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…

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.

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.

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 BathFlashFictionAward.com

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.

Stewart Lee and Lydia Davis – linguistically related.

I think the American International Booker prize winning writer, Lydia Davis and the British comedian, Stewart Lee are linguistically related in their approach to writing short pieces. They each often turn words and sentences round and round to make a point. This is illustrated in the following clip from The Comedy Vehicle, Lee’s 2013 British TV. Here he riffs on a sentence he has heard in a taxi driver’s cab:  “These days, if you say you are English, you can be arrested and thrown in jail”. He reports the ensuing conversation with the taxi driver, repeating this sentence again and again with different emphases and variations until the taxi driver is worn down. What’s so great about the piece is that, as a listener, you get worn down by the repetition too – a brilliant tiny short story. It’s worth listening to the entire half an hour show to get a further variation of the taxi driver sentence right at the end. Stewart Lee’s performances are master classes in showing not telling. And this is a perfect example.

Lydia Davis’s flash fiction ‘A Mown Lawn’ does something similar.  She plays on the two words ‘mown lawn’  until as a reader you are almost sick of the repetition but quite enthralled. In the process, she says a lot about the state of America, just as Lee, in his piece,  points out the state of things in this country regarding immigration and prejudice.  Neither of them have said anything overtly.  I’m excited to find a clip of Lydia reading this story. Click here to listen.