So When Are You Going To Write A Proper Book, Then?

I am pleased to welcome the Director of National Flash Fiction Day, Calum Kerr, for a guest post on the short fiction form. His new collection, Lost Property, brings together four brand new pamphlets of flash fiction, featuring Singsong, Soaring, Burning and Citadel. The collection contains 83 stories that move from the hilarious to the sinister and demonstrates the unique nature of ultra-short fiction.

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If you are a writer of flash-fiction, short-stories, possibly poetry and maybe even non-fiction, this is a question which may be familiar to you. The person posing the question might be a complete stranger, maybe at some reading or signing event, but is more likely to be a friend or even a relative. You proudly show them your collection of stories or poems, or your book on how to knit cartoon characters, learn economics or install a Linux system on your PC, and they glance through it, nod appreciatively, and then they work their way towards the question.

“So. Well done. This looks good, doesn’t it?” is the opening move.

“Yes. I’m very pleased with it. I think it’s come out very nicely,” is your response.

“Must have been a lot of work.”

“Yes. But enjoyable. Apart from the editing, ha ha…”

“Ha ha, yes.” They nod and look through the book again, then up at you. “So…” they start, and this is where you should stop them, because you know what’s coming next.

“It is a proper book. It has a cover. It has loads of words in it. I did research and everything. People will buy and read it – okay, not in JK Rowling numbers, maybe, but some of them. It has an ISBN number and can be bought from Amazon and those funny old places that people used to go into. You know, bookshops.” Is what you want to say. But you don’t. Instead you let them continue.

“So… when are you going to write a proper book, then?” they ask, and you somehow restrain yourself from swinging for them.

Because, of course, they don’t mean to say that your collection or non-fiction opus is not a ‘proper’ book. They mean ‘when are you going to write a novel’. That’s what it’s all about, after all, isn’t it? Collections of things are nice, but they’re just little stories or poems, not a good chunky page-turner. Non-fiction books are useful, but you don’t settle down on the sofa on an autumnal afternoon to read them. They live on shelves until you have occasion to reach for them. No, they’re talking about the All-Powerful Novel and the place it holds in the public imagination as the pinnacle of writing and the thing that every writer is surely aiming for.

And this is the problem for writers, especially of flash-fiction or short stories. Because each of the small parts looks inconsequential; trivial. There might be many of them, and they might make up a 200 page collection containing 60-70,000 words, but still, you can see the joins; you can see where the writer started and stopped. Not like the seamless flow of a novel (which was surely written in a single, sleepless week of endless typing). And, of course, you are writing prose fiction, so surely you must be working your way up from these little things to try and join the big boys with their ‘proper’ books.

Now, don’t get me wrong, many flash-fiction and short story writers do have aspirations to be novelists, or at least have found an idea coming to them which is too big to cover in just a few hundred or few thousand words, and so are working towards a much longer piece. But that does not mean that they have finally, in some indefinable way, graduated to the big leagues. They have not left behind their childish play with those tiny tales and taken the brave step to write longer. They are simply following their muse where it takes them, and sometimes your muse takes you longer.

But all of those same flash-fiction and short story writers who are dabbling in the world of novels, at least those I know, still love and respect the short form. They are not what we write because we can’t manage the long things. They are the things we write because there is a value to a short story or a flash-fiction, an intensity, a chance at experimentation, and a specific purpose that you simply can’t achieve in the novel.

We don’t write stories because we are waiting for our turn to write a ‘proper’ book. We write stories because they need to be written, and because we love what they can do that all of your ‘proper’ books can’t.

So next time someone looks at your collection of flashes, poems, or your non-fiction work and seems about to ask that fateful question, stop them, point to the cover and ask them: “So, when are you going to read a proper book, then?”

calum-200x180   Calum Kerr is a writer, editor, lecturer and director of National Flash-Fiction Day in the UK. He lives in Southampton with his wife – the writer, Kath Kerr – their son and a menagerie of animals. His new collection of flash-fictions, Lost Property, is now available from Amazon, or direct from the publisher, Cinder House.

Author Interview with Matt Haig

The Humans
From your experience of journalism, as well as novel writing, has one fed in to the other in any way?

Journalism teaches you to be economical with words. It tells you not to be too self-indulgent.

What do you most like to read and are there any books you have read recently that have stood out or changed you?

I read all kinds of stuff. I have been re-reading Graham Greene recently. I studied him at university. Did a whole module on him. I think, from the outside, my books are nothing like his, but I consider him my greatest influence.

What have been the most difficult things to write about and why?

There is some mathematics in my new novel, and I had to look like I knew what I was talking about, so I researched, and I quickly saw how so many mathematicians go crazy.

You have said that The Humans, your new book, is the one work you would most like to be remembered for. Although you have written several other books, what has given you confidence in this project in particular?

Because I totally cut loose. A part of me used to play the game. You know, I used to be trying to be highbrow, or taken seriously, and that somehow got in the way. With this, I knew it was probably going to be published whatever (as my last book did quite well) so I just went for it. Comedy, science-fiction, sentimentality – all those illegal things.

What advice would you give to new writers on their path to publication?

Be brutal with your writing. Don’t let yourself have it easy. And then be persistent, and thick-skinned, for everything that follows.

What do you enjoy doing outside writing and reading?

Being with my kids, toast and peanut butter, running, holidays. I am not into fancy things, but I am into fancy holidays.

If you could meet any well-known figure, living or dead, who would it be and why?

Emily Dickinson, without a doubt. Amazing mind, intriguing person. She’d be too shy to open her front door though, so that’d be a problem.

Matt Haig

Matt has written novels, screenplays, children’s novels and worked as a journalist, collaborating with The Guardian, The Sunday Times and The Independent. He has won a range of awards, including the Yorkshire Young Achievers ‘Achievement in the Arts’ Award in 2009, and his novels have been translated into 29 languages. The film rights for his first novel, The Last Family in England (2004), have been sold to Brad Pitt’s production company. His previous novel, The Radleys, won an ALA Alex Award in America, has been shortlisted for the Portico prize and nominated for the Carnegie Medal. It won the TV Book Club Summer Read. He was born in Sheffield, Yorkshire in 1975. Since then he has lived in Nottinghamshire, Ibiza and London. He studied English and History at Hull University and then did an MA at Leeds, and now lives in York with author Andrea Semple and their two children.

www.matthaig.com

The Darker Side of Life: Reality and Fiction

crime scene

I was planning to write a specific post for today until I read the news this morning. I was horrified by the graphic nature of the news that a baby had been flushed down a public and filthy toilet in China. Although this is not the first time it has happened, this seems particularly horrific because of the fact that the baby was alive and had sustained a fractured skull. The weakened cry as it was eventually cut free reduced me to tears. I won’t add a link as not everyone will want to watch, but the video and images are all over the news so you won’t need to look far to find it.

I don’t cry easily so it took me by surprise. I still feel a sense of grief over the complete abandonment of the mother. Although I know that life has elements of evil (look no further than the recent and brutal Woolwich killing), and that humans are fallible, and sometimes mentally ill or disturbed, or just desperate, but my response made me think hard about the difference between the darker side of life in reality and in fiction.

Take Me to the Castle, my debut, was a literary historical fiction novel, set within the framework of the politics of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. One of the earliest books, which totally gripped me was John Buchan‘s The Thirty Nine Steps. I was given it with a collection of other penguin books in my early teens and the suspenseful journey through Scotland’s wild moors of Richard Hannay, who is on the run from the police after finding a dead body in his flat, kept me turning the pages at breakneck speed. It inspired in me a love of suspense in a good story. I have recently read quite a few crime and literary crime fiction/psychological suspense novels, and I have pondered the difference between the world you inhabit in a book and the world that you wake up in every day.

With fiction there are usually rules and expectations with certain types of books. You look at the cover, the genre, the author and the blurb, and it gives you a hint of what to expect. If you read chick lit novels and do not like horror, you might avoid books with darker covers and bold print. If you enjoy sci-fi and do not like literary fiction, you might avoid the pastel covers with possibly a booker prize winning author’s name across the front. These are crude and basic descriptions but you can see what I’m getting it. Readers come to a book with expectations. They do not expect a gruesome death in a romance novel or a historical drama in a dystopian book. There are, of course, genre cross-overs and new authors breaking the rules and these are continuing to increase. Agents and editors use the term, ‘genre-bending’ to describe these books.

In fiction the darker side of a story is contained within a world with defined boundaries and, although you can become completely absorbed in that particular world, you emerge with the knowledge that the events are fictional and are not directly related to your life. With the exception of fiction novels set within the framework of specific times in history, a fiction novel is just that: FICTION. It’s effects are deep but are limited to the confines of the world the author has created.

In life, the reality of crime and the darker aspects of human nature have no boundaries. The news seems increasingly more shocking and gruesome, although much of this is down to the changing nature of journalism. It would seem that our world is growing increasingly colder and more dangerous, from the point of view of what we read in the press. My husband, however, who is a crime specialist in the field of research and policy, assures me that the world is becoming a statistically safer place. The global homicide rates are lower now than they have ever been. I won’t quote sources as that is his arena, but the issue of what I saw this morning reminds me that the darker side of life in reality does not hold the boundaries that we see in fiction and is often much harder to deal with.

The framework that exists within fiction (as a safety net for some readers) is not apparent in life and the shocking news that we read about often leaves us with deeper fears than the books that we choose to read.

Photo credit: http://www.officialpsds.com