Tina Tocco: No Wasted Words

 

Tina Tocco’s flash fiction has appeared in Harpur PalatePassages North,
Potomac ReviewThe Portland ReviewItalian AmericanaClockhouse
Review
Border CrossingVoices in Italian AmericanaThe Citron Review,
Rathalla ReviewFiction Fix, and other publications.  In 2013, Tina was a
finalist in CALYX’s Flash Fiction Contest.  Her poetry has been published
in InkwellThe Westchester Review, The Summerset Review, and the
anthology Wild Dreams:  The Best of Italian Americana (Fordham University
Press).  Tina earned her MFA in creative writing from Manhattanville
College, where she was editor-in-chief of Inkwell. Stephanie Spector speaks
with Tina about inspiration, flash fiction, and the nature of being an editor below.

Click here to read Tina Tocco's short story "Danny."


How did you become a writer?

I know all writers say this, but I don’t ever remember not loving writing. If I think back to elementary school, I can remember always looking forward to my book reports or to practicing handwriting. Writing at an early age always felt like the natural thing to do.

Whose work has influenced your own?

I don’t think I can name any one particular writer—not their entire body of work, anyway. But if I had to pick something, I’d say Lois Lowry’s The Giver. That book is so tightly written that there’s not one wasted word. It’s intended for young readers,  but I read it as an adult, several times, and each time I was able to pick out a new detail. That’s exactly what I think writing teachers are talking about when they advise students to choose their words carefully.

With Danny, you manage to create a wide cast of characters inhabiting a familiar world in under 300 words. Some of your other flash fiction pieces are shorter than 100 words. How do you fit all of the necessary and artful components of a story in such a condensed space?

This kind of goes back to what I said about The Giver. If you pick out the most significant details within your story’s setting, characters, and action, or try to constrain yourself to 200-250 words, you’ll likely find that you end up taking out a lot of unnecessary words—ones that might have appeared to be brilliant when you came up with them in the first place. Once you get rid of anything that’s extraneous, you somehow end up with flash fiction. 

I rarely make outlines when I write. I do, however, usually try to envision the beginning, middle, and end of a story before I write it. That way, I know exactly what words I have to use, and every one of them has meaning. 

What do you think is the difference between flash fiction and prose poetry?

Well, so many people have different definitions for the two. But if you look back at older flash fiction from the 80s or 90s, you knew it was flash fiction. There was no confusing them. Today, I think there does seem to be an overlap, as a lot of contemporary stories now lack traditional elements like paragraph indents or dialogue marked with quotations.

I recently read an anthology called short, which included prose poems and flash fiction pieces, and I found sometimes that when I thought I was reading one genre, it was labeled in the table of contents as the other. I found that interesting. I think that whatever the piece feels like for you that’s what you should label it.

You were the Editor-in-Chief at Inkwell. What did you like best about the position? How did it affect your writing career?

I used to love finding that one special piece after looking through many that just weren’t quite right for us. That, to me, was very exciting. After you read several submissions that don’t work, you start to get discouraged , and then there’s pressure to get the issue together. But when you come across something that makes you think, “Wow! I wish I could have written that!” it’s all the more exciting to be able to push for that piece to be included in the journal. 

During the year I worked at Inkwell, we received thousands of submissions for only two issues. About a dozen of those came from a writing class at a high school in California. All of the submissions had the same type of cover letter—written in an identical format—so that we figured the teacher had helped the students with properly structuring a cover letter. My co-editor-in-chief and I thought that this was sweet. And, offhandedly, being in college and in an MFA program, we didn’t think these kids would be competing on the same level as adult writers. 

Inkwell was unusual because we had a blind submission review process.  So we had to pull apart the cover letters from the pieces before reading them. This was great because we didn’t know anything additional about the writers—only what they’d written. After we reviewed everything, we matched the cover letters back with each piece. So one day we’re in the Inkwell office and the managing editor, who’s matching the letters to the accepted pieces, says, “One of these cover letters is from that high school.”

That really knocked me on the floor. I couldn’t believe it! We took this amazing poem—about Japanese internment in America— from a girl who was a high school senior. It really taught me something about judging people. Not only was it a great experience, but I did also end up writing comments and critiques to the other dozen or so student pieces. I was glad to be able to sit down and personally encourage them. Given how many submissions we receive, we don’t get to do that very often as editors!

I’ve also learned that the submission process is very subjective. What could be right for one place could be wrong for another, as people’s tastes are completely different. You can’t be discouraged by a rejection, because you don’t know if your piece could be great for some other publication. Just as an example: I received 65 rejections before Danny was accepted here!

What do you hope your readers take from your writing? 

I hope they’re able to really visualize my stories. Because I pick my details carefully, I always hope I include the right ones that will allow them to see exactly what I’m trying to convey. 

And I hope that when they read my stories—or any stories, really—that they think about how these events could have actually happened. Writers pull material from real life situations in the world, you know? And that when they get to the end of a story, they take time to really absorb it, and consider what’s happened here.
    
What question have you always wanted to be asked as a writer?

I don’t usually get asked questions about writing. But if anyone ever asked me whether or not they should try writing or being a writer, I would tell them this: if it makes you happy, it doesn’t hurt to give it a shot. I’ve come across people in life who I think really wanted to be writers, but went in another direction. If you have a feeling that you want to try pursuing something professionally or as a hobby, I say go for it.