Sunday 30 November 2014

North by Southwest

Anthologies. Can't get enough of 'em? Indeed, there's no such thing as too many. But sometimes an anthology needs a helping hand to bring it into the world. North Bristol Writers have put together an anthology, North by Southwest, but needs some crowdfunding help get it published.

I should probably mention that it's a rather good collection of stories. (OK, so I should probably also mention that I'm one of the authors.)

But don't just take my word for it. Here's what the inimitable Jonathan L Howard had to say about it:
To whom it may concern,
This prepatent publication features the work of several persons it is my great misfortune to know. Indeed, I have already been acquainted with some of the stories. I must warn you, if you help fund this anthology, you will be instrumental in unleashing a collection of splendid fiction upon an unsuspecting public. Is that what you want? Do you really wish to be forever associated with a “good read”? An “enjoyable collection of eclectic tales”? When you dangle your grandchildren on your knee in some distant time, do you really want the trusting poppets to ask of you, “Grandparental unit, what did you do during the North by Southwest fundraiser?” and for you to have to turn your face to the wall and sob, “Gods forgive me, offspring-of-one-remove, but I donated!” 
Think on, that is all I ask. Think on.
Ready to help? Excellent! Here you go.

And here's the artwork by Claire Hutt that is going to accompany my story, "Like Giants":

Good, isn't it? This good, I'd say (TIA).

Thursday 27 November 2014

Fifty Shades of Haunting

Hot on the heels of Halloween and just in time for Christmas, "Promises You Can Keep", a ghost story of mine, has been republished in Haunted, a rather nicely produced anthology edited by Alex Davies and Ryan Merrifield. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the book's launch in Derby last weekend.

Speaking of anthologies and launches, I discovered a couple of months back that although my flash fiction piece, "The Same Team", didn't place in the Worcestershire LitFest & Fringe flash fiction competition, it did get selected for inclusion in their anthology, Fifty Flashes of Fiction. The launch is this Sunday; I'll be there.

But if all this anticipation is too much, have some instant flash gratification: "Second Place", which unintentionally coincident with the title is my second contribution to Visual Verse.

Tuesday 25 November 2014

BristolCon Debrief

I seem to have fallen off the blogging wagon. Time to climb back on. A number of things have happened; a few things haven't. But let's start with last month's BristolCon.

It was a fun day and this year I managed to attend more of the conference than in previous years, but arriving home late the night before meant I had a slow start and missed much of the morning programme.

In the afternoon I was on a panel with Stark Holborn, Jonathan L Howard and Kim Lakin-Smith, ably chaired by Jaine Fenn. What did we talk about? Sex and violence. Specifically, its representation in speculative fiction.

The sense was that sexual tension was important and often present, but violence and death were far more commonly and explicitly described than sex. There seems to be an interesting and contradictory double standard that applies inconsistently to violence and sex — as I noted by quoting George R R Martin — which is further complicated by the prevalence of sexualised female characters in many media appearances of speculative fiction, so what should be a positive question of sex becomes conflated with negative representations and their connotations. As the discussion was focused on the written word, however, this latter issue was not really explored — although writing can be graphic, writing is necessarily less visual than, say, a movie.

I went through my own fiction beforehand to get some stats, and it was fairly clear that although relationships are significant and sex is often there in the background, when it comes to describing acts of sex or actual deaths, death wins — a cumulative death toll in my own short stories of around 21 billion (not 14 billion as previously estimated)! Each panellist was also asked about anything that had made them uncomfortable writing or that they would not consider writing. All in all, we plumbed some good depths and slummed in some fine shallows.

I finished off the day with my small workshop on flash fiction. I had been told I could expect two people for the session; I fully expected zero (19:00 on a Saturday night...?); I got three! This turned out to be the right number as it made discussion easy and gave everyone enough time to make suggestions and read out what they'd written. There was a lot to get through in 45 minutes, and I'm not sure it would have scaled easily to many more people within that time constraint. All three were already already familiar with writing, from short stories up to novels, so that offered a good starting point for discussing flash fiction and comparing the differences in constraints and degrees of freedom afforded by a short short form.

I had bookmarks that each featured each of the top ten stories of the 2013 National Flash-Fiction Day micro-fiction competition, stories required to be no more than 100 words in length, so we looked at these as a starting point. We discussed what was constant, such as the need to actually have a story, a recognisable beginning, middle and end, a title, a transition that leads to conclusion. We discussed what was sacrified, such as the scope or depth of characters, background, description and subplotting. But although subplotting may not play as important a role, subtext often remains and, indeed, may be amplified because of the brevity.

When you talk about the word-length restrictions of flash fiction people normally think in terms of what you can't have that you have in longer forms, but rarely in terms of what you can have in flash that is not easily afforded in longer forms — intensity and concentration that might be harder for the reader to sustain over longer forms, suspensions of disbelief that might be harder for readers to entertain over longer forms, experimental ideas and writing that might not scale to longer forms, etc.

We also talked about the need to make the title do more work, particularly at the very short end of the flash range, i.e., of the order of a hundred words, the importance and implications of word choice, avoiding punchline endings — the ending must be earned — and the role of the reader.

That's a lot to get covered in 45 minutes... and more if you keep in mind that I'd promised there would be some actual writing in the workshop. To kick off the exercise, I asked each person to spend a couple of minutes writing down something that had happened that morning, at home, at the con or in between. And write it straight — no fiction, no fancy writing, just as it was.

I then asked them to pick a speculative elements and weave it in, elaborating, deleting or rewriting as necessary what was already there. I offered five speculative elements to choose from: dragons, time travel, aliens, portals or elves. We spent just over five minutes on this step.

We then closed it with another couple of minutes to work on beginnings and endings and another minute to add and tweak a title. What did we end up with? Two dragon stories, a portal story and a time-travel tale — yes, I joined in, a last minute decision as I didn't want to be the only one not having any fun! And we had just enough time to each read out our own stories.

Looking back, I realise the impossibility of what we got done, but the resulting discussion and stories suggest it was not all a dream.

Saturday 18 October 2014

Sex! Death! Squid!

BristolCon happenings!

First, a quick catch-up: The Kraken Rises! Fringe event a few weeks back went well, with readings from Scott Lewis, Piotr Świetlik, Ian Millsted, Rosie Oliver and me. I managed to pull off a monopolylogue of my story, #KrakenEvent. What I had initially thought would be near impossible turned out to be a lot of fun, so I hope to read this story out again at some point in future.

I'm also on the programme for BristolCon (Saturday 25th October). What am I doing? Sex and Death! Sorry, that should be Sex or Death?, a panel that asks (and hopes to answer — or at least have fun trying) the question of which is more fun to write, which is more challenging to write and the way in which they are portrayed. A quick look through my own short stories suggests that, while both are common themes, with a cumulative death toll of over 14 billion people (and one cat) and only a couple of stories that come close to describing sexual acts directly, I suspect the answer isn't going to be a long time coming (sic).

What else am I doing? Flash, a-ah! This time the exclamation mark is deserved and included in the title. I'm running a short session in the evening on — you guessed it — flash fiction:
Flash, a-ah! 
At under a thousand words — sometimes under a hundred — flash fiction is the fiction of brevity, the fiction of immediacy, the fiction everyone can have a go at. Doesn't matter whether you write tweets or epic fantasy doorstops, flash is for everyone of us. Come along, find out, try your hand.
During the rest of the day I plan to catch sessions, talk to people, drink coffee.

On the Friday night before the con there is also a "guerilla readings" edition of BristolCon Fringe. It's worth going to, whether to read or to listen. Its format will be similar to the one in August — namely open mic and with a hard five-minute limit on your reading — so a lot of brevity, a lot of fun and much mirth whenever a story crashes the alarmed time limit. If I were able to go I would probably read "AutoKnowMe", a 200-worder recently published by 365 tomorrows. But I will be in transit on Friday evening so you'll just have to read it yourself and imagine it's live and it's me.

Thursday 16 October 2014

By the Numbers

Last Saturday afternoon was spent at the Foyles Books Are My Bag event, organised by Southville Writers and Bristol Women Writers. The line-up changed a bit from the one originally advertised, but the basic structure of readings was the same, with two rounds of poetry, two rounds of flash, plus a round of longer fiction and also one of non-fiction, with coffee and conversation in between. There were some great readings and it was also great to read — in a bookshop, after all, the walls and furnishings are particularly sympathetic to the written word.

For whatever reason — nothing that I planned and nothing that comes to mind — I ended up choosing stories with intentionally precise word counts:  "In Love and Debt""First Date, Last Date""I Think I Get It""A Higher Calling" and "Authenticity". That's two drabbles (100 words), a dribble and a half (75 words) and two drouble-plus-dribbles (250 words, and yes a 200-worder is a drouble and a 50-worder is a dribble, but apart from the coined compound usage in this blog I'm not aware of a name for a 250-worder). Having introduced the idea of names for certain exact word counts, I ended up giving a disclaimer before my last story reading that not all flash was defined like this!

It was then my turn to sit back and be entertained by some of Bristol and Jamaica's finest over at the Watershed, picking up a bite to eat at Falafel King en route.

Wednesday 8 October 2014

What's Going On and What's Gone

Coming up this Saturday is the free Books Are My Bag event at Foyles in Bristol. During the afternoon and early evening there will be readings, talks, workshops and coffee. The event is being organised by Southville Writers and Bristol Women Writers and features Ali Bacon, Jean Burnett, Judy Darley, Mike Manson, Nina Milton, Amy Morse, Jo Reed, Shirley Wright, me and others. Given the nature of the space, I guess I'd better choose the flashes I read with a more sensitive eye than usual — sexual themes and strong language may not be appreciated by regular shoppers and their children!

Straight after that I'll be hightailing it over to the Watershed for the Bristol Festival of Literature's Speakeasy event.

But in the midst of all this literary and spoken-word revelry, a farewell: Acoustic Night Bristol at Halo has called it a day. The open mic nights were well run and the sound and lighting were great, and performers were always photographed and offered a recording of their performances. Although I only had the opportunity to read there twice (this year and last), I will miss the possibility that there could have been a next year.

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!

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.

Friday 6 June 2014

Flash Fiction: Trashed

Trashed. It wasn't when they got there; it was when they left.

"Bit nice in here, innit?" Caz said as they stumbled in, Sid fumbling her clothes. They were all over each other, lips and zips, trousers down, skirt up.

Dishevelled and rezipped but lusting for something more, they spotted the sign when they were done: "In the interest of hygiene and as a courtesy to others, please leave this washroom as clean and tidy as you would wish to find it."

How would they wish to find it? Caz smiled at Sid; Sid smiled at Caz. They weren't done.

"Trashed" first appeared as in one of National Flash-Fiction Day's Flash Floods. More background here.

Wednesday 4 June 2014

Flashes to Ashes

On Monday night I read at Small Stories, a new spoken word event that takes place at The Birdcage in Bristol on the first Monday of the month. This was the third Small Stories event, and I'm planning to go again — great atmosphere, good set-up, very well attended.

One of the features of Small Stories is a resident illustrator for the evening who will take one of the stories as the inspiration for a piece of art. After the first few stories it dawned on me that the artist, Dave Allen, had selected "Ashes to Ashes, Mañana, Mañana" — my story!

What is perhaps more interesting is that, to my knowledge (and independently of illustrating it for publication), only one other person has produced a piece of art inspired by one of my stories — and it was the same story. This piece is by Lilly Kate Hillage:

And speaking of "Ashes to Ashes, Mañana, Mañana", I was saddened to learn that Kazka Press, the paying market that published it a few months ago, was set to close its doors recently. I was further disappointed to discover that their site went offline a few days ago, taking all the published stories with it. It seems they've just renewed their server space and domain name and are now back... but to be sure it remains live and current, without resorting to the Wayback Machine, I've republished "Ashes to Ashes, Mañana, Mañana" on ReadWave.

Monday 2 June 2014

Little W(rit)ing

I was on Ujima Radio last Wednesday being interviewed by Cheryl Morgan about flash fiction, my Crimefest Flashbang win and the forthcoming BristolFlash events for National Flash-Fiction Day. My thanks to Cheryl for inviting me, for the wide-ranging discussion on writing and the opportunity to read out a couple of my shorter flashes on air — I read "A Bridge Too Far" and "Lost Love's Labours".

Asked to select a piece of music, I chose Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing". At just under two and a half minutes there is something of the flash about it, complete and yet brief. It's also a bloody good piece of music. I was on in the first half of the first hour of the show, which you can listen to here.

In related news, I'm pleased to announce the addition of Richard Holt to the evening line-up at The Lansdown on National Flash-Fiction Day and, thanks to sponsorship from the NFFD treasury, that event is now free:

And last, but not least, tonight I will be reading at Small Stories at The Birdcage along with Pete Sutton, one of the readers at The Lansdown.

Friday 30 May 2014

Flash Fiction: Long Time

He thought she was going to the toilet.

"I love you. I go toilet." That sexy word-dropping accent of hers. He loved it. Those words gave him expectation; he knew the routine. He lay on the bed in anticipation.

He waited.

As he waited, he realised it had been the front door not the bathroom door that had opened and shut. He realised her suitcases had not been moved to the hallway because she was tidying, but had been packed and left waiting for departure, departure from the routine. Clearing out, not clearing up.

Leaving, not loving.

He realised he had misheard and his wait would be long and unfulfilled. He realised he had not paid attention, had not listened, had not understood beyond the word dropping, had not loved beyond the sexy.

"I leave you. I go Thailand." The accent had been one of imminent departure and long-time regret.

"Long Time" first appeared in one of National Flash-Fiction Day's Flash Floods. More background here.

Wednesday 28 May 2014

BristolFlash II

It's that time of year again. Yup, that's right: the awkward four-day week just after the second May bank holiday Monday when you realise there isn't another public holiday until the end of August, beyond which is a further yawning chasm until Christmas. But that's OK, here's something to fill the void in your soul — at least if you are around Bristol (or plan to travel to be) on Saturday 21st June — National Flash-Fiction Day.

Following the success of last year's BristolFlash eventsTania Hershman, Sarah Hilary, Pauline Masurel, Deborah Rickard and I have again organised a couple of flash fiction events in Bristol on the day. First up, a free flash fiction workshop at Bristol Central Library with NFFD director Calum Kerr and Pauline Masurel. If you're planning to come along let us know on the Facebook event page or drop us an email, tweet, blog comment, etc.

In the evening, at The Lansdown, we have a line-up of writers drawn from near and far and across genres reading their flash. Along with Calum Kerr and the BristolFlash organisers, we have Judy Darley, Lucy English, Carrie Etter, Marc Nash, Diane Simmons, Tim Stevenson and Pete Sutton. Admission is £1 on the door. If you're planning to come let us know via the Facebook page or other means.

I hope to see you on the solstice — the longest day, but the shortest fiction!

In related news, I will be on Ujima Radio at lunchtime today, discussing flash fiction with Cheryl Morgan.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Scandi Crime Flash

And so. It was longlisted... then shortlisted... then won.

My 150-word entry into CrimeFest's Flashbang contest, "A Bridge Too Far", first earned me a place at this year's CrimeFest Writing Day by being on the shortlist — 06:25 flight out of Kraków ensured I caught the afternoon session and contest results — and then a haul of books and two weekend passes for next year's event. Delighted and gobsmacked. I've been longlisted, shortlisted and placed in writing competitions, but coming first is a first.

As an aside, it's the third time I've entered Flashbang and — at first unintentionally but then quite deliberately — each of the three been inspired by a somewhat light take on Nordic Noir. So here's the 'trilogy': "Plans for Tonight", "The Kylling" and "A Bridge Too Far" (if you're not familiar with the premise of The Bridge, just read this paragraph summary).

Tuesday 20 May 2014

Befringed and Beflashed

After floating the idea some time ago and then following it through, aided and abetted by Claire Hutt and Cheryl Morgan, hounding some of Bristol's finest writers of speculative fiction and flash fiction in the process (so yes, this is all my fault), the Fringe in a Flash event happened. For an evening, BristolCon Fringe shifted from its regular format of two or three people reading short stories or novel extracts to eight readers limited to 1000 words apiece. It went well, feeding a previously unrecognised appetite for flash fiction, so it looks like we're going to do it again next year.

I read "The Woodcutter's Stepdaughter" and "S3xD0ll". You can find the recordings here.

And speaking of BristolCon Fringe, one of the stories I read at December's Fringe, "Milk Teeth and Chocolate Eggs", has been republished at Sorcerous Signals.

Monday 19 May 2014

Not-So-News Flash

I'm overdue for a posting. Lots has happened. Lots. Very overdue.

But rather than cram it all into a large catch-up post — as is my habit — I'm going to try getting into a better habit: smaller, more focused posts, which should, in theory, also lead to more frequent posts and, therefore, more posts. In theory.

Kicking off, Speechbubble, the BBC Radio Bristol show recorded in January, aired in April. My reading of my Salt Anthology of New Writing flash, "A Higher Calling", was the last spoken word piece on the show. You can listen to my slot here:

More soon. Honest.

Friday 25 April 2014

Flash Fiction: Poseidon's Child

You found me there; you caught me there; you pulled me from there. You did not throw me back.

My home, I want to return to my home, but you set sail for yours. You steer against directionless winds, shield your face from the sudden storm, wonder at waves risen from a still sea. We are thrown about the deck as we are tossed between walls of water.

Your children, you think of your children, fear for their future.

My father does the same. I am from the sea, of the sea. My father will embrace you to reclaim me.

"Poseidon's Child" first appeared in The Delinquent. More background here.

Sunday 13 April 2014

It's All About the Flash

Come on down to the Shakespeare tomorrow evening (Monday 14th April) to hear the flash edition of BristolCon Fringe, with me, Louise Gethin, Jonathan L Howard, Pauline Masurel, Cheryl Morgan, Justin Newland, Jonathan Pinnock and Pete Sutton. Eight readers, each with a word budget of around 1000 words to spend on entertaining you with speculative fiction in flash-sized portions.

Art by Claire Hutt
Last month I came across the Visual Verse site. Each month a picture is posted and writers are asked to submit prose or poetry inspired by the image with the constraint that the piece falls between 50 and 500 words and is written in under an hour. My contribution, "The Door Closes", allowed me to try out a slightly different narrative style, using a script form for dialogue. I've been delighted with the feedback, which included a couple of comments from Denise Nestor, the artist responsible for the prompt image: "Strangely close to the story I had in mind when I made this drawing." "I love how you ended it. Dark and mysterious, just as fairy tales should be."

I also wrote a piece about flash fiction, "Flash Finish", that appeared as a guest post on Pete Sutton's Bristol Book Blog. One of the most overlooked joys of flash fiction is the feeling of completion — being half-finished doesn't even come close (or halfway) to what you feel when you've finished something. Flash fiction allows you to have that experience — and learn from the act of completion — more often than from longer forms of fiction.

With nearly 400 submissions, judging this year's NFFD micro-fiction competition was always going to be tough. The tales may be short, but you still have to read and digest each one to give it a fair chance. When there's hundreds of them, the effort still adds up. And it was just as hard this year as last year to narrow down my favourites. Reading through them the first time I thought it was pretty obvious which were my favourites... until I had to pick 25 of them in ranked order. Turns out what I had not initially thought of as a packed field came in at well over 25. The judges' results were then combined, sorted, cogitated over and algorithmically digested to produce a shortlist and, after further judicial harassment via personal top 10, the winner. Congratulations to the winners and all those who made the shortlist, as well as those who submitted to a competition for the first time.

Friday 4 April 2014

Flash Fiction: Wrecked

He was an unusual find, there at sunrise by the high-water mark, embedded in a four-poster wreck, tucked cosily into a seaweed-brocade net, a drinking-horn shell to his ear like a pillow, like a hearing aid, like a seafood cornucopia that had missed his mouth, a mouth half open beneath half-closed eyes.

Alive or dead? Dead or alive? She was answered by a cough, a snort and a crescendo of snores, waves of sleep breaking into foam, rolling in from a deeper dreamy sea. The seventh wave washed him onto the waking shore, his eyes half opened.

"Flotsam or jetsam?" she asked, head cocked to match his sleepy skew.


"Which are you?"

"I... I don't know. I don't think I'm either. I mean," he said, removing the shell from the side of his head, casting it into his cradle, "this is the wreck, not me."

"So why are you here?"

"I... I don't know. I remember drinking... drinking a lot." His hand reached up to the side of his head as if to restore the shell, as if its removal had undammed a dam, unplugged a plug, unhinged a hangover.

She passed him a bubble pack of tablets, part of some lost shipment spilt across the beach just yesterday, studying him as he popped two and swallowed.

"It's OK, you can keep them," she said when he offered back the remaining unburst bubbles, "flotsam." She continued along the shore leaving him in her wake. She would not claim him.

"Wrecked" was first published with Flash Frontier. More background here.

Tuesday 25 March 2014

In and Out of the Liminal

And so off to Weston-super-Mare for the evening, picking up Joanne Hall and Gareth L Powell en route. As road trips go this wasn't quite On the Road, set to leave an indelible mark on the literary landscape, but it was still fairly literary. We were off to read at an invitation-only Liminal event hosted by Karen Blake, with Chris Knight and Becky Condron also reading. Here's what happened and here's how we looked (photos taken by Keith Ramsey).

My "dark wit and menacing delivery" darkly menaced three published stories —  "Authenticity", "Fallen Apples" and "Possession" — plus three newer ones.

And speaking of three and published, three flash fictions of mine have recently been appeared online: "Checking in at the Hotel Cantor", my entry into this year's Lascaux 250 competition; "The Kylling", a drabble and a half of Scandi crime appearing at Cafe Aphra; and "Detitled", a 273-word metafiction published in the Miniature Magazine.

In competition news, my entry into NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge didn't make any impression on the first round — clearly my mastery of historical fiction involving ballerinas and secret clubs needs some work — but my entry into the Flashbang contest has made the longlist.

If you're interested in reading more of my stories, almost all the ones that have appeared online are also linked from my Pinterest page. I also republish stories on this blog a few months to a year after they first appear in print or online.

Monday 10 March 2014


I haven't pursued photography in the last couple of years as actively as I did during the year of the Street Photography Now project, but I continue to take pictures and, every now and then, enter something into a competition. There were two sites in particular that I submitted pictures to, one of which seems to have been discontinued and the other seems to be stuck in stasis.

The Pictures2Win site ran multiple competitions, and I managed second place in a couple. The quality range was broad enough that the good shots were very good and the poor ones made me feel very good. Late last year the site wound down to undergo a revamp... but never came back. I still keep a flickr set of my entries. Here are the two images that won second place (and some cash) in their respective competitions:

Ever Watchful

Under a Bamberg Bridge

An altogether different competition was the monthly competition hosted by Karl Taylor Photography, which has, since last summer, been promising a new competition — to date, an unfulfilled promise. My entries to date can be found in this flickr set. The calibre and professionalism of photographs in this competition was generally very high, so having two selected for the competition galleries was two more than I ever realistically hoped for:

Building through Steel

At Home in Hong Kong

As an aside, a couple years after taking this image in Hong Kong I came across Michael Wolf's Architecture of Density project, which gives greater justice, depth and breadth to the idea — and similarly puts many of my other unshared Hong Kong pictures in the shade!

Friday 28 February 2014

Flash Fiction: Immune

It must be November by now, maybe December. I should be thankful. And I am.

I'm thankful for the silence.

I'm thankful for the peace.

I'm thankful for the space.

Yes, even after all that has happened, I'm thankful.

For the silence, the silence after the screaming — of the panic, of the dying, of the fleeing, of the caught.

For the peace, the peace after the madness, after the riots, after the street warfare, after the virus that caused it all and, ultimately, ended it all.

For the space, the space to think and breathe now that everyone has gone.

"Immune" was first published in The Were-Traveler's drabble issue. More background here.