Latest news

There is so much going on in the world of flash fiction!  The big news for me is that my flash fiction pamphlet, ‘The Chemist’s House’, published by the wonderful Sarah James at V Press is now out in the world and you can buy it here on this site. The picture is me being a proud author on publication day,which was yesterday, Friday 16th June. My pamphlet will also be for sale at the Flash Fiction Festival on 24/25 June in Bath.

In other flashy news, I was delighted to reach the final 22 in Flash Frontier’s Micro Madness contest. They post one story a day until June 22nd, National Flash Fiction Day in New Zealand. Scroll down their blog  to June 14th, to read my story about the Owl and the Pussycat’s future relationship. I am also thrilled that my flash fiction written during Flashnano last November, ‘Ten Ways to Prepare For Your Brothers’ Visit’, is going to be posted on the Flash Flood blog on National Flash Fiction Day UK  at 1.00 pm. It will be nice to see it up there at lunch time on Saturday, during the Flash Fiction Festival.  So many flash fiction friends from social media are coming. It’s going to be amazing. And I will get the chance to read a story from my pamphlet in the evening of readings on the Saturday night. Booking for the festival is closed and nearly everything is now sorted. It’s been great working as the Director with the flash festival team. Meg Pokrass, Diane Simmons, Santino Prinzi, Michael Loveday, Matt Coles and Louisa Bailey. And we also have Freya Morris in charge of the raffle on the day.

For those who are coming, see you soon. For those who aren’t able to make it, there’s always next year. The intention is definitely to hold another one in 2018.,

 

Seeding Stories

I run writing events with my friend Alex Wilson in Bath. We’ve just finished a four week creative writing series, the theme this time – writing about landscape and setting

The other week, I introduced the idea of writing about changes in seasons to convey the passage of time in fiction. The story prompts were based on packets of seeds.
So, give this exercise a go if you want a quick-write this evening to celebrate the end of March and maybe the beginning of your story growing season. Set the timer and go, go, go. Get to the end in 20 mins.

Title first – Choose some words from a seed packet in the picture or a seed packet of your own. Could be the name of the plant, eg. Sungold. Or could be anything else on the packet eg Summer Cropping.

Choose a character completely unlike yourself who grows vegetables. Done it all his/her life. Or not.

The story begins with this character planting the seed. Each shift of season is a major shift in the story. Show the plant growing too and indicate the changes in inner and outer landscapes for your character. The story ends when the plant has come to the end of its life. But the character is not the plant So it’s change, not death.

And yes, of course it has been done before. Jack. The Beanstalk. The Giant. The Golden Goose. Fi fo fi. etc. But never mind. Your story is different. Make it foolish if you like, ready for the beginning of April.

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.

Breaking writing rules (if there are any)

In my last post, I talked about removing ‘ly’ adverbs to strengthen prose. But here’s a challenge –  I’ve read a new microfiction by one of my favourite writers, Lydia Davis, where she uses five ‘ly’ adverbs in the space of about 100 words. And yes, the piece works. I like it a lot

A five-day workshop with nine other writers and with the brilliant  tutor Sean O’Reilly, organised by Stinging Fly at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin in late June, also shook up my self- imposed rules on editing. I learned not to edit stylistically to begin with, but to ask the question ‘what is this story really about?’ An obvious thing to some writers perhaps, but I’m not sure I’ve ever edited my fictions with this fully in mind. I’ve concentrated on structure, point of view, sentences (yes removing adverbs). It’s harder and sometimes uncomfortable to discover the truth of  a story after you’ve written it and to strengthen that aspect first.

It was either Sean or Clare Keegan, who came to talk for one afternoon, or both of them who suggested to write as far out of your comfort zone as possible. When the group and Sean were concentrating on one of my story drafts, I got  interested in an underlying theme about choice. I didn’t begin with the idea of writing about the choices people make and their sometimes dire consequences. A couple of the men in the group were  angry with the woman in my story, who by her actions, put her husband in a life-threatening situation. I liked them having this reaction – this aspect of the story provoked the strongest emotional response and I could see that deepening it would create a much stronger piece.

After reading the flash fiction I’ve linked to above, by Lydia Davis, I was left thinking about the nature of perception, not about her use of adverbs.  The narrator creates  a whole life for a person on a wrong perception, a perception that is confounded at the end of the piece. As a reader, I was challenged in the same way. And being challenged in some way is one of the most exciting things about reading fiction.

 

Showing and Telling: The Mix

Back in 1960s, Fritz Perls, one of the founders of Gestalt Psychotherapy, coined the phrase ‘Lose your mind and come to your senses.’ He thought people were too much ‘in their heads.’ They should pay attention to body sensation; their whole experience. Intellectualism was frowned upon.  Later generations of Gestalt Psychotherapists and theorists understand that balance is best – body experience and thinking functions are of equal value.

Writers know that a mix of  well-judged ‘showing and telling’ is similarly important.  I’m currently interested in how short story writers and novelists create such balance in their work and have been re-reading Antony Doerr’s short  story collection ‘Memory Wall’ after finishing his wonderful Pullitzer Prize winning novel, ‘All the Light We Cannot See.’

This week, with Alex Wilson, I led a creative writing group session for Writing Events Bath on the theme of subtexts and showing versus telling.  We briefly studied the first paragraph of ‘Memory Wall’,  Doerr’s title story, to look at his mix of showing and telling.

Here’s the paragraph with my comments inserted in italics.

Memory Wall

Tall Man In The Yard

Seventy-Four year old Alma Konachek lives in Vredehoek, a suburb above Cape Town: a place of warm rains, big-windowed lofts and silent, predatory automobiles.

We’re told Alma’s age, where she lives and shown it’s a rich neighbourhood by the description, ‘big-windowed lofts.’ We are brilliantly shown the menace in this district by two adjectives –  ‘silent, predatory’, put with automobiles, not people.

Behind her garden, Table Mountain rises, huge green and corrugated; beyond her kitchen balcony, a thousand city lights wink and gutter behind sheets of fog like candleflames.

Again we are told more about the setting (Table Mountain) and  shown the look of the mountain (corrugated). Doerr uses the verbs ‘wink’, ‘gutter’  to show the way lights move and adds a simile, ‘like candleflames’ so we know it’s night-time in a big city.

One night in November, at three in the morning, Alma wakes to hear the rape gate across her front door rattle open and someone enter her house. Her arms jerk: she spills a glass of water across the nightstand. She hears what might be breathing. Water drips onto the floor.

Here we’re told the time of night (three am has a scary feel). Doerr names the ‘rape gate’ as if it is a  commonplace term. (A South African woman in the writing class said these outer door frames are more commonly called burglar bars) – but the use of ‘rape gate’  at the beginning of this story is chilling. The verb ‘rattle’ increases apprehension. We are shown Alma’s  fear by her actions –’arms jerk’ ,’she spills a glass of water’. Doerr conjures up Alma straining to hear by the short sentence, ‘She hears what might be breathing.’ The detail of water dripping on the floor from the spilled glass of water also evokes fear.

Alma manages a whisper. “Hello?”

A shadow flows across the hall. She hears the scrape of a shoe on the staircase and then nothing. Night air blows into the room – it smells of frangipani and charcoal. Alma presses a fist over her heart.

The use of the verb ‘manages’ suggests Alma’s frightened state – she summons up just enough courage to speak. Doerr now uses all the senses to suggest someone waiting in a state of heightened awareness. We know Alma is seeing the shadow flow. She hears ‘a scrape of a shoe.’ The mixture of smells is sweet yet dark.  There’s a great detail to show Alma’s bodily reaction – She ‘presses a fist over her heart.’

Beyond the balcony windows, moonlit pieces of clouds drift over the city. Spilled water creeps towards her bedroom door.

“Who’s there, is someone there?”

The grandfather clock in the living room pounds through the seconds. Alma’s pulse booms in her ears. Her bedroom seems to be rotating very slowly.

“Harold?” Alma remembers that Harold is dead, but she cannot help herself. “Harold?”

The imagery in these sentences increases the sinister atmosphere. ‘Spilled water creeps’ and the grandfather clock in the living room pounds’, again shows Alma’s heightened awareness of things around her. We  are then are shown Alma’s  inner experience with a strong verb ‘her pulse booms in her ears.’ Her perception is altered by fear: ‘Her bedroom seems to be rotating very slowly.’

The repetition of ‘Harold?’ is poignant and appears to show that she is alone. We are told that Harold is dead.

It’s masterful writing. I recommend you read this  story – the opening is a hook, but the events that ensue are entirely unpredicatable.

April is the kindest month…

Yes, April has been kind to me on the writing front. I’m so happy to have learned  that I have been short listed for the Fish Flash Fiction Prize this year. Two stories – brilliant.  Entering competitions and getting listed is a great boost. I’ll keep it going now – both entering other competitions and writing. I’ve linked up with twitter friend, writer Yasmin Khan Murgai @msyasminkhamand and we’re giving each other daily prompts to write a Flash a day for April. I love writing with others in this way. Writer Christine Dalcher  @CV Dalcher is also involved, contributing prompts and writing flash fictions most days. It’s been a further boost to get so many favourites and congratulations on the short list success from twitter friends. There’s a great bunch of writers out there, supporting each other.

Getting shortlisted for these two stories in the Fish Prize is especially interesting for me because both stories followed exercises in the Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, the book I like a lot and  have written about several times on blog posts.

The exercises  I used  from The Field Guide were devised by one of the contributors, flash writer, Bruce Holland Rogers and concentrate on  structure and sentence length –  a writing departure for me. I frequently spring off into writing from  a word or visual prompt and time myself in order to  push for an end.  Thinking slowly about the balance of sentences within the piece is something I only do on a second draft.

I followed Rogers’ idea for a “Fibonacci” sonnet. This   structure he devised uses 18 sentences of set word length to write a story, as below:

The first paragraph uses these word lengths for the sentences –  1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34 and 55. In the second paragraph you write  in reverse 34, 21, 13,8,5,3,2,1

Composing longer sentences than normal and creating one word sentences was a challenge, but it worked.

His second exercise I followed was to write a ‘word loop.’ The first word of your story will also be your last word. The last word of each sentence must be the first word of the following sentence. He says this process requires “a balance between steering and allowing yourself to drift” Quite tricky but fun.

I recommend trying out these structures. It’s fascinating what can emerge.

Notebooks, handwriting, missing words

photo-notebook coverYesterday, I was lured into a stationery shop by a display of notebooks and pens in the window. It’s a minor addiction – a new notebook makes me  happy. Even though I vowed not to buy more, I couldn’t resist this one with its satiny paper and pictures of leaves. Oh…and I bought a ‘starter’ fountain pen to go with it.

Two things prompted the purchase: reading that hand writing might not be taught in schools as an essential skill and the following widely quoted extract from an article in the Guardian 27th February by the nature writer Robert MacFarlane. Eight years ago he discovered that when “a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published…a sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point,, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail, celebrity.”

Wandering alone down the  lanes of my girlhood and on through pastures or by the river in the  1950s and 60s, I frequently  saw, heard, smelled, tasted or touched all of the plants, birds and animals named in this deleted list. At the age of eight or nine they were  part of my everyday world. And I loved the names – catkin, acorn, adder, ash – repeated them like spells.

When I first joined a creative writing group, the tutor,  novelist and poet Lyndsay Clarke, advocated  using Anglo Saxon words as much as possible  Several of the deleted words, like ivy and cowslip and adder are  Old English in origin.  I learned these words when I saw the living things  in their natural landscape, so for me their meanings are multi-layered. The dictionary ‘replacements’ are hard-edged and airless. They don’t  belong in any specific environment.

So, what about hand-writing ?  I have always enjoyed using a pen on paper and making letter shapes that are uniquely me. At school we had ‘penmanship’ lessons – joined up rows of ‘p’s or ‘s’s in long patterns. It wasn’t a waste of time. I can’t think how it would be even now. Learning cursive script established me in a particular way. It’s obvious that a person’s  identity is embedded in their handwriting. As a young child, I observed that my best friend’s writing had an entirely different character from mine.  Seeing the way she formed shapes when we sat together learning  how to write, helped me recognise her individuality.

My neighbour just received a letter from her twenty-five year old son and she told me that reading his handwriting was an entirely different from reading an email. Immediately, she wanted to write a letter back.  Most people who receive personal letters like to keep at least some of them. You can’t unfold an email in years to come, smell the paper, study the writing and remember the person in the same way. I treasure a letter from my mother written before she had a stroke. Afterwards, with reduced motor skills, her handwriting became pinched and cramped, her identity shrunk, along with the space in her hand writing.

photo notebook insideBuying the notebook and the pad was a small act of defiance. I’ll write draft stories in it with my loopy, untidy script, naming adders, acorns, beeches and bluebells, kingfishers and newts. No  bullet  points, no celebrities.

Overwriting versus Editing

I’ve killed off my latest flash fiction story. It’s been through so many drafts it’s lost its energy and expired. I couldn’t leave it alone. To use a cooking metaphor, it was like opening the oven door on a sponge cake so many times  it failed to rise.

The problem: This story began with an idea in my head – not a bad idea but I’d already chewed it over  a few times before it arrived through my fingers on to the screen. The emotional charge wasn’t there in the first draft. I then attempted to work a better, more coherent plot round the idea, but couldn’t find it. The story arc was far too complicated for the word length; it began in the wrong place. What was I trying to say? It was definitely too much.  Something about guilt, regret, grief?  I wrote down the essence in notes, cut away flab, introduced more drama, a different tense, better dialogue. All wrong.

The best remedy is to leave this flash fiction alone. It might be born again in some form at a later date. In my previous post I quoted Vanessa Gebbie who advocates writing first drafts fast with energy created from a prompt.  I’ve always liked the book ‘Fast Fiction:Creating Fiction in Five Minutes,’ 1997, by Roberta Allen. The ideas within the book aren’t unusual – there are visual prompts and about 300 word prompts – for example, write a story about a lie, write a story about a coward, but she has useful suggestions on ways of building up the pieces created from timed  five minute slots.

So what about editing? If the energy is there after the fast draft, I guess it’s  down to checking the plot shape, considering a title,looking at the first line, cutting out the flab and putting it away for a couple of days. On a second look I’ll follow the same process or put it away for longer.  The important thing is to keep writing the stories, rather than overwriting one poor specimen. I remember reading somewhere that the award winning Irish short story writer Kevin Barry wrote about 100 stories  in a year of which just a few lived to see the day.

Another obvious thing; It helps to read widely. I love reading short stories and organising the new Bath Flash Fiction Award, gives me the opportunity to read many different styles of flash fiction, note which ones impact and linger and assess why they work. Along with my colleagues who co-run the Bath Short Story Award, I  get to read longer short stories too. This is one of the reasons why both these competitions are so rewarding. I learn a great deal about short story writing as well as tapping in to the great short story writing community out there.