Seeding Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brevity and Bulk

I was recently told by a student on the MA in creative writing at Bath Spa University, that a well-known novelist, writer on the short story form and  creative writing professor there, had dismissed flash fiction as mere writing exercises, to do before you started the ‘real’ work of writing a novel or a ‘proper’ short story. It baffles me that writers in such a position like to dismiss short short fiction in this way and thus anybody who wants to write in the form.

So, I do like these two quotes from the end of a  recent great conversation on the state of flash fiction published on  the marvellous website Electric Fiction between David Galef who has written Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook and Len Kuntz, renowned flash fiction writer and  fiction editor at Literary Orphans.

“Galef: Too many critics consciously or unconsciously equate bulk with importance. We talk about the Great American Novel, not Great American Flash Fiction. The traditional-length short story is somewhere in between. The few flash fictioneers who get credit, like Hemingway, made their reputation in regulation-length stories and novels. I’m not sure that’s ever going to change much.

Kuntz: Yet Alice Munro recently won the Nobel Prize and George Saunders the National Book Award. Both won for short fiction, and while it’s not flash, it does seem as if there’s a new appreciation for brevity in writing. Certainly a lot of people are reading and writing it. I’m still holding out hope that flash fiction writers will soon get their due.”

I recently taught an introduction to flash fiction with Alex Wilson at Writing Events Bath, soon after seeing the latest Planet Earth documentary series, where to demonstrate equality between genres, I used the oft-quoted metaphor by Luisa Venezuela that a novel is like an animal, a short story a bird and a flash fiction, like an insect, iridescent in the best cases. In that  documentary series, you saw how each life form was equally wonderful. One  was not lesser than the other, although the smallest creatures can be less visible.

As with any writing published, not all of it is great – novels, short stories and flash fictions. We all know that. Of course, if you want to see what’s out there and what writers are doing with the form, you have to read a great deal. Two of the writers I came across this year and really enjoyed are American writers and major exponents of flash fiction, Meg Pokrass and Pamela Painter. I agree with a reviewer who said that all Pamela Painter’s last lines  are masterly. So are her beginnings. If you want to closely study how to begin and end a short-short fiction, her collection Wouldn’t You Like to Know gives you many examples. You should also read the collections Damn Sure Right and The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down by Meg Pokrass if you want to find out how much a single sentence can hold. Meg’s fictional leaps are astounding.

It’s by reading these two authors and many other writers of flash fiction this year, that my own writing has improved. I’ve been sending out stories to magazines and contests and the marvellous end of year news for me is that the small publisher, V Press are going to publish a pamphlet of  my flash fictions in 2017.  I am so thrilled.

Moodling and Mind Wandering

I’ve always liked the quote below by Brenda Ueland from her book published in 1938 – If You Want to Write – a book about Art, Independence and Spirit.41996dt3mfl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

“So you see, imagination needs moodling—long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.”

For those who haven’t heard of her, Brenda Ueland was an American journalist, editor and free-lance writer who was born in 1891 and died at the age of 93 in 1985. Her mother was a suffragette, and Brenda remained a staunch feminist throughout her life. She was said to live by two rules: to  tell the truth and not to do anything she didn’t want to do. I’d recommend reading this classic.

I love an older woman role-model. With her feminism and the above ‘rules’, along with the moodling advice, Brenda Ueland is certainly a good role model for me. Most of us were told at school that day-dreaming  was lazy or unproductive. Sometimes such reprimands kick in for me. That sour-faced English teacher – what was she called?

There’s an interesting recent Radio 4 series called The Anatomy of Rest which suggests mind-wandering, zoning out, day-dreaming is an important part of creativity. Listen to the series and you’ll also discover that in a large sample of 18000 people, reading comes top in a survey of the most restful activities.  You can certainly mind-wander in someone else’s imaginary world if you’re reading any length of fiction.

So instead of  bothering to clean the floor or wipe the kitchen surface, I’m going to follow Brenda Ueland’s advice and do what I want –  which is to dawdle, idle and putter down the lanes near where I live. No brisk walking for fitness, no intention of getting anywhere, no time-scale. A new flash fiction idea might even pop into my head…