Monthly Archives: March 2014

Excuses, Excuses

100 words, or 1000, isn’t many. Every piece of writing has a word limit, whether it’s for a contest, a magazine or even a novel submission. Nowhere is this more apparent than in flash fiction. There are definitely some stories you can’t tell in flash fiction. But I have to admit it annoys me when people respond to constructive criticism by using word limits as an excuse.

I couldn’t fit it in comes back to me time and again, when I suggest that a piece would have benefitted from more clarity, an explanation of a particular point, or so on.

Well, you know what? Try harder. I am well aware of the restrictions of word limits; I write flash fiction once or twice every week, and I know how hard it is to condense a story, to rework it to fit a word limit.

Some stories just don’t fit into some word counts. Spot Goes To The Park will never be a worthwhile novel, and you couldn’t fit War and Peace into 1000 words for all the tea in China. So if the story really doesn’t fit the word limit, don’t use it. Sure, write it anyway, but write it for a different contest, or just for fun. Don’t write a poor version and then blame the word count.

But actually, the story that doesn’t fit is the exception. If you publish a novel, someone will probably need to come up with an elevator pitch (about 25 words) or the blurb for the dustsheet (100-200 words) or even just a summary (similar). In either case, they will be looking for the essence of the story. In flash fiction, that’s all you have. It’s not quite the same as a blurb, because flash fiction includes the ending, but it is quite like the summary you’ll be putting in your covering letters.

The two keys tricks are to make every word count and to imply everything. Don’t spend half your precious words telling us that a character is cruel, tell us in a single sentence that they stepped on a kitten because it was in the way, or even, in the perfect single word. Adjectives and adverbs should be used sparingly, but are all the more powerful because of it.

As a general rule (to which there are obviously exceptions), I find that flash fiction works best if it’s either dialogue or not dialogue. Trying to fit both in is just too much for the space available. Back-story is out too, except by implication, but by implication it’s in in spades.

But I’m digressing from my rant. The point is not that I know how best to write flash fiction, or any kind of fiction. The point is that as a writer, I think one has a duty to write to the form. There is no kudos in writing a song and then saying “well, it would have worked better if it were a prose piece,” and word limits are no excuse for a poor story.

So the next time someone critiques your writing, think carefully about blaming the form. You don’t have to agree with the comment, of course, but if you do agree with the comment, you’re the one who can learn from it and improve, the rule-makers aren’t going to change the word limit just to please you.

There, rant over. Cheerier service will be resumed next week. Probably.

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Friday Fiction – The Fallen Hero

It’s happened again. The story I thought I was going to write isn’t the one that came out onto the page (screen). Still, the muse knows best. Perhaps she, like me, read this interesting article last week. Rochelle posted our prompt (John Nixon’s photo) a day early this week, but I decided to stick to the schedule and respond today.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Fallen Hero

As a child, I ran through this forest with my brothers. I played in its branches, battling demons and spiders with only a wooden sword, made-up spells and what Grandfather called my ‘pluck’. I was hero and conqueror.

Now the wisdom of age has descended and I am the damsel in distress I never was then. I creep past the writhing trees, afraid of their shadows and my own. I fear the men who might lurk here, and their intentions. And I keep my own children on a leash: stay in sight, don’t wander off.

Where did the hero go?

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Lazing On A Monday Afternoon…

It’s Monday, which means I should be sharing something witty or edifying or something with you, and it’s Monday afternoon, so I’m already late, which means there’s an extra onus to make it something good. The problem is, I’ve been up since 5.30 with a certain young man, who powered through until 3pm refusing to sleep, and now that he’s finally crashed into bed, I have the energy to be neither edifying nor witty. Instead, here’s some pictures for a lazy Monday afternoon…

Copyright Jennifer Pendergast

Copyright Jennifer Pendergast

Copyright J Alexander

Copyright John Alexander

 

 

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In Mon – Is That a Real Place?

More fun prompts over at BeKindRewrite this week. This take on one probably isn’t that original, but I enjoyed writing it and definitely feel I could work more with these characters. Have a look, leave your thoughts, and/or stop over to Steph’s site to use the prompts yourself.

Getaway

The bar was quiet and our host was friendly, setting down drinks then hovering behind Alice. “So what brings you to this corner of the globe?”

“Walking,” I replied, hoping he’d leave us alone. “We’ve heard there are fantastic trails up into the mountains.”

“Sure thing,” he said, pulling over a chair, “We’ve got a load of maps and guides you could take a look at in the Snug.”

“Great.” I picked up the menu and tried to leave the conversation at that.

“I also know a few more secluded trails if you’d like a personal touch. There are places I can show you where you won’t see another person for hours.”

“Except you,” Alice muttered.

Our host laughed. “Well, of course.” He pulled his chair in. “But I can be unobtrusive when I want to be.”

Unlike now, I thought. I caught Alice’s eye and she smiled, reading my mind.

“Do you remember on our honeymoon?” I asked her, excluding him as much as I could from the conversation.

“The Lover’s Island!” she laughed, then she turned to him. “We booked a private island getaway for a day. Then a bunch of Italians turned up with a picnic.”

Now that she’d included him, I tried to hammer home the privacy point. “I paid good money to get some alone time with my wife.”

“Ha, yes,” he said, “Well you’ll definitely find that here.” But I could tell he didn’t really get it. Instead he began to explain the flora and fauna we might chance to see if we took him up on his offer. Alice and I continued briefly our reminiscences, then gave up and read the menus while he droned on.

“… And the mandrakes are spectacular. Although not at this time of year, obviously.”

“Obviously,” I said, trying to sound like I knew what he was talking about.

“Mandrakes are real?” Alice said. “I thought JK Rowling made them up!”

“No, they are quite real. Nice cheap hallucinogen, if you like that sort of thing.”

“Now we’ve never been offered those before!” Alice laughed. “Someone tried to sell us Speed in New York once, and we smoked weed in Timbuktu.”

“That’s a real place?” asked our host, finally standing up.

“Yes, believe it or not. It’s a city in Mali.” He was looking at me blankly. “In Africa,” I added.

“Not like the movies, then?” he asked. “Not quite so many skyscrapers and yellow cabs.”

“What?” I think Alice and I spoke at once.

“New York. You must have seen the movies – all skycrapers, yellow cabs and Americans with loads of money. I assume it’s a bit different if it’s in Afrcia.”

I probably just stared at him. For all I know, my mouth was hanging open.

Eventually Alice spoke. “You’re kidding, right?”

The man sighed. “Did you pass the train station when you drove into town?”

“Sure, but it was all boarded up.”

“Exactly. When I was a kid, I always said as soon as I left school, I’d travel the world and see places. Then the day before my eighteenth birthday, they closed the station. I guess some things just aren’t meant to be.”

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Friday Fiction – The Fűhrer’s New Armour

Isn’t it interesting what makes us uncomfortable? I found it quite difficult to write this story, not because of the writing itself, but because it felt somehow like trivializing a subject that shouldn’t be. I hope you won’t feel like that about the resulting 100 words. It isn’t actually the first story that came to mind, but it’s the one that stuck when I started writing things down.

We are guided on these waters by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields, who has offered us her own picture this week. copyright for the image is hers and for everything else is mine. I welcome your constructive criticism, feedback and general musings. And my guests leave today, so I hope to get around more of the other stories this week too.

old-building-staircase

The Fűhrer’s New Armour

A guard raised his arm as they entered; the Kommandant only nodded in reply. “You’ll want to inspect the Fűhrer’s personal commission, of course.” He led the way into a small workshop.

“Did you design it yourself?” Rolf asked.

The Kommandant laughed. “Anshel Ben Haim – formerly an armourer – was here. His intersecting triangles provide superior blast protection and it will be painted yellow to deflect invisible waves apparently known to cause blindness.”

“I’d like to meet him.”

“He is no longer available.” The Kommandant sounded almost disappointed, but a moment later he smiled. “Shall we see the ovens before dinner?”

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Book Review: The Man Who Forgot His Wife

Dating profiles aside, I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a Good Sense of Humour – I suspect it’s more about compatible senses of humour. John O’Farrell is one of my favourite writers ever, because his sense of humour exactly matches mine; his writing always makes me laugh. He fascinates me, because he writes something that is pretty unusual, a sort of male chicklit.

The Man Who Forgot His Wife is a prime example. The main character – indeed, the first person narrator – is Vaughan, a middle-aged man. The plot is basically a love story, about a man who loses his memory and discovers that he is acrimoniously divorcing his wife (whom he has now fallen in love with again). If the characters’ genders were swapped, it would have Dorothy Koomson’s name on it and would be on the Women’s Literature shelf. (For the record, I love Dorothy Koomson too).

But O’Farrell hasn’t written about a woman trying to win back her husband, he’s written about a man, and it’s frankly fascinating. It’s extra fascinating for me, because I often find my protagonists to be male, and I’ve often wondered whether I should be more worried about the “who is your readership” question. Don’t women’s books usually have a female lead? Should female authors focus on female characters? Etc etc. O’Farrell is hardly topping bestseller lists, but he’s published something like a book a year for over a decade, and I’d take that as heady success. And he’s not afraid to write women either, May Contain Nuts has a female narrator and it works just fine.

Another thing I like about both Koomson and O’Farrell is that although their books are reasonably light reads and generally involve a bit of love and laughter, they deal with more interesting topics than simply romance. Total amnesia, cancer, adultery, adoption … these are not light subject matter – these books are not pure beach-reading chicklit. This is another element that matches the way I like to write, which is perhaps not surprising – I’m sure most writers write the kind of books they would  enjoy reading.

If you’ve never heard of John O’Farrell, but this sounds like the kind of book you enjoy reading, I would strongly recommend you pick it up. This and The Best A Man Can Get are both fantastic, and if you have school age children, or know anyone who does, you won’t go wrong with May Contain Nuts either.

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Angry exclamation is a puzzle (9)

My parents gave me the bug for these tricky word puzzles from an early age and although I don’t get many chances, I love to tuck into a crossword when the opportunity arises. We started with “simple” crosswords, where the clue was usually a synonym or a category for the answer (Tree (3) might be ash or elm, for example). But simple crosswords are can be both more frustrating and less thrilling than cryptic ones. With a cryptic clue, once you get it, you usually know you’ve got it, whereas with a simple clue it could almost always be several possibilities and you have to wait to get a word that crosses it before you know for sure.

It occurs to me that most of those who love language, love crosswords and that for those who love language and don’t love crosswords, it’s often because they can’t do them. Which means they are sorely missing out on something they might otherwise love. So when I haven’t got any interesting grammar for you on a Thursday, I’ve decided I’ll share the joy of crosswords, and maybe convert a few more lexophiles to their pleasures. Today, some basics to get you started.

  1. Each clue is followed by a number in brackets, indicating how many letters the answer contains. If the answer is more than one word, the numbers will indicate the letters for each word, separated by a comma (or a hyphen if the words are hyphenated).
  2. The clues are split into Across and Down clues, depending on the direction of the word in the answer grid.
  3. Answers (and the associated clues) are numbered consecutively from left to right and top to bottom of the grid, with a number in the first box of the answer. Where an Across and a Down clue share this box, they will share a number, but otherwise each number will only be used for one clue – Across or Down.
  4. Clues are referred to by number and direction, for example “One Across” even if there is no “One Down”. These can be abbreviated to 1a or 1d etc.
  5. Getting any answer provides assistance in others as the words intersect and share letters. This is known as “Help” and may mean that eventually another clue can be guessed from the letters available without reference to the clue.
  6. In a good setter’s crossword, no clue word is redundant, so if a possible answer only uses part of the clue, solvers should use caution in filling that answer in.
  7. There is no proper order to answer the clues in a crossword. For example, some solvers prefer to work carefully through the Across clues and then through the Downs, others hop about at random, or choose the long / short /multi-word clues first, and others still go through the Across clues until they get one, and then use the Help provided by that answer to try to the Down clues which intersect with it.

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Friday Fiction – The Drifters

When I saw this week’s FF picture, it reminded me of a prompt from many moons ago, but it also sang out loud and clear what I wanted to write for it. I hope it works for you – please do share your thoughts and feedback.

Rochelle leads the FF charge with a photo this week from Adam Ickes – who is not only a great long-term Fictioneers, but has recently published a collection of his 100 word stories in print and Kindle format. I haven’t read it yet, but if his FF entries are anything to go by, I’m sure I can recommend it. Stop by his site for links to his amazon pages to get hold of your own copy. Reminds me I would love to do the same thing sometime – well done Adam for setting a great example!

In the meantime, my FF story for this week…

adamickes-boardwalk

The Drifters

We lie wrapped together and I am falling in love, but his storm-blue eyes hold a baser desire that I ache to meet. From the park, I can hear the carousel and almost taste hot dogs, fries and onions, but only I can sate his hunger and must learn quickly how.

Because of him, Father has forbidden me my home and Mother – shocked but still Mother – could smuggle me nothing but a brief embrace and her warmest blanket. He begins to cry. Under the boardwalk, down by the sea, on a blanket with my baby is where I lie.

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Let’s Pretend This Never Happened – Book review

Recently, the book for my budding Book Group was Jenny Lawson’s “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.” Lawson, known as “the Bloggess” is a Texan who has come to fame in the blogosphere, in a way many of us would no doubt love to emulate. Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is her first book, and is made up of what she calls a “Mostly True Memoir” about her life.

In places, it is heart-wrenchingly sad, but for the most part, the book is a light and humorous tale of her life and experiences. I believe newspaper reviewers would call it a “romp”, but in the funny sense not the sexual sense.

Did I enjoy it? Yes. In places, it’s laugh-out-loud funny, and it’s certainly nothing like anything else I’ve ever read.

Would I recommend it? I’m not sure. Reading this book was a bit like watching the trashiest of trashy TV, – you enjoy it at the time, but you come away feeling a little dirty, knowing that you have sort of wasted your time and you’ll never get that time back.
So, it depends. I’m more a serious drama sort of a girl. I don’t mind whether the book is based on a true story or not, but I like a bit of character and plot. It’s the same reason I would prefer to see a play than watch stand up, although I do enjoy a bit of comedy here and there.
I supposed I’m not really a laugher. I enjoy laughing with my friends because of the bonding experience it creates, rather than the jokes themselves, but sitting in front of the TV or reading a book and laughing always feels a little bit empty to me – laughter is something I prefer to share.

But if you need a good giggle and don’t mind doing it alone, this is the book for you. And let’s face it – don’t we all want our blogs to turn into successful first-time publications? Sign me up for that one!

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In Mon – Talk to Strangers

What a fantastic crop of InMon prompts this week. I want to use them all … but not in the same story. However, Melanie’s been playing in my head again, so she’s taken the front slot and here’s another snippet from her. And I’ve ended up nodding to two of the prompts.

If you’d like to see more, search “Melanie” to see other parts of her story, although this scene is intended to stand alone.

* * *

Daddy’s instructions had been very clear: “Take Mummy’s prescription to the counter, get the pills from the Pharmacist, pay, leave. Don’t get waylaid.” But Melanie liked getting waylaid; there was always so much to see and do when you got waylaid. And sometimes you got waylaid without meaning to. Like today, in the pharmacy, there was an old lady waiting in the next seat. And Melanie wasn’t really getting waylaid, because she was waiting for the Pharmacist to get Mummy’s pills ready.

“You’re a bit little to be here alone,” said the old woman. “Where’s your Mum?”

“At home,” Mel said, wondering if it was OK to talk to strangers if they were at the pharmacy.

The old woman looked kind, like Mrs Mwanna, only not black. She put her handkerchief in front of her eyes to blow her nose. “You came by yourself?” said the voice behind the handkerchief.

“No. Daddy’s waiting outside, only he couldn’t come in because he’s on the phone.”

“Ah.” The lady came out from behind her mask again. “That’s the problem with these mobile phones. Everyone is always on them. No time for anything.”

Melanie nodded and looked up at the pharmacists’ heads, bobbing behind their high screen. She wondered how long the medicine was going to be, because she was nearly late for school and she didn’t want to have to go and see the Head again to explain.

“They take their own time,” the old lady said, reading her mind like Mrs Mwanna could do. “I’ve been waiting for twenty minutes.”

Melanie wondered how long she’d been waiting. Not twenty minutes, because the old lady had got here first, but it felt like forever.

“Do you go to St Bartholomew’s?” the lady said.

“Yes,” Melanie replied. And then she thought about it and wondered if the lady meant the church, which she did go to, or the school, which she didn’t because she was a big girl now and went to the big school, but it was too late to ask, because she had already answered.

The lady tutted. “I thought they had a uniform. I don’t go in for this modern idea of no uniform days. Supposed to be for charity, but it looks very scruffy and you can’t tell one child from another. In my day you knew exactly what to expect just by looking at the child.”

Melanie tried to count the bottles of Calcium tablets on the shelf beside her, but the numbers kept getting themselves confused whenever she listened to the old lady. She wondered whether to explain about the church and the school, but it wouldn’t really help, because her school did have a uniform and it wasn’t non-uniform day, her uniform was just in the wash because she’d forgotten to put the load through and Mummy had said she’d do it yesterday but then hadn’t been able to get out of bed, and so Daddy had said never mind he would write the Head a note. Only, thinking about it, Melanie remembered that he hadn’t given her a note and she would have to ask him when she got back to the car.

“I suppose you go to the church there as well?” the old lady said.

Melanie nodded.

The old lady tutted again. “Not my cup of tea,” she muttered. “I prefer a more shall we say enlightened communicant, if you know what I mean?”

Melanie nodded, although she didn’t.

“A little bit more forgive us our trespasses and a little bit less mine be the kingdom.”

“Ms Santori?” The lady pharmacist’s head appeared from behind the screen and the old lady stood up.

“Well, that’s me. At last,” she sighed. “You watch out for that priest of yours,” she added. “He’ll fill your head with fire and brimstone and leave no room for God’s love.”

Melanie nodded again and went back to counting the Vitamin bottles. It was easier now that nobody was talking to her, and she’d got all the way to two hundred and forty-seven when she heard Mummy’s name being called.

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