A Change of Home

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.

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Writing Flash Fiction

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.

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Stewart Lee and Lydia Davis – linguistically related.

I think the American International Booker prize winning writer, Lydia Davis and the British comedian, Stewart Lee are linguistically related in their approach to writing short pieces. They each often turn words and sentences round and round to make a point. This is illustrated in the following clip from The Comedy Vehicle, Lee’s 2013 British TV. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQwCYyoRskg  Here he riffs on a sentence he has heard in a taxi driver’s cab:  “These days, if you say you are English, you can be arrested and thrown in jail”. He reports the ensuing conversation with the taxi driver, repeating this sentence again and again with different emphases and variations until the taxi driver is worn down. What’s so great about the piece is that, as a listener, you get worn down by the repetition too – a brilliant tiny short story. It’s worth listening to the entire half an hour show to get a further variation of the taxi driver sentence right at the end. Stewart Lee’s performances are master classes in showing not telling. And this is a perfect example.

Lydia Davis’s flash fiction ‘A Mown Lawn’ does something similar.  She plays on the two words ‘mown lawn’  until as a reader you are almost sick of the repetition but quite enthralled. In the process, she says a lot about the state of America, just as Lee, in his piece,  points out the state of things in this country regarding immigration and prejudice.  Neither of them have said anything overtly.  I’m excited to find a clip of Lydia reading this story. Here’s the link.

https://media.sas.upenn.edu/pennsound/authors/Davis-L/Davis-Lydia_07_Mown-Lawn_UPenn_3-30-99.mp3

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Heart Strings – writing emotional fiction

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).

www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7Nv7dwwhVU

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Epiphany and Breakthrough

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.

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Why join writing groups?

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.

 

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Taking The Writing Cure

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 years 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…

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