Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Genre Binge

The last couple of weeks have been somewhat genre immersed, starting with a visit to the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff with the kids and ending with, well, going to the cinema to see Peter Capaldi's first outing as the Doctor with family and friends.

We went to the precursor of the Experience a few years ago. The boys were younger and hadn't watched Doctor Who and there wasn't really much beyond bits of sets and costumes. The Experience, however, lives up to its name, with a lot more space (and time...), memorabilia, scene setting and history, plus a nice interactive start to each visit. Oh, and a shop that's worth raiding before Christmas for the Whovian in your life.

Later that week I took the older son, Stefan (who is, as it happens, also a published SF author), to Loncon, the 2014 Worldcon. The whole event spanned five days and one end of the ExCeL; we went for a long weekend. Inevitably the popular press focused on the most visible aspect of the con — cosplay — because, I guess, it's simplest thing to do — it's obvious, visual and satisfies a stereotype (no matter what else is said). There is, however, a bit more to the landscape of speculative fiction than costuming, but panel sessions on diversity in SF, historical research in fantasy worldbuilding, hard science from contemporary space travel to the environment, the underlying linguistics behind conlangs and literary academic perspectives on genre are somewhat less photogenic than people dressing up. That said, I did get to sit on that throne.

As well as a great art exhibition, with some drop-in life drawing classes close by (we both dropped in), there was an extensive dealer room and fan area. There was also an open mic opportunity, where I read out "Milk Teeth and Chocolate Eggs" in competition with no small amount of background noise.

It's been a while since my previous World Science Fiction convention visits (ahem, quite a while... Conspiracy in Brighton in 1987 and ConFederation in Atlanta in 1986), and I would have liked to have spent more time at Loncon, attended more panel sessions, etc. But that's what the future is for. More importantly, Stefan had a blast (and found comics and gimmickry to spend money on). It was a very social affair, and I bumped into many of the BristolCon crowd as well as people I know through the ACCU.

And speaking of BristolCon, last Monday was the one-year anniversary of the BristolCon Fringe, which was celebrated with an open mic evening rather than scheduled readers. Many of those who read had read in the last year at a Fringe night, but there were plenty of new voices as well. Each reader was given an alarm-enforced five-minute limit, which added a lighter note to some of the darker themes explored. Readings ranged from book or short story extracts to flash fiction and poetry. I read out "To Catch a Falling Leaf" with plenty of time to spare. In the second half, after all those who wanted to read had read, we were given the opportunity to read again, so I read "Fallen Apples" and "Poseidon's Child".

I had been in two minds (or two halves of one...) as to whether or not to go, having spent the weekend at Worldcon, but my frequent travel-induced absence tipped the balance in favour of going. The half of my mind that had wanted to go jeered "I told you so!" at the reluctant, stay-at-home half. The quality and atmosphere were a good reminder why people keep coming every month and why I hope this is the first year of many.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Pizza Delivery

A week and a half ago I had a slot at Science Showoff at the Grain Barge in Bristol. I decided I would read some light lab lit, dusting off "Schrödinger’s Pizza", which I've read at spoken word events only twice before, and even then not for a couple of years.

Turns out that experience — experience of reading at spoken word events — counts for something. The story was helped by having the right audience — science-literate geeks — but I also felt my reading of the story was far better this time round. It was easier to bring out the characters and the moments, so I also enjoyed reading it more than before — the memory of which had, until now, influenced my choice to leave it out of possible candidates for spoken word events.

As all the other presentations that evening were, well, presentations, all the other presenters used PowerPoint slides. I decided to go with the flow and prepare a couple of slides — for backdrop rather than exposition, and timer driven rather than clicked through manually. But it was still fairly minimal: a title slide, two slides showing the principal inspirations for the story and a slide with contact details against a photo of the issue of Litro in which the story first appeared.

One of the original inspirations that prompted me to start writing the story was a joke. I quickly found that mixing the story with the joke gave it too long a setup, and made the joke more central to the story than I wanted. I concluded after a few hundred words that the joke was best appreciated on its own and the story was better off without it, at which point I, well, concluded — I lost momentum and stopped writing. I started again when I was prompted by two things: a deadline (never underestimate the motivational power of a deadline) and a T-shirt, whose image I used on a slide at Science Showoff.

The other prompt and inspiration — and consequently slide image — for the story was the cover of an issue of Animal Man that Ewan Milne told me about and then gave me as a birthday or Christmas present. Don't remember the contents being up to much, but the cover more than made up for that.

It was a great evening, with presentations that were both fascinating and amusing, plus good conversations with the other presenters, organisers and members of the audience. Definitely something I hope to present at again, perhaps more lab lit — such as "Star Signs" — or something appropriately scientific distilled from my technical talks — such as "Cool Code" or illegal primes — or something else that surfaces a geeky interest — such as warp drive, the Soviet lunar programme or myths about science.

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!