Tag Archives: story

Wednesday Write-in #82

This week’s words were:

signal  ::  resolution  ::  aggressive  ::  gunpowder  ::  fashion

Read on for what I made out of ’em…

Image: mattcornock.com

Image: mattcornock.com

Eyes Only

Autopsy commences 07:05:22 a.m., November 8th 2067. Subject: Prisoner #874431

Inscription found on sole of foot, left: ‘my name is sarah pinford and i had no choice i had to be part of the new gunpowder plot and if i had to i would do it again’

Inscription found on sole of foot, right: ‘i had made the resolution to do whatever i could before i was 15 y.o.’

Inscription found on inner arm, left: ‘this govt and its aggressive stance toward anyone not ‘Pure’ is the reason why we are doing this they have to be told that a human being is a human being and their laws cant crush humanity no matter what they think’

Inscription found on inner arm, right, partially obscured: ‘the signal was done by someone on the inside i wont say who but it was an act of heroism for which they shall always be remembered and when we heard it we knew it was time’

[NOTE: investigate these claims with immediate effect]

Inscription found across lower abdomen: ‘they can not tell us who to be any more they will not tell us we are Less than them we are not we are not we are not and i am not sorry’


The subject (female, non-Pure, c. 25 years of age) is in an emaciated condition, significant tooth damage (probable cause gnawing, see below); evidence of parturition [NOTE: check for offspring/mate and apprehend]; organs Pure-equivalent in relation to size, weight, function [NOTE: recheck this data]; skin abraded with some skill. Subject managed to fashion a crude blade from the handle of a plastic spoon, used this to mark herself with her propaganda, which was exposed post-execution.


No more plastic cutlery to be supplied to non-Pure detainees. Backlog in eliminations to be worked through – no non-Pure detainee to be permitted more than two days in cells. Root and branch examination of the Parliament, all leaks to be plugged. Purges to be stepped up. Prisoner #874431 to be cremated. This report eyes-only.

Dissent to be quelled at all costs.


Growing a Story

Image: strawberryindigo.wordpress.com

Image: strawberryindigo.wordpress.com

Ah! *Deep breath* It’s good to be back.

I hope your weekend was full of glitter and cocktails and dancing, and that it’s now a pleasantly fading memory. Mine was wonderful – full of family, great food and lots of laughter – and, as well as that, it was almost entirely computer-free. I think it’s necessary, every once in a while, to step away from the screen.

That doesn’t mean my mind didn’t live in stories, just because I was away from the computer, though. Of course.

Sometimes it seems like your brain works overtime to create story ideas when it knows you have no way of taking note of them. You’re in the middle of a meal, perhaps, or on a long car journey, when the Best Idea Ever whacks you between the eyes. When that happens, you can find yourself repeating the idea over and over to yourself until you manage to find a pen and paper, or your phone, or whatever it is you use to keep track of your ramblings; hopefully, by the time you get to do this, your idea hasn’t lost all semblance of coherence, and still sounds like the Best Idea Ever. Also, hopefully, the people who have been trying to hold a conversation with you while you’ve been trying to hold a whole world inside your head aren’t too peeved at your apparent absent-mindedness.

While we’re on this topic: I think it’s important to stay faithful to these ideas, the ones that come at you out of nowhere. If something strikes you as exciting or interesting, then don’t let your enthusiasm for it fade while you search for something to make a note with. I fear many a wonderful idea has been lost down the dark crevasse of that particular form of self-doubt.

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here... Image: gutenberg.org

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here…
Image: gutenberg.org

It’s funny how the human brain can talk itself into most things, and out of nearly everything. Have you ever had the experience where a word you use all the time suddenly starts to look ‘wrong’ or weird, like you’ve misspelled it or are using it incorrectly? It happens to me all the time. Common words, if repeated often enough, can eventually seem like gibberish, so it stands to reason that the more familiar your brain is with something, the more nonsensical it can seem. If this starts happening with your ideas, and you start to convince yourself that they’re no good just because you’ve been focusing strongly on them for a while, then try to bear in mind that all you’re doing is talking yourself out of your own process of inspiration.

And that, I’m sure we can all agree, is a bit silly.

Sometimes, though, a story can grow in unexpected ways. It can grow slowly, out of a single image or a fleeting impression, and years can pass before anything changes. It’s not a bolt from the blue, leaving you scrambling for a pen; it’s a far longer and more gentle process, like a flower blooming inside your mind. Something like this happened to me at the weekend, and I’m quite pleased about it. It feels like a warm scarf, which I can’t stop tucking gently around myself. I feel like I’ve found the next step in a long-unsolved puzzle, and that a story seed I’ve been nurturing for a long time is a tiny bit closer to coming to fruition.

For years now, I have had a character in my head. He stalks the corners of my consciousness, raising a scornful eyebrow at me every once in a while. ‘I will have a story for you soon, I promise,’ I keep telling him; ‘yeah, right,’ he seems to reply. I can see him, tall and skinny and besuited, his face long and his smile beguiling, darkness flowing off him like radiation. He is a blood-chilling character, and he deserves a story to match.

Well, I think I might have found the first step in the tale of my unsettling man.

It all happened because of something I misread in a book at my in-laws’ house. The book was a compendium of local folklore and mythology, and the words I read were Irish. They were ‘Féar Gorta’, which means something like ‘Hunger Grass,’ or ‘Famine Grass’; to my eye, though, they first appeared as ‘Fear Gorta,’ which means ‘Man of Hunger,’ or ‘Man of Famine.’ The only difference between the word ‘féar’ and the word ‘fear’ (pronounced ‘fair’ and ‘far’ respectively) is the diacritical mark known as a ‘fada’ which appears over the ‘e’ in ‘Féar’; this little mark changes the word completely, though. As I read the words which I thought were ‘fear gorta,’ my slender, dark and smiling man popped into my head, and took a bow. I thought: Wow. So, now I know what he is. He’s a Man of Hunger – or, at least, a version of one.

A Man of Hunger is, apparently, a folkloric figure in Ireland, a wraith who appears at your door seemingly on the point of starving to death; you’re supposed to show him mercy, and give him whatever food you have to spare. If you do, you’ll never know another hungry day, but if you don’t… well. If you don’t, hunger itself will never be far from you. ‘Féar Gorta’, or hunger grass, is a patch of innocent-looking grass which has dried up and died, but if a person walks over it they’re afflicted with dreadful, life-threatening hunger and must be given something to eat immediately or face death; the legends say that patches of hunger grass sprang up at the places where people dying of starvation during the Famine fell and were left unburied, or where the fairies have cursed the ground.

Ireland, eh? Cheery place.

Image: musingthetrauma.blogspot.com

Image: musingthetrauma.blogspot.com

Lots of legends like this sprang up in Ireland after the Gorta Mór, the Great Famine, and even though they’re no longer believed, they still have a powerful cultural resonance. I love stories which take elements of folklore and weave them into new and interesting stories, and which bring ancient ideas back to life, and I’m quite delighted with my little misreading, the one which brought me from Hunger Grass to Man of Hunger. It has given me – ironically, perhaps – a little meat to put on the bones of my mysterious character. I already have a story beginning to weave itself around him, and it’s exciting to watch it grow.

Of course, another thing the mind does is give you a good idea for your next project while you’re still working on your current project. It will be a while before I get to actually write any of this, but until then, my subconscious mind can churn away at it. Hopefully by the time I’m preparing my first draft, the story will flow with ease – but if this sly and smiling man inside my head is anything to go by, nothing will go to plan…



Stories and Tellers

As I write, I am sitting in my parents’ living room, working from my mother’s laptop computer (upon which I will lay the blame for any typos, being as I’m unused to the keyboard, and all); I owe this pleasure to my husband, who suggested we take a trip to my hometown to celebrate the fact that he’s on leave from work for a few days. So, we made the trip, and here we are. It’s only a flying visit, but it’s been wonderful. I haven’t been home in ages, and I’ve really missed it.

However, coming home, as well as being a fantastic chance to catch up with my family, has also taught me a very useful lesson. Sit back, get comfortable, and I’ll tell you all about it.

On Saturday evening, my family and I spent some time in my local pub, whereupon a certain amount of alcohol was, I have to admit, imbibed; as well as this, though, something else happened – something which I believe is rather special, and important, and worthy of sharing. As well as the laughter, and the companionship, and the happiness, there was something which is connected to all these things, but also a separate wonder, all of itself – there was Storytelling.

Image: theabundantartist.com

Image: theabundantartist.com

Storytelling is an important part of Irish culture – we still value the storyteller and the act of storytelling in Ireland, something which has its roots in our earliest history – but from the point of view of my family, it has a hugely important personal significance. My parents have told my brother and I stories as long as we can remember – stories about their lives when they were young, long before we were born; stories about local ‘characters’ and people famed in our hometown for their abilities (or, sometimes, lack of ability) to do certain things, and stories from their own parents’ time, from far back into the history of our town and its foundation. My brother and I were raised on stories of my father’s friend Wilf, for instance, a man who took on heroic proportions in our eyes because of all the tales Dad spun about him, and we were regaled with sagas of the deeds of our grandfathers and other men of their generation, all of whom seemed to have immense intelligence and wit. This weekend was no different. We revisited some of the old favourites, and some new tales were added to the treasury, particularly those told in memory of a few friends who have recently passed away; they may not be with us any more, but their stories and their memory will live on. As I listened to the tale-telling, however, something struck me – something so important, it’s amazing that it never really occurred to me before.

I love to write – it’s what I want to do, and it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. My brother is similar to me in many ways, especially in his love for words. Sometimes, I’ve wondered why this is – why my brother and I are so similar, on such a profound level, despite the fact that we’ve chosen to do different things with our lives. Writing, and reading, and tale-telling, are among our favourite things, and something which we both treasure. Listening to my father telling tales on Saturday, and keeping me as rapt as ever, despite the fact that I’ve heard most of them before, made me finally realise something.

My parents are storytellers. They may not be writers, but they are tellers and creators and repositories of stories, local history, cultural history and family history. My brother and I have been raised with these stories, we’ve been fed them and nourished on them all our lives. It’s no wonder, really, that we both want to create stories, and we both love words and the power they possess. We’ve learned it all our lives.

The stories my parents tell are more than just a way to pass the time; they’re a way to bond, to create links between people, to unite communities, to store memories, and to honour those who’ve passed from our sight. They’re the most important thing we have. Most of my favourite family recollections from my childhood involve storytelling of some sort, whether my parents or grandparents or our family friends were the ones doing the regaling; all my parents have to do is mention a favourite story, and we’re all primed to listen, not only to a treasured tale but to all the layers of memory, all the happy recollections of all the times that story has already been told and enjoyed. I’ve had this wonderful trove of story all my life, and I never fully appreciated it until this weekend.

My parents gave my brother and I the best gift anyone could give. They gave us the history of our family in a series of stories, memories crystallised into tales we can treasure and keep safe to pass on to a new generation, and – as if that wasn’t enough – a love of sharing and telling and creating stories that both of us have used to enrich our lives in ways our parents probably couldn’t have imagined. If ever a parent wondered whether it was ‘worthwhile’ to spend time making up silly or funny stories with their child, or whether it was a good thing to encourage imagination by telling tales, or whether encouraging a child to enjoy language and the feeling of accomplishment gifted by the creation and retention of a treasured story was something to be aimed for, then I hope this post will answer those questions for them.

Yes. Yes, it is. Yes, it certainly is.

Happy Monday. Happy new week. Go and create some stories, and make sure to tell them, and retell them, and turn them into treasures.

The First 10,000 Words

I’m almost finished with my edits for ‘Eldritch’. I thought, yesterday, that I was completely done and dusted, but then I remembered that there was another important job to do.

That job? Polish the book’s beginning with such vigour and vim that it shines.

Now, of course, the whole novel has to be written as well as I can write it, and the entire story has to shine as much as possible. This, without doubt, I know. But I think it’s worthwhile going back over the manuscript and focusing on the opening sections, the first few chapters, the source from which the river of the story flows. The reason I’m focusing on ‘the first 10,000 words’ is because those words are the ones which will be looked at by agents and/or publishers during the querying process; those are the words that really need to be catchy, compelling, interesting and fresh. Those are the words, in short, which have the power to sell, make or break your book. For some obscene and devilish reason, they’re also often the hardest words to produce. They’re easy to write, first time round – you’re enthusiastic for your story, and you want to get stuck into it, so you dive right in and get going – but they’re hard, very hard, to come back to and spruce up.

At least, that’s what I’m finding at the moment.

Not all agents are the same, of course; they don’t all request the same things from prospective clients. But, from the research I’ve been doing over the past few days, one thing seems to be fairly common among them, which is that they like to receive 10,000 words, or three chapters, whichever comes first, from querying authors. This puts me in mind of a job interview, or meeting a new person for the first time, and how important it is to put the best of yourself forward; it also reminds me how socially awkward I am. I am that person who goes in for a cheek kiss and ends up giving a smacker on the lips instead. I am the person who laughs at all the wrong moments. I’m the person who puts their hand out to shake at just the wrong angle and ends up whacking someone across the face. So my 10,000 words – my equivalent of a first meeting – is really going to take some work.

Sometimes, I remind myself of this guy. Image: suchsmallportions.com

Sometimes, I remind myself of this guy.
Image: suchsmallportions.com

I’m a nice person when you get to know me. But I hate to think of the amount of people who’ve come away from their first meeting with me wondering what on earth just happened. I’m sure there are plenty. I hope the same isn’t true of ‘Eldritch’ – in other words, everything from Chapter 4 onwards is fine, but the opening sections are completely off the wall.

It’s hard to find a ‘hook’ – something which will hint at the wonderful story to come, which sounds different (but not too different), fresh (but not completely out of left field) and interesting (not in that raised-eyebrow way, the one which is just ‘weird’ in a fancy coat). It’s hard to know whether your idea is flabbergastingly good, one which will make an agent’s heart start to beat a little faster, and one which will make them start sending you an email to request the rest of your manuscript before they’ve even finished reading your query, or whether it’s just plain crazy. Or, worse than these – perhaps your idea is so bland, so boring, so porridge-y that it makes the agent stop reading before they’ve even reached the end of the first page. The first 10,000 words have a lot of hurdles to leap over, and a lot of sinkholes to avoid.

I’ve made a choice with the narration style of ‘Eldritch’ and the structure of the story that I’ve never come across before in any book I’ve read – certainly not one aimed at this age group – so this might explain my trepidation. I’m not sure if I’ve taken a sensible risk, or if I’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater altogether.

And this is important to me because, of course, I’m hoping to start making query submissions within the week. Within the week.

Image: buzzle.com

Image: buzzle.com

I reckon the only thing I can do is have the courage to stick to my convictions, and have faith in my choices. There’s no point being half-hearted about it; if you make a choice with regard to narrative style, then go for it one hundred percent. Make it snappy, fast-moving, interesting, fun and exciting; make it new, unique and ‘you’. Make it good. Write it well.

So, no problem then.

Writing Ethics

Today, something slightly odd is on my mind. Despite this, though, I’m confident that someone, somewhere, has thought about this very same issue and has come up with some conclusions, so I just want to throw this post out into the ether and hope for the best. In a lot of ways, today’s question is related to the ideas I talked about here, but I think it deserves its own post.

Here it is. Do you ever worry about the ethics of what you write?

A couple of days ago, I started writing a short story. It began innocently enough, with my narrator reminiscing about a lovely summer she’d experienced as a child, where the sky was always blue and most of her time was spent on the beach, or hanging out with her friends. However, as the story progressed I realised I was doing something rather larger than writing a short story. I was, in fact, talking to myself about something that had actually happened, a real-life tragedy; I was writing a fictionalised memoir of a very sad event that took place in my home town a long time ago. As a result I began to wonder if it was right, or fair, or proper, for me to take an event like that and use it as I saw fit in order to create a piece of writing out of it. I’m still not sure.

Image: amazon.co.uk

Image: amazon.co.uk

The very sad event in question involved a tragic accident where young lives were lost, suddenly and terribly. Of course, I realise that the story I wrote may never (and, for a variety of reasons, probably never will) be read by any eyes except mine, so the issue is largely moot, but the question is still nagging at me. Is it fair, or right, to make use of real-life events, particularly sad events, to create a story?

The story I wrote doesn’t slavishly follow each detail of the event as it actually happened, but creates a world where a similar accident takes place. Characters are invented, timelines are shifted around, and the people in the story are older than the real-life players. Nevertheless it is, I suppose, my attempt at fumbling my way through the jumble of emotions that I obviously still carry with me surrounding this event. I know most stories have a grain of truth somewhere in them, and may be sparked off by a real-life happening, but I’ve never before written a story which had such a firm basis in fact. I’m not sure it’s something I’d like to do again. I feel, in some ways, like it’s a violation of the memory of those who passed away, and that it’s disrespectful to their families and those who dearly loved them. Now that I think about it, I’m not even sure why my feelings run so deep. Perhaps it’s just because of the emotive subject itself, and the particular loss that I remember experiencing at the time.

Another story I’m currently working on features a child – probably about twelve or so – who is being bullied at school. I’m trying to create a story where the child finds the courage to stand up to his bullies, but I’m concerned about whether that’s the ‘right’ thing to do or not. Should a story ‘teach’ a child to take certain actions in the face of aggressive behaviour? Should the story fall in line with whatever is stated in the official guidelines provided by schools, or failing that, the State, or whomever else? I’ve written this story, and I’m happy with it, but I’m hesitating to send it around to publishers. I’m just not sure it’s right, and I’m also not sure if I should be worrying so much about this issue.

I realise writers can’t tailor their work to suit an agenda, and they have to write whatever they feel drawn to. Despite this, do any of the questions I’m raising here make sense to anyone else? If you’ve experienced an ethical dilemma in your work, how did you solve it? Do you even agree that what I’m describing counts as an ‘ethical’ dilemma? Writing shouldn’t be didactic, of course, but I think it can sometimes be a fine line when the audience you’re writing for is composed of children and their parents. While what you’re writing shouldn’t teach, or preach, I’m not sure it should exhibit behaviours or thought processes which would be alien to the children’s experience or their parents’ wishes either.

I think I’m going to put away my story about the summer, and leave it to posterity. It will be my private memorial to a quiet, personal pain. Even if it’s not unethical to write a story based around a sad event like this one, I don’t feel it’s appropriate to make work like that public. Perhaps I feel this way because of the nature of the event itself; I’m wondering if this whole issue is bothering me so much because the event is one that had an impact on my life when I was at an impressionable age. Perhaps tragedies that are devastatingly personal (as opposed to historical events, for instance) shouldn’t be made use of in order to create art. Having said that, of course, I didn’t set out to write a story around this particular event – it came, fully formed, out of my brain. So, if there’s something in my mind that needs to be said, who am I to deny it the chance to be expressed?

*sigh* Back to square one.

Opinions? Comments? Flying tomatoes? I’d love to hear your views.

Why Keep Reading?

Today, what’s on my mind is the ‘why?’ factor. I’m wondering about why people keep reading – what grabs and holds their attention, and what makes it impossible for them to stop reading until they’ve finished the story. I’d love to know why a person picks up a book in a bookshop, or wherever they buy their books, and reads the blurb, or the first few pages, and decides – ‘yep, this is the book for me’. I’m also interested in thinking about the things that keep a person reading – what do readers look for in a book? What sort of things does the story have to deliver for them to keep turning the pages?

His new work is so... Proustian, don't you think?

His new work is so… Proustian, don’t you think?

Perhaps I’ll never know the answers to these questions. If I did, I’d probably feel like a superhero – certainly, the ability to write books people want to read is the only superpower I’ve ever wanted! I’m not very good at writing blurbs – sometimes I do it as a writing exercise, in order to help myself to focus on what my current project is about, but I’m aware that, in the future, perhaps a lot will depend on my being able to write a compelling synopsis. It’s something I need to think about. Blurbs are interesting – a lot of the time, when I bring a new book home, my husband will pick it up and have a look at the back cover, and he’ll hand it back to me with a bemused look on his face. ‘I’d never have picked up that book,’ he’ll say. ‘It just doesn’t grab me.’ So – how to ‘grab’ the most people (in a strictly bookish sense!)? And how, once an innocent reader has been hooked, do you keep them interested in your story?

I guess these questions are on my mind because I’m currently within 80 pages of being finished with my final (FINAL) draft. I don’t care what happens, I’m not going over it again once I’m finished with this draft. I’ve reached the point where I’m entirely sick of my book and can’t bear the sight of my characters* – admittedly, I’ve read and re-read this book more times than anyone else ever will, but still. It’s got me panicking about whether the book has any merit, whether the story is interesting enough to keep someone reading to the end, and whether anyone else will ever love my characters. Have I created a proper, fleshed-out protagonist, complete in all dimensions, believable and interesting? Have I put her in a scenario in which a reader will believe her struggle to save her father’s life, where they’ll travel with her to a foreign country to will her on as she fights her way into a fortress in an attempt to find him, and her brother? Is she ‘real’ enough to withstand the pressures of battle, brave enough to conquer her terror of heights, clever enough to save her friend from death, strong enough to bear deep sorrow? As I’m not a reader of this particular story, I don’t know the answer to these questions.

In a book, I look for several things. I need a protagonist I can engage with – not necessarily like, but it helps if you like them – and a set of characters who seem real. I’ve tried to do this with my characters; as far as I know, all of them have flaws, as well as strengths, which should allow a reader to get a grip on them and believe in them. Maraika (my protagonist) is brave and clever, but she’s also naive and impulsive. Her father has a dark past, but has tried to raise his children well and leave it all behind him. However, his inability to understand his oldest son, and his reluctance to take the issues in his family seriously, cause a lot of problems for everyone. Jan Polico, a young man living in his father’s shadow, is fun-loving and generous of spirit, but bears a sorrow so deep that he can’t admit it, even to himself; Vik, a freedom fighter, is a fearless warrior, but is driven by pain and loss. I think my characters are interesting. They all have motivation for their actions, and they all do their best to do the right thing – but I created them, so it’s hard for me to see them clearly.

Secondly, when I’m reading a story, I need the world the characters inhabit to make sense. I hope I’ve done this with my own book – I spent a lot of time thinking about the world my characters live in, and the systems, society, history, laws and (most importantly, for my story) religions that are found there. Spending a lot of time thinking about something, though, doesn’t mean that the resultant world is watertight and ‘real’, especially when you’re trying to do something complex with the structures you’ve created. I’m still not sure I did the right thing in changing the setting from a pseudo-medieval to a pseudo-nineteenth century steam-powered, proto-Industrial world, but I can’t imagine them living anywhere else at this stage. I’m worried that, if this book was put to the reader test, that they’d see a giant hole in the fabric of this world, one that I’ve managed to entirely overlook. I’ve done my best to avoid that, but one never knows!

Another thing I need in a good book is a gripping story. If you care about the characters, then the story is bound to be gripping, but I think my favourite books are ones where both the characters and the story are unforgettable. I don’t want my characters to be like paper-people, whose only function is to move a story along; I’d like them to be interesting no matter what they were doing. I hope I’ve managed this. Maraika, as well as being the heart of her family, is also a young woman with dreams and plans for her future, someone who likes to explore her city and who longs to find her place in the world. Her younger brother is a mechanical genius, and her older brother has a world-changing talent of his own. They’re all caught up in the crisis which threatens not only their family, but their whole existence, and none of them end up exactly where they’d planned to be. I hope that their journeys don’t feel ridiculous or contrived to a reader.

I know, I know – the only way to find all this out is to let someone else read it! I am aware. I’m working up to it. It’s difficult to open the cage around your heart and let it out! But that’s what I’ll be doing, in one form or another, over the next while.

I’m glad to note that writing this post has given me back some of the love I’d lost for my story and my characters – that can only be a good thing. Hopefully, the last stage of edits will go quickly now. While I’m doing that, I’d love to know: what makes you keep reading? What do you need for a story to hold your attention? And what’s the one thing which would make you give up on a story?

Happy Tuesday. It’s the birthday of both David Bowie and Elvis Presley today, so I hope you’ll celebrate appropriately. Thanks for reading!

Happy Birthday, Mr Bowie!

Happy Birthday, Mr Bowie!



*Not really. I love them, but it’s a case of needing my ‘dance space’ back. My brain needs to think about something else for a while!

Good Things

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘Good Things Come in Small Packages’. I’ve often used it in self-defence, as I’m quite short and also, for some crazy reason, married to a very tall person. I thought it was just a saying, without any real meaning, and I certainly never really thought it could apply to my writing, but – guess what? – it does. It really does. Over the last few days, I’ve been challenging myself to write to strict word-counts. My last blog restricted me to 500 words, but I also wrote a short story in 100 words yesterday, and then took the idea a bit further and posted an entry to another competition which limited the word count to 31. Yes – thirty-one words! It’s hard to imagine writing a story in such a constrained space, but I’ve discovered it is possible – and not only possible, but liberating.

person in a box

Normally, my writing suffers from an excess of words. When I was at university, it happened several times that my grade was dropped because I exceeded the word count for my written work. My tutors used to beg me to rein it in, this need I had to use every word in the dictionary when – really – I could have said what I wanted to say in a much more compact way. I never believed them. I felt, very deeply, that I needed all these words, and I found it very hard to say things in a more concise way. Perhaps I felt that words were what I understood, and what I knew, which led me to use so many of them. Also, of course, I just loved words and I loved getting lost in writing – but the danger there, of course, is of really getting lost. Of using lots and lots of words, but not saying very much, or of writing yourself into a corner and realising you can’t finish the piece you’re working on. That has happened to me, so many times!

A story needs certain things to function, of course, and these rules apply to any story, no matter how long or short it is. It needs a narrative voice, and a character or characters. It needs an arc – i.e. a definable beginning, middle and end. It needs conflict or tension, it needs resolution. It needs drama, and normally it needs a crisis or turning point, wherein our narrator/protagonist/characters find themselves faced with a huge choice or decision, or forced into a dangerous or life-changing situation which will see their character strengths or weaknesses brought to the fore. So, how to do all this in (for example) thirty-one words? Well, this is what I did.

The competition (run by Alison Wells on her WordPress blog) used the words ‘The woods were silent, not even the twitter of a bird’, and we were asked to write a piece of ‘flash’ fiction (or short fiction), using either 31 words or 131 words based on the effect these words had on our imaginations – but not using those words exactly. I chose to use 31 words, and this is what I wrote:

“I dropped the gore-spattered rock. He wasn’t moving. Was it finally over? I tried to smile with a broken face, deafened by sudden silence. I spat at him, then stumbled away.”

In this tiny storylet, I did my best to create a narrative arc within the very constrained word count. My reasoning went something like this: By using the phrase ‘Was it finally over?’, the character creates a past – a shared past – with the person they have just killed. Clearly, to beat someone’s head in with a rock means their past has not been a happy one; also, the character tells us that their face is ‘broken’, meaning (perhaps?) that the dead person has hurt them. The fact that they stumble away at the end can be taken as a further indication that they’ve been hurt or attacked. I thought that by combining the character’s attempt to smile (in satisfaction? In relief?) and then showing them spitting at the dead character, I could express their anger and their deep hatred of one another. Of course, the story doesn’t tell us what their backstory is – we don’t know why they found themselves alone together, we don’t know what happened exactly to lead to this moment. That sort of detail is left up to the reader to provide, and as a reader I like that – I like being given the freedom to use my own imagination, too. I think that’s what flash fiction is all about – it’s very well named, because you’re describing a flash, or a pivotal moment, in the life of a character. The short word count is apt too, because these sort of moments, in real life as well as in fiction, don’t last very long; the roar of anger, the burst of hatred, the jolt of jealousy. These intense moments can be described very well using very few words.

If you’re stuck for inspiration, and you want to get your mind moving again, you could do worse than taking a phrase or an image out of the world around you and giving yourself 30 or 50 or 100 words to tell a story based on that phrase or image. It’s really difficult, but it gets your mind to focus with extreme clarity on the core of what a story is. Maybe, your flash fiction can become the heart of a longer story – perhaps it might be fleshed out into a longer piece, and you might find yourself with a novel on your hands. But, I think the beauty of flash fiction lies in just leaving it be, and allowing it to be what it is – something brilliant in a tiny package.

What do you think of what I managed to do in my 31 words – if you were to take up this challenge, what would you write?

An Untimely Note

My day is ending, rather than beginning, but I haven’t been able to put a blog post up until now. It’s not that I didn’t have time, but I just… couldn’t. My head is in a strange place today. So, this post will perforce be brief. Maybe we could call it a Post-Ette.

Sometimes my life feels like this.

Sometimes my life feels like this.

Item the First: I’ve been nominated for a Next Big Thing Award twice in the last week (technically), once by Claire over at Written in Haste and once by Michelle at Michelle Proulx Official. (Thank you, ladies). I say ‘technically’ because Claire didn’t actually nominate me on her blog – she contacted me personally to ask if I’d do it, so I’ll count that as a nomination. Basically, this means I have to answer some questions about my Work in Progress, which is a bit scary; however, being nominated twice makes me think that Fate is at work, and I should probably just go for it. So, in the next few days I’ll get to that. You can hold your breaths… now!

Item the Second: my first proper attempt at writing a short story for children. My target audience is probably the average nine-year-old boy, so the story involves snot and other bodily fluids, aliens, and explosions. In fact, quite a lot happens for 1500 words! Hopefully, I’ll tweak this over the next few days; I want to submit it to a Children’s Literature magazine early in the new year, but only when it’s ready. I feel it’s an achievement for me to feel able to submit something to a magazine, so I’m quite pleased with myself on that front.

Item the Third: I had an entirely new idea today, one that wasn’t to do with my WiP or anything else I’ve been turning over in my mind lately. It’s historical (medieval, of course), based around an event that I’ve long had a fascination with, and one which I feel is rich with story potential. Like a lot of the lesser-known events in medieval history, it actually ended up having quite a large effect on the history of an entire country. However, for some reason it’s not considered a huge historical event in its own right, and so very few people know about it. These kind of nuggets from history are gold to a story-teller, so hopefully the bones of the story I’m thinking of will one day form the arc of a new tale.

Item the Fourth: I may not blog tomorrow, but hopefully I’ll be back on Friday. And – hopefully – I’ll be in a brighter frame of mind.

Avast! Enough nonsense. Have a wonderful Wednesday, and take good care of yourselves.