Friday, 18 July 2014

Writing Flash Fiction

Illustration by Clair Rossiter

July is upon us, and with it the fourth issue of Stew Magazine (hooray!) My flash fiction story this month is called Apocalypse Wow and it’s notable for being the very first thing I wrote for Stew, way back in January last year. The fact that it hasn’t appeared until now is more a quirk of scheduling than anything, and it’s a story I continue to hold close to my heart.

I’ve decided to celebrate the publication of Apocalypse Wow with a blog post all about flash fiction – why it’s worth writing, what types of stories are best suited to it and some of my own experiences of the process. I hope you’ll find it useful and informative, and that you’ll also consider checking out Stew Magazine to read the stories themselves.

If you’re a member of the SCBWI Yahoo Group, some of this material may be familiar from my month spent as moderator – I’m pleased to bring this advice to a wider audience.

What is Flash Fiction?

Flash fiction is generally defined as a complete short story of a thousand words or less, such that it fits on two facing pages of a magazine. This length makes flash fiction great for our ever-declining modern attention span, and is ideal for reading on websites, e-readers and mobile devices. There are lots of different formats of flash fiction - many of which drop precipitously in word length - from the Drabble (which is a story exactly 100 words long), through 140 character Twitter fiction to stories of just six words! My Stew stories are a positively indulgent 600-700 words, which still allows plenty of space on the page for some gorgeous illustrations.

Why should I waste my time writing flash fiction when most publishers aren’t interested in it?

For a long time, I looked down on short stories as a lesser art form, simply because I kept seeing statements on agent’s websites saying "no poetry or short stories." I was focused on writing something that would get me published as quickly as possible, so it's rather ironic that flash fiction eventually turned out to be my route into print! The other great thing about flash fiction is that it's not just quick to read, but quick to write as well (so it won’t take you away from your novel for too long). I particularly enjoy the fact that I can have an idea one day and have a complete first draft of a flash fiction story by the end of the next. I find that ideas can very quickly go stale for me; there are so many that I've abandoned in the past because I didn't like them enough to commit to a whole novel. Flash fiction is a great way of capturing my enthusiasm and getting it onto paper.

What sort of subjects make for good flash fiction?

Pretty much anything you like. Why not pick something fascinating that you want to explore - a specific idea, emotion, tone or voice? Flash fiction is also great for experimenting with structure. Some of my stories are very metafictional, and the September issue of Stew will feature Hacking History, which is a story about what would happen if your e-book got hacked while you were reading it! It’s unique among my stories for being written in three different voices (and is still only 600 words long).

This all sounds interesting, but I’m still not sure what I’d write about

You probably already have loads of things you could write a short story about, you just haven’t realised it! I've found flash fiction to be a great way of recycling discarded ideas and stopping them going to waste. Apocalypse Wow was an idea I’d had for a novel, and I’d already done a couple of weeks’ work on it. I loved the idea of writing the most positive book possible about the most negative thing I could think of (the end of the world). But somewhere along the line, I got whisked away by a new idea and Apocalypse Wow became another pile of words gathering dust in a notebook. When the chance came to write a story as my audition for Stew, I realised that the climax of the book would be perfect for a piece of flash fiction.

What's the difference between writing a novel and writing flash fiction?

At the most basic level, only length! If you're used to writing short chapters or blog posts, then you're already halfway to making the switch. But if you want to write a rounded piece of flash fiction, you'll need to consider what you want to say and how to express it as succinctly as possible.

My writing needs room to breathe and develop over thousands of words. Why should I strip back the evocative sensory detail/rich internal monologue/powerful world building that makes my work great?

You don't have to lose all of this good stuff in a flash fiction story. In fact, I'd argue that these things are what help to suck a reader into your world. The important thing to realise is that you can't do ALL of them in one story. Pick one aspect and build your flash fiction around it. For instance, I'd become frustrated at the lack of sensory detail in my early efforts, so I built a tale around the sensations a boy feels as he writes a letter using the last typewriter on Earth, and how this reflects on his future world where almost everything is done by direct brain control (you can read that one in Stew issue three).

Can I have plot development in a flash fiction story?

Absolutely - I seem unable to write a story without loads of plot! You just need to move the plot along more quickly - one of the reasons that short stories tend to end with a twist is that it's much easier to deliver a short, sharp shock than to have a long slow character arc. But you can do that too, provided that's what you're focusing most of your words on.

Stew Issue 4. Cover illustration by Joe Lillington

I’m sure that there’s more I could say, but I seem to have gone over a thousand words just talking about how to write a story in less than a thousand words! Feel free to ask me any further questions in the comments below, though.

Good luck with writing your own flash fiction, and I hope some of you get to read Apocalypse Wow in Stew Magazine (if you live in London you can find the magazine in branches of Foyles and at the Tate Modern shop).


Friday, 13 June 2014

The Improbable Prince

It was hard to miss the kerfuffle over fairy tales last week. A certain eminent scientist was quoted (or misquoted) over his attitude to telling fairy tales to children, and the media ran with the story as hard as they could. At this point, a story idea popped into my head and I knew it would be perfect for a piece of flash fiction, which I'm very pleased to present for you today.

That said, this is fiction, and any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental...

By Nick Cross

Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved to listen to fairy stories. But her father was a rational man who lived only for truth and science. “How can I be expected to read this drivel?” he would say, tossing a beautiful picture book into the bin. “Are we really supposed to believe that a prince could turn into a frog? It’s statistically improbable.”

The girl protested, for she loved her father and could not understand why he would deny them this shared pleasure. But the hard-hearted man was having none of it. “As a parent, it would be irresponsible for me to read these blatant untruths.”

The girl bunched her nightdress in her fist. “They aren’t untruths, Daddy. They’re stories.”

“Simply lies by another name,” the father replied, tipping an armful of wonderful books into the bin. “I can see your mother has been indulging you while I was away on my lecture tour.” Mistaking the girl’s sad expression for fear, he patted her shoulder. “Worry not, my dear, normal service has been restored.” The girl lay down, and he pulled up the bedcovers. “Now sleep well, and may your dreams be full of reality and reason.” Nodding to himself, he left the room.

The girl cried then, and wished her tears could become a glistening, magical river that would carry her far away from this cruel place. But, instead, they just made a wet patch on her pillow.

The next day at bedtime, she asked her father again if he would read aloud. To her surprise, he agreed – as long as he could choose the book.

“When on board H.M.S. Beagle, as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America...”

The father read from On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. The book wasn’t boring, exactly, but the girl found her thoughts drifting to sea monsters and dragons. Why couldn’t Mr Darwin have discovered some of those species?

The father seemed to forget he was reading to his daughter, and kept talking long after her usual bedtime. Eventually, he looked up and realised she was sound asleep.

On the third day, the girl developed a dread of bedtime, and stayed in her evening bath until the water was quite cold. The father knocked on the door in a great temper, demanding to know why she was taking so long. “I’m missing a documentary on particle physics!” he shouted through the door. The girl sighed, reluctantly dried herself and put on her nightclothes.

When she opened the bathroom door, the father was brandishing a new book. “I’ve got something very exciting to read tonight!”

The girl narrowed her eyes, peering at the large brown hardback book with peeling plastic covers.

“This...” The father tapped the book, and a small puff of dust came from the spine. “ a landmark text of modern secular humanism. So much better than those silly fairy tales, I’m sure you’ll agree.”

The girl wished and wished there was some way she could show her father that stories had meaning and purpose. She wished he could see that the time she spent in her imagination was not time wasted. But her wishes once more failed to come true, and the girl finally had to admit that her father was not a bad man – he was just a little stubborn and narrow-minded.

“I love you, Daddy.” She kissed him on the cheek. “As long as I’m with you, it doesn’t matter what we read.”

But a most peculiar feeling had come over her father. His insides felt like they were on fire and there was a sudden POP that echoed around the small bathroom. The landmark text of modern secular humanism fell from his hands and plopped into the bathwater.

“Daddy?” The girl rubbed her eyes. “Is that you, Daddy?” A large green frog was sitting on the bathmat where her father had been.

“Ribbit,” the father replied. “This is highly improbable. Ribbit.”

The girl bent over to stroke his scaly back and hold his webbed foot. “Improbable, but not impossible?”

He sighed. “So it appears. Ribbit.” He turned, and with a huge leap and a mighty splash, jumped into the bath.

© Nick Cross 2014. All rights reserved.

Friday, 6 June 2014

The Massive Mash-Up Machine

Originality is tiring, isn't it? All that time spent developing richly nuanced characters in a unique world that reflects everything you're passionate about. And then, after all the months of writing and rewriting, you find no-one's interested unless you boil the whole book down to a one line pitch that makes your masterpiece sound like everything else ever written.

Well, fret no more, because the Massive Mash-Up Machine is here to do all that tiresome work for you. Building on the revolutionary technology pioneered in the Amazing Rejectomatic, this Large Hadron Collider of storytelling smashes together pre-existing books and movies to make something totally new. At the touch of a button (and at no cost to you), you'll receive an X meets Y pitch and a readymade plot synopsis that could become the next publishing sensation!

Just hit GO to spin (or respin) the wheels of fate. Once you find a story you particularly like, click Share at the bottom of the synopsis to pop up a version suitable for the comments section or for posting to social media. Do beware of getting so excited that you immediately email the synopsis to every literary agent in the country - I can take no responsibility for the fame and fortune that may result.


P.S. A couple of people have reported odd behaviour such as the reels getting out of sync. I haven't been able to reproduce these issues, so for now please try reloading the page if you encounter any problems.

  • ? ? ?
  • Harry Potter
  • The Godfather
  • The Hunger Games
  • Aliens
  • Winnie-the-Pooh
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Die Hard
  • Captain Underpants
  • Rainbow Magic
The Massive Mash-up Machine works best in Chrome, Firefox or Safari on a PC or Mac.
This is a work of parody, and all copyrights in character names, trademarks etc. remain with their respective owners.
Fruit machine reels powered by jSlots.
Image adapted from an original photo by Abril Sicairos as licensed under Creative Commons.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

The Roller Coaster of Writerly Emotion

As well as being a kick-ass school librarian, my wife works part-time helping new mums to adjust to all the stresses and strains of living with a baby. She has this nifty exercise that she does with them called "The Roller Coaster of Postnatal Emotion" where they plot out their positive and negative feelings about motherhood on a graph.

Now, I may not have the excuse of being a hormonal, postnatal woman, but it's nevertheless occurred to me that as a writer, my emotions are in flux like this all the time. So, as a scientific experiment, I've constructed the graph below as a genuine example of my creative highs and lows over the last week (though looking at it now, I wonder if I'd have been better off pretending that I'd made it all up).

The graph may take a couple of seconds to load, but once it has you can hover your mouse pointer over each of the dots to see the description of what I was feeling at that time (sorry, this probably won't work on touch screens - you'll need to be using a desktop browser). The scale at the side shows how positive I was feeling, with 100% being very happy and 0% being very miserable indeed!


Friday, 11 April 2014

Reach for the Sky

When I sat down to write a blog post about ambition, I was sure that I must have written about it before. I searched my blog archives and found nothing, then discovered a Word file from 2012 on my hard drive that I must have abandoned. But before I’d given up, I’d written over a thousand words – so it must have been a subject that really mattered to me! In that almost-blog, I’d covered ambition in many forms: for status, money and creative expression. Perhaps by focusing on just creative ambition today, I’ll manage to succeed where I previously failed. Ironically, my last attempt may have been just too ambitious!

I don’t think any of us would disagree that being creatively ambitious is a good thing. We all want to feel that our work is good enough to be published and read. We all want our work to mature and improve, and not to feel that our best days are behind us. But I think this also needs to come with a slice of realism – an acceptance of your own (current) limits as a writer and the knowledge that what you enjoy writing is not always the most intellectually challenging thing you could be writing.

This creative realignment is something that I’ve been through myself of late. After reaching for the sky and falling short with my previous novel, my recent work has definitely been less ambitious in plot and thematic terms. But (in my opinion) it’s also a lot more fun to read, which is a valid ambition when writing children’s fiction. Simplicity has replaced complexity as my writing goal, although I’m very much discovering that the path to simplicity is not a straight line – it’s sometimes necessary to push through the complexity of a book and out the other side.

Learning to simplify is a skill that takes time to acquire. When we first start writing, it can be hard to separate what we dream of doing from what we’re actually capable of producing. Sure, it’s surprisingly easy to plot out a seven volume fantasy series when you’re really enjoying it, and to fill in reams of backstory for every character, no matter how minor. But all this detail can obscure the story, and we are not all J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin (who has himself fallen prey to the lure of too much world-building in recent volumes).

I’ve talked to several fantasy-novelists-in-waiting who are struggling to reconcile the scope of their ambition with the logistics of realising it as a story. The YA fantasy market continues to be series-based, which puts extra pressure on writers to map out a coherent story over several books, and to pepper the first volume with clever foreshadowing of future events. Agents (keen to find the next big thing), sometimes sign up such authors early and put unwitting pressure on them to deliver on their promises. Too much pressure too soon can be a toxic cocktail, which is something I’ve discovered to my own cost. I was only working on a single novel - what can that pressure be like for an author trying to write three books in their head simultaneously?

It’s a definite shame that the publishing trade’s love of launching debut authors with an instant breakout novel leaves less room for the small, frequently autobiographical novels that new writers have traditionally been drawn to. To use a movie analogy, it is as if Christopher Nolan’s first film had been the mind-bogglingly complex Inception rather than the small but intriguing Following (which was shot for virtually nothing in the houses of friends and family). Hilary Mantel is someone else who has benefitted from working up to her greatest work over a period of years, rather than being expected to deliver Wolf Hall out of the gate.

There is a point where healthy creative ambition becomes mania, where the author begins to disrupt their own working processes by worrying too much about the market, or by trying to (in my own words) "write a book so excellent that no-one could possibly say no to it." That way lies madness...


Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The Elements of Style

Where does style end and voice begin? It’s a question I’ve been pondering for a while. But though voice is (for me) a rather frustrating, intangible quality of a book, writing style is much easier to identify and analyse. Style is all about which words the author chooses and how they’re laid down on the page, a technical skill that can be learnt, refined and applied for maximum effect

I’ve been watching my own writing style evolve over the last few years. Or rather, I should say styles, because I’ve realised that I don’t have one form of writing for all occasions. When I’m writing this blog or the Blog Break, I pick a particular style that is probably closest to my own speech. It’s not always the shortest and most efficient way to express myself, but I hope it has a conversational character that makes up for that. When I’m writing a story, however, I like to pare my writing down to the barest essentials. That “however” I inserted into the previous sentence would definitely have got the chop!

This commitment to terse, efficient prose is, I think, why I’ve been able to write the very short (six to seven hundred word) stories for Stew Magazine. But even there, I’ve deliberately been evolving my style as I go along. This month’s story The Door Keeper sees me experimenting with more sensory detail to offset all the telling that’s required in such a short tale. There’s even an action sequence in the middle, which was initially quite lucky to escape my red pen. But later, I realised how much the action adds to the visceral experience of the main character, and how it connects the two halves of the story far more effectively than I could have managed otherwise. It’s easy to become so focused on the technical challenge of telling a story in a few hundred words, that you forget to make it any fun for the reader.

Action scenes are an area where I’ve definitely noticed stylistic development, both in my short and longer work. I began experimenting with a rather cartoonish action style in a previous novel, which was (of all things) a dystopian comedy! As you can tell from that description, I’m not sure the tone of that novel entirely gelled, but I was really pleased with the pacing of the action and resolved to take that style into my next book. With that book’s most recent rewrite for 7-9, it feels as though the cartoonish style has found its natural home, and also its natural end. For my next book (which will most likely be 9-12), I’m looking forward to trying something new.

Who knows, I may even break my dependence on a first person narrator in the next book. I’ve been writing pretty much exclusively in first person since 2008 and maybe it’s time for a change. But I’m sure my blog P.O.V. will stay the same - if I do start referring to myself in the third person, you have my permission to give me a slap!


Monday, 10 March 2014

The Heart of the Matter

Well, here I am again. Sorry if that sounds anticlimactic, but after six weeks of not posting, I feel rested and ready to start again.

Actually, I say rested, but I've been keeping pretty busy in other ways. As well as work, family and the Blog Break, I’ve spent the period completely rewriting my Middle Grade novel as a 7-9 book. I wanted to just get on with the rewrite without thinking too much about it, and 45,000 words has become 15,000 with the minimum of pain and anguish. I think it’s a much better book this time around, and for the first time in years I’ve mostly enjoyed the process of writing. Hopefully that’s reflected in the finished work!

Anyway, to get to the point of this blog post, I’ve been musing a lot about “the heart of the story.” This is the emotional core of a novel and something a writer must keep in mind as they rewrite a book, to avoid going off track. In her workbook Novel Metamorphosis, Darcy Pattison asks you to describe the heart of your story using the following question:
Why did you write this story and not a different story? If you had to change everything except one thing – what is that one thing? Write a paragraph that describes the heart of the story FOR YOU:
The heart of the story is a key part of the Novel Inventory, a process of recording what you’ve actually written in your novel, rather than what you think you’ve written. I found the procedural bits of the inventory – describing the plot and emotional arcs of each chapter – to be relatively straightforward. But the heart of the story question really floored me. What was the heart of my story? Why did I write it?

Eventually, painfully, I came up with a couple of sentences that roughly described my two main characters’ emotional arc, and left it at that. I did feel a bit stupid though, and wondered what kind of a writer I was if I couldn’t put my own motivation into words. Luckily, the draft of the Middle Grade novel I was working on that point didn’t involve any critical changes, so my fudged answer didn’t matter.

However, when I came to this most recent rewrite, I agreed with an editor that I would change one of the two main characters from a forty-year-old man to a ten-year-old boy! This blew a hole through the heart of my story, because I had linked it so closely to these characters’ relationship as uncle and niece. I was suddenly adrift without my author’s toolbox, and if I hadn’t set myself such an aggressive writing schedule, I probably would have over-thought the whole book into the ground.

Instead, I just got on with it, and as I did a magical thing happened. The emotional core of the book shifted and grew. It became a story about a girl’s love for her father as well as her friend, while the themes of repression and escape in the original draft came closer to the surface. I found it wonderfully freeing to discard much of what I'd already written, carrying across only those characters and plot points I needed to make the new book work. It was great to feel that anything could be changed in pursuit of the ultimate goal: a story that would satisfy me, the editor and those all-important young readers.

I’m still not sure if I could describe the heart of the story for you in a paragraph, the way that Darcy Pattison wants me to. After all, what if it changes again? Perhaps it’s more helpful to think about this problem by considering the only thing that I can’t change, no matter how many rewrites and age group changes this book goes through. Maybe, the heart of the story is me.