Thank you to everyone who has followed me on this blog. Just to say I have moved home and instead of using judehiggins,wordpress.com, I am now blogging on judehiggins.com Hope to see you there.
Thank you to everyone who has followed me on this blog. Just to say I have moved home and instead of using judehiggins,wordpress.com, I am now blogging on judehiggins.com Hope to see you there.
It requires great skill to achieve a flash that resonates long after reading but first drafts are fun to write. Using a simple prompt is the way to go, according to author, Vanessa Gebbie. In a post from 2012 on http://www.skylightrain.com/tag/vanessa-gebbie/ she says: “The vital process of ‘flash writing’ is that of not thinking before one writes, not planning, letting go and just writing focusing on the prompt.”Prompts can be anything of course, words, phrases, lines from poetry, objects, music.
The draft will need editing – the well-known rule that ‘every word counts’ is essential here, but the whole shape of a story written fast can arrive in just ten minutes.
Tania Hershman,www.taniahershman.com/ who is well known for her flash fiction and for her tutoring on writing short fiction, ran a brilliant workshop for writingeventsbath.co.uk in 2013 and a participant who wrote a five minute fiction prompted by one of Tania’s exercises during the workshop, won third prize in a well-known competition soon afterwards. She’d never written to this length before. The constraint of writing within a timed exercise, helped something click for her.
Although I’ve read a lot of very short fiction over the years, I’ve been hooked on writing flash fiction since Tania’s workshop and was thrilled to get an Honourable Mention in the Fish Flash Competition 2014. There are many different ways of experimenting with flash. My story had a punch line, often seen as something to avoid. However, it passed through the filter judges and reached the short list judge, Glenn Patterson, who gave it this feedback “punchlines don’t work, punchlines don’t work…then one does – another (supposed) rule gleefully binned”
My enthusiasm for flash fiction prompted me to set up the Bath Flash Fiction Award, a new rolling competition with a limit of 300 words. Instead of a closing date, the award will come to an end when 1000 entries are reached. There’s a first prize of £1000, 2nd of £300 and a 3rd of £100. I’m excited to see what happens. My experience as one of the organisers of the Bath Short Story Award has shown that around 50% of writers enter stories during the last weeks. Will it be different if there isn’t a closing date? Will the competition end in a couple of weeks because writers are keen for it to finish or carry on for several months. It’s an experiment. I hope it works and inspires writers to try writing and reading more in this genre. I’ve a great admin team making sure everything works well. More details about the competition on www.bathflashfictionaward.com
It is fascinating to read very short fiction from different authors.The anthology ‘Scraps’ edited by Calum Kerr Director of National Flash Fiction Day, UK contains seventy short fictions and is an interesting read. The stories vary considerably in style and include stories by Tania Hershman and Vanessa Gebbie as well as Calum Kerr. Calum’s online book ‘The World in A Flash’ – How to Write Flash Fiction’ is a useful guide, as is ‘The Rose Metal Field Guide To Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers,’ edited by Tara L. Marsh.
Carrie Kania, literary agent for Conville and Walsh and short-list judge for the 2015 Bath Short Story Award says this about submissions and short story entries: ‘Make me cry – if one sentence gets me, that’s it.’ www.bathshortstoryaward.co.uk/judge/
There’s a couple of sentences in Elinor Nash’s short story, ‘Ghost Boy’, winner of the Bath Short Story Award, 2014 which had me reaching for the tissue box. The narrator, a teenaged boy disabled by a bike accident, suggests how different members of his family relate to him now he is brain damaged. He‘s can’t express his thoughts and his sensations have merged. Wanting to ease family tension, he attempts to sing ‘The Wheels On The Bus’, a song he now loves. His Dad joins in with him usually. But then –
‘Sometimes, though, Jake’s Dad wouldn’t join in singing ‘The Wheels On The Bus’ but would leave the room. On one occasion he stormed out of the house and was gone a whole day and night.‘
However much he tries to overcome his feelings, he finds his teenaged son’s reduced state unbearable. It is not clear whether Jake realises why he has left and that’s the power of the sentence of course – what is left unsaid.
The last paragraph of Kit de Waal‘s story ‘A Beautiful Thing’, second prize winner in the Bath Short Story Award 2014, is similarly poignant. The story is about the narrator’s father’s first day in this country as an immigrant and it ends like this:
“He shook my hand for the first time and held it awhile
‘And don’t be angry. If you look, you will always find a beautiful thing.’
‘From the doorstep I watched him go. I saw him hunch and shiver, check his watch, turn up his collar and heard above his soft whistle, the ringing of his boot tips on the wet English street.”
It’s the combination of dialogue and character observation that moved me. The father makes a big impact throughout the story and particularly here, at the end. Kit’s debut novel, ‘My Name is Leon’, has just been taken on by Viking and Publishing Director, Venetia Butterfield, said ‘My Name is Leon is a truly extraordinary novel; heart-wrenching and powerful, its characters leap off the page. I’m thrilled to be publishing a major new talent.’ I can’t wait to read it.
The collection of brilliant stories, ‘Young Skins’ by Colin Barrett, winner of The Guardian First Book Award amongst other major prizes was one of my favourite reads last year. All the stories in this collection are memorable for their emotional resonance. ‘Calm With Horses’ is one of those stories, where, although the protaganist is violent – a murderer in fact – it is possible to feel deeply for him and the tragedy of his life. Colin Barrett achieves this by describing the character’s life trajectory, his relationship with his disabled son, the bleakness of his surroundings and relationships.
When I’m emotionally involved with characters it’s as if they become part of my life. In ‘The Goldfinch,’ the controversial Pullitzer prize winning novel by Donna Tartt – the least finished book of 2014 apparently – I felt the jolts in Theo’s life as if I knew him personally.
Similarly when reading ‘Heroes’ Welcome’ by Louisa Young, which I have written about in a different post on this blog, the losses of the characters became my losses too. Most recently I’ve read ‘All The Light We Cannot See,’ Antony Doerr’s New York Times best selling novel and finalist in the US National Book Award whom I interviewed on the Bath Short Story Award site. www.bathshortstoryaward.co.uk/interview/
A summing up sentence from the description of the book on Doerr’s site says his novel “illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another” .That’s a moving theme. It’s desperately sad how Werner, one of the young protagonists fails to support his friend for fear of the consequences. Although unable to make amends to this friend, he redeems himself by saving another.
Finally, I recommend listening to an interview with novelist and short story writer, Paul McVeigh on writing emotional fiction. One of things, he talks about is the importance of becoming aware of what resonates for you emotionally when you are in the company of others. You can then write from this place. There are many other gems in Paul’s heart-felt account of his approach to writing. (Link below).
The 3.am Epiphany and the 4.am Breakthrough by Brian Kiteley are books of ‘unconventional writing exercises that transform your fiction.’ The writer and Director of National Flash Fiction Day Callum Kerr, spent a year writing a flash fiction each day. An inspiring thing to do. If you have a similar intention, writing using a daily story exercise from these books (more than 400 in total in the two of them) would give you a few winners I’m sure. The first exercise I tried – writing a story of less than 300 words without the letter ‘e’ – ended up as a flash which made the long list of the Fish Flash Fiction competition 2013. I’ve recently sent off another flash to a competition using a different exercise from this book. Who knows if it will be a winner, but the exercise certainly pushed me into writing in a more unusual style.
Kiteley says “use the exercises to understand the small and large processes of writing fiction, memoir and non-fiction. Combine two or three exercises together”. He suggests using four word-length constrictions, 250, 500, 750, or 1000 words. Interestingly, the most difficult exercises often have 250 word limits. Perfect for honing your skills to send off micro-fiction to the Fish, Bridport and other Flash Fiction competitions. Here’s one 250 word exercise called ‘Democracy’ from ‘The 4.00 am Breakthrough’.
”Write a fragment of a political statement made by someone who does not ordinarily make political statements…give this person a reason to vent. All we’ll hear is the person’s words and voice, not the context of the speech…How will you make it clear from the speech that the person does not usually speechify about politics? That’s your main job here. You could say so…Or you could just ignore the preamble and get to the heart of the matter..”
I don’t think this is an easy exercise, but as a non-speechifier myself, I find it intriguing. I might give it a go. I’ve recently seen the film adaptation of The Testament of Youth the memoir by Vera Brittain. It’s a wonderful film. There’s one scene where Vera finds herself on a platform spontaneously speaking. You can sense there’s no going back for her after that.
One of the writerly activities I enjoy is co-running sessions at Bath Central Library with Alex Wilson www.writingeventsbath.co.uk. We organise blocks of four sessions and for two hours, use prompts and exercises to get people writing. There’s a mixture of beginners and more experienced writers. Yesterday we started a series with several newcomers and a few who’d been before. One of our regular participants said although writing groups which critique drafts and give feedback, are good and useful, she loved coming to our sessions to get ideas. There’s always something she takes away to develop. And it’s fun.
Our groups follow the same structure each week. First, we suggest sending the inner-critic on holiday – nobody should have a critical voice hampering their first efforts. Then we begin with free-writing – five minutes of stream of consciouness rambles and ask writers to highlight anything interesting afterwards – a word, a phrase, a dream. After that, it’s straight into a writing exercise. We’re great believers in launching in, so Alex hands out art postcards and tells everyone to writes a story connected to the image. She gives some pointers. Someone will have fallen over, or got lost and this will begin the story. They must introduce a sound, a colour and a smell.
I try this exercise out myself and am amazed, as always, how a time limit and specific instructions focus me. Two minutes before the end, Alex tells us to finish the story. A moment of complete blankness and then the end of my story emerges. We have to give it a title. Another second and that’s done too. Now, we’re told to cluster ideas which might deepen the story. I feel pleased. I managed to create quite a decent Flash fiction and have ideas of how to improve it. I even like my title. We get people to talk in pairs then read out their titles and the essence of the story in one sentence only.
Time for a break. Penguin biscuits and a drink are an essential component of our groups.
Our theme for this four week series is Beginnings and after the break, I talk through a handout listing 12 cliched novel beginnings which bore agents. We discuss this for a few moments. One of the cliches is waking up in the morning from a dream. Of course an exception to this rule, is the beginning of ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier. Most people remember the opening sentence; ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ The group decides the name Manderley is a big hook. But the following paragraph of the novel also lures the reader in.
We’ve had postcards as prompts, so now I introduce mining memories to find ideas for beginnings. I ask writers to go back to a memory of being a child in a kitchen they knew well. As well as including sensory details, they are to write a story beginning focussing on something happening in the kitchen. It doesn’t need to be that dramatic; I give an example. My mother suddenly begins to dance in our family kitchen. This is very unusual and out of character for her. Again, with little hesitation, everyone begins to write. It’s just for five minutes, but it’s amazing how much gets down on paper.
The final exercise is to find an idea for a beginning prompted by random words. I give them ‘a lie’. They are to think of a lie they have told as a child (or adult) and write it down and its consequences in note form. To fictionalise it and ramp up the plot, they can make the consequences worse. There’s a local story competition closing next week with ‘A lie” as one of the themes. I suggest they could write a story based on their lie and enter this competition.
All that remains in the last half an hour is for people to read out some of their work from the morning. We like to encourage this. There is no critical feedback – these are first drafts. Everyone reads out something, even if it is just one sentence and it’s fascinating to hear all the different voices and what people have made of the different exercises. There’s lots of good stuff and potential for completing stories. The atmosphere has been light-hearted and supportive and people go off looking happy and eager to write more. That’s the main thing.
If writing is a pond, mine is stagnant. So, how to get an oxygenating stream of words? The answer of course is to write – the only cure. Fortunately, writing isn’t like downing a glass of medicinal minerals, like those foul tasting spa waters that claim to revitalise the system. Once you begin, it’s pleasurable – even after a single sentence.
In the last weeks, I’ve persuaded myself that all sorts of activities support my writing when I’m not putting words on the page:
Sitting in cafés – no, it‘s not about eating lovely Sicilian pastries and drinking Italian coffee with cream – the purpose of frequenting cafes is for people-watching to find characters and situations. Of course it is.
Reading – I’ve the Fish anthology to finish and the rest of Stinging Fly and it is good to learn from others, isn’t it?
Tweeting – There are great competition and submission opportunities out there and I like to read and retweet those links. But summer competition deadlines have passed me by and the autumn ones are fast approaching…
Talking about not-writing to writer friends. Stirs the pond and can bring activity but also more sludge. Especially if I compare myself adversely to them.
Organising writing events for one of my writing businesses. I run Writing Events Bath www.writingeventsbath.co.uk with my friend, Alex Wilson. I love this activity. I get to attend all these events and learn from them. We’ve a great workshop coming up on October 6th at Mr B’s bookshop Bath, with author and writing tutor, Trish Nicholson on writing a non-fiction book and one on October 19th at The New Oriel Hall, Bath with marvellous novelist Lucy Christopher on writing young adult fiction. On November 29th, literary agent, Lucy Luck who represents writers Kevin Barry, Colin Barrett and rising star, Danielle McGouglin amongst many others is coming to give feedback to writers pitching their story collections or novels. But I don’t need to wait for these inspirational occasions to write
Giving feedback on writing. My husband writes poetry and listens to my suggestions (sometimes!) I should write something and show him. He gives great feedback.
Organising The Bath Short Story Award with friends and writing companions, Jane and Anna. This year‘ s anthology of selected stories is at the printers and we have a wonderful new judge for next year’s competition which is launched on 1st November. We set up the Award to encourage writers, but it should encourage us too!
But hey – it’s a good writing day so far. Only 7.00 am and I’ve already taken the blog-writing part of The Cure. I’ve a writing prompt book next to me and opening at a random page, I found the following: Write a fragment of a story about a character in a desperate situation…They have to talk themselves out of the situation like Scherheraszade – 600 words. Begin now …
p.s. 11.35 am. I did it. I’ve written more than 600 words of this fragment and it does have the makings of quite a good story. And I’ve done ironing, responded to several emails, eaten breakfast, had an argument, pulled up some weeds and now it’s sunny out there…
I’ve been giving away furniture on the Bristol freecycle site. Freecycling is great in all sorts of ways. Everyone is pleased – people get things for free which would otherwise go to the dump and they come and take away stuff almost immediately, an amazing bonus. A lovely, cheerful guy spent ages dismantling a monster Ikea bed which a tenant had left in the house. A mother and daughter patiently took a sofa apart to get it through the door, two strong women hauled out a heavy washing machine. A woman whizzed in and filetted a battered leather sofa of its cushion stuffing. She’s making her own sofa from pallets and is going to send me a picture of her creation when it’s complete.
Freecycle is brilliant for writers who are looking for stories. If you scan the daily digests of wants and offers, you get a window into people’s lives, those telling details that bring characters alive. Yesterday I saw a post from someone wanting a futon or old sofa. He said the sofa bed needed a firm mattress, enough to support a weight of ten stone. Not really that heavy, you’d think. But in this case it was for his ten stone Great Dane who needed a comfortable new bed! I do have a futon to shift, so maybe I will get to meet the man and his dog.
Last week there was a brilliant post from a man wanting to freecycle a surf board. I include it here with thanks to its author.
“Offer: One old and quite mangled green foam surfboard. It is approx 8ft, old school shape, single fin and made of soft foam, which is falling to bits. It’s probably just about surfable and guess it would be ok for messing about in the waves but not going to be great except for a laugh. Could possibly be repaired, but probably not worth it, unless you are desperate, or need a challenge. Would be good for fancy dress, or a theatrical prop, or some kind of strange project like some people seem to be doing.”
I like the idea of a story about a desperate surfer wanting a challenge, or a person involved in a strange project. I should write this story perhaps – a desperate older woman surfer in need of a new challenge in life…?
I worked for over twenty-five years as a Gestalt Psychotherapist and became an extremely good listener. To listen well, you need to bring as much as yourself as possible to the encounter with another. You shuttle between your own emotional and physical experience in response and notice how a person is speaking, as well as attending to the content. The whole body and being are involved.
As a writer, when I create characters, they live and breathe in my imagination. I picture them moving around in their world, the sound of their voices, the expression on their faces. I ‘listen’ to them to understand their motivations, empathise with their situations and guess what they might think, feel and do. I am sure most writers do this. Often, writers say their characters begin to have a life of their own – do surprising things. But in order for those characters to stay convincing in their actions, it is necessary to pay them close attention.
Gestalt therapy is primarily concerned with raising awareness, and the Gestalt therapist’s focus is to help a person become more aware of their experience – thoughts, feelings, sensations – in the present moment. In that way, change happens. Of course, there is a lot more to Gestalt therapy theoretically, (Read more here: www.gestalt.org/yontef.htm ) but the practice of awareness is something I always enjoyed.
Being immersed in awareness practices for years, doesn’t make it any easier to write. Sometimes I am only minimally aware of my bad writing habits. For example, I have just edited this blog and altered clumsy sentences. I am sure there are others. If I look carefully at my prose, read it out loud and listen, I can have moments of clarity. One simple question I used to ask as a Gestalt therapist was: ‘What are you aware of right now?’ You could ask yourself the same question about your writing – eg. ‘What am I aware of about my writing style?’ Or ‘What am I aware of about the process of writing?’ Listen to the answer. For eg. I asked myself this question and became more aware of constructing awkward sentences. I can’t explain the grammatical errors but if I refreshed my knowledge of grammar and understood what I was doing, it might help my writing in general – now that’s a new awareness.
When I was a psychotherapist, I sometimes used to read a poem or a short story before I started work, because it would put me in a different frame of mind and allow me to be aware of something different in myself or in the person I was working with. Reading before writing is a good practice to adopt. Like a dream, the story or poem will feed your imagination, shift your awareness and help you listen to your characters in a different way.