Elizabeth Shack: “I Am Graalnak…” started with a contest on the Codex writing forum. What can you tell us about writing to prompts?
Laura Pearlman: One thing I like about these flash contests is the combination of a prompt and a deadline. The prompt for this one was pretty wide open: write a story in a nonstandard format. I’d recently binge-watched Game of Thrones, and I noticed the way a lot of characters introduced themselves was similar to the way some Reddit Ask Me Anything threads are titled. That’s basically how the thought process started.
ES: You mentioned deadlines. What do you like about them? The motivation?
LP: Partly it’s the motivation because I tend to procrastinate. A deadline is also a stopping point—it’s often hard for me to know when a story is as good as it can be. A deadline forces me to stop revising it.
ES: What draws you to writing at flash length?
LP: I tend to write stories that are about one thing, and that’s the amount of space they take—flash length or flash-and-a-half. One reason to keep them short is that I sometimes choose to write in a voice that’s amusing for a flash story but could get annoying if it went on too long.
ES: Some authors start with short stories and move on to novels. Do you have any desire to write anything longer?
LP: For the time being I’m sticking with short stories. I like short stories, and it doesn’t take years to write one. I do have a couple of ideas for novels, but I don’t feel capable of writing them yet. I have worldbuilding ideas, but no plot or characters. I’m going to see if those ideas percolate over time.
ES: Do you often start with the idea, rather than the plot or character?
LP: Sometimes I start with the idea, and sometimes I start with a scene. Occasionally I’ll just come up with a sentence that seems like it would be a good opening line, although I almost never manage to grow a complete story out of one of those.
ES: Are you working on a story right now?
LP: I’m working on three stories. One is a fairy tale about a woman in a bad marriage who works in a bakery. The next is a superhero origin story. That’s the 3,000 word one. It’s sort of a distant descendant of another of the flash contest stories. The third is another comedy about evil aliens taking over the world.
ES: You seem to write a lot of comedies. What draws you to writing humorous stories?
LP: I just find it easier to write humor than to write serious stories. Sometimes I’ll try to write a serious story, and some humor will start to sneak in, and I’ll give up and make the story funny.
ES: Have you always been funny?
LP: Humor is really subjective, so I’m sure there are people reading this who don’t think I’m funny now. But for as long as I can remember, I’ve used humor to make sense of the world and to make friends. We moved a lot when I was growing up, so I was always the new kid.
ES: Do you have any advice for people trying to write humor?
LP: I have a grand total of two published stories, so I’m not sure I’m the best person to be giving advice—but I won’t let that stop me. My first piece of advice would be just to accept the fact that your humor probably won’t work for everyone. On the other hand, there are more than 300 million people who speak English as their first language, and many more than that who are fluent in it. So even if your sense of humor is so weird that only one percent of people share it, that’s still several million people who’ll think that thing you wrote is pretty funny if they ever get to see it. Write for those people.
ES: Have you been writing for long?
LP: I’m a late bloomer. A lot of profiles about authors start with “…who wrote her first novel at the age of 3 and goes into withdrawal if she doesn’t have a pen in hand for ten minutes.” I hated writing in school. One thing I’ve always done, in my family we’ve written silly things to each other as birthday cards or letters. I’ve always enjoyed that, but I didn’t think of that as writing.
ES: So you went from hating writing to, presumably, liking it. How did that happen?
LP: A security blog I read has a (mostly) annual flash fiction contest. I entered (and won) in 2010 and really liked the fact that people liked what I’d written. So I started my blog, which is mostly humorous nonfiction. I had a list of overly-wordy LOLcat captions published on the McSweeney’s website in 2011, but other than that, I mostly stuck to the blog until 2013.
ES: And then you started writing fiction?
LP: I wrote a couple of fiction pieces on the blog, but I didn’t think they fit in with the rest of the content. So I decided I’d put a little more effort into writing (and editing!) stories and trying to get them published. It just seemed like a natural next step. An unfortunate side effect is that I’ve neglected my blog horribly, but I do plan to get back to it at some point.
ES: I plant radishes in my garden every spring. Do you have something against radishes?
LP: When I was a kid I hated radishes. They were always in salads, and they always tasted too spicy for me. Then a couple of years ago somebody brought a really good lentil salad to Thanksgiving dinner. The thing that made it great was a mystery ingredient—it was crunchy and tangy and, of course, it turned out to be radishes. I like them in moderation. I won’t eat a plate of them, but I put them in salads.
ES: Finally, I have a very important question. Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?
LP: I’ve given that a lot of thought. I’m allergic to horses, so the horses would have a huge advantage there. So I have to say the giant duck. But my answer would be the same even if I weren’t allergic because duck-sized horses would be really cute. Fighting a hundred adorable tiny horses would be so close to fighting a hundred and one Dalmatian puppies that Disney would probably sue me for copyright infringement.
Elizabeth Shack writes fantasy and science fiction novels and short stories. Her work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction and other markets, and in 2012 she attended the Science Fiction & Fantasy Novel Writers Workshop at the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. A former physics student and newspaper reporter, she lives among the cornfields of central Illinois, where she comes in last in 5k races and attempts to grow vegetables in her shady yard. Find her at elizabethshack.com.