Thursday, 24 July 2014

Longlists and Short Stories

This blog is now listed on the New Writing South's Good Blog Guide, so I guess I had better blog something!

For the second year in a row I have had the happy necessity of withdrawing one of my stories from the Bristol Short Story Prize. Happy? The Bristol Short Story Prize requires you to withdraw any story that becomes shortlisted in another competition. Last year it was "Ring Pull" in the Limnisa / Bluethumbnail Short Story Competition. This year it is "Three Billion Heartbeats, Give or Take" in the Momaya Press Short Story Competition. Speaking of the Bristol Prize, congratulations to those who appeared on the longlist this year, and good luck for the shortlist for the authors I know who made it this far.

When it comes to reading stories aloud, it's easy to get attached to a few favourite pieces. I'm certainly guilty of this. At the Small Stories event in June I read out  "Ashes to Ashes, Mañana, Mañana". I was sitting with Pete Sutton and Tania Hershman that evening and, although neither of them complained or dozed off, both had heard me read the story before — twice. For Small Stories a couple of weeks ago I read "Two Weeks in Spain", a story I wrote four years ago but have never read out before. It turns out to be very well suited for performance, so I'll definitely be reading it again. Perhaps it will become a favourite?

And wrapping up with a drabble, "First Date, Last Date" was published with FlashFiction Magazine last week.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Squidpunk and Other Tentacles

I'm delighted that my story, #KrakenEvent, has been published with The Fabulist. This story won second place in the Bristol Festival of Literature's writing challenge, The Kraken Rises!, and appeared in the anthology for the event. The story is told in tweets, texts and web pages, which required some careful formatting — careful formatting that sadly did not survive the journey into the ebook. Not only is the formatting now preserved; it has been improved upon by The Fabulist.

In what promises to be a genre-defining squidpunk bonanza, The Kraken Rises! also forms the theme for the BristolCon Fringe's September readings: on Monday 22nd September some of the contributors to the anthology will be reading their stories at The Shakespeare. That gives me nearly three months to figure out how to read aloud a visually structured story told in terms of tweets and texts!

Speaking of spoken word events, I will be doing a couple of readings this month. On Monday 7th July I will be at Small Stories, which will be at Small Bar rather than their usual haunt at The Birdcage. I will be reading "Two Weeks in Spain", which I realised recently has never been read at an event despite being one of my favourites and also a good fit for live performance.

On Thursday 17th July I will be at Science Showoff at the Grain Barge. There will be beer. There will be pizza. There will be romance. There will be humour. And there will be quantum mechanics. I'll be reading "Schrödinger's Pizza", a lab lit tale that bridges postgrad–undergrad relationships, the art–science divide and the questionable entanglement of metaphor and vegetarian food.

That pretty much covers the spoken word events from now until September, but I'll keep you posted if anything changes. In the meantime, there's another story or two in the pipeline awaiting publication.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Misadventures in Non-fiction

In this second of two posts on the BristolFlash NFFD workshop, I want to look at Pauline Masurel's section of the workshop. In common with Calum's workshop exercises, this was all about taking the familiar and conventional and breaking convention with it to tell a story. Mazzy described the exercise as "misadventures in non-fiction", taking a recognisable, everyday non-fiction format and putting it to work as a vehicle for fiction. In this case, newspaper headlines and stories.

News stories are written in inverted pyramid style, where instead of building up to a conclusion or climax as a piece progresses, the base of the story's pyramid is flipped so that the essence of the whole story is revealed at the start — in the headline itself, then told again in the first sentence with more detail, then again over the next couple of paragraphs in greater detail, and so on. This allows readers to go as deep or as shallow as they wish, controlling the detail they read according to their interest, while still getting at least the essence of the story. It is a technique I have discussed and used in technical writing, such as the writing of patterns and of use cases.

Fictional stories are normally told by ascending a regular pyramid; inverting it by giving away the ending at the start is not obviously the right way to tell a tale. Not obviously. But this is flash fiction and the form is there to be played with as a creative constraint, not something to be followed blindly so as to beat the joy and creativity out of writing.

Our exercise was anchored in the headline. What makes a good headline? It should contain the whole story and grab your attention. Mazzy cited the classic example that Dog Bites Man was not a particularly interesting headline, but Man Bites Dog was... and Bristol Man Bites Dog was even better, offering a sense of place, something specific the reader can latch on to that perhaps confounds expectation — hence, for a local paper, Clifton Man Bites Dog would be an even better headline.

So to get the ball rolling, we needed a who, a what and a where, for which Mazzy passed round some postcards to act as inspiration. Here's the lot I drew:

And here's the resulting headline and opening:
Scilly Housewife Skates to Cornwall 
Land's End? Not any more! Freak subzero temperatures have frozen the Celtic Sea. Yesterday, mother of five, Mazzy Gardner of the Scilly Isles, donned boots and blades and skated all the way to Bude.
We then discussed a number of other possible forms that could be co-opted, sometimes with known examples: email chains, cc'd and copied (the interesting challenge here is that the story appears backwards, with the most recent item first); obituaries; public service announcements; product recall announcements; tweets (a story of mine uses tweets mixed in with texts); recipes (a couple of recipe tales were read by Clare Crestani at Small Stories last month); instructions; contraindications for medicine; medical dictionary definitions; academic footnotes; scientific abstracts; exam questions (such as this future bioethics paper by Claire King); marginalia; Q&A missing the questions; search history (such as the 2012 Flashbang winner by Iain Rowan); screenplay directions; fortune cookies; horoscopes; Amazon reviews; film reviews; seed packet directions; ingredients; weather forecasts; questionnaires; disclaimers; EULAs; album cover notes; notes on zoo cages. And others. Once you've started thinking about the possibilities, it's quite difficult to stop!

Monday, 30 June 2014

Unearthing the Unusual in the Usual

As promised, here's the first of two posts about the BristolFlash NFFD workshop: this time I'll focus on Calum Kerr's sections of the workshop and next time Pauline Masurel's.

Calum kicked off with an exercise he employed last year based on the senses. With just a couple of minutes per sense, write what you hear, what you see, etc. During hearing, as if planned, seagulls turned up outside to break the near silence of the library and background of the aircon. What I wrote this year was quite different to what I wrote last year, as was the discussion in the room afterwards. An interesting observation I hadn't considered before is that taste is a sense that captures the recent past rather than the present.

Calum also took the closing third of the workshop. This centred around another exercise that looked at the ordinary and familiar under the microscope. First, pick three ordinary things from last week, then have the person next to you pick the one you're going to write about; you do the same for them. Then write what happened. Just what happened. No writerly indulgence, no fiction, no subtext, as it was. Then go for it. Over the top — fiction, hyperbole, metaphors, melodrama, bring on the adjectives and adverbs — feel free to overwrite!

Mine started simply enough: I put the empty wine bottle into the recycling bin. It ended up as...
Recycled Hope
The hopes of the team died with the final whistle, sorrow pealing out across the streets and pubs and homes. In the enclave of their front room, husband and wife stared in silence at the screen, at the fans on the pitch, the fans of the other side. 
They turned from the altar of the television, the unwritten scripture of false hope, as it donned a veil of silence and mourning black. They gathered together the maudlin remains of their meal, the broken sacraments of wine and artisan bread, the grails of their glasses, the deal-of-the-month wine and overpriced bread that had served only to become the body and blood of Christ, Jesus and I can't believe he missed that. The procession of body and whine escorted the funereal tray to the kitchen. 
With ceremony and ritual, dishes were loaded into the afterlife of the washer, the wine bottle was washed and prepared, a corpse ready for burial, but without forgiveness or redemption. No words were spoken as it was lowered into its resting place, there to wait until bin day, it's final journey.
Great fun to (over)write and find something in apparently nothing. Definitely an exercise with a long and inspiring aftertaste.

Monday, 23 June 2014

National Flash Fiction Done

National Flash-Fiction Day was on Saturday 21st June this year. Much happened!

The day started early with a drabble of mine, "In Love and Debt", appearing as part of the day's FlashFlood of 144 flashes (one every ten minutes). Judging by the comments on the page, on Twitter and on Facebook, this piece hit the mark. I also did a mini-flood of my own, scheduling a flash of mine to be tweeted every hour from 09:00 to 23:00.

I also had a guest post, "The Bokeh of Flash", appear on Susi Holliday's blog. It draws a parallel between fiction and photography and the aesthetic use of shallow depth of focus and flash fiction.

As last year, we ran two BristolFlash events. You can find the photos I took here. We kicked off with a flash fiction workshop at Bristol Central Library, led by Calum Kerr and Pauline Masurel. Calum took the first and last third of the workshop and Mazzy the middle third. I found this year's workshop particularly thought provoking and inspiring — enough that I'll blog about it separately later. It was good to see some faces from last year as well as new ones.

The day also saw the release of the NFFD anthology, Eat My Words, in which my piece, "On Taking Measures to Eliminate Fair Play", appears. This is the third year a piece of mine has appeared in the NFFD anthology. I know I'm biased, but the content looks great!

Many of those who attended the workshop went on to The Lansdown, where the evening readings took place. Wonderful weather and a steady trickle of arriving authors and attendees led to a gentle build up to the readings. Virginia Moffatt, who was running an event at the same time in Oxford, had the rather good idea of encouraging live tweeting between events using #NFFDlive.

The readings were a real treat, covering a diverse range that left no genre or sentiment untouched. In order of appearance: Calum reading from Eat My WordsJudy Darley, Pete Sutton, Mazzy, Diane Simmons, Deborah RickardTim Stevenson, Marc Nash, Carrie Etter, Lucy English, Richard Holt, Tania Hershman, Calum — reading his own stories this time — and then me. I read "Authenticity" and "So You Think You Can Cook?".

Done for another year — and so to aestivate, perchance to write!

Friday, 20 June 2014

Flash Fiction: A Higher Calling

Swirls and spirals, flowing lines and suggestive curves, Henry circled and embraced the sheet with one arm while the pen in the other danced across the page. A picture emerged from the pirouettes and glissades. Short on materials, short on time, steeped in inspiration.

This was art. This was passion. This was love.

Henry had never felt so oppressed yet so free. No computer, no phone, no talking. The afternoon had been cleared of everyday distractions. He was alone with silence, alone with pen and paper, alone with thoughts of Margaret.

The imaginings of what lay beneath the white blouse. It was certainly more than he remembered in primary school, but perhaps somewhat less than the pneumatic, barely clad, advert-haired figure on the page before him. A classmate for so long, but only this year had the progress of changes sculpted in her by adolescence caught up with him, caught the changes within him, caught him.

"Five minutes!"

Henry looked over to the next desk. Ralph's expression was as blank as the page before him. Two rows in front, the back of Margaret's head moved in time with the intensity of her writing.

Henry embossed her name in Celtic lettering, cross-hatched relief beneath the fantasy-scape of swords and unicorns, of the wielder and rider, of idealised form and magical proportions.

"Pens down, please!"

He had not even dignified the GCSE maths paper by turning it over. His was a higher calling.

This was art. This was passion. This was love.

"A Higher Calling" was a runner-up in the 2012 Salt Flash Fiction Prize and was included in The Salt Anthology of New Writing 2013. It has also been broadcast, with me reading, on BBC Radio Bristol. More background here, here and here.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Flash Fiction: Jack-o'-Lantern

Uncle Jack's Halloween parties were a tradition, a boozy institution for family and friends, an excuse to do everything before its time, to let off fireworks early and set the tone for Christmas and the year to come.

"Fuck trick-or-treating," he'd slur, steeped in beer and spirit, tending the out-of-season barbecue, shrimps and steaks and sausages piled high on the open grill, licked by flames that flinched and squirmed with each drink he tipped over them. "Beer in the cool box, wine on the table, treats for everyone." Then in a stage whisper to fire-lit faces and laughter, "Kids, try the punch — but don't tell your parents and don't fall in the fire!"

Family and friends revelled under awnings and extended roofing Uncle Jack had built out from the house. Each year the patio stole a little more garden. Each year the coverings cast their shadow a little further from the house. Each year the flowers had less space to grow. Each year the party got larger, enough not to miss one or two of its number.

Britney stood away from the adults and other children. She stood away from the light, in the shadow by the wall near the shed and the last remaining flower bed, all that remained of the beds and paths where older cousins once played.

She toyed with a cigarette. "There you go, pumpkin," Uncle Jack had said. "Don't tell anyone. Not Mum or Dad or Auntie Sheila."

Unlit, unprotected, she breathed through it like a straw. Dry, herbal, stale. She practised black-and-white film star poses, the cigarette in and out of her mouth like the nicotine-stained posters Auntie Sheila used to cover up the walls of the conservatory toilet.

She shivered. Out here in the darkness her white summer dress wasn't enough to protect her. Uncle Jack's Halloween was like fancy dress. "It's a barbecue, so dress for summer," he'd say. "Family and booze'll keep us warm."

She looked up at the wall, young vines escaping over the top, pumpkins scowling at her from the coping. Each wore a different expression, but all looked like Uncle Jack.

Britney reached up and touched her cigarette to the flame inside the leering smile of the fiercest-looking pumpkin. The tip glowed. She brought it quickly to her mouth and sucked carefully, as she knew adults did. Dry, herbal, stale. Yet fresh, cleansing. It filled her, purged her. She fingered the torn strap on her dress as smoke passed back through her lips. She stared at the shed by the wall, its door ajar, only darkness inside.

"There you go, pumpkin." Then he'd handed her the cigarette. "Don't tell anyone. Not Mum or Dad or Auntie Sheila." Then he'd left to tend shrimps and steaks and sausages, to tend revellers and music, to tend a party large enough it hadn't missed one or two of its number.

Britney leant against the wall, smoking, unsure of whether she still belonged among the flowers at the end of the garden.

"Jack-o'-Lantern" first appeared in the National Flash-Fiction Day 2013 anthology, Scraps. More background here, here and here.