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Interview with Mandy Wheeler, Runner Up in the Fall 2021 Flash Fiction Contest


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Mandy’s Bio:
 

Mandy Wheeler is a writer and radio director who’s spent her career working in the creative industries. For twenty years she ran an award-winning audio production company in London, before moving on to devise creativity workshops and work as a writer and presentation coach. As a writer she works across commercial and creative work: prose, scripts, ads, she’s done the lot. In 2021 her play “Tree Rings” won the Bitterpill Painkiller Project Award. She also hosts an annual residential retreat in Spain where she encourages people to apply the techniques of performance improvisation to writing practice. 

If you haven't read her story, click through and spend a moment with “You’re Packing a Suitcase.”  

-----interview with Sue Bradford Edwards-----

WOW: “You’re Packing a Suitcase” is one of those stories that I thought I had figured out but it just kept changing. What was the inspiration behind this story?

Mandy: I’m not sure where the inspiration for this one came from. Possibly a writing prompt. I’m always impressed (and a little envious) of people who say they walk round with a head full of stories. It isn’t like that for me. I lure inspiration in by making Offers (as improvisors would call them.) Setting puzzles for my imagination to solve. That gets me started. Then I write until something tumbles out that feels like it’s got energy, something I’m interested in exploring. 

Or it might be that a line gets stuck in my head. I let it rattle around for a while until I hear the rhythm of the piece, or the tone of voice, then I start writing and to see where it goes. I’m not a planner. I rarely know what a piece is about until I get to the end. I think the creative process works best when we don’t get in its way, when we don’t interfere too much. I certainly didn’t know where ‘You’re Packing’ was going when I started it. 

So why did it tumble out the way it did? I’d been playing around with writing ghost stories for a while, looking at different ways to tell them, so that probably had something to do with it. And, well, the mother daughter relationship – it’s the gift that keeps giving, isn’t it? 

WOW: Your bio lists your career as a radio director. How does your experience as a director impact your writing process? 

Mandy: Directing is editing. An actor gives a performance; you help them to develop and finesse it. Together you edit it. You also have to be able to keep the big picture in mind, to step back and ask: ‘What’s this about, what’s it communicating, what do we need to add, or lose?’ Then you go in close again and edit the detail of the performance or the script. 

If you’re used to working that way, it makes the whole drafting / editing thing a lot easier. I’m used to revisiting things over and over to build them up. A first draft is like a first read through, the beginning of a journey. 

And for me as a radio director, the sound of a piece is always very important: the tone of voice, the rhythm. When I’m editing I always read the work aloud. 

WOW: Rewriting is such a huge part of the writing process. How did this story change from first draft to finished manuscript? 

Mandy: In this case, not too much. That’s unusual, my first drafts are usually pretty unruly. I revise a lot. In this piece though, the rhythm and the tone were there early on. It was the detail that needed work. With Flash, it’s always about asking yourself, what more can I take out? How much can I leave up to the reader? That suits me. I love cutting stuff. It comes from working in radio, where you’re always trying to say less, to avoid over explaining. That’s how you keep the listener with you; by making them part of the production team, getting them to do some of the imaginative work. I approach writing in the same way. But, of course, you have to make sure you’re intriguing, not confusing. That’s what I worked on in this piece. 

Oh, and I always leave a good while between edits. That way a lot of the editing decisions seem to make themselves – they just jump off the page when you go back to it. 

WOW: Many of our readers have never tried writing flash fiction. What advice would you give writers new to this type of work? 

Mandy: Think of it as a collaboration with your reader. Flash is not a novel; you’re not suggesting they curl up in an armchair while you tell them a tale. You’re inviting them out to play. Look for ways to hook their imagination. Don’t over explain. Give them something to think about, let them do some of the work, let them have some fun. 

Writing short also gives you the opportunity to play around with format – don’t be afraid to try out unconventional ways of telling a story. 

And here’s a useful rule from improvisation. ‘Go in late; get out early’. Drop your reader into the middle of a scene. Lose the preamble. Hit the ground running. Then leave before the end - don’t worry about staying around to tie it all up. Leave it with the reader, let it linger pleasantly in their mind. 

In radio, we often withdraw with a fade out. That’s how I hear the end of ‘You’re Packing’. It fades out on that last line. Hopefully to be continued in the reader’s imagination. 

WOW: Your bio also mentions a retreat in Spain where you guide participants to use performance improvisation in their writing. Can you explain what performance improvisation is and how it benefits writers? 

Mandy: Performance improv is basically writing standing up. The kind of thing you see in comedy improv shows. For a writer, the techniques that improvisors use are incredibly useful in building spontaneity and encouraging you to get out of your own way. You get better at not judging, at moving a story forward and committing to ideas. 

For an improvisor, the empty stage is your blank page. Nothing’s happening until you make an ‘Offer’. Then, when you’ve set something running, you have to keep going. You can’t stop to judge or correct, you’ve got to keep building the idea, keep creating the scene. And, of course, because you do it with another person, you don’t know what’s coming next. It’s a great way to get comfortable with letting go of control. 

The sessions I run on the retreat and in the UK workshops, aren’t about performance. I just invite people to try out the improvisors’ techniques and think about how they can be useful when they’re working on their own, on the page. 

Improvising is about listening and reacting to what arrives – internally and externally. Getting things down, rather than making things up. It works brilliantly for blasting through creative blocks. You begin to enjoy that heady feeling of not knowing where you’re going – but trusting you’re going somewhere. You get to surprise yourself.

WOW:  Mandy, I love the idea of treating the blank page as a stage! This is definitely an idea we can play with.  Thank you so much for sharing your techniques with our readers and, again, congratulations! 

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