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.

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.

My Love Affair with Flash Fiction

Only friends

For years, I thought I was only friends with flash fiction rather like the protagonists in the film, When Harry Met Sally. I liked short stories of whatever length, but there was no grand passion. Sudden-Fiction the anthology edited by Robert Shapard and published in 1983, was on my bookshelves and contained several of my favourite writers – Raymond Carver, Grace Paley and ones new to me then, like Lydia Davis. Once in a while, I enjoyed reading a story from the anthology.

First Attractions

My interest grew stronger in 2005/6 when The Guardian Newspaper published short shorts by Dave Eggers every week. I even tried writing a couple. But it was in late 2012 at a workshop with Tania Hershman we organised at Writing Events Bath, that the attraction grew. Tania showed us several different examples of the form and included some great exercises during an action-packed two hours. I was  writing a novel for the Bath Spa MA in Creative Writing that year, but in the workshop I  really liked being able to complete something succinct that could still be meaningful.

Falling in love

So when did I fall in love big time? When I wrote a piece in the last hour before the Fish Flash Fiction Prize ended in February 2014 and received an Honourable Mention when the results were announced. Mutual admiration always does the trick in matters of the heart! It was wonderful.

Entranced

Launching the inaugural Flash Fiction contest earlier this year has only made more more entranced. It’s always been a habit of mine to begin new projects that force me to learn more about the subject. Years ago, before I became a Gestalt Psychotherapist, I was an Assertiveness Trainer and a very successful one. But although I could handle a group session, I wasn’t very assertive myself – not for a long time. With flash fiction, the more stories I read and the more I write, the more fascinated I’ve become and I’m certainly getting better at writing the short form.

Besotted

Now in November 2015, a month since the launch of the second Bath Flash Fiction Award, I’m completely besotted with flash fiction. I was so excited about the standard of the winning, shortlisted and longlisted entries in the first competition. I frequently return to read those stories and enjoy the different ways they are written.

While the first Bath Flash competition was going on, I made a point of submitting to other competitions myself. As a result of my efforts, I was one of ten winners in the National Flash Fiction Day Micro Contest, was shortlisted in other prizes including the Fish Flash Fiction Prize, published on Visual Verse and recently received a Highly Commended in the Inktears Flash Fiction Prize. These successes and an online course last month with the well-known American writer of flash fiction Kathy Fish (to be highly recommended)  has left me starry eyed.

The acknowledgement for my successes from the twitter crowd who write very short fiction has been amazing. It’s been a real boost to be retweeted or favourited by other writers I admire. How can you not be in love with that amount of support for your work?

Committed

So what comes after being besotted? Hopefully, not a crash into normality. Flash fiction requires passion and commitment. That’s what to do – write every day, read more short stories, branch out into submitting stories for magazines as well as competitions. Have an on-going relationhship that refuses to become stale.

Some people look worried when I tell them I’ve abandoned the novel I was attempting to finish for several years. A waste? No. I can say with absolute conviction that I’m no longer interested. If they want to meet my new love, Flash Fiction, they’re very welcome.

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.

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 themolotovcocktail.com 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.

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.