FIRST FLASH FICTION FESTIVAL

This weekend, Jude Higgins pulled off a wonderful feat in initiating the first Flash Fiction Festival in Bath.

Gaining support from the Arts Council Fund, she was able to attract some of the best flash practitioners to give readings and workshops to enthusiastic participants from five countries.

Vanessa Gebbie, Kit de Waal, Tania Hershman, Paul McVeigh, David Gaffney, Ashley Chantler, Peter Blair, David Swann, Meg Pokrass, Jude Higgins, K M Elkes, Christopher Fielden, Michael Loveday and Calum Kerr all gave generously of their time and expertise.

The weekend course opened with an overview of the genre from Peter Blair (Senior Lecturer, University of Chester) who led through saucy double-entendres and allusions to describe the range of names and kinds of very short fiction. From dribbles, drabbles, palm-held, micro-fiction and many others, he showed how a world could open up from a hard-worked choice of words, and from the power of omissions. Using examples of thought-provoking word-minimalists he discussed the significance of white space, and came near viewing the tiny story on the big page as an art form.

The writing tutor, Pamela Painter, Emerson College, Boston, opened the workshops with a charm that held the audience in her grip. Within minutes she had writers composing the most unlikely but captivating story titles.

Subsequently her workshop plummeted writers into developing stories they had not known were in their heads.

In a thought-provoking and directly helpful workshop Kit de Waal brought participants into her world of powerful stories. She demonstrated how to make the title work for the writer, and used images to stimulate imagination within the ‘container’ that is flash fiction.

Jude, herself, led a dream workshop that produced amazing results. Using three different techniques the original dream fragment developed into a meaningful whole, using myth, underlying thoughts and a current experience.

Charismatic Paul McVeigh talked of the power of every word to summon up a setting, a character, an era through saying little but saying it exactly. He described “opening a box in readers’ brains” calling on their past knowledge to furnish what was not written. He advocates laying personal pain on the line and imbuing every sentence with passion.

Tania Herschmann enlivens her writing with her scientific background. She fascinated her workshop participants with examples and exercises using scientific concepts to form innovative prose.

There were other workshops from Vanessa Gebbie and Christopher Fielden: it was impossible to attend them all but informal discussion between events revealed a very high level of satisfaction. There was enthusiasm for the possibility of a second Flash Fiction Festival next year. Will it need a larger venue to meet the demand?

 

 

 

Suggestions for writing a trilogy.

 

Much advice for writers suggests that series work best for indies. Is the same true of a trilogy?

A trilogy suggests an entity like the three-movement sonata in music, or the triptych in art. The form must be complete, whereas the novelist has more freedom to finish where s/he likes, at any point, at any length.  

A Relative Invasion is probably the only trilogy I’ll write. It was meant as a novel. I began to write the story of a good-hearted boy, Billy, who was going to need all the resilience he could muster to weather the threat of war, as well as that of his manipulative cousin. A trilogy never entered my mind. I wanted to explore how the emotions that led to WWII might play out in micro, in a South London family. This was a story about a life-time rivalry that would have lasting effects, mirroring the tensions in micro of those in pre-war Europe.

This is what happened when I was in the throes of writing the story:

Billy was only five years old at the start of the narrative. At around the fifth chapter I knew what the ending must be, and I wrote that in full. I then returned to Chapter Five. Just a matter of getting Billy from that point to the end, but by the time I had written one hundred thousand words, he was still only seven. At that point I stopped, thinking I had better made the story into two books. Backtracking, I wrote a suitable ending to Book One, which came at around seventy-five thousand words.           

When Book Two reached a similar length, World War Two had just ended, but I was a long way from the climax and culmination of the story. VE Day provided a natural conclusion of Book Two. Billy was then twelve, and cousin Kenneth, thirteen. Adolescence and the terrible austerity of London’s 1940s lay ahead, together with the fall-out from their life-long rivalry.

Book Three had to bring the boys to adulthood, and by the time I’d written to that point, I was at one hundred and twenty thousand words. I could have started the boys’ careers and made four books, but I had published and described the previous books as part of ‘a trilogy’.  I stuck to this, revised, and cut Book 3 down to one hundred and five thousand words. After all, the climax and the ending were set just as I’d planned.

Billy’s story was told, the arc I’d envisaged had been completed. I had written a trilogy. What can I advise would-be trilogists?

Early on, write a time-line.

Put in the historic events, check exact dates of these. Ensure you record each character’s date of birth, location, key events. In a trilogy, you may need to come back to them. Old incidents come back to bite the bottoms of the unwary.

Write your real ending before you get too far into the narrative.

You need to retain a clear sense of where your story is going as you write chapter after chapter. 

Mark out how much will happen in each book.

This way you can pace the drama evenly, making sure you don’t stack up the high points too closely together.

The flow of life needs to show:

precursors in Book 1, developments in Book 2, outcomes in Book 3. In music the third part would be recapitulation. Outcomes do have this element: a reworking of earlier events. If there’s a crisis in Book 1 it can resolve, but not really conclude there;  longer-term effects should pop up in Books 2 or 3.

There needs to be some sense of linear movement

even if the books are not arranged in chronological sequence. The reader will want to feel the size of the whole time span by the time s/he reaches the end.

Include several fully-imagined characters.

Three books are too many to focus on just one or two main characters. The work needs other characters with their own concerns for the main ones to knock against and react to. The range of possible interactions gives a more detailed picture of the protagonist(s) and a fuller character development .

Similarly, there needs to be more than one theme.

For instance, the main theme in my trilogy is the far-reaching effects of an ongoing childhood relationship. Connected to this is the theme of coming-of-age, bullying, parenting issues, the subtler effects of war service, and a re-examining where personal responsibility lies.

Although the trilogy will follow one arc each book also needs its own arc

My trilogy arc was before WWII began until the war effects in Britain ended – “You’ve never had it so good”) The three books fell into line with historic events: Book 1 – threat of war until its onset; Book 2 – the war years; Book 3 – post-war austerity. Each book contained its own drama; each marked great changes in Billy’s life. It’s these changes that make for a satisfying place to end one book and start the next.

AND I’d also suggest the following about a trilogy:

The story has to be substantial.

It has to touch on something in human nature that will resonate meaningfully over the timescale of your three books so that the three do comprise an entity, not three stories about the same people.

Finally, you need to be a sticker;

someone with a persistent, resilient personality who does not give up what they have started. I wrote these traits into my main character, and he helped me to stay the course.

New writer? Writing persistence.

Is this how you feel about your work in progress? Advice: the punching must be on computer keys — daily.

Stephen King’s biographical On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft reveals King as an avid reader, a no-nonsense advocate of writing skills, an honest, humorous, generous guide and a devoted husband of over thirty years to boot. The book soon impresses with his engaging style and self-revelations. At first, you may think, there’s no guide here, for the first half of the book relates Stephen King’s early life, hardships, but the message must be taken from his, above all, persistent writing. He writes when he’s hungry, in a corner, on his lap, in a trailer, in a run-down apartment, after ten bit jobs and later, a rough day’s teaching. He does everything to put food on the table for his wife and little one before turning to his writing. But he carries on. Then the wondrous telephone call comes and he makes his first big money. (Carrie is the novel and I wonder if carries on was uppermost in his mind when he wrote it).

This is such a nice guy, you find yourself thinking, I want to know and celebrate his success and then take account of the how and why. That success is so immense, but above all, so appealingly hard-won, that you just can’t refuse to accept what he is saying. And he says it in the second half of the book. His advice is clear, uncluttered, simple and to the point.

Many, if not most writers read books about writing: style, plotting, planning, joining retreats, engaging in courses, identifying underlying themes. They despair that they’ll never gain sufficient organisation and techniques.

King has no truck with much of this.  His recommendations come down to this: honest, always honest writing; getting the story down ‘as it comes’; ensuring that the action is or could be true of the characters; similarly that the dialogue rings true of them. He is not precious, and does not value pretensions.  He states that all his stories stem from some initial experience and the personalities he has met. What he adds is a stunning ‘What If?’

He gets his first draft finished without recourse to beta readers, then puts it strictly away for six weeks. He works on other things.  In the second draft he fills out as well as corrects. At this point he may sit back and think what the novel is really about, what is important and consistent throughout the story.  This is when he might come up with an image or metaphor that enriches the writing.

What is very apparent is that Stephen King is excited about what he writes and loves the activity. He is not identifying a genre where he can make money nor is he intending to write blockbusters. He writes with an audience, an ‘Ideal Reader’ in mind.

His book can clear a writer’s mind and stop the flow of words circling round and down the plug-hole.dyslexia

On Writing is not a new book and it will have been lauded and praised many times before this. However, if there is any reader who has not read a book on Writing, they would do well to read On Writing.   It could well set you on a good, productive path.

Persistence pays, and King has evidenced this. 

Five essential writing tools

Starting out on your first writing journey?

Starting out, Flickr, Simonov

If you are just starting out to write and self-publish, whether fiction or non-fiction, put some money aside for the journey. After all, if you were about to open a shop,  or offer a repair service, you’d expect up-front costs. Don’t expect the writer’s expense to be limited to computer, printer, ink, paper and reference books. Below I’ve listed five essential writing tools. You will be very thankful for these. If I’d known of them when I began, I’d have saved many months of time.

  1. WRITING PLAN  Scrivener  software organizes you. Forget writing from A-Z on one document. Scrivener encourages you to write in scenes, sections, chapters, ideas, dialogues, time frames, or whatever takes your fancy. Everything is updated and saved automatically. You can set yourself targets. Slip easily between looking at your notes, the outline, research, all beautifully laid out. Yes, you have to learn how but you can use the tutorials, or, easier, buy this book : Scrivener Essentials. Author Karen Prince explains clearly and succinctly: a big contrast to Scrivener for Dummies where the only tilt at your newness to the application is the occasional very weak (and patronising) joke. When you’ve finished the last chapter and have compiled the various sections into one book, Scrivener formats it for you: paperback, ebook or mobi. This in itself is a huge help.
  2. EDIT AND REVIEW Pro-writing aid This is a comprehensive editor, good to use chapter by chapter so that when the book is finished, your editor and proof reader will have far less work and cost you less. Pro-writing aid surveys your grammar, writing style, (over) use of words, and lots more. Paying attention to its advice will make you a better writer as you are progressing with your book.
  3. READ GUIDANCE Kindle  If you don’t have one, do it now. This cheapest one is quite good enough, clear to read indoors or out. You can download free, or free to read guides for your writing, marketing, style etc. onto the Kindle and have it beside you as you work on your book on your desktop or laptop. That’s so much easier than reading, making notes or trying to remember steps, and then returning to your computer to put it into practice.
  4. NOTIFY OTHERS Canva You may want an illustration in your book, but more likely you will want to blog about it or post on Facebook. Canva allows you to painlessly compose visual images and add text. It’s quick, too.
  5. FORMAT AND PRODUCE Vellum  Above all, when you’re sure your book is ready, avoid hours and days trying to format your book for the different platforms. Buy a lifetime licence for Vellum and have beautifully laid out books with no stress. 
    This advice comes from painful experience. If you don’t follow any of it, the same pain will be yours!

Writers’ Criminal Ideas – developing a short story

I hate that question, ‘How do you get your ideas?’ because I rarely know.

When I wake, story phrases or conversations come to me out of the dull mist of very early morning. But in respect of this story, I can give a direct answer about my criminal ideas.

Some years ago I was watching the news of multiple shootings in a school by an adolescent. The account was truly shocking and the media tried to analyse its reasons. Sadly, other such massacres have followed.

As a psychologist, I had sometimes interviewed/assessed such youngsters. I remember several school haters rather than school refusers holed up in their bedrooms after school, keeping themselves separate from family and peers. These boys, and sometimes girls, believed those around them were ignorant of what they themselves knew. Their ‘knowledge’ was of violence, rebellion, conspiracy, retribution. They had dark posters on the wall. Those youngsters, I can’t write about, but I did use the experience to imagine a new character in that role.

I can’t write about those particular youngsters, but I did use the experience to imagine a new character in that state of alienation. (This writer’s criminal ideas)

I created a younger boy from another geographical and social setting and imagined what might lead to such an extreme act. I wrote a longish short story. It was long-listed in the (now defunct) FishKnife competition that year.

Later it won a Bloomsbury review after topping the favourites on the YouwriteOn site. The editor said that I “was a writer of potential” (pun), that I had “an intriguing premise”, my first line provided “a gripping opening” that “plunges the reader straight into the novel’s moral dilemma” and that she “was impressed by use of a first-person narrator.” She went on, “The use of an unreliable narrator is tricky to pull off, and you handle it well – the character of Jake has stayed with me since I first read it.” She suggested how I might develop it as a novel, associating it with ‘Before I Go to Sleep‘ and ‘Gone Girl‘.

I put the story with its criminal ideas to one side, because I was wholly involved with rewriting my trilogy, A Relative Invasion.  Later I tweaked it and put it on Kindle.

A Boy with Potential,” is the first of my Crime Shorts. It has elements of horror. It is a story of suspense. Crime is in the background; crime is the threat. Will it be a killer?  I believe there is an appetite for shorter stories, commuter length. Indeed, one reviewer (Morgen Bailey) has written: “This story has a feel of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, although I much preferred this one, and it just goes to show how much can be done in around 5,000 words.” (and now it’s in its 2nd, longer, edition of 7,000 words). FREE Kindle this week.

Writers, do you beautify your main character?


Prince Albert – Winterhalter

The recent TV production, VICTORIA, enchanted viewers in the first three episodes thanks to the girlish, if skittish character of Jenna Coleman’s princess. The appearance of the awkward and distant Albert added drama, if not as much attraction, as riveting Rufus Sewell, Lord Melbourne.

I discovered that the ridiculous hair style of Albert was no TV concoction when I visited the Chateau de Compiégne, Picardy.  There the wonderful portraits of Franz Xavier Winterhalter (known for his true-to-life painting) formed a special exhibition.

Winterhalter became one of the royal pair’s  favourite painters. It seems that Victoria praised his truthful representations, so we must accept that her own portrait is as she was, with bulging pale blue eyes, plump arms and stocky little body even in her youth. Whereas Tom Hughes is near to a spitting image of Albert, Jenna Coleman’s Victoria is very much beautified.

It may be that the scriptwriters came closer to the couples’ personalities. After all, clashes between two strong spirits is the stuff of drama. If one were portrayed as wholly sweet and cooperative, the series would fall a long way short. In my own case, I preferred the image I had concocted from history books to Tom Hughes, but sadly his lisping portrayal of the penniless prince was probably near the truth.

Have you written a character close to truth of someone you’ve actually known, while another you’ve deliberately beautified? Readers are left unsatisfied when excuses are made for the protagonist with unblemished features and unstained character, whereas the antagonist’s redeeming elements are ignored. Such black/white characters are termed ‘cardboard’. It’s surely the shades of grey that grip a reader, so don’t beautify your characters.

History is far more interested in what Victoria really looked like, not how beautiful a painter could make her. The same is true of writing.