David Gaffney and writing flash

David Gaffney judged the inaugural RW Flash Fiction Prize in 2016. I had the chance to question him about his writing process and what he loves about flash fiction, or short-shorts.

Nicholas Royle said you’re one of the few British writers that’s mastered the very short form – what is it that attracts you to writing flash fiction?

I came to short-short fiction at a time when I was writing a novel and like most novel writers I was frustrated by the lack of a sense of completion at the end of every writing day. The first few short-shorts I wrote gave me that. I like the way it relates to poetry, the way every word is weighed, tested, interviewed and screened before it is allowed anywhere near a short-short fiction. But I also like the way, unlike poetry, it is restricted – you need a clear POV, a clear, usually linear structure, and you need things that happen one after the other, and an ending. A good short-short should be an infected, contagious thing that will insinuate itself into your metabolism and stop you in your tracks forever.

I think there can be a misconception that because they’re so short flash fictions can just be dashed off and sent out really quickly. Typically how long will you spend writing, editing and polishing a flash fiction?

Good short-short fiction cannot be dashed off quickly. Many of my short-shorts began as longer pieces, carefully edited, even at the long version stage, and then reduced down to essential components. Many short-shorts are thrown away all together, into the digital slush pile to fester and maybe one day find a life of their own by crawling out and living in the sewers. I spend a long time on short-shorts and often I leave them for months and years and then return to them, to see if, like a sickly but interesting firework, they might still be fizzing and worth resurrecting.

Which flash fiction writers work do you admire and why?

I like Tania Hershman – look at her short-short Plaits and you’ll see how a whole novel of ideas can be articulated in a few hundred words. I like Etgar Keret, and Richard Brautingham, and I like the prose poet Charles Simic. Joe Daly, of Bad Language fame, has written some of the best short-shorts you’ll hear performed anywhere, and another current practitioner, Simon Sylvester, has a lot to offer, as has Sarah-Clare Conlon. The literature organisations Flashtag and Bad Language, both based in Manchester, are well worth keeping an eye on for new short-short fiction.

What advice can you give to writers working on flash fiction that will help them make sure they produce compelling, whole stories that have an emotional impact?

For me the biggest mistake new writers of short-shorts make is working on a premise rather than on a story. Because you are working in such a short format and possibly need to use a hundred or so words to introduce the set-up, sometimes that set-up becomes the story with a punchline attached. I would always throw away the premise part – the set-up – and then come up with a story.

It might be enigmatic, and sometimes difficult to understand, but in the end it makes for a resonant piece that the reader will poke at and worry about for a long time. Sometimes a good short-short is like a brilliant third act; you’re never going to the see the first two sections, but those two acts exist somewhere, lurking in the writer’s mind or even on his laptop. A good flash is like the cast of the inside of a story – as if Rachael Whiteread has poured concrete into the interior and then thrown the outside away.

***

Many thanks, David. Excellent advice around the third act.

 

Guest Blog: Toni Jenkins on random acts of kindness

Today’s guest blog comes from novelist, Toni Jenkins, who hails from New Zealand and now lives in Edinburgh. Her debut novel, The Sender, came out last summer and it’s a story about being kind…

 

Imagine if every single person on the planet carried out a random act of kindness every day. What a wholly different world we would live in! All over the world millions of people contribute daily to the lives of others with small or large gestures, often with no idea of the consequences. The person paying extra in a café for a homeless person to have a hot drink may never see their gesture materialise. Donating money to charity may mean you never see the person or people that it helps. But whether it can be pinned on a particular person or not, every act of kindness is a bar of gold.

We know from certain stories picked up by the media that phenomenal results can occur. To take one example, in 2015 Katie Cutler set up a fundraising page in response to the horrific mugging of Alan Barnes, a man she had never met but whose story touched her. Her intention was to raise £500 to give to him but within days the donations totalled £300,000. Eventually, Alan was able to buy a new house and Katie went on to establish her own charity, raising money for others in difficult situations. What happened was The Butterfly Effect, where a small act can have enormous consequences. This was all possible due to one idea from one person and the kindness of thousands snowballing it out of all foreseen proportion. Not every act of kindness will grow to this level. But every kind act is just as worthy, nonetheless.

For a long time I’ve wanted to write a novel based on the premise of “paying it forward”. Life is so busy that we often forget how a simple smile or an offer to carry a shopping bag or a handwritten Thank you card can mean so much. Acts of kindness don’t have to cost money or even that much time. And we don’t know what lies behind people’s eyes or front doors – how they may be fighting loneliness or depression, financial stress, serious illness or familial breakdowns. An oak door with brass numbers on a tree-lined street may be hiding identical problems to a woodchip door with painted numbers in a council flat. Every one of us faces the challenges of living in the modern world.

With this in mind, the idea for the plot and the development of the diverse characters for my novel all came together, and last year The Sender was published. The story follows the journey of a mysterious and inspiring unsigned card, interconnecting the lives of four women from different backgrounds and cities who are all facing unique adversities. The card instructs each woman to hold it in their possession for six months before choosing another woman in need of its empowering quality to send it to, and invites them all to meet in Edinburgh two years from the date of its inception. The card seems to hold an extraordinary quality that helps the women face their challenges head-on, though none of them can imagine who the anonymous sender is or why they were the chosen ones.

This is a story based on one small act of sending a card to someone facing a personal crisis and asking them to do the same to others. It shows just how big a little gesture can be.

‘Sometimes,’ said Pooh, ‘the smallest things take up the most space in your heart.’ A.A. Milne and Winnie the Pooh so wisely stated this long ago but it is far from outdated and, hopefully, never will be.

***

Thanks for your uplifting and heartwarming blog, Toni. It can often seem that the world is a heartless place but I truly believe that there are stories everywhere of everyday kindness if we just stop to look.

You can buy a copy of The Sender here; find find out more about Toni on her website.

 

Guest Blog: JM Hewitt on getting published

Delighted to have JM Hewitt, aka Jeanette, as my guest today. She’s been a strong contender in the Retreat West competitions and has just had her first crime novel published. She’s here talking about that experience and the book, which is set in Chernobyl. 

 

My debut crime fiction novel, Exclusion Zone, was released a couple of weeks ago. The days running up to the release were among the strangest I’ve experienced. I was nervous, in fact I was terrified. It’s all well and good sitting alone and writing a novel and there’s a glow of pleasure when the publishing offer comes through, but it’s a whole different ballgame when it is actually released onto the reading public.

What if it’s terrible? What if there’s some giant error that has slipped through the net? What if it doesn’t make sense? When I got word from the publisher that it was up on Amazon for sale I froze. I wanted to hold on to the general feeling of safety for a little while longer, but I tentatively contacted a very good friend who is a wonderful book blogger going by the name of Crime Book Junkie. She had been responsible for my cover reveal, and her natural enthusiasm and kindness made me take the leap of faith to tell the world that my book birthday had arrived.

It was then a case of playing the waiting game again, but on Wednesday I was checking it on Amazon, and I suddenly realised that the book was at number 156 in the International Mystery and Crime category. That was a stunning moment, it meant people were actually buying it, and then, when I woke up the next day to find it was at number 50, well, I couldn’t ask for much more. In the days following I’ve had my first four stars rating on Goodreads and two people have described it as “gripping”. So at the moment I feel that I can let myself breathe a little.

Exclusion Zone is a crime thriller based in Chernobyl and the research on this abandoned place has been absolutely fascinating. I didn’t want to let it go, and luckily, as I’ll be appearing at a few book festivals and events this year I didn’t have to. As 2016 is the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster I’ll be incorporating the facts in my presentations.

The more I delve into Chernobyl, the more it grabs me. One thing I keep talking about is the parallels between what was a man-made disaster and the subsequent effect it has had on the wildlife. Deserted Chernobyl is now effectively the largest nature reserve in the world. Undisturbed by human, animal has thrived. There’s been little detrimental health issues with them too, which is super interesting.

Of course, Exclusion Zone is also a crime thriller, and this was my first foray into the criminal world. I knew my protagonist was Alex Harvey, a private detective in his mid-thirties, I’d been building him in my mind for a long time. Alex is a loner, a playboy, somewhat flashy and money-orientated. And it’s the promise of a €30,000 retainer that tempts him to take on a job in the wilderness of Chernobyl.

My female lead is nineteen year old Elian Gould. She is the polar opposite to Alex; she has few friends, doesn’t care about money or material worth and prefers to stay under the radar. Inevitably when these two unlikely people are thrown together, well, let’s just say there are sparks!

My other characters have stayed with me too, how can they not? A writer doesn’t just write about these guys, we live and breathe them for many months or years. We learn how they would think, feel, react and live. And Exclusion Zone has many colourful characters. One of my favourites is a secondary character called Sol. He was never planned, but he popped up and before I knew it he had a whole life laid out on the pages. Luckily, I don’t have to let them go, at least not yet.

Exclusion Zone is the first in the Detective Alex Harvey series and I’ve already started work on the sequel in which Alex and a few others from Exclusion Zone appear. I don’t know how far this series will go, but I can say with certainty it will definitely be at least a trilogy.

In another strange parallel, my partner (who is responsible for the design of promotional items, sponsorship, and technology in the way of websites and all things computer-y as well as providing good old fashioned support) and I have been invited to Kiev by the guys who run Chernobyl Tour (www.chernobyl-tour.com). Once there I’ll be giving a talk on the book and its origins in a university and a bookstore. In return we will also get to go on the actual Chernobyl tour, which promises to be an ‘eye-opening experience of a post-Apocalyptic world’.

And when I mention this, I can’t help but think of Exclusion Zone, and how Alex and Elian went into Chernobyl and what happened there, and I sincerely hope that it won’t be a case of life imitating art…

***

Thanks so much for your guest blog, Jeanette. As the launch of my debut novel approaches, I completely get the fear you talk about here! I’m looking forward to reading this book and the ones that follow in the series. Stay safe in Chernobyl!

If you’d like to win a signed copy of Exclusion Zone, leave a comment below telling us why you’d like to read it. I’ll pick a winner using the random number generator on 12th March 2016. 

If you’re not lucky enough to be the winner, then you can buy a copy here

FREE DRAW UPDATE: The random number generator picked number 3 so the winner of the free signed copy of Exclusion Zone is Bonnie McCulloch – congratulations Bonnie!

Retreat changes and cancellations

The very sad and shocking news that Bob Cooper at Retreats for You has passed away means that the Literary Fiction retreat with MJ Hyland that was planned for May has had to be cancelled.

I am hoping to find new venues for the Short Story Retreat and the Urbane Weekender. More info will be announced soon.

My sincere condolences and love to Deb and her family. Bob will be greatly missed by everyone who was lucky enough to know him.

Author Interview: Jackie Buxton on Tea and Chemo

A big welcome to Jackie Buxton today, who’s been talking very frankly to me about her memoir, Tea and Chemo, which was recently published by Urbane Publications, and life after a cancer diagnosis.

This tale of Jackie’s treatment for breast cancer is a great read and all of the royalties are being donated to the three breast cancer charities that helped her, and many other women like her, during treatment. So please buy a copy! You can get one here direct from the publisher, or here through Amazon.

Jackie, despite the subject matter, your memoir about undergoing treatment for breast cancer is funny, uplifting and inspiring yet you talk in it about ‘The Fear’ that grips you sometimes. How do you keep yourself focused on the positives when the fear shows up?

I’m so pleased you saw all that in Tea & Chemo, Amanda. I wanted the book to be informative but positive so it’s wonderful to hear it described in this way. It seems to me that The Fear affects all cancer patients to a greater or lesser degree after treatment. It’s a sort of disbelief that the body which was caught napping when cancer called the first time, won’t get caught out again.

When you’re having active treatment, you’re invincible. Those operations to cut away the cancer are major surgery. If chemo makes you feel that bad, pah! pity those cancer cells. And then there’s radiotherapy, don’t be fooled by the pain free element and speed of implementation, that’s a big dose of radiation in your body. And then it all stops and suddenly, you, the ex-cancer patient, can feel very small and insipid in the fight to keep cancer from calling again.

Also, once active treatment finishes, aside from check-ups and ongoing medication, you are sent away to live your life – but with the voice of the medical profession constantly tapping in your ear: Be vigilant! Check for new lumps and bumps and get aches and pains checked out. So, as an ex-patient, on the one hand you’re trying to be rational and finally push the cancer thing to the back of your mind, on the other, you know that you are the first line of defence in spotting a new cancer forming or secondaries growing. It’s hard not to over-analyse and to let The Fear become all-consuming.

So, how do I cope with The Fear? That’s a great question! I think I batter it into submission with a hefty dose of logic, distraction and action. There are some questions to which nobody knows the answers, such as whether the cancer will come back, if secondaries are silently forming and for me, without any history of breast cancer in my family, whether my genetic make-up is nonetheless of the cancer forming kind and worse, have I developed a dodgy gene which I will pass on to my children?

The best I can do when these questions rear their awful heads, is to preach to myself what the brilliant medical profession has taught me. Cancer is the result of a perfect storm – all of the body’s defence systems have to be found wanting at the same time for a ‘bad cell’ to become cancerous, mutate and conquer. And I remind myself that for now, and that’s all we can deal with, I am one of the lucky ones because my treatment aim was cure without secondaries and other complications.

This generally works.

Otherwise, manic busy-ness is wonderful for distracting me. It’s really hard to dwell on the unknown when having fun with friends and family, when children need to be picked up simultaneously from opposite ends of Yorkshire, the spreadsheets don’t tally, a class starts in twenty minutes and my next deadline is one hundred pages and a week away. I am certainly someone who is happiest and most carefree when they are busy.

Sometimes The Fear might need addressing and so I take action forthwith. I used to be a little slap happy with my health. I’d have a headache for a few days before being bothered to walk to the medical box to find a couple of paracetamol, would deprive myself of sleep to meet a deadline and would make an appointment for my children to see the doctor when the request had barely left their lips whereas weeks would go by before I picked up the phone for myself.

Now I’m different. If there’s any chance of a sluggish, pit of the stomach sort of fear staying around, then I drop what I’m doing and get on and book an appointment with my long suffering GP practice. I am lucky because all the doctors there, without exception, are very, very understanding of the fact that when you’ve had cancer, every head ache means it’s gone to the brain. Every stomach ache means it’s made its way into your ovaries. Stiff legs and achy joints you say? No matter that you’ve just run twenty miles, swum the channel and ridden a bike (upside down) this can only be a sign of one thing: bone mets (secondary breast cancer in the bones). I joke but it feels seriously real at the time.

And you know, time helps. It’s two years on from diagnosis and I now recognise that I can get a cold, like anyone else, and it’s just a cold.

You said you wrote this book as you’d wanted to find one like it when you were diagnosed – what do you hope it will bring to other women who have to undergo treatment for breast cancer?

When I was diagnosed with cancer in December 2013, I found that there was a wealth of really well-written information about a cancer diagnosis and its treatments. However, I struggled to find much about how it would feel; what it was really like to go through treatment for cancer – emotionally, as well as physically. I also never read anywhere that it might be OK, bearable, even almost pleasant.

The morning spent in hospital being administered my chemo, for example, was thoroughly pleasant. It didn’t hurt, the nursing staff as well as being fantastically efficient and reassuring were also really good fun and while I was unable to go to work put on the washing, cook dinner… I read books, chatted, drank tea and ate sandwiches which other people had made for me. It would be churlish of me to pretend that the time wasn’t fun and hugely relaxing – and that was something I didn’t find written down anywhere.

I hope Tea & Chemo emphasises the lighter side of cancer and its treatments. I hope my experience and learning along the cancer road will help inform people further back in the process than me, but also leave them with the lasting impression that, if we’re lucky, the experience isn’t all bad.

If there was one thing you could go back and tell yourself in the week before your diagnosis what would it be?

Please can I have two?

  • You’re going to be one of the lucky ones: your treatment aim is cure.
  • You will survive the artery bleed after the mastectomy operation.

Ummm, three? Don’t try to keep your freelance work going during treatment. Enjoy the time when you feel well, and indulge yourself when you don’t! You’ll be back working full time soon enough.

Aside from your memoir, you also have your debut novel coming out in June 2016 – can you tell us a bit about that?

Glass Houses is about two women who make stupid mistakes and the massive ramifications not just for their lives but for those close to them. It’s about people in glass houses not throwing stones. It’s also about how if we smash up our lives, however hard we try to stick them back together again, they will never look the same as they did before. And maybe, just maybe this might not be such a bad thing.

Glass Houses is contemporary fiction so it’s a very different read to Tea & Chemo but I hope that there’s a similarity in that it tackles dark themes with a light touch.

***

Thanks so much for your time and honesty, Jackie. I look forward to reading your novel. Glass Houses will be published by Urbane Publications on June 9th 2016 and is available to pre-order from Amazon.

January 2016 Themed Flash Competition Results

Thanks to everyone that entered the first new themed competition for January. I really enjoyed reading all of the entries and the quality of writing was excellent.  I’m delighted to announce the first winners of the year are…

1st Place: First Time by Fiona Mackintosh

I loved how this story just jumped and crackled off the page with life, joy and hope. The imagery and sensory detail were done so well that I could taste the vinegar and feel the sea wind. A huge achievement in under 150 words.
Read It

 

Runner-Up: A Fresh Start by Fiona Kyle

This impressed me for how it took a story that initially seemed so full of hope and turned it into something so sad but never melodramatic. The repetition of the title in the opening and the closing lines is very poignant.
Read It

 

The Shortlisted Stories

  • Begin Anew by Ani Popova
  • Morning has broken by Emmaleene Leahy
  • They said it would be a better life by Cath Barton
  • The Great Escape by Sonya Oldwin
  • Beginnings by Clare Dalkin
  • Gooseyfoot by Sheila Blackburn
  • The Weight by TL Sherwood

Many congratulations to everyone who made the shortlist. The next theme is Vanity. Send your stories by 28th February to be in with a chance of getting cash prizes and published on the website.  Enter here.