Writing, Flash Nano and a New Year’s Day Walk

A Happy New Year to you all, despite circumstances and the year that we have been through. It’s been challenging and very different. I thought I would begin by sharing some photos that I took on a walk yesterday, and by sharing some musings on writing and bring some hope for 2021.

Winter can look bleak when everything seems to die back and colours fade,

even though the shape and form of things can look striking,

but we know that spring is around the corner, and that colour will return and new growth will burst into life.

We know this because we know the seasons.

Not everything regrows and it will look different, but there will be beauty.

2020 was unknown and so much felt as though it had been lost and the colours faded.

There was so much change and it was all unknown, but 2021 will bring new life, just like the seasons.

The colours will return and there will be new growth. It won’t look the same, but all the new shoots will have overcome the challenges of winter.

In November of 2020 I began writing with a friend online twice a week, and I took up the challenge of Flash Nano (a branch of National Novel Writing Month).

It was incredibly motivating to have both the support and discipline of meeting with my writing buddy, and the focus of writing a piece of flash each day, often with the use of a writing prompt.

I wrote some of the shortest and longest pieces I have ever written and pushed myself to write around new topics in new styles. It was liberating and inspiring. Had it not been for the pandemic, and subsequently less meetings, I may not have started writing with my friend, and I might not have had the same focus to achieve a month of targeted writing.

I look forward to sharing some of these with you in my next collection. For now, I want to wish you health and happiness for 2021. Stay strong and keep going.

Flash Fiction Evening with David Gaffney and Tania Hershman

The Milton Keynes Literary Festival moved online this year, with a series of events for their autumn program, which culminated in a wonderful evening of flash fiction readings from David Gaffney and Tania Hershman and a Q&A session of questions from participants. Most, not easy to answer, but, as Tania mentioned, there are no rules. We talked about what flash fiction is, or what it might be, and about permission to leave things out, to be daring.

It was good to see familiar faces, and meet new ones. David Gaffney swept us up into the world of his clever graphic novel, The Three Rooms in Valerie’s Head, which began as a performance, based on several of his micro-fictions, and is the title of one of my favourite stories in his collection, More Sawn-Off Tales. In amongst this brilliant collection of 150 word stories, The Three Rooms in Valerie’s Head describes the men she hides in the cellar. “Sometimes she would bring three of four ex-boyfriends up from the cellar and arrange them into scenes – a trad-jazz band, or a dispute around a pool table – and she would move their jaws and make them speak in scratchy voices.” He draws us into the world of Valerie’s life of inept lovers and weird obsessions.

Thought-provoking lines from Everything’s West Of Something began, mid-action, with a vase flying through the air. “You can discover everything about your girlfriend by tossing a breakable object towards her.  Is she poised? Confident in her judgements? Does she seem willing to take responsibility for someone else’s actions? Is she comfortable with spontaneity? What is her attitude to risk, debt, transgression, sin, guilt? How does she experience the passing of time? Does she appear to believe in an afterlife? An interventionist god? Ghosts, fate, predestination?”

All Mod Cons was another wonderful reading, about Jake, who “invented a prescription glass windscreen for his car so that he could drive without wearing his corrective lenses. He enjoyed the feeling of freedom – no plastic pads digging into his nose – and it had the added advantage that car thieves couldn’t drive the vehicle unless they happened to have the same degree of myopia.”

We discovered the way that stories formed as he listened and observed details of every day life, with Potato Smiles evolving from an overheard conversation between a couple, where the woman had inadvertently been looking at the children’s menu, had never heard of potato smiles, and ended up ordering them with her steak! These are the nuggets of information that listeners savour, the moments that fuel and form a story.

He talked about inspiration drawn from Lydia Davis’ writing as a short story author. As he read a 150-word flash fiction piece about Eggborough Power Station, a slide show was projected on to the wall behind. This was a work of art in itself. The stories were varied, and, as always, utterly captivating. You can find David’s books at Salt and elsewhere.

Photo credit: Sarah-Clare Conlon

Tania Hershman treated us to readings from her collections, The White Road and Other Stories, My Mother Was an Upright Piano and Some of Us Glow More Than Others, as well as stories from many other places. She has an almost hypnotic style of reading, drawing you into a scene and holding you there, momentarily. Listen to her read a selection of work on SoundCloud. Her writing, often based on Science, is bold, quirky and gives a brutally honest insight into human nature and nature itself. Tania’s Science Journalism background, along with a Writer in Residence year in a lab, feeds into every fibre of her writing. She read two of my favourite stories:

Vegetable Mineral took us into some snappy and insightful dialogue, keeping us hooked to the end. “When you came back with the post, you held the letters out to me as if the red ink would burn through you like acid. ‘Let’s run away,’ I said. ‘Barbados, Brighton, Bermuda, Brooklyn.’ ‘Only B’s?’ you said, and slumped onto the couch. ‘Today is brought to you by the letter B,’ I said. ‘Animal,’ you said. ‘Domesticated?’ I said as I shoved the bills down the back of the armchair.’”

How to be Here, took us on a journey to a riverbank. “Hover, over exactly that spot on the river, half way between the locks and listen. After an hour, century or minute, land on this bank, wait, in long grasses and inhale.” Tania’s stories leave you clasping hold of the final few words, willing them to stay and tell you more. You can find Tania’s books on her page at Bookshop.org.

Sipping from an enviably beautiful cup, Tania answered questions about story length and how to balance narrative with dialogue. She talked about a 800 word story, which took two and a half years to write, and when asked about story length, we learned that David has been asked by editors to expand his work at times, whereas Tania often cuts down her writing, culling the words and reforming a story. Both talked about the feel and shape of a story, and felt that no two writers work the same way, and no two stories are created by any specific process. She discussed her hybrid writing, the freedom of form, and the idea of losing labels. We talked about the importance of permission to be freer with what you write, to take risks.

Photo credit: Tania Hershman

I have, by no means, covered all the stories we heard, but I hope this gives a flavour of the evening. A recording of the session will be available on YouTube within the next few weeks and I’ll add a link here for you to watch. Thank you to the Milton Keynes Literary festival for organising this event, and to Dave Wakely for chairing. Next time, we’ll all bring cake!

Kurt Vonnegut and the Myth of Talent

In over 50 years Kurt Vonnegut published fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of nonfiction, with further work published posthumously. He is most well know for writing Slaughterhouse-Five, which was published in 1969.

He had an interesting story about ability the myth of talent…

“When I was 15, I spent a month working on an archeological dig. I was talking to one of the archeologists one day during our lunch break and he asked those kinds of ‘getting to know you,’ questions you ask young people: Do you play sports? What’s your favorite subject? And I told him, no I don’t play any sports. I do theater, I’m in choir, I play the violin and piano, I used to take art classes.
And he went WOW. That’s amazing! And I said, ‘
‘Oh no, but I’m not any good at ANY of them.”
And he said something then that I will never forget and which absolutely blew my mind because no one had ever said anything like it to me before: ‘ I don’t think being good at things is the point of doing them. I think you’ve got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them.’
And that honestly changed my life. Because I went from a failure, someone who hadn’t been talented enough at anything to excel, to someone who did things because I enjoyed them. I had been raised in such an achievement-oriented environment, so inundated with the myth of Talent, that I thought it was only worth doing things if you could ‘Win’ at them.”

To Nano or Not

In November each year NaNoWriMo (National National Novel Writing Month) begins, with Flash Nano (Flash Fiction) also running for short writers of short fiction.

National Novel Writing Month formed in 1999 and began as a challenge between friends in the US to write 50,000 words of a novel in thirty days. It’s not a complete novel but it’s a start. Now, every year hundreds of thousands of writers sign up. NaNoWriMo supports writing fluency and education through various writing programs, and many novels have been formed through NaNoWriMo and been traditionally published – Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Hugh Howey’s Wool, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Jason Hough’s The Darwin Elevator, and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder.

Although I have mixed feelings and reservations about the concept (some say you can’t write a good book in a month, and that’s possibly true), but it’s also a good incentive, and it forces you to carve out time. For me, that’s often late at night or in snatched moments on rainy days. We’re all really busy, even with intermittent and partial or full lockdown. For those of you who read this in years to come, I’m talking about Covid-19. It was not a pretty time.

Here are some tips to get you started from Reedsy:

  • Find a story you absolutely love.
  • Understand what people like to read.
  • Come up with strong characters.
  • Write a single-sentence story concept before you start.
  • Consider writing a chapter-by-chapter outline.
  • Or plot only your most important scenes.
  • Research and “build the world” of your novel.

If you prefer to write short fiction, Nancy Stohlman runs the flash fiction nano, where the challenge is to write 30 flash pieces in 30 says. This is anything up to 1000 words, but can be much shorter.

SkyLightRain has some helpful tips on writing short fiction:

1. Form a vision of the story you’ll be aiming to tell, with the beginning already shaped in your mind. If possible, do the same for the ending. Having an idea of the finale you’re working towards will mean you’re far less likely to veer off track!

2. Spend some time considering your characters – working out who they are, how they think, what their goals are, how they might help or hinder each other.

3. Know your setting. This is one of my favourites, particularly if it offers a valid excuse to meander in a much loved wilderness or similar.

4. Pick out a few dramatic moments your plot will cover and brainstorm them, then set them aside. Whenever your enthusiasm wanes over the intensive NaNoWriMo period, treat yourself by delving into one of those to reinvigorate your writing energy.

5. Finally, make sure you have plenty of sustenance to hand. For me, the essentials are coffee and chocolate. What are yours?

Photo credit: Bell Beth Cooper

I write both flash fiction and novels and am seriously considering both, even though I really don’t have the time. If you sign up for either, or both, good luck and and leave a message in the comments to let us know how you get on. Sometimes, having a deadline really helps.