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.