I’m very pleased to be helping out with this competition… stay tuned for more info about the festival too – including a flash fiction event in collaboration with National Flash Fiction Day, and quite possibly an author appearance from me 🙂
One of our festival themes this year is ‘in the margins’
This theme came out of a conversation about Felixstowe’s position at the edge of Britain, at the edge of the continental block of Europe but joined by its shipping to the whole world. The town sits on the edge of the sea, which, on a winter’s stormy day, seems to want to reclaim it. It sits between two rivers like the text of a book between the margins.
What is seen as ‘in the margins’ or ‘on the edge’ can be more exciting and rich than what is central. People can be seen as in the margins of society because of their ethnicity, age, physical or mental state. A lot of works of art, scientific discoveries, inventions are made by people regarded as being in the margins. What we write in the margins of our books (those of us who dare!) can be more relevant to us than the printed text.
So interpret the ideas of ‘in the margins’ as creatively as you wish in your short story entry.
To celebrate National Flash Fiction Day, I’m delighted to share a beautiful post from one of the masters, Kevlin Henney – winner of Crimefest’s FlashBang Competition 2014 (which you can read here) and many more things besides. What is flash fiction? Read Kevlin’s post and you might just become hooked…
The Bokeh of Flash
by Kevlin Henney
It’s natural — even inevitable — to compare one means of expression, one form, one artistic approach with another. We compare to explain, to justify, to understand, to illuminate, to inspire. Flash fiction invites many such comparisons because it seems to lie outside what is traditionally promoted as fiction, even though the tradition of novels and short stories and, indeed, written fiction is itself quite young. In age — or youth — it is perhaps fairer to compare written fiction with photography and cinema than poetry, plays and storytelling.
Where a novel might be a full-length film, whether art house and understated or Hollywood and overblown, a short story takes us into the realm of cinematic shorts, anything from a few Vimeo minutes to a half-hour cinematic immersion. Against this, flash fiction is the animated GIF, the vine, the blipvert, a couple of YouTube minutes at most. The boundary between flash fiction and short stories is blurred at the upper end — by convention 1000 words is commonly accepted as the flash top floor, but it could just as easily be 750 or 1250 depending on who you talk to — but sharper at the lower end — the hundred-word precision of a drabble, the fifty-word drop of a dribble.
Unlike a film, however, a written story is static. A story has movement and time, but the breath of life comes from the reader as their eyes travel the words, sentences, ideas and characters. Photographs take in sweeping landscapes, family snaps, posed portraits, street moments, taken with anything from what you happen to have in your pocket to cameras whose price tag will empty your pocket and more, cropped, tinted, processed or left alone to tell their story. The word flash also suggests the illumination of a moment in all its depth, relying on the viewer to see the motion and larger world in a photograph in their mind.
Photographs can be sharp and richly detailed HDR images, just as stories can be lush with description and detail, taking in big plots and panoramas, everything in focus. But a photographer can also choose to single something out with a shallow depth of focus that leaves everything outside the focal plane blurred and set apart, trading pixel perfect fidelity and completeness for contrast and separateness, the subject of interest accentuated all the more.
In photography the out-of-focus quality is known as bokeh, derived from the Japanese boke (ボケ) meaning blur or boke-aji (ボケ味) meaning blur quality. With poor bokeh the blurring of detail is a distraction and does not serve the picture well; with good bokeh it makes the picture.
So it is with flash fiction.
Across a handful of words a story is drawn, the greater world it lives in no more than suggested, at best sketched. The context for a given piece of flash fiction lacks the detail and focus given to the story in the foreground. But this blurring, this incompleteness and implication, this necessary and greater elaboration in the mind of the reader must serve to support the story all the more. It has a very particular quality to it that distinguishes it from longer forms: good flash fiction has good bokeh.
Pop over to the FlashFlood Journal today, to see a constant stream of flashes from writers from all over the world. Happy, sad, funny, light, dark and quirky – there is something for everyone in this year’s flood. Enjoy!
Today I’d like to share a post about how genre fiction lends itself to the short form, from prolific flash fiction writer and National Flash Fiction Day organiser extraordinaire, Calum Kerr. There’s also a fantastic story at the end. Enjoy!
Yesterday, over on Nettie Thomson’s blog, I talked about how I had turned away from writing horror stories until flash-fiction steered me back to the dark side. That got me thinking about flash-fictions and how they work for genre writing.
It’s an interesting issue. I have read, and written, a lot of flash-fictions which might be considered ‘literary’ or at least ‘realist’ in that they occur in the real, recognisable world.
To a large extent, flash-fictions often rely on the reader’s understanding of the world so that when something is referred to or implied, there is no lack of understanding, and the reader provides the necessary extra information from their own knowledge. When using this kind of shorthand, there isn’t always time for world-building or setting up complex scenarios, such as those needed in science-fiction and fantasy writing.
However, if the writer assumes an informed audience, then this can be overcome. I’m not simply talking about an audience well-versed in the particular genre of the story, but an intelligent audience who can make the same leap that you, as the writer, makes when creating the story. Small details, as in any flash, can convey a huge amount, and the rest falls into place by extrapolation.
One of the problems that a number of writers have – and something I see a lot in the work of those just starting out – is an assumption (to be fair, usually unconscious) that the reader is not quite as clever or clued up as you, the writer, and so things need to be explained. This leads to sprawling narratives where everything needs to be said two or three times, just to make sure the reader isn’t getting lost.
When I write flash, I assume the reader is keeping up. If they get lost, well, they can always read it again. The stories are short, it won’t take long.
And that, for me, is why genre stories can work so well in flash-fiction. You can create, not just a version of this world, but a version of any world. You can do it in a few words, and with a few salient details, and the pictures are then painted on the canvas of the reader’s imagination. If I mention a green Renault Clio in a ‘realist’ story, then anyone who’s ever seen one of those will be picturing the same thing. If I mention ‘a sleeper ship, plying the stars, filled with a frozen population’ then everyone reading will either know what I’m talking about or be able to work it out, but each individual will see a different ship, with a different layout, with the frozen bodies stored in different ways.
As a writer, using flash-fiction to write genre stories, I can use a larger and more varicoloured palette, and at the same time make it much more personal for each reader.
So, does flash-fiction work for genre writing?
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 Cinder House.
Read on for a great example of genre flash…
By Calum Kerr
“This area is non-operational!” came the calm voice over the speaker.
Injit was not calm. He was running for his life.
Behind him the bulkhead door shot closed with a blast of air that wanted to knock him from his feet. He rode it, letting it carry him, and then planted his feet and kept going.
A crash and roar rocked the station as the section behind him crumpled and surrendered to the vacuum. Fuel cells detonated and tremors rocked the floor under Injit. He staggered and bounced against the wall, but he stayed on his feet and carried on.
There had been no warning. He didn’t know what had happened. A momentary hole in the shield? A micro-meteor just too large and travelling just too fast to be stopped? It didn’t matter now. The imperative was to get away from the rolling collapse and get safe.
Gravity shifted under him and the floor became a slope. Injit dropped forward, his palms hitting the floorplates and skidding in blood. He ignored the pain and scrabbled forward, clawing his escape.
If he could reach the central hub, he could get to the shuttle and away. If the collapse stabilised he could return and begin repairs. If not, there was enough food, water and air in the shuttle to last him six weeks, long enough for help to come if he was lucky. But first he had to get there.
He clambered up and into the next section, sprawling over the raised threshold into the normal gravity on the far side. He dragged his feet after him, pressed them to the ridge to boost himself upwards as the door flashed down just missing his heel. It was followed by the calm voice repeating its warning, barely audible over the crumple-crash of collapsing metal.
Injit’s legs were starting to thrum in tune with the collapsing station, but he staggered on stiff legs and kept moving forward.
He was nearing the next section, just one away from the hub, when the lights started to flicker.
“This area is… This… non… This… Th-th-th-thhhrrrrrrrr…”
In the frantic strobing, Injit slowed, and then an arc of electricity grounded to the plates in front of him with a bang. Injit pulled himself to a stop and watched as the corridor between him and the hub was lit by a lightning storm.
He looked back, but all was dark behind him. The sounds of creaking and crumpling were continuing. He couldn’t go back. He couldn’t stay here.
He faced forward, took a deep breath and thought of home.
What do you think? Does genre work in flash? Comments welcome, as always.
Well the day is finally here – and hopefully some of you have been involved in the activities detailed on the National Flash Fiction Day site? If not, get over there now and see what’s happening! Flash Flood has been running since midnight and stories are being fired out every ten minutes – so there’s loads to read over there…
Sarah says… Rabbit:
I think this did everything a piece of flash fiction should do. It gives you a snippet of a story that somehow manages to tell you the whole without cramming too much in. It was very well constructed, subtle and chilling. I loved it. A Little Light Relief:
I thought this was a lovely little vignette piece and such an original idea and well-written. Saving the Planet:
I’m a sucker for Triffids and this was a really nice take on that kind of story. Again, a good snippet insight into a bigger story that manages to convey that story within it.
Well done Al, Zoe and Juliet!
The pieces will be published in the Summer BFS Journal which should be out in August.
Big thanks to fellow judges Phil and Sarah for giving up their time, and thanks to Harper Voyager, Gollancz and the BFS for the fantastic prizes 🙂
P.S. If anyone who entered is planning to post their entry on their blog, or gets it accepted elsewhere – let me know and I will link back to it and spread the word – I think everyone who entered would love to read them!
So… while you all eagerly await the announcement of the longlist for the #SJIBFS competition (which is a tough job, incidentally…) I’d like to share with you a brilliant flash fiction from a writer I am very glad to call a friend. Not only does he write brilliant fantasy, crime and horror of his own, he has also been an invaluable sounding board for my work, giving encouragement and constructive criticism and a kick up the arse when required. So, without further ado – please read, enjoy and let us know what you think in the comments. RJ is one to watch. You can say you saw him here first…
* * *
The Boy Who Listened in at Doors by RJ Barker
There are Witches out there, with skull faces.
On windy nights they gather in the tree outside his window and huddle together on branches winter-shorn of leaves. They chatter and laugh, flap their cloaks and watch him with beady black eyes.
All witches, all watching. Laughing black leaves on the cold oak’s boughs.
“They’re just crows,” says Mother with her half-sad mouth. “Just crows, my boy, just crows.”
The Boy pulls his curtains together tightly.
not even the mercurial moon
can peek into his room.
Better the dark than peeking Witches,
with skull faces.
Hard, black, leather-skin carapaces
Long dead grimaces.
Grinding and eating and cawing and gnawing.
He has protectors, many and varied.
Can’t, doubt the bravery of Flying Fred Ted nor Keemo the duck that Daddy brought him from the hospital. When Daddy was still here.
Stick thin on the bed.
The bears hate the witches with Skull faces and he hugs his small army close.
He should feel safe.
And screech and cackle and yatter and caw-caw the night away.
Outside those thick black curtains that Mummy, with the half-sad mouth, fitted.
“They’re just crows, My boy, just crows,” she had said as she hung the curtains, shoulders slumping, a pale hand covering tearfilled eyes.
When they first visited – black flecks falling out the dusky sky to populate the bare oak – Raggedy capes making excellent wings for those who wish to be something else.
The same night the Terminal took Daddy went away.
Witches have guile, they know people would spot birds with skull faces straight away.
(Make a fuss.
Call animal protection.
Or the newspapers
Get the T.V. People
Or maybe write a book.)
Witches don’t want that.
So they slip their black pointy hats down over their shiny-leathered skulls.
Hard black beaks
Cover hard black faces.
“Just crows my boy, just crows. Where do you get these things from, my son?”
Sometimes, the caw-cawing and yattering starts to swirl in his head, stops being squawks and screeches and becomes words.
Always the same.
Taunting, teasing, sneering, squealing, high pitched, rakkety-ratchet old-hag, warty-chinned voices
“Shall we eat the boy tonight? Good and plump he is. Who’d miss the lonely little scrap? Our bellies would be full and his mother not be sad.”
Again they say it.
Again and again.
Each time more teeth-on-glass voices join the chorus until eventually, in a great taunting, teasing, sneering, squealing, high pitched, rakkety-ratchet old-hag, warty-chinned wail the whole flock of skull-faced, witch-crows takes to the sky.
Raggedy capes flap. Hat mouths croak. A dark spiral rising up and out over the city.
‘They’re just crows, my boy, just crows’ she says but the tears in her eyes and the tremble of his lip won’t leave.
‘Daddy would scare them away.’
‘I’m sure he would,’ she looks at the floor to hide her tears as she tucks him in. ‘There are no monsters, my son. Nothing eats people They’re just crows, my boy, just crows.’ Her voice a strangled sob.
He tries to be brave but he knows she lies and pulls the covers over his head and curls up, folding in his fear and pain with ganglion arms.
Monsters are real.
‘I’m sorry, Mrs Taylor,’ said the doctor. ‘There’s nothing we can do. It’s eating him away.’
* * *
RJ Barker is slightly eccentric and lives in Yorkshire with his wife, two year old son and a constantly growing collection of poor quality taxidermy. His short fiction has been published in all manner of places (including charity anthology ‘Off the Record 2: At the Movies‘) and received three honourable mentions in, ‘The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror’. RJ’s illustrated poems (together with Mikko Sovijarvi) ‘Interment’ and ‘The Social Diary of A Ghoul’ have received pretty good reviews (like, here) and are available through Amazon for electronic readers. A paper version is planned soon.
He’s recently signed with Literary agent Robert Dinsdale of Dinsdale Imber and is working on something a bit longer.
So unless you’ve been living on the moon for the last few months, you’ll know that National Flash Fiction Day was on Wednesday. To re-cap – this was an event that celebrated flash fiction, i.e. very short stories, usually written quite quickly and generally focussing on a brief moment in time (that’s my definition, but there’s nothing set in stone). There were events online and all over the country (and international events too) – you can read more about it on the website and blog. When I saw the first announcement about it on twitter, I immediately jumped in with both feet.
Once Upon A Time
My first port of call was to contact Anna Meade at Yearning For Wonderland and ask if she’d like to collaborate on a competition. ‘It’s not just for UK writers,’ I begged her… and after her recent success with The Fairy Ring contest, I was keen to run something similar. An open competition where writers post their stories on their own blogs and link them all together. The lovely thing about The Fairy Ring was the way that everyone supported each other, read each other’s entries, and generally caused a Twitter frenzy. After lots of time-zone limited discussions with Anna, we came up with Once Upon A Time (#ouatwriting) and started madly promoting using our alter-egos… she, #fairyqueen and I, #darkfairy. Sometimes these personas switched. The result was a whole sheaf of fabulous prizes, including books, t-shirts and general adoration. We exceeded expectations and received 88 fantastic entries. It was very difficult to choose the winners. I had a rather long shortlist, as did Anna, and guess what? They were almost completely different! After a few painful discussions, we both did another re-read and came up with a much shorter list, and finally, the winners.
Oliver Barton’s ‘Pink Bells‘ was just the perfect, poignant tale. Angela Readman‘s ‘A Mermaid in Texas’ was just so completely raw and stunning, it stuck with me from the very first time I read it. McKenzie Barham‘s ‘I can show you the world’, felt so unbelievable real, it just blew me away. Then there was the gorgeous fan favourite, ‘Three Simple Words’ by Cory Eadson… There were many, many others worthy of a mention too, and I realised I had to do something about this – we couldn’t just celebrate the winners…
So I had the bright idea of putting them all together into an anthology… I wanted to celebrate the competition, but I underestimated the difficulty and time-constraints of putting a book together. It turned into a logistical nightmare, trying to coordinate 88 entries into a book, when each one was formatted according to individual taste on everyone’s own blog… everyone’s editing style was just ever so slightly different: single or double quotes, curly or straight, short or long hyphens, double spaces at the start of sentences, breaks between paragraphs, and my personal favourite – using spaces instead of tabs! Writers, PLEASE don’t so this – it makes editing a complete nightmare 🙂 As for typos, everyone does the now and again – how many times have you read a published book and find them? The odd one isn’t an issue, but if there are a lot, it does look sloppy (Note: this doesn’t apply to any of the entrants!) Then, of course, I had to contact everyone to ask for their permission, to make sure I had their link details for the author info, and to chase up people with missing information… My email decided to cause me a few problems there, but I got in touch with everyone in the end! Anyway, it’s almost done and I’ll be posting details of where you can buy it soon 🙂
Then came my next activity (note: I have not even mentioned writing anything myself yet…) I volunteered my services and was very pleased to be chosen as one of the 7 editors for the FlashFlood Journal (I also chose the name *ahem*). This involved us all taking a stint on the accept/reject and posting schedule. I’m not telling you which day I was on, but it was non-stop until midnight, then actually a fair bit past that, tidying up the inbox etc. It was a crazy experience (especially towards the end when the emails started bouncing back for no apparent reason)… Stories were flying in quicker than I could read them. I managed it by giving each one a quick read, then moving on, then going back to each one again – then a lot of the time, filing it for a third read. Some stories didn’t make it to the third read, and it wasn’t because they were bad. Mostly it was because they just didn’t grab me, even if the writing was beautiful. Others didn’t make it because I just didn’t understand them! That might’ve just been me though… the whole selection process is very subjective and each editor has their own likes and dislikes. FYI – some of my ‘not sure’ stories got 4or 5 reads – it was that difficult.
However, a few stand-out things that led to my third read (and remember this is only my opinion)
A great title (seriously – if I have to pick from a pile of similar stories, the best title will win)
A great opening line/paragraph
A quirky subject that I haven’t already just read in similar forms in 20 other stories
Funnily enough, these three elements are things that I try hard to think about with my own writing. That, and a good ending. It doesn’t have to be definitive, but it has to be satisfying. I like twists too, but they have to work well. I won’t tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t write, but if you use your twist to tell us that ‘and all along the main character was an animal’ then you better write it well or else it leaves me disappointed! Again, just my opinion. My last thought on this (and some, but not all of the other editors agreed) is that don’t write stuff TOO depressing. It doesn’t have to be funny or crazy, that doesn’t always work either unless it’s written well; but after you’ve read a few miserable tales about funerals and cancer and break-ups, you get a bit fed up with them, even if they are beautifully written (before anyone says anything, yes, I am guilty of the odd bit of misery myself, that’s not the point here – we all do it!) I also learnt something else – as tempting as it might be to email the editors when you’ve received a rejection – don’t. They really and truly don’t have time to give feedback, especially on a project like this where the submissions came in over a short period of time and were being set up for posting on a schedule. I think we all tried our best to respond to everyone, but now having been on the other side, I appreciate how frustrating it must be for anyone hoping for feedback.
So – to sum up – being involved in both of these competitions was a great experience and a great insight, and (being a glutton for punishment) I would love to do it again.
Stuff that I wrote
As for my own writing… *Beware – I am blowing my own trumpet here*
‘Shed’ was published in the National Flash Fiction Day Anthology, Jawbreakers
And now that it’s all over, I’m reverting back to my *To Write* list… which is ever growing (and includes getting back on with ‘the novel’)…
Thanks to everyone who’s been involved in the above, and a big big thanks to King of Flash, Calum Kerr for the excellent work he put in to creating and executing National Flash Fiction Day… someone buy that man a cake!!
Yup, you read it right… but I’ve kind of given it away now, haven’t I? 😉
So, some of you who follow my ramblings on twitter may have picked up on the fact that I have been working on a TOP SECRET PROJECT… and maybe if you’re one of those detective-types, you might have guessed that it has something to do with the Once Upon A Time writing competition that Anna and I have been working on… well, you’d be right!
It became apparent as the entries began to come in that we were getting some seriously good stuff. Then we got more. And more. AND MORE. But there can only be 3 winners… 3 out of 88 is practically impossible. Seriously, the standard of entries was extremely high. We had lots of new takes on the old classics, we had modern adaptations, we had some very original new fairytales, we had an instruction manual, we even had a rhyme. I can’t speak for Anna, but in my humble opinion, there was not one bad apple in the whole box – yes, I had some strong favourites, and these were not necessarily the same as Anna’s – which is what made collaborating on this such a great experience for me. I really enjoyed reading all the stories and I love the way that everyone has been enthusiastically reading and commenting on each others’ – culminating in the FanFav mini-comp and the resultant fame of our lovely winner, Cory Eadson.
SO, without further ado – I announce the ‘Once Upon A Time’ anthology, which will contain all the stories from the competition, plus mine and Anna’s.
The collection will be available in both eBook and REAL PAPER format and I will post the details when available. It will be ready soon after National Flash Fiction Day on 16th May (when the WINNERS will also be announced).
Now for the technical bit: I am still working on the running order of the stories, and I need a couple of things from you…
(1) Copyright remains with the individual authors, but you need to tell me if you DON’T want your story published in the book.
(2) Some of you didn’t give your story a title, and some of you don’t have a full name on there – I need titles and names, folks. Also, if you don’t have a blog, you need to confirm that you are happy for your twitter name to be added into the ‘bio’ section (essential this is a list of blog addresses – there is no space for anything more than that)
I will be sending an email to everyone soon with more details of what I need from you…
…and that’s it for now… hopefully I have now brightened your day 😉
Questions, comments etc – you know where to find me!