Friday Fictioneers – The Vaults

 

from-amy-reese
PHOTO PROMPT © Amy Reese

Howard paced the corridor on his nightly rounds, overhead lights receding to the vanishing point. On each side, shutters protected treasures he had never seen:  the deeds to a castle; a dragon coiled tight around an oak chest of jewels; diadems of starlight.

Howard Carter felt destined for greatness. He wouldn’t be a security guard all his life.

“What do you see in there?” people would ask him.

“Wonderful things,” he would reply.

But he knew what dreamed behind those shuttered doors remained beautiful only until the moment a door was opened on cardboard boxes, overstuffed sofas, and cricket bats.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Fame

from-roger
PHOTO PROMPT © Roger Bultot

The man who came back from space is upstairs dying. When Dad returned, there were medals, starbursts fireworks, and marching bands.  He was war hero and celebrity rolled into one, and also my father. Some rubbed off on me – at school I got the girls.

But he never talked about it.  Not to me, or anyone. He never did anything again and became more and more withdrawn, taking to his bed five years ago. Though I keep hoping he’ll tell me the secret of the stars, all he’s said is “fame’s not all it’s cracked up to be”.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here.

 

 

79. Flash in the pan – tips for writing flash fiction

flashfictionstories

I write flash fiction in the Friday Fictioneers group every week. Flash fiction is very short fiction, typically under 750 or 1,000 words. Within it, some people distinguish between “drabbles” (100 words), “dribbles” (50 words) and so on. These distinctions don’t really matter.  The genre is good exercise for a writer in editing skills and wordcraft.

The talented Friday Fictioneer, Claire Fuller (author of Our Endless Numbered Days) produced 12 hints on writing flash fiction . That stimulated me to write a few of my own.

It’s still a story. Beware of writing something that’s just a scene rather than a tale. Flash fiction has to do all the things a story normally does. It must have a plot with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It needs a narrative hook, character development, conflict, resolution, dialogue and all the other elements of a regular story. The general rules of fiction apply in spades. The “show don’t tell” principle is especially important here.

Flash fiction is short, so …..

  • Keep the idea simple.
  • Be clear what the main conflict is and introduce it early, ideally in the first sentence
  • Rule of one. There can only be one central character, one setting, one scene, one plot.
  • Keep the timeline tight (even to within a few minutes) so you develop the idea rather than describing it. This isn’t an extended narrative, it’s about a moment or series of moments.
  • Make the title ring so it does some of the heavy lifting for you

Enter the action at a late point, come out early. This principle of film-making applies also to flash fiction. You don’t have time for backstory.

Reduction. This is a top tip from storyville. In cooking, a reduction is when you boil away most of the liquid to leave a thick and intense sauce. Reduce. Don’t start out writing to your word-length.  Let the story take its course, then edit down. Perhaps the most famous example of successful reduction is the six-word story “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”, often attributed to Hemingway.

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Write like a poet – make every word count. Cut down on adjectives and adverbs and let the nouns and verbs do the work. Take the time to find the right word. Reading novels won’t help you write flash fiction. Reading poetry may.

Work with the reader and make use of the space beyond the page. Skip as much of the backstory as possible.  If you reference history, fairy tales, romance, sci-fi or other tropes you can invite the reader to supply background, context and meaning themselves. What is not said may be as powerful as what is. The baby shoes story is a great example of this.

Write vivid characters. They add density and carry the action. But don’t use too many characters. One or two are usually enough. Remember to develop a character arc so there’s change in the story.

Create an illusion of generosity. You can open up a sense of space if you risk devoting precious words to small details. That way it doesn’t feel cramped like a full story cut down, or worse still, like an outline rather than a story.

The ending is crucial. Think about it very carefully. It’s not a gag, so don’t turn it into a punchline. The ending should leave the reader pondering the story and wondering about the resonances. Often, the finale is a twist. More radically, it need not be the dénouement at all. David Gaffney recommends putting the dénouement in the middle. That way you can devote the ending to considering the ramifications of what has happened.

Break all these rules if you’ve got a really cool idea and you can get away with it.

The memory vats

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PHOTO PROMPT © Shaktiki Sharma

Legs pumping, heart pounding, Irgul thrust his way up the mountain path. He raced through the stone archway into the cloying fug of the memory chamber. Donba glared, strong arms corded as he stirred the thick vat.

Irgul bent, hands on thighs, gasping for breath. “Sorry, sorry, I’m late. Give me a minute.”

“It’s a solemn responsibility keeping the tribe’s remembrances mixed. Where were you?”

Irgul winked. ”Making memories.”

His friend had to laugh. “Yes, I saw them arrive. Crimson. Nice one, lad.”

He took the handle from Donba and ladled, lest the heavy elements separate out.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here.

78. The Big Push

It was the summer of the big push. The plan for this year was to get across no-man’s-land and find myself an agent. In June, my writing career was poised on the brink of breakthrough.

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The Great War Project

As I reported in this blog the literary consultancy, Cornerstones, asked to see as revised version of my novel The Golden Illusion. They act as scouts for agents. I was thrilled!  The book is a mystery story with a twist. The sleuth is a conjurer who believes he hunts an ancient illusion. Instead, he reveals a conspiracy concealing an atrocity that spans the centuries.

Writing is a cruel game though. At the end of August, Cornerstones decided not to represent the book. Though they were very complimentary about it, it was still a rejection. They said:

“The concept is high – a magician as your protagonist is gripping – he’s intriguing and mysterious and powerful. His voice is accessible and engaging and the ancient magic has an allure. In a way, this is submittable right now and you may well get agent interest.”

Despite that, they felt it needed more work – more than they were willing to risk. So here I am, still in no-man’s-land, all barbed wire and mud and shell craters filled with water. Another big push repulsed. I’ve been through this before when a publisher showed interest and then rejected the book, and also with an agent.

All you can do is pick yourself up again.  And again. And keep heading across the field to the far trenches. But I get better at handling defeat. I have flanking manoeuvres now. Though none of my novels has yet survived going over the top into hostile terrain, I know I can get short stories published. I fired off five stories to magazines. I have another two on the launch pad. With that many, there’s a good chance of some being accepted and cheering myself up. In fact, one story, Bomaru’s Quest Part IV, has already been accepted and published today by Literally Stories. You can read it here.

 

 

 

 

 

The Machine

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PHOTO PROMPT © Sandra Crook

The Machine’s skin was hard, harder than any crocodile’s, tougher even than stone. Irgul stared at it. Today, after reaching manhood, he would become one of the four Bearers. After the feasting, they would parade the Machine round the village, like their fathers before them.

Irgul reached out and caressed the Wheel. It turned. An idea glimmered just beyond his grasp.

Sp’andor, the old shaman, watched the boy and smiled, remembering when he also had that seductive idea for transportation. Irgul would discover for himself, he thought indulgently, how easily clay pots smashed when jolted along the forest paths.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here.

Friday Fictioneers – The Signature, Part 2

I don’t usually do sequels, but so many people asked about what happened next in last week’s story. So here it is. Sorry to those of you who didn’t like the story. I promise not to turn this into a trilogy.

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PHOTO PROMPT © Vijaya Sundaram

“If this DNA sequence is a signature, whose signature is it?” Joel hated the implications of Emily’s discovery about the Alpha gene, the gene they’d found in everything from humans to amoebae.

Emily ticked off possibilities on her fingers. “One, a Creator.”

“A deity who spoke Greek?” Joel shook his head, but in confusion, rather than with his characteristic sarcasm.

“If you think that’s weird,” Emily continued, “how about number two? We’re running inside a computer simulation.”

She reckoned this wouldn’t be the best time to tell Joel she lacked the Alpha gene.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here.

77. Angry readers

A writer friend told me about a reader who got angry with a character in her draft novel. This character tried to control the actions of his lady love, and, worse, had not been completely frank. That anger made me think.

Enjoyment, intrigue, excitement – yes those are emotions you want your readers to have. But anger? And was their anger with the character or the author? The situation struck a chord with me because I’ve also encountered anger recently from writing colleagues.

Storm Catcher Felicia Simons
The Storm Catcher © Felicia Simion

Anger is a disturbing and scary reaction to provoke. As a writer, it makes you wonder if you’re doing something wrong. Our instinctive response to anger is usually to conciliate or to strike back. Conciliation can lead to messing up a storyline. To strike back is, of course, human but very stupid. Anger generally tells you the reader is reacting to something in themselves.

My friend had made her character a little more flawed, a little more like a real person. That can only be good.  But of course she worried that she was risking alienating her readers. She compromised her intention and wrote a chapter that didn’t work.

This made me consider my own reactions to readers’ anger and what the lessons might be. I’ve braved some anger in my writers’ group towards my novel The Golden Illusion. And also towards the story that I’m working on for the Sunday Times competition.

What do these stories have in common? Unsympathetic characters is the most obvious thing. Ruairi, the main character in The Golden Illusion, is charming but manipulative. Margaret, protagonist of the Sunday Times story has many traditional working-class values but is also racist. Do your readers have to like your characters? No, not necessarily, but they have to find them interesting. It also helps if the characters go on a journey and end up more sympathetic than at the start. Ruairi and Margaret follow such journeys. I guess the anger shows that neither Margaret nor Ruairi are leaving readers cold. You can’t be angry about something if you don’t care.

One friend apologised later for the ferocity of her reaction to Ruairi. She had said she found Ruairi’s seduction of a woman he meets in a bar unbelievable. She confessed she was, in fact, angry that that the woman succumbs.

In Margaret’s case, there’s an added element. The story is overtly political, a response to the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. The British learn early in life not to talk about politics or religion in polite company. But then, I don’t think the conversation between a writer and a reader has much to do with politeness.

Writing political stories is, of course, risky. It divides your readers and can lead some of them to see you as “preaching”. When that happens, they’re probably angry with you rather than your character. It’s an odd fact that portraying a politics is often seen as “telling me what to think” while depicting any other facet of personality rarely provokes such a reaction. I’ve never had a reader tell me that they felt manipulated by a character’s selfishness or courage. In my defence against the charge of “preachiness”, Margaret’s fear and racism isn’t defeated by her friend’s political arguments, but by music.

The up-side of being political is that it’s topical. So, while it may turn off some readers, it may engage others.

And I guess this is the main lesson – you can’t please all the readers all the time, so cast your reading net wide. A writer has no choice but to walk the tightrope of simultaneously believing in their work and being open to criticism. I got very disheartened by colleagues savaging The Golden Illusion and had decided it was a bad book. That was until another writer read it and loved it. In fact she loves it more than I do and restored my confidence in the novel. So it pays to get lots of opinions.

Friday fictioneers – The Signature

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PHOTO PROMPT © Georgia Koch

Joel wasn’t a believer. Not in spirits, faeries or deities. But neither did he believe in coincidence. Two samples containing the strange DNA sequence he could dismiss, but not 500.

“It’s crazy,” he told Emily. “the gene’s present in humans, mice, fruit flies, and amoebae. It’s ancient. But does nothing.”

“Oh, it does something,” Emily said digging her hands into the pocket of her lab coat. “But you’re not going to like this.”

She spelled out the amino acids the gene coded for – Alanine, Lysine, Phenylalanine, Histidine, Arginine.

Joel didn’t follow. “So?”

“It spells Alpha. This is a signature.”

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here.

 

Friday fictioneers – What’s the point of wasps?

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PHOTO PROMPT © Janet Webb

“I mean, what’s their point? What do they do for us?” Calum is emphatic in his opinions. He has similar views of football hooligans and foreigners.

“Pollination” I suggest.

A wisp of smoke curls from the pest gun as he advances on the filo-pastry wasp nest.

Calum shakes his great grizzled head. “The beggars stung me for no reason. Bees don’t do that. Bees are useful.”

“Maybe they don’t need to be useful. Perhaps it’s enough that they exist?”

Like an activist protecting a mangrove swamp from a marina developer, I step forward and seize his wrist.

 

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here.