaching is that new writers approach publishable quality more quickly with nonfiction than fiction.


I have a number of theories about why this tendency exists. The main one is that new writers have confidence about their own experiences. They understand right away that they are experts on this material. Furthermore, the first-person point of view of nonfiction –memoir, in particular – is also familiar. Because of that confidence, they write better across the board. They are loose, not stiff.


The challenge of writing from personal experience is that it’s, well, personal. The writers in these classes struggle less with technique or imagination and more with vulnerability. Yet, nonfiction tends to be interesting to the degree that it is honest and insightful about the experiences described. How ready is the writer to delve into self-examination? Some people are ready at eighteen. Some are never ready.


For some, fiction writing is more comfortable because self-exploration typically does not happen in any direct way. But creating the “suspension of disbelief” for readers requires a great deal of technical layering with elements of craft. That’s the trade-off.


Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying fiction writing requires skill while nonfiction writing requires simply the baring of the soul. That’s not it at all. I’m speaking only in the greatest generalities about my experience of new writers and the speed with which they approach a publishable level in each genre.

Kathy Flann

STAY THIRSTY: How important is good storytelling and does it differ depending on the type of book someone is writing?


KATHY FLANN: Good storytelling is everything! It doesn’t matter at all what type of book it is. I’ve taught people to write everything from fantasy to investigative journalism. Over time, I feel more strongly that similar principles underlie all stories, even though the techniques to achieve the stories may differ. We want people to lean forward and say, And then what happened? And then what happened? If we have achieved this, it means we have engaged people on an emotional level, not just a rational or cerebral level. Good stories activate both parts of our consciousnesses.



STAY THIRSTY: Should aspiring writers plan out every scene and every chapter before beginning to write or should they just let the characters in a novel run the show and figure things out as the story unfolds?


KATHY FLANN: You’re should-ing all over yourself! I would say, It depends. It depends on what you’re writing, what your goals are, and how long the piece will be. Someone who’s writing flash fiction of a page or less probably doesn’t need to write outlines. Someone who’s writing a three-book fantasy trilogy will likely find life much easier with outlines or storyboards. In between these poles, people differ in their mental thresholds for character-led vs. outline-led writing. For me, as someone who has typically written 20-page short stories, I don’t require outlines. However, I’ve seen that when I’m mentoring novelists, they often benefit from writing synopses or outlines of their overall plots, even if they might later veer away from those intentions. Having said that, some people’s brains hold outlines of whole novels without a need to write them down. We all have to figure out our own processes in the end, so I think it’s worth trying a variety of approaches.



STAY THIRSTY: What happens when a writer reaches a dead end and can't make their plotline work in a credible way? How important is not letting the reader down?


KATHY FLANN: It’s super important not to let the reader down. It’s such an act of faith for readers to commit to a story. It’s the privilege a writer wants – to be afforded the benefit of the doubt by her readers. If we let those readers down, we probably won’t get another chance. In the book, I provide some simple tips for making sure we make our stories worth our readers’ while. What’s more important than someone’s time?



STAY THIRSTY: What are the most common mistakes writers make with their first book?


KATHY FLANN: There are many ways a book might fall short of its potential. However, there are a handful of problem areas I see especially often. Here are a few questions that I ask new writers again and again. I should note that they are also questions I have struggled to answer about my own work sometimes. In the book, I explain some ways to think about each of these questions.


·      Why is today the day of the story?

·      Is this a novel rather than a movie?

·      Whose story is this?

·      How much time passes in the novel?

·      What’s at stake in this story?



STAY THIRSTY: With years of teaching and lecturing at colleges, participating on writing panels and in workshops and writing two award-winning books, what "special sauce" do you bring to the table that makes your book stand out from the others in the field?


KATHY FLANN: There are a lot of craft books out there, many that I admire. I didn’t set out to replicate those. I saw each chapter as a pep talk about an element of craft rather than a technical “how-to.” In other words, I wanted to say, You can do it! And here’s one simple new way to think about it. I let myself be goofy because I am goofy and the whole enterprise of writing is goofy if you think about it. I figure if we can laugh, we can relax. I wanted people who are struggling with writing anxiety to feel that there are manageable ways to deal with these problems. I hope that the book leaves readers feeling hopeful and maybe even excited about their work.



Kathy Flann    

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.