Friday 24 December 2010

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Starfall

My recent interest in writing short stories, flash fiction in particular, coincided nicely with the announcement of New Scientist's flash fiction competition and attendance at Rosemary Dun's one-day Writing Gym at the Bristol Folk House.

The competition sought stories in worlds where some dismissed scientific theory of the past turned out to be true. I have discovered that driving on the motorway and going for a run are two of the best ways of coming up with ideas and exploring them. Rather than play with the traffic on the M4 I went for a run. I returned with a head full of detail and whole backstory, which I downloaded at my wife. "And you're going to fit that into 350 words?" was her response. She was right, of course. There was no way a quarter gigalitre was going to fit into a pint pot.

With any good story, whether written, drawn or acted, the bit that you see is just the tip of the iceberg — if not the tip of the tip — of what its creators have imagined and elaborated. It's not simply a case of writing and editing down to size, and it's not just about implication over description: some stuff just shouldn't make it into the text in the first place. It is there to make the idea real enough and deep enough for the author to dip into and draw from, to provide enough substance to convince the author to convince the reader. But even so, 350 words for the theme set out in the competition involves a lot of omission given the world — cosmos, even — that I'd dreamt up.

Oh, and don't forget plot and character.

Kicking the idea around and incubating it for a couple of weeks helped... and brought the deadline close enough that I realised I actually had to do something about it. I have found some stories grow out of doodles and scrawls while others gestate before hitting the page. This was in the second category and was running the risk of not birthing at all. You know you're pressed up against a deadline when you're wondering if it's COB or midnight... and in what time zone.

I almost didn't submit, but I'm glad I did. A few weeks ago I was told that my story, Starfall, had made the shortlist — the final ten from over 700 entries. I had previously managed a competition longlist for a non-genre piece I wrote, and was more than delighted with that result. But shortlist for such a popular competition! And then two weeks ago I discovered I was one of two runners-up, judged by no less than Neil Gaiman. He said of Starfall that it "managed to tell a huge end-of-everything story in personal terms" — a spot-on summary of both the story and my original intent.

Starfall appears in the Christmas and New Year Special edition. You can read it here, where it appears on its own, and here, along with the wry and countrapuntal competition winner, Atomic Dreams, and the ingenious and humorous runner-up, Gaius Secundus ER. You can also read the winner, runners-up and other shortlisted stories here.


Jérôme Cigut said...

Thanks for the "contrapuntal" -- as a Bach fan myself, that went straight to my heart. :-)
Tons of respect for Starfall too. I enjoyed reading it a lot, and I must confess that, if you hadn't done it, I would doubt it's possible to cram all this stuff (alternate science, and universe, and emotions, and style) in so few words.
So hats off, and best wishes for 2011! I look forward to reading your next stories!

Josh Wilson said...

Congrats! Remember, we have a home for your fiction across the Atlantic ... I will now read your yarn, having accepted it for publication.

Happy new year!!!