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Interview: Zach Shephard on “The Woman with the Long Black Hair”

Tell us a bit about “The Woman With the Long Black Hair.”

This story came from a Codex Writers’ Group prompt, in which authors were asked to “use cloth, thread or weaving as a metaphor or as a theme for your story.”  I wanted to try writing something lyrical (mostly because it’s not really my strong suit), so I got the idea of a goddess made of thread, who unravels as the tale goes on.  Unfortunately, by the time I started writing, I’d completely forgotten to make my prose lyrical.  Whoops.

In any case, brainstorming about the possible functions of thread led me to two thoughts: strangulation and warmth.  (In fact, I may have even come up with those thoughts in that order, which probably says more about me than I’d care to admit.)  Naturally, I realized right away that these two things are on opposite ends of the positivity spectrum, which effected my decision to have different characters give different accounts of this goddess:  some good, some bad.  Then, to make things more interesting, I figured I’d have her punish those who told good stories, and reward those who told bad.  This led to a theme of self-loathing, which is a familiar topic for me because I live a mile from the Pizza Hut buffet and constantly make bad decisions.


In general, what do you find to be the challenges of writing flash fiction?

I haven’t really thought about this before, as flash-fiction doesn’t seem any more difficult to me than writing of any other length.  It’s all a struggle.

Still, one note I do get for a lot of my flash stories (particularly during Codex competitions, when I’m getting brief feedback from ~30 authors on every story) is some variation of “Needs more space.”  I apparently have a bad habit of trying to cram elephant-sized ideas into shoe-box-sized containers.  Basically, my process for writing flash is as follows:


  1. Come up with idea for tightly plotted 5000-word story.
  2. Write that story in 750 words.


As you can probably imagine, it doesn’t always go so great.


In particular, could you talk about the ways in which you sketch the sense of a deep and detailed world in just a few pages, something that “The Woman With the Long Black Hair” does very well.

I wish I knew the trick!  Unfortunately, the truth is that I just got lucky with this one.  For every “The Woman With the Long Black Hair” I write, there’s a handful of failed flash-fiction stories decomposing in my trunk.  If there exists some formula for detailed world-building within a very small space, I haven’t discovered it yet.

That said, the best advice I could give would be a tip I came across while reading about my all-time favorite author, Roger Zelazny.  After struggling for so long to get published, Zelazny read through his manuscripts with an analytical eye to figure out what he was doing wrong.  This led to the identification of a common problem:  he was over-explaining things.  Whether it was the technical elements of an SF story, details about a character’s emotional state, or anything else, he was just spending too many words telling his audience exactly what was going on.  He realized that, as a reader, he wouldn’t want an author assuming he couldn’t read between the lines–that’d be insulting to his intelligence.  So he started cutting big chunks of his stories away, trusting the audience to figure things out for themselves.

As a reader, I feel the same way Zelazny did.  I always say I’d much rather be scratching my head at the end of a story, wondering what’s going on, than having the author explicitly state all the pertinent information.  In the former case I might feel stupid, but that’s my fault for not figuring things out–I can’t blame the author.  In the latter case, it feels like the author thinks I’m stupid, and that’s just insulting.  (Even if it’s true.)

As such, I try to explain things as minimally as possible, whenever I can.  I’m mostly doing it so the reader can feel good about figuring things out for themselves, but the side benefit is that it sometimes allows me to pack more world-building into a smaller space–after all, if you’re careful (or lucky!) enough, you can imply entire paragraphs of setting using only the blank spaces around a single sentence.


What are you working on now?

Not being so lazy when it comes to writing.

(Full disclosure:  it’s not going great.)


“The Woman with the Long Black Hair” appears in the May/June 2017 issue of F&SF.

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Zach Shephard has a website where you can learn more about his published and upcoming fiction:


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