Brevity and Bulk

I was recently told by a student on the MA in creative writing at Bath Spa University, that a well-known novelist, writer on the short story form and  creative writing professor there, had dismissed flash fiction as mere writing exercises, to do before you started the ‘real’ work of writing a novel or a ‘proper’ short story. It baffles me that writers in such a position like to dismiss short short fiction in this way and thus anybody who wants to write in the form.

So, I do like these two quotes from the end of a  recent great conversation on the state of flash fiction published on  the marvellous website Electric Fiction between David Galef who has written Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook and Len Kuntz, renowned flash fiction writer and  fiction editor at Literary Orphans.

“Galef: Too many critics consciously or unconsciously equate bulk with importance. We talk about the Great American Novel, not Great American Flash Fiction. The traditional-length short story is somewhere in between. The few flash fictioneers who get credit, like Hemingway, made their reputation in regulation-length stories and novels. I’m not sure that’s ever going to change much.

Kuntz: Yet Alice Munro recently won the Nobel Prize and George Saunders the National Book Award. Both won for short fiction, and while it’s not flash, it does seem as if there’s a new appreciation for brevity in writing. Certainly a lot of people are reading and writing it. I’m still holding out hope that flash fiction writers will soon get their due.”

I recently taught an introduction to flash fiction with Alex Wilson at Writing Events Bath, soon after seeing the latest Planet Earth documentary series, where to demonstrate equality between genres, I used the oft-quoted metaphor by Luisa Venezuela that a novel is like an animal, a short story a bird and a flash fiction, like an insect, iridescent in the best cases. In that  documentary series, you saw how each life form was equally wonderful. One  was not lesser than the other, although the smallest creatures can be less visible.

As with any writing published, not all of it is great – novels, short stories and flash fictions. We all know that. Of course, if you want to see what’s out there and what writers are doing with the form, you have to read a great deal. Two of the writers I came across this year and really enjoyed are American writers and major exponents of flash fiction, Meg Pokrass and Pamela Painter. I agree with a reviewer who said that all Pamela Painter’s last lines  are masterly. So are her beginnings. If you want to closely study how to begin and end a short-short fiction, her collection Wouldn’t You Like to Know gives you many examples. You should also read the collections Damn Sure Right and The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down by Meg Pokrass if you want to find out how much a single sentence can hold. Meg’s fictional leaps are astounding.

It’s by reading these two authors and many other writers of flash fiction this year, that my own writing has improved. I’ve been sending out stories to magazines and contests and the marvellous end of year news for me is that the small publisher, V Press are going to publish a pamphlet of  my ‘memoir’ type stories in 2017.  I am so thrilled

Flash Nano?

The American Flash Fiction writer Nancy Stohlman is offering Flash Nano again this year –  a flash prompt a day for the month of November. So if you’re not into the 50,000 words NaNoWriMo challenge to write a novel in a month, why not use the structure to go for this? Let me know if you want to be a Flash Nano buddy with me. Mutual encouragement is always great.

If anyone wants to enter the new  novella-in-flash award, judged by the great flash fiction writer  Meg Pokrass, which is open at Bath Flash Fiction Award until 31st January 2017, participating in Flash Nano would be brilliant way to accumulate a number of flashes to sequence into a novella form. This contest has a 7,000– 18000 word limit. A novella-in-flash consists of stand-alone flash fictions of different lengths which flash-novellasequenced together, tell a longer narrative. I’ve linked here to an interview in Smoke Long Quarterly about the Rose Metal Press guide on the form, My Very End of the Universe, which includes a wonderful novella and craft essay by Meg Pokrass. In writing 30 flashes for November you could write more than enough pieces to enter this competition. And have time to edit and polish.

Obviously, I can’t enter because I’m the organiser. But, as always, I set things up to give me the inspiration to get on with a project.  Flash Fiction is such a versatile form, so if longer works daunt you, like they do me, this is the way to go. The Rose Metal Press also have their Chapbook competition open until the end of November. This is for a short collection of flash pieces, not necessarily a flash novella. But the chapbook, that won last year, Superman On the Roof by Lex Williford, was in the form of a novella. I am just about to buy it for further inspiration.

Moodling and Mind Wandering

I’ve always liked the quote below by Brenda Ueland from her book published in 1938 – If You Want to Write – a book about Art, Independence and Spirit.41996dt3mfl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

“So you see, imagination needs moodling—long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.”

For those who haven’t heard of her, Brenda Ueland was an American journalist, editor and free-lance writer who was born in 1891 and died at the age of 93 in 1985. Her mother was a suffragette, and Brenda remained a staunch feminist throughout her life. She was said to live by two rules: to  tell the truth and not to do anything she didn’t want to do. I’d recommend reading this classic.

I love an older woman role-model. With her feminism and the above ‘rules’, along with the moodling advice, Brenda Ueland is certainly a good role model for me. Most of us were told at school that day-dreaming  was lazy or unproductive. Sometimes such reprimands kick in for me. That sour-faced English teacher – what was she called?

There’s an interesting recent Radio 4 series called The Anatomy of Rest which suggests mind-wandering, zoning out, day-dreaming is an important part of creativity. Listen to the series and you’ll also discover that in a large sample of 18000 people, reading comes top in a survey of the most restful activities.  You can certainly mind-wander in someone else’s imaginary world if you’re reading any length of fiction.

So instead of  bothering to clean the floor or wipe the kitchen surface, I’m going to follow Brenda Ueland’s advice and do what I want –  which is to dawdle, idle and putter down the lanes near where I live. No brisk walking for fitness, no intention of getting anywhere, no time-scale. A new flash fiction idea might even pop into my head…

Time Out, Time In

It won’t be news to iPad or iPhone owners, but I’ve discovered the timer function on Siri.  Saying ‘Timer’ in a firm voice into the microphone then have the automated voice answer. ‘OK here’s the timer’ helps me get started with a daily write. I like the way the seconds tick down in large black letters, I like the red line that shows you how much time is left. I like the the timer sound at the end. Mine is like a fading old-fashioned alarm. Very subtle. The cookie monster likes the Siri timer too apparently. And you can get a waiting time playlist should you like music when you write.

Anything that gets me into a regular writing habit is a plus.

I am forever in awe of writers like Eileen Merriman, who is a hospital consultant with a couple of small children and who, I read recently in an interview with her by Bath Flash Fiction Award current judge, Robert Vaughan, on Smokelong Quarterly, still manages to write each day, sometimes for a few hours, getting flash fictions, short stories and novels completed and winning awards.

I have a goal now, in any case. I’ve pinched it from a brilliant article by Kim Liao on going for 100 rejections a year. Clearly, you have to write a lot and send out a lot to gain acceptances. This article has such a positive spin.  Timing myself when I write helps. Since I began the year-of-100-rejections goal a few weeks ago I’ve received at least four of them, but I’ve also had an offer of publication in a lit mag and am waiting to hear from another magazine. Also I sent out about twelve flash fictions to a pamphlet submission slot recently so that could soon nicely increase my total of rejections.

Start rite sandals
I was very fond of these shoes when I owned some.

I’m also currently taking part in another wonderful flash fiction weekend with Word Tango. This time a creative non-fiction course with Pullitzer prize winning novelist and memoirist Lee Martin. Article on memoir writing here. His prompt today at Word Tango about recalling childhood shoes meant I have completed a flash fiction before midday. Yes! And it was an interesting shoe memory. Here’s a picture of the remembered sandals

Themes from Dreams

The wonderful flash fiction writer, Meg Pokrass who is reading in Bath on July 29th with Carrie Etter, Diane Simmons, K M Elkes and Tino Prinzi, is judging the  new Novella-in-flash competition we are shortly launching at Bath Flash Fiction Award. In an email interview I did  with her to be posted on the flash fiction site, she says, when writing flash pieces that might be included in a novella, “pay attention to themes that haunt your work and your dreams (they are often the same). Here you’ll find your most vivid and creative material.

Years ago, when I was working as Gestalt Psychotherapist, I ran a weekly dream group for a year, which ended on mid-summer’s day, (so we could  get Shakesperian and have a Midsummer Night’s Dream). All the members of the group were women and the dreams often synched. I remember one week  everyone, including me, had dreams about fathers.

Dream bookI’ve led sessions at Writing Events Bath with Alex Wilson on creating fiction from dreams. One great exercise we’ve occasionally used was taken from the Natural Artistry of Dreams by Jill Mellick, (Conari Press 1996). Mellick suggests working with a passing dream as if it were your life myth. This exercise can help you drill into the recurrent themes of your life and of your writing work.

This is what you do:

  • Title the dream ‘My Life Myth’.
  • Open your first sentence with ‘Every morning I awake having dreamed that...’
  • Add ‘always’ and ‘never’ where you can.
  • End your write-up with some statement such as ‘and I am destined to dream this for the rest of my life.’

Try it. You’ll be surprised – even if it’s a nightmare dream about Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage. Actually I couldn’t bear the idea of even writing that down as an exercise. Imagine this… ‘Every morning I awake having dreamed that Nigel Farage has mouthed off again…’ But I’m sure I would get beyond the literal if had such a dream and wrote it out in this way.

There’s a lot of really good ideas in the book. I recommend buying it. It could inspire you to tap into your psyche and write your novella-in-flash.

Dancing with Word Tango

Word tango
Word Tango’s logo

I completed a second weekend hosted by Word Tango with Kathy Fish as the teacher, a couple of weekends ago. A birthday present to myself.  I like Tango, I like words.  I love Word Tango. The focus for the weekend was flash non-fiction. My, oh my it was a good group of writers. I was honoured to be part of  it. During these weekend sessions conducted via the forum site, Kona, Kathy posts a lecture and some prompts on day one. And then another extension to the prompt on day two. The writers then get on with it and give each other feed back in a thread.

Unlike Argentinian Tango where I can’t make any moves although I adore the dance and the music,  I’m not a beginner in writing flash. I’m not an expert either. They say it takes several months or longer to get the basic steps of  Argentinian Tango. Then you improvise and improve over many years. Lovers of the dance spend their whole lives going to Milongas, getting close up, becoming more intricate, learning about space. Now I’m in my fourth year of flash fiction writing, I’m past the basics and getting bolder. The word-dance in flash fictions  should set people on fire, ignite their passion. Everything that goes into the Tango.

The interesting experiment on this weekend with Kathy, was the challenge to weave flash fiction memoir extracts into different orders and to think about the use of  space. A generalisation, but it’s my view that writers born in other countries seem to find it easier to think about white space when composing flash fiction. Is this because of our densely populated island, I wonder?  My piece was fine, but I think it was too packed. I’m re-drafting now to break it up after seeing what other people produced. I’m cutting and trying out different arrangements, using short paragraphs, lists.

It was really a wonderful dance that weekend. I highly recommend writers have a go at one of these weekends.  Word Tango also has a writers’ community with great support for people. I’ve yet to check that out, but I believe that on their current submit-to magazines-and-competitions-day they’ve been suggesting writers  submit pieces to the latest round of  Bath Flash Fiction Award. So I’m very pleased about that too.

On being a late developer

I’ve begun to think of myself like the amethyst I’ve got on my shelf.  Pretty craggy and old on the outside but shiny and multi-faceted within. I’ve had the particular stone pictured here for years – it needed dusting off.  But now it’s sparkling again. amethyst

Last Autumn, after taking two courses with Kathy Fish – one weekend and one two week course –  I decided to  submit to literature magazines as well as to competitions.

Since the end of last year, two pieces I wrote on those workshops have been accepted for magazines. (Many other people find this when they do a course with Kathy – it’s magic how she gets writers going). I have a micro in the December 2015 issue of  Flash Frontier. Last week, a longer flash fiction of mine was accepted for the inaugural issue of Halo Literary Magazine. And these are the first two  non-competition pieces I’ve ever sent out, apart from ones submitted to Visual Verse each month.

In the same week as being accepted for Halo, I heard I was longlisted in a Retreat West contest and and longlisted for Flash500 second quarter competition. I’m waiting to find out if I’m going to reach the short list for Flash500. If not, both stories are going travelling again, maybe out to other literary magazines. To cap a really great week I won the Faber Academy’s weekly Quickfics contest and a pile of books with my flash fiction piece. ‘Are we nearly there?’

So what can I  learn from this?  The obvious thing  is that I  have to keep sending my fiction into the world if I want it to be read by others. Competitions, magazines – whatever. And it doesn’t matter how old I am. I can still carry on developing – be a really, really late developer. Editors out there are focused on the writing, not the age of the writer.

Should writing fiction be all about fun?

  • Should writing fiction be all about fun – or something else?

Damyanti-Biswas
Damyanti Biswas

I’ve recently been interviewed by writer Damyanti Biswas, who was one of two writers commended by our judge, novelist and short story writer Annemarie Neary last October, 2015 in the inaugural Bath Flash Fiction Award. Damyanti’s commended piece, Picasso Dreams’, which Bath Flash nominated for the Queens Ferry Press anthology, Best Small Fictions 2016, ended up being a semi-finalist out of thousands of worldwide submissions. Everyone at Bath Flash thinks that’s a wonderful achievement.

In the interview, now posted on Damyanti’s  blog – daily (w)rite, I said writing should be fun, and she’s suggested other writers comment on that. Should writing fiction  be all about fun? Or should it be something else? My take on the subject follows below. You can add your comments on her blog.

  • Writing is like eating good chocolate…

For me, having fun while writing doesn’t mean staying light-weight, or avoiding emotions. I love the absorption that writing brings. When I’m at the computer or scribbling in a notebook, writing an emotional scene can stir up a whole range of feelings in me. It’s not boring. When I let go I’m often amazed at what ends up on the page. Time flies, drafts of longer stories or flash fictions get written – usually ones I haven’t thought about in advance. This process of allowing ideas, plots, and characters to form as I write is an endless source of pleasure to me, even if the subject matter is challenging. A ‘source of pleasure’ is one of the definitions of ‘fun’. Editing is also satisfying, particularly if I move out of a blinkered fog and notice bad habits, or improve the work by cutting away flab. Writing is like eating good chocolate – you savour the pieces, then stop before you get sick of it.

  • Running writing competitions is very much fun

2015-anthology
20 authors from the Bath Short Story Award 2015 in print

Running  competitions, although hard work, is very much fun – particularly notifying winners. Who wouldn’t like informing writers that their stories have won big cash prizes and will appear in print? Reading the huge variety of stories entered to the competitions is fascinating.  And of course, reading is part of writing. I also like supporting writers and other contests via social media, particularly twitter. The amount and variety of interesting and challenging writing on the internet is astounding. It’s fun ferreting it out and promoting the successes of other writers.

  • Send your inner critic on holiday

can't be arsed
Now Jude’s inner critic is on holiday, he can’t be arsed to make unhelpful comments

 

 

At Writing Events Bath where I lead creative writing sessions with my friend Alex Wilson, we suggest writers imagine sending their inner critics on holiday. Drawing a cartoon of a grumpy character lounging on a sun bed, takes the sting out of that inner carping voice. Writers love creating first drafts in a relaxed atmosphere.

So what if writing ceases to have any element of fun, satisfaction or absorption? It’s like any other relationship. You probably work on it for a while, then decide to let go. Or you stay with it, knowing that something will change. Nothing stays the same.

Writer’s Block – Does it exist?

Writer’s block used to be fashionable – a diagnosed condition. That’s always suspect. If you write, you might have said, ‘I’ve got writer’s block’ out loud to friends who ask you how the novel or short story is going, as if a disease has infiltrated your being, like a cold virus.

My mother used to say starve a fever, feed a cold. So, following that advice, if you can’t write, feed your writing self. These days, there is so much online, the poor, blocked writer, might indeed become feverish under the onslaught of ideas. All those tips, all those prompts, all that writing advice, all those tweets urging you to submit work to magazines or enter competitions. Endless hours can be spent reading them, having good intentions and nodding in agreement. If nothing else, it’s good neck exercise.

To combat the  fever, there are those apps which cut off  internet distractions and post you a picture of a kitten if you manage to write for a while. More punitive ones delete all your work if you don’t get to target in a certain time. To help her write, I bought a friend a posh version of an egg timer for a birthday present recently. Not three, but fifteen minutes to watch the sand drain through.

Let’s get obvious – if you can’t write, you have to overcome deep reluctance, and just do it, create a regular habit. Most people say write everyday to get in the zone, or if not that, at least some time once a week, when you can reward yourself with cake. Writers are never blocked, they are either not physically writing, or being over-critical. Anyone can put down the words of a first draft. It’s only in Steven King’s The Shining that authors are taken over by some other phenomena. Remember the film version and  Jack Nicholson typing the line “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over?

The first draft is not going to be brilliant but the critical voice forgets this and says, why bother? The work will never live up to something marvellous that you’ve written before, or someone else has already done better.

I captured
Cassandra Mortmain lives with her bohemian and impoverished family in a crumbling castle in the middle of nowhere. Her journal records her life with her beautiful, bored sister, Rose, her fadingly glamorous stepmother, Topaz, her little brother Thomas and her eccentric novelist father who suffers from a financially crippling writer’s block.

A few fictional authors have this ‘be perfect’ script. I love these lines from “I Captured a Castle’ by Dodie Smith.

Cassandra: “Father, ‘Jacob Wrestling’ was a wonderful ground-breaking book. There was never going to be a sequel over night.’

Father: “Meaning?”

Cassandra: “Meaning, it will come”

Father: “How old are you?”

Cassandra: “Seventeen.”

Father: “And you still believe in fairytales?”

(Note the book description copied in here under the cover picture on the left suggests the father  is ‘suffering’ from  writer’s block).

 

 

My best reads 2015: from small details to the whole shebang

I’ve read  many stand-out stories this year so I’m limiting myself to one example from each of my categories.

RIFT-COVER smallerDetails:  There are  marvellous character details in the story ‘A Room With Many Small Beds’ by Kathy Fish, the first story in a newly published collection of flash fiction pieces, ‘Rift’, which also contains stories by Robert Vaughan. I’m eagerly waiting for Rift to arrive in the post, but you can read this first piece  online. The narrator’s father’s girlfriend, Pearl, ” …sits cross-legged in front of the television with her cigarettes and her nail file. Her hair is set in empty frozen orange juice cans. She looks like a space alien or a sea creature.”

It’s the orange juice can rollers that do it for me.

Sentences:

A few sentences in Dancing to the Shipping Forecast, Dan Powell’s second prize winning 2015-anthologystory in the Bath Short Story Award 2015, gave me a heart-stop moment. The narrator’s great love has disappeared in a storm – we don’t know how. She is still living his house near the sea. His sister wants her to leave  and eventually implies in a phone call, that because the relationship was new, she has no right to stay any longer. After a long, crackling silence we hear the narrator’s thoughts –

“Two months, three weeks, four days, fourteen hours and a few minutes. Two months, three weeks, four days, fourteen hours and a few minutes from the first kiss to the last…”

This account of time in the context of the piece, sums up the aching depth of the woman’s loss and desolation. It comes at around the mid-point. Read the whole story in the Bath Short Story Award Anthology, 2015.

Paragraph:

Dinosaurs coverThere are many great paragraphs in  ‘All About Alice’ one of Danielle McGoughlin’s stories in her acclaimed debut collection, ‘Dinosaurs on Other Planets’  Middle-aged Alice is trapped by the mistakes of her past, living without hope in the family home with her routine-bound father. In a rare week alone, when her father is on holiday, she ends up on a one-night stand with Jarlath.

“In the semi-darkness  of Jarlath’s bedroom, Alice lay on her back. She saw a large amoeba-shaped stain on the ceiling and, on top of the wardrobe, an orange traffic cone. Downstairs the two young men that Jarlath shared the house with had turned the music up louder. Jarlath lay next to her, his jeans still around his ankles. The music stopped downstairs and for a while there was silence except for the sound of a car going by on the street outside. Alice was overcome by a deadly urge to talk.”

Says it all.

Scenes

‘The Good Son’, by Paul McVeigh contains dozens of scenes that fizz with energy. He came Paul Mcveighto Bath for an evening of readings we organised at Bath Short Story Award and read from the beginning of the novel, making those initial scenes even more poignant and funny. Another  scene I enjoyed describes Mickey, the ten-year old protagonist, playing in his mother’s bedroom and dressing Killer, his dog, in a confirmation dress. But there are so many. In other scenes, I  learned  new words and phrases: ‘ lumbering’ and ‘hitting a redner’. If you don’t know what they mean, read the novel. Read it anyway, it’s so good. My copy is still with my neighbour, who loved it too.

Titles

Bath-Flash-Fiction-Award‘This Is How They Drown’

This title works well for a powerful piece of flashfiction by Eileen Merriman, which won second prize in the inaugural Bath Flash Fiction Award.  Although we know from the title that more than one person will drown, we don’t know how. There are layers of ‘drowning’ in this piece – the story lingers – what will happen to the girl who survives  this terrible event?  Go to ‘Winners’ on the website menu to read the story and to ‘Views’ to read what Eileen has to say about  how it came into being.

The whole Shebang

Galen PikeThe Redemption of Galen Pike’ by Carys Davies won the prestigious Frank O’Connor award this year. I’ve just bought a copy and read two stories so far, both of which knocked me out. The ends of each are so surprising and powerful. ‘Travellers’ begins in Siberia  but its heart is in Birmingham.  Read the beginning of  ‘The Quiet’, set somewhere in a remote homestead in Australia and you might think you know where the story is going to end. You’re wrong.  Timeless themes in different landscapes. Can’t wait to read more. Buy this.

Read/ buy all the other pieces too. They’re all wonderful.