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.

The Particulars

In estate-agent speak, ‘the particulars’ of properties for sale or rent are anything but particular. ‘Compact’,  means a flat the size of a cupboard, ‘deceptively spacious’, means there may be a cupboard in the flat somewhere.

At the wonderful Stinging Fly summer workshop I attended in Dublin this June, we were given an article by  tutor, Sean O’Reilly, during a session on the use of detail.  I don’t know who wrote the piece,  but the author says “it’s not just detail that distinguishes good writing (fiction or non-fiction) ; it is detail that individualises.  I call it particularity. Once you’re used to spotting it–and spotting its absence–you will have the best possible means of improving your writing markedly.” There’s some great examples of particularity in this article – for example, the first line of Graham Green’s  The Heart of the Matter.

” Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the iron work”.

The author of the article points out that if  the words ‘bald pink knees’ were removed, the sentence would be ordinary, not memorable. Those three words do a great deal to suggest character and bring the other details into focus. It’s a brilliant example of how to begin a novel or short story.

I’ve been reading and enjoying Alison Moore’s story collection,  ‘The Pre-War House’. She often particularises characters by their actions. I like  this example from the story ‘Over night stop’. The protaganist is a woman going on her honeymoon. The plane is delayed and she and her new husband are put up in a hotel. Alone in the hotel bar, she suddenly recognises someone – a man from her past, called Stanley.

“She shared a house with a friend of his and never knew if she would return from work to find Stanley on the sofa, drinking milk from the carton, resting it between his thighs after swigs, looking at her in her uniform and saying, ‘Hello nursey.'”

For me, there’s something about Stanley swigging the milk, resting the carton between his thighs then saying ‘Hello nursey’, that makes him distinctively creepy. Without Alison  writing  anything else, I imagine  Stanley has a mustache of milk, can see the beige of his trousers, hear the wheedling tone of his voice. This story  gets much  more creepy – it’s very good. I recommend reading it and the rest of the collection.

Favourite Writing Diets

I wrote this orginally for the in 2014 and I’m bringing it out again for the summer holidays.  Choose your favourite diet and have a good writing week. Or just stuff everything into your first draft…

The 5:2 diet – Write as much as you can for five days and even include soft, sugary prose. On the other two days, restrict yourself to 500 lean words.

The Dukan diet – Is there enough meat in your story? Add more, even if it feels bad.

The Paleo diet – Be a writing caveman! Hunt out those predatory adverbs, fish for cliches. Don’t over process your writing.

Weight watchers – Use a points system to restrict your fat and flabby words.

The Cambridge Diet – This is a very low adjective diet.  Only add more if your piece looks starved.

Slimming World – Balance and vary your prose  portions

SlimFast – a diet for sci-fi writers. Replace all items of real food in your story with  something virtual and scary.

The Cabbage Soup diet (unfashionable). Only write stories about cabbage.

Adverbs and Weasel Words

Renowned writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, famous for his lyrical prose, hated adverbs ending in ‘mente’ ( ‘ly’ in English). His novel,  ‘Love in the Time of The Cholera’ contains none.

Why are writers so attached to these ‘ly’ adverbs? The writing cliche ‘kill your darlings’ is easier to stomach  – we all know it’s essential to remove irrelevant chunks of descriptions and plot tangents. But modifiers often stay in  final drafts.  I entered a very short flash fiction in a competition last month, knowing every word counts. One of those words was an unecessary ‘ly-er’. I couldn’t bring myself  to ditch it.  I’ve given the judges a reason for  ruling my piece out of the contest.

When literary agent, Lucy Luck,  judge for The Bath Short Story Award 2014,  advised writers to avoid adverbs in their stories, she created an anxious twitter storm from potential entrants. But there’s nothing to love about adverbs – the  worn-out bras of writing, they offer no lift or support.

There are exceptions like the first sentence in Colin Barrett’s ‘Calm With Horses’ which I studied in an earlier post. He combines the adverb ‘politely’ with ‘hammered’. It unusual and  works in context showing something about the character, which is essential to the story.

Like adverbs, ‘Weasel words’,  make  prose mushy and are also hard to remove. David Michael Kaplan in his excellent book ‘Rewriting’ –a creative approach to writing fiction made a list:

about, actually, almost, almost like, already, appears, approximately, basically, close to, even eventually, exactly, finally, here, just, just then, kind of, nearly now, practically, really, seems, simply, somehow, somewhat, somewhat like, sort of, suddenly, then, there, truly, utterly.

Remove them all – they weaken your writing.  Notice your favourite words from the list your resistance to deleting them.  Mine are ‘just’, ‘now’ and ‘even’. They sneak in on the edge of my awareness, and I often miss them when editing or think they plead a case for staying. None of these words deserve a place in tight, polished prose. Dump them.

The ‘find’ button on your word processor is great for picking up how often you use ‘weasels’. I don’t think any have slipped in here…

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: Join Jude in writing a month of flash fictions

April is poetry month – the task is to write a poem a day. Thirty pieces out there on  screen or on paper. I don’t write poems but flash fiction is a close cousin to prose poetry – some would say even its identical twin.

Anyone want to join me and write a Flash Fiction/Prose Poem a day? Flash fiction writer and director of National Flash Fiction Day, Calum Kerr, wrote one a day for a year. Thirty days is a a snip in comparison.  If you do want to complete thirty days of flash, tweet me on @judehwriter Perhaps we can arrange a regular cup-of-tea  tweet-time each day and compare notes? teapots 2

To get going, I’ll   be consulting my current favourite text on writing flash, the excellent Rose Metal Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction. In this book, with regard to the ongoing debate concerning flash fiction and prose poetry, author, Kim Chinquee, says that although a “prose poem may be more about language and poetics, whereas a flash carries more narrative and story“, they are “interchangeable…more inclusive than exclusive – each of the other.

I also like the following exercise  suggested by Steve Almond in the same book  – a  brilliant idea for revitalising a tired short story or one needing to loose its flab. He suggests that you ” stop whatever story you’re working on and convert the whole thing into a poem. It will end up as a much shorter piece, in which you bid various extra words, characters and subplots, goodbye.” The poem can be as bad as you like.When you’ve finished  you remove the line breaks and examine the resulting piece of prose. Leaner, tighter and now, perhaps, fizzing with energy. I’ve a few sad little pieces that could do with this treatment.

Inspiration also comes  from checking out current flash fiction competitions. It would be good to have 30 pieces to pick from when considering which to enter. It’s a shame I can’t enter Bath Flash Fiction Award – no-go – I’m organising it. ( I would if I could  though – even though I say it myself – with 3 different entry options it tries its best to get as many writers on board as possible. And there are big prizes and a great short list  judge , Annemarie Neary).

The Bridport Flash Fiction competition has its usual pull  – something good  may turn up for that and there are also the super fun competitions  at to inspire. A new competition, Flash Fury,  is kicking off tomorrow, April 1st and the results of their latest competition, Flash Fool, will be announced on the same day. The guidelines for general submission to the ezine on their site, as I said in a recent tweet on @bathflashaward, must be the most pertinent and funniest around.  For anyone wanting to  write a fresh-sounding story of any length, it’s great advice whether or not you like submitting to magazines. A recommended read.

All that remains is to write –  today, 31st March = warm-up day. I’ll go for a handwritten story in my under-used  new journal.

Dribble, drabble, toil and trabble

I had fun adapting the title for this post from the witches’ spell in Macbeth “Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble… for a recent tweet at @bathflashaward. I can’t resist using it again.

A Dribble is the term for a 50 word story, a Drabble, 100 words and a Trabble, 300 words.  I don’t believe the writers  who came up with these terms toiled to find them. I’m sure they were playing in order to discover a fun way of encapsulating the essence of the  form –  very short but not only that – something more.  Perhaps that is why I took the phrase from the witches’ chant in Macbeth. Good tiny fictions mesmerise. Like a spell, you can be changed by a mere few sentences.

There are many longer definitions of very short fiction including this lovely metaphor by writer Luiza Valenzuela I used in a post on the Bath Flash Fiction Award website

” I usually compare the novel to a mammal, be it as wild as a tiger or tame as a cow; the short story to a bird or a fish; the micro story to an insect (iridescent in the best cases)

The one word or short phrase descriptions for the form are also often metaphorical. According  to Shouhua Qi, writing in the brilliant Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, in China, where the form is currently ‘white hot,’ very short stories  go by  the following names:

Minute Story, Pocket-sized story, Palm-Size story, smoke-long story, hint fiction.

All these names suggest something more than just the ‘size’ of the work. There are other names that describe the process of writing or reading very short stories

quick fiction, fast fiction, furious fiction, sudden fiction, flash, five-minute fiction.

Very short fiction can be ephemeral, written fast and then forgotten. But gone in a moment, they can also linger long  like the brilliant flash of that iridescent insect you might first have seen as a child and never forgotten.

Other terms suggest the places where such stories can be dashed off:

postcard fiction, napkin fiction.

There’s an ongoing debate as to whether prose poetry is the same as very short stories.

‘Flash’ fiction – arguably the term  most widely used – in the US and UK at least –  was coined in the early 1990s by the writer James Thomas who, together with Robert Shapard collected stories published in  an anthology called Flash Fiction in 1992.

I don’t know why there is so much fascination in providing different names for stories 1000 words and under. There are many more names than the ones I’ve mentioned. Longer stories only get the one name – short stories. Longer still you get ‘novella’, then, of course, novel. Perhaps it’s because the shorter the story becomes, the more room there is for experimentation. Nearly everything can fall away – plot, structure as well as most of the words. The one or two word description for the genre, can be itself a tiny story.

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.

Writing Flash Fiction

It requires great skill  to achieve a flash that resonates long after reading  but first drafts are fun to write. Using a simple prompt is the way to go, according to author, Vanessa Gebbie. In a post from 2012 she says: “The vital process of ‘flash writing’ is that of not thinking before one writes, not planning, letting go and just writing focusing on the prompt.”Prompts can be anything of course, words, phrases, lines from poetry, objects, music.

The draft  will need  editing –  the well-known rule that ‘every word counts’ is essential here, but the whole shape of a story written fast can arrive in just ten minutes.

Tania Hershman, who is well known for her  flash fiction and for her tutoring on writing short fiction, ran a brilliant workshop for Writing Events Bath in 2013 and a participant who wrote a five minute fiction prompted by one of Tania’s exercises during the workshop, won third prize in a well-known competition soon afterwards. She’d never written to this length before. The constraint of writing within a timed exercise, helped something click for her.

Although I’ve  read a lot of very short fiction over the years, I’ve been hooked on writing flash fiction since Tania’s workshop and was thrilled to get an Honourable Mention in the Fish Flash Competition 2014. There are many different ways of experimenting with flash.  My story  had a punch line, often seen as something to avoid. However, it passed through the filter judges and reached the short list judge, Glenn Patterson, who gave it this feedback “punchlines don’t work, punchlines don’t work…then one does – another (supposed) rule gleefully binned.

My enthusiasm for flash fiction prompted me to set up the Bath Flash Fiction Award, a  new rolling competition with a limit of 300 words. Instead of a closing date, the award will come to an end when 1000 entries are reached. There’s a first prize of £1000, 2nd of £300 and a 3rd of £100. I’m excited to see what happens. My experience as one of the organisers of the Bath Short Story Award has shown that around 50% of writers enter stories during the last  weeks. Will it be different if there isn’t a closing date?  Will the competition end in a couple of weeks because writers are keen for it to finish or carry on for several months. It’s an experiment. I hope it works and inspires writers to try writing and reading more in this genre. I’ve a great admin team making sure everything works well.  More details about the competition on

It is fascinating to read very short fiction from different authors.The anthology ‘Scraps’  edited by Calum Kerr Director of National Flash Fiction Day, UK contains seventy short fictions and is an interesting read. The stories vary considerably in style and include stories by Tania Hershman and Vanessa Gebbie as well as Calum Kerr.  Calum’s online book ‘The World in A Flash’ – How to Write Flash Fiction’ is a useful guide, as is ‘The Rose Metal Field Guide To Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers,’ edited by Tara L. Marsh.

Heart Strings – writing emotional fiction

Carrie Kania, literary agent for Conville and Walsh and short-list judge for the 2015 Bath Short Story Award says this about submissions and short story entries: ‘Make me cry – if one sentence gets me, that’s it.’ Bath Short Story Award Judge 2015.

There’s a couple of sentences in Elinor Nash’s short story, ‘Ghost Boy’, winner of the Bath Short Story Award, 2014 which had me reaching for the tissue box. The narrator, a teenaged boy disabled by a bike accident, suggests how different members of his family relate to him now he is brain damaged. He’s can’t express his thoughts and his sensations have merged. Wanting to ease family tension, he attempts to sing ‘The Wheels On The Bus’, a song he now loves. His Dad joins in with him usually. But then –

‘Sometimes, though, Jake’s Dad wouldn’t join in singing ‘The Wheels On The Bus’ but would leave the room. On one occasion he stormed out of the house and was gone a whole day and night.’

However much he tries to overcome his feelings, he finds his teenaged son’s reduced state unbearable. It is not clear whether Jake realises why he has left and that’s the power of the sentence of course – what is left unsaid.

The last paragraph of Kit de Waal’s story ‘A Beautiful Thing’, second prize winner in the Bath Short Story Award 2014, is similarly poignant. The story is about the narrator’s father’s first day in this country as an immigrant and it ends like this:

“He shook my hand for the first time and held it awhile

‘And don’t be angry. If you look, you will always find a beautiful thing.’

‘From the doorstep I watched him go. I saw him hunch and shiver, check his watch, turn up his collar and heard above his soft whistle, the ringing of his boot tips on the wet English street.”

It’s the combination of dialogue and character observation that moved me. The father makes a big impact throughout the story and particularly here, at the end. Kit’s debut novel, ‘My Name is Leon’, has just been taken on by Viking and Publishing Director,  Venetia Butterfield, said ‘My Name is Leon is a truly extraordinary novel; heart-wrenching and powerful, its characters leap off the page. I’m thrilled to be publishing a major new talent.’ I can’t wait to read it.

The collection of brilliant stories, ‘Young Skins’ by Colin Barrett, winner of The Guardian First Book Award amongst other major prizes was one of my favourite reads last year. All the stories in this collection are memorable for their emotional resonance. ‘Calm With Horses’ is one of those stories, where, although the protagonist is violent – a murderer in fact – it is possible to feel deeply for him and the tragedy of his life. Colin Barrett achieves this by describing the character’s life trajectory, his relationship with his disabled son, the bleakness of his surroundings and relationships.

When I’m emotionally involved with characters it’s as if they become part of my life. In ‘The Goldfinch,’ the controversial Pullitzer prize winning novel by Donna Tartt – the least finished book of 2014 apparently – I felt the jolts in Theo’s life as if I knew him personally.

Similarly when reading ‘Heroes’ Welcome’ by Louisa Young, which I have written about in a different post on this blog, the losses of the characters became my losses too. Most recently I’ve read ‘All The Light We Cannot See’ Antony Doerr’s New York Times best selling novel and finalist in the US National Book Award whom I interviewed on the Bath Short Story Award site.

A summing up sentence from the description of the book on Doerr’s site says his novel “illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another” .That’s a moving theme. It’s desperately sad how Werner, one of the young protagonists fails to support his friend for fear of the consequences. Although unable to make amends to this friend, he redeems himself by saving another.

Finally, I recommend listening to an interview with novelist and short story writer, Paul McVeigh on writing emotional fiction. One of things, he talks about is the importance of becoming aware of what resonates for you emotionally when you are in the company of others. You can then write from this place. There are many other gems in Paul’s heart-felt account of his approach to writing.