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.

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.

Favourite Writing Diets

I wrote this orginally for the  bathshortstoryaward.co.uk 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.

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.

 

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…