Why Black Swans Make for Great Stories

In 1696, Willem de Vlamingh, a skipper for the Dutch East India Co., was sent from his native Holland to Australia to look for survivors of a ship thought to have been wrecked on the continent’s west coast. Despite all his efforts, he never found the vessel or any of its crew but he did come across something else: the presence of black swans.  Many strange and exotic species were being discovered in these uncharted territories at the time but this sighting was of particular importance, for up to this point in history it was thought that only white swans existed. So adamant was this belief that a popular proverb had circulated in Europe since the Roman satirist Juvenal wrote in 82 AD : rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno ( a rare bird in the lands, and very like a black swan). This term was used ironically, in the same way that today we talk of pigs flying or pink elephants. The black swan was a metaphor for all that could not exist, until of course, due to an intrepid sailor, the impossible became possible. Once this happened the term’s meaning transformed: the black swan became a symbol of the improbable. In these times Corona Virus is seen as a black swan.

But what has this got to do with writing Flash Fiction? Well, quite a lot actually. The improbable, the random, the unexpected are what drive stories. If we followed a character that went about his or her daily business without a deflection of any kind we wouldn’t muster much narrative tension or impetus but when we lift that character out of certainty, introduce a glitch, a challenge to the status quo, then we assert enough pressure on them to reveal something insightful to the reader.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The Black Swan, The Impact of the Highly Improbable, and his subsequent books, his latest being Skin in the Game explores this idea by looking at how society deals with seemingly random happenings and suggests ways to make our world black-swan-robust, in other words a society where we reduce the impact of events such as the market crash of 1987, or CV-19 and exploit the positive ones such as the internet.

Taleb defines the phenomena as something that:

  1. is a surprise to the observer,
  2. has an impact on their life,
  3. but with hindsight could have been expected.

These three criteria mirror closely the ingredients that a story moves through – conflict (surprise), deflection (impact) and resolution. The last condition is particularly interesting; this idea that the event was predictable. From the relative privilege of retrospection, we can work out the reason why wars start, why empires collapse, why economies crash. Often, the mark of a successful story is how, when looking back over the series of actions and choices the character has undergone, the outcome feels inevitable. With hindsight we say ‘of course!’ rather than ‘where did that come from’?

Whereas in the real world we strive to reduce the impact of negative black swan events, as writers we want to harness their power. Of course, this is Flash and whatever surprise we present the observer/character, it has to be kept to scale so here’s an exercise[1] in Black Swan generation:

Start with a character immersed in their daily routine and have them find a physical object which threatens their status quo either physically or emotionally. Keep the setting small – a room, the car, the garden shed, a cupboard. The object should create a strong reaction in the character, strong enough to change the course of their trajectory within the scene you have placed them in and act as a conduit to reveal something meaningful to both the protagonist and the reader. For example, a woman racked with remorse for an affair she had years ago, finds an earring in her husband’s sock drawer. And of course the outcome needs to fit within the whole; however slight or subtle, every twist and turn of the action must support the ending.

This idea of randomness and uncertainty can help in the creative process of writing itself. Much of the art of storytelling involves making connections between details that don’t seem to have any link. It is the tension created in this process that causes the reader to think “I must know how this is resolved.” If you are struggling for inspiration try developing a story combining a character from one of your story ideas with a predicament or setting from another. This may be enough to produce that single and interesting rare action that will push your character and story deeper. If you are at a loss for a seed idea, use a plot generator site (there are a variety of them on the web) for the same reason.

And remember that creativity thrives in the impossible. What you might think is difficult to achieve today will no-doubt become possible in the future and that includes producing a crafted and original work of flash fiction. So persist and you too will create your own positive Black Swan.

Join Amanda and myself for a weekend of interactive, supportive flash writing April 17th -19th. Then we have a 2 weekend memoir-in-flash course May 8th – 10th and May 15th – 17th. We then have a month of wonderful prompts for the whole month of June! More details here: https://www.retreatwest.co.uk/online-writing-courses/

Mary-Jane Holmes has work included in The Best Small Fictions Anthology in 2016, 2018 and 2020. Her microfiction has recently been included in Best Microfictions 2019. A twice nominated Forward Prize nominee and Hawthornden Fellow, Mary-Jane has won the Bridport, Martin Starkie, Dromineer, Reflex Fiction and Mslexia prizes, and International Bedford Poetry competition as well as being shortlisted and commended for many more including the Beverley International Prize for Literature 2020, The Troubadour and Oxford Brookes Poetry prize. She was long-listed for the National Poetry Prize this year. Mary-Jane’s debut poetry collection Heliotrope with Matches and Magnifying Glass is published by Pindrop Press. She enjoys teaching creative writing both online and in person (when possible) around the world. She holds an Mst (distinction) in Creative Writing from Kellogg College Oxford and is currently working on a PhD at Newcastle University. @emjayinthedale  www.mary-janeholmes.com

[1] Adapted from Michelle Brook’s Rattlesnake In The Drawer writing exercise

 

New comp: Win flash writing courses and writing maps

It’s been a while since we had a one-off comp to win a place on our courses so here we are with a new one! We’ve also got some gorgeous Writing Maps as a prize too.

What can you win?

  • 1st Prize: A place on the group online Fantastic Flashing Course (3-16th June 2019)
  • 2nd Prize: The start anytime work alone online Fantastic Flashing Course
  • 3rd Prize: 2 Writing Maps – The Description Writing Map and The Voice and Point of View Writing Map
  • All winning stories get published on the website.

 

Who chooses the winner?

Amanda Saint – novelist, short fiction writer, creative writing tutor and publisher at Retreat West.

How do you win?

You write something of course! Send us your flash stories from the prompt.

What is the prompt?

This picture:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s the word limit?

Max 300 words. No minimum.

What’s the deadline?

23.59 on 28th April 2019

What’s the entry fee?

£6

How do you enter?

Through Submittable using this button:

Enter the comp

 

We look forward to reading your submissions!

 

Author Interview: CM Taylor on writing within theme, Brexit and his new novel Staying On

It’s great to have CM Taylor back on the blog on publication day for his new novel, Staying On. I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of this and I stayed up half the night to find out what would happen. It’s a funny and very moving (I cried!) story of a family that needs to face up to its past – a situation that’s brought to a head when Brexit comes along and their life in Spain no longer seems quite so sunny.

Craig, in the teaching you do, theme is a crucial element in guiding the story and the theme for me that came through strongly in Staying On is guilt and culpability. How it manifests, the twisted nature of it that makes people believe different things about the same situation. What made you want to explore this theme in this novel?

Shouldn’t a book in the final instance be about something – have a take on the world, an angle, something to say about how people are, how the world is? That’s what strong theme gives you.

One of the things I write and teach about is the idea that narrative art maps human change, and that characters in stories move from the denial and repression of certain feelings, into the awareness and exploration of those feelings, and then on to acting on them – either positively or negatively.

When you say there’s a strong element of guilt and culpability in the book, it’s true, and that to me is part of character development and theme, of how character carries theme across story, beginning with denial, (“It wasn’t me.” “That’s not how it was.” “It didn’t happen.” “I haven’t got a problem.” “There’s nothing to see here.”), moving into flashes of light, (“Maybe there is a problem.” “Maybe I did do something wrong.” “Maybe there is something I need to look at.”), then into acceptance or conscious surfacing, (“God, I do have an issue here.” “There is something I need to look.” “Maybe I did do something wrong.”), and on into being galvanised, (“I really do need to apologise.” “I really do need to make that clear.” “I do really need to tell the truth.”).

People use denial as self-protection. People lie to themselves about the things which are hardest to entertain. But denial has consequences. If you lie to yourself about one thing it seeps over into other things and leads to moral corruption. As Saul Bellow wrote: “Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining.” Denial surfaces elsewhere in many negative ways, it squirts out hot and sideways into anger, addiction, failed intimacy, extreme competitiveness, self-harm.

I don’t think that this gap between how different characters see things, or the gap between how a character sees things and how it really was, is necessarily just a theme of this novel, I think it’s a part of every character for me, because it’s part of this journey from denial and repression to acceptance and action. Human change has a pattern and self-deceit is part of that pattern. Guilt is an aspect of repression, and accepting your culpability is a stage on the road to accepting the world as it is.

One of your main characters, Tony, is adept at not saying the things that really matter and putting a brave face on things. Never letting people know what’s really going on behind that bright surface. Did you know when you set out how things would turn out for Tony or did he take you places you hadn’t planned?

As above, Tony – as with us all – is on a journey from repression and denial to (ideally) expression and health. Crucial with Tony on his particular journey is his generation, which is that post-war generation, brought up in a world where emotional connection was scarce and rationed. Imagine being a kid where most adults around you had PTSD and didn’t even know it. Jesus. Decode that. And many of that generation, those post-war babies, tend towards the stoic and repressed. They’re very non-presumptive. Or they can be.

So Tony’s particular brand of suppression is influenced by that generation. That’s in the mix, but then it’s also just him. I know lots of older people, volubly acting out their fear and confusion at the world through anger and nostalgia, but then I also know a lot of older people, like Tony, who radically suppress their own needs – sublimating their impulses and being less clamorous, living for other people. I find it beautiful and generous. That said – and this is the rub of Tony’s dilemma – there come points in life where you need to say, “No. I need something here. I need sustenance and nourishment. I can’t suppress my own needs all the time.”

And that’s Tony’s dilemma, a modest, sweet guy who’d always put himself second, who urgently must realise that if he puts himself second again, then there’s going to be none of him left. That’s hard. Especially when you have no skills, no practice in putting yourself first, and all the social and emotional grooves in your life run against it, run for decades against what you now must do.

All that is in the mix with Tony. I knew he was repressing, and I knew what he was repressing, and I knew that it would have to blossom for him to have his emotional denouement, but I didn’t necessarily know how that was going to happen. I knew the suppression but not the expression. He had that wriggle room.

Tony’s story of dealing with a failing business alongside family dramas is told with humour and at the same time is also very moving, it is sad and hopeful and funny and melancholy, and really very true about what it is to be human today. As writers, this is something we all aspire to achieve in the novels we write so what advice can you give to the readers of the blog on how they can create such compelling narratives within what appears to be, on the surface, just an everyday story of a family.

Stay right behind the eyes of your characters and process what events mean for them. There are high stakes in everyone’s life. Success, failure, love, rejection, hope, desire. Are people going to get what they want? Are they going be rejected and not get what they want? Are they going to learn or keep making the same mistakes?

The trick to making an ostensibly everyday story compelling is to dwell on the internal, on the emotional stakes at play. The word, “No,” might be a single word of dialogue externally, but internally it might mean, “Everyone always says no to me.” Or it might mean, “I am never going to get what I want.” Or it might mean, “Right, I had enough of people saying no and now I’m on the march.”

The key to rendering everyday situations into dramatic material is to dwell behind the eyes of the protagonist of the scene, to show the emotional stakes, and to show at what point this person is in the development from repression and denial to expression – to show how does the moment charge that journey. Does it crush them into further repression? Push them over into expression and self-activation?

What is at stake? How does it move the journey? Find that and you have found drama.

With Brexit coming very soon this is a very timely story but the politics of the situation are largely irrelevant in this family’s life as they face up to the past in order to discover if they can have a happier future. Do you think despite the large role politics plays in the collective psyche, mainly due to the way it’s presented in the media, that this is true for us all. That it’s the human stories that go on irrelevant of what the politicians are doing, that really matter to people? 

Well Brexit gets things going, because the book is about a British expat couple in Spain who wonder if they might get kicked out. One of them, Laney, wants to stay in Spain, and one of them, Tony, wants to go home to England. And Brexit puts pressure on that, because Tony is emboldened from his meekness by the situation with Brexit, whereas with Laney her reasons for wanting to stay now appear more flimsy and unlikely. So, the larger political situation acts as a trigger for the internal repressions of the main characters, plus it brings to the surface the subterranean conflicts locked into their marriage. It brings things to the boil.

As to whether it is more human stories that really matter to people, well the book-reading public is a broad church, and political non-fiction is selling well, while political fiction – which is hard to do without coming across as hectoring or didactic – can sometimes do well. So, I think some people want work which is in-tune to the internal verities of love and relationships and self-development, whereas others seek more politically-attuned work. Personally, I want both.

But a strong aspect of the art of the novel is its ability to offer a sense of human closeness, and I strongly wanted to tell a personal story about Brexit, away from the headlines and the slogans and the politicians, to show how normal folk trapped in a normal situation were being affected by a broader political situation, and how crucially it mapped onto issues with their own pasts, and their own relationships. So, yes, I focused on the personal, the internal, because I believe that is the strongest suit of the art of the novel. Though as I say above, seminal political fiction has been written – it is just most obtrusively political fiction is sophomore and partisan and dull.

Now that Tony and Laney’s story has gone out in the world, what are you writing next?

Oh God, this question. It may make me cry.

Well, in no particular order, I’ve just finished the final draft of a TV pilot based on one of my novels. And I’ve been commissioned to co-write a movie which I can’t really say too much about, so I’m tucking into the first draft of that. And I’ve had interest in republishing a couple of my early novels, so I just spent a few days giving them a haircut, purging them of juvenilia, before sending them out. Then, because I’ve got a book coming out, I’m writing blog posts and articles.

And yes, by now you can see that I’m avoiding the real intent of the question. I’m repressing the truth through guilt! And there’s a reason for that. I’m developing two novels simultaneously, and I haven’t worked out which one I want to lead with. One is a character-led thriller series, quite socially realistic, and the other is a stand-alone tech thriller, more heightened, but again character-led. I’m flip-flopping between these two and am not sure which one of these two works of fiction will emerge as my next book, to be quite honest.

***

Thanks for giving us this insight into your new novel and your writing tips, Craig.

Keep up to date with Craig’s many writing project on his website. Get your copy of Staying On on Amazon or Waterstones.

 

 

 

 

Win a How To Write a Page Turner Course

Win a How To Write a Page Turner Course

We love comps that get you writing more! Our latest one is to win our new online course from Rose McGinty – How To Write a Page Turner. Something we all need to know! There are four prizes up for grabs.

The course will teach you about injecting urgency into your stories to keep your readers hooked, as well as how to create great characters, unforgettable dialogue and play with time to up the suspense. What you learn can be used to develop your short stories and novels.

So what do you have to do to win? Write a novel opening from the prompt…

Competition Prompt

Write a 200 word novel opening starting with this sentence: I read it in a book…

1st Prize (two available)

A 6-week online How To Write a Page Turner course with feedback from Rose on the story you create.

2nd Prize (two available)

A 6-week online How To Write a Page Turner course without feedback.

Entry Fee: £5

Deadline: 17th September 2018


submit

Competition Rules

  • Submit novel openings written in English through Submittable using the button below by 23.59 GMT on the deadline date (sorry late entries will not be included).
  • Do not include your name on the document or submission title but provide a short bio in the body of the email. All entries are read anonymously so any submissions showing the author’s name will be automatically disqualified.
  • Your story must not exceed 200 words. Entries that exceed the word count will be automatically disqualified.
  • The story must be based on the prompt and not have been published online or in print, or have won any other competitions.
  • Stories can be in any genre apart from children’s fiction and erotica. YA is allowed.
  • You can enter as many times as you like but all entries must be made separately and the entry fee paid each time.
  • The judge’s decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.
  • There are no alternative prizes.
  • Winners will be announced in October 2018.

Creating complex characters: Esther in Frozen Music

Creating complex characters: Esther in Frozen Music

Frozen Music by Marika Cobbold stars Esther, and I liked her a lot. She is a prime example of the 3 Cs of Character, which is one of the characterisation tools I use in my teaching and is a good way to get to know the people who take root in our heads a lot better.

Essentially, Frozen Music is a girl meets boy story but it has got a lot more to it than that. As a character study, and great example of how to bring emotional resonance to your writing through character transformation, it doesn’t even really matter that there was a romance alongside that too. Although I am partial to a good love story – as long as it doesn’t get too sentimental then I run a mile!

So what is Esther’s character like? She has always been very serious with a very well-developed, some might say over-developed, sense of right and wrong and no time for the middle ground. But this is just an attempt to find order in what for her is a confusing and chaotic world filled with people whose morals and priorities she just can’t understand.

Working as a journalist she takes up arms in defense of an elderly brother and sister who are going to lose the only home they’ve ever known as it stands in the way of a new opera house development. It’s this crusade that finally makes her realise that things in life are never as black and white as they seem.

What I liked so much about Esther was that she was flawed, a social misfit, intense, righteous and neurotic. But at the same time she was very funny, loyal, kind, sincere and filled with integrity.

As writers, we need to recognise that as much as we may love, or hate, the characters we are creating they can’t just be all good or all bad. They need to have a bit of both to make them real.

Writing exercise

Create a character that has the same traits as Esther that I’ve listed above. Write a pen portrait of them then write another piece from their POV when they have been confronted with a situation that makes them take the moral high ground.

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Get more help to create your own unforgettable narrators in our Creating Complex Characters Masterclass.

Next up in this blog series, is Futh in The Lighthouse by Alison Moore. Previous posts are:

  • Adam in The Imposter by Damon Galgut – read it here
  • Bo in Exquisite by Sarah Stovell – read it here
  • Cassie in As Far As You Can Go by Lesley Glaister – read it here
  • Dolores in She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb – read it here

 

 

If you sign up as a Retreat West Author Member you’ll get weekly emails with four writing prompts, writing advice, inspiration and motivation to help you create great characters and great stories, as well as whole load of other great stuff to get you writing, learning and submitting more. Get info here.

 

 

Writing tips from Paul McVeigh

Writing tips from Paul McVeigh

Very happy to welcome Paul McVeigh to the blog today. Paul previously taught short story writing on a Retreat with Amanda and his debut novel The Good Son won the Polari Prize and the McCrea Literary Award. Paul is judging the 2018 RW Short Story Prize and Amanda got to ask him what he loves about the short story form.

What’s the best advice you can give to writers looking to master the short form?

Read. Read the authors they love. Read like a writer – how did they make me tense, sad, surprised? Read authors you don’t like – what am I not seeing that others do? What can I learn for this?

What kinds of stories do you hope to see when reading the shortlist for the RW Short Story Prize?

I like to feel something when I read. I like to laugh too. Neither of these reactions are easy to achieve. Too often attempts are cringe-making – too bald or inorganic. Get it right and they win prizes. Though a fab of raw hyper-realism, I also like unusual stories and unnerving mysteries and sci-fi.

What short story do you wish you’d written and why?

I don’t think like that but I’ll play along and choose one of my favourite short stories – Foster by Claire Keegan. So moving and yet not sentimental at all – in fact it’s often brutal. It gets me every time.

Which short story writers writing today do you admire and why?

Claire Keegan for her class and skill and Carmen Maria Machado for her imagination.

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Thanks so much, Paul.

You can follow Paul on Twitter and find out more about him via his website.

Now… Short story writers get writing and submitting your stories for Paul to read. The deadline is 28th October 2018. There is £820 in cash prizes available, and all winning and shortlisted stories will be published in the annual anthology by Retreat West Books.

You can find the previous anthologies What Was Left and (forthcoming) Impermanent Facts on Amazon. They’ll give you a great idea what we’re looking for and perhaps a little inspiration!

Join our author community and get lots of great stuff, including free copies of Retreat West Books as they are published. Join here.