Saturday, 24 April 2010

The Art of Short Short Stories...A look at the small and perfectly formed.


Flash Fiction

Flash fiction is anything from 50 words to 1000 words, (although the latter could fall into the category short story). It uses very little exposition, and because of its structure, tends to be to the point.

Flash is quite an apt word to describe the brevity and style of writing, and like any piece of fiction it still needs to obey the rules of having a beginning, middle and a satisfactory ending. But how do you sum up a story in so few words?

The simple answer is that it’s not as easy as it sounds. Flash fiction isn’t an easy discipline, but it’s great one to master. Practice and experimentation is the best way to write great flash, plus it’s a very useful writing exercise for those who like to write short stories and novels, because it makes you say in 200 or 300 words what you normally tend to write in 1000. Every word and every sentence really does count. When you write flash the one question you must quantify is: Can I get a point across in 10 words, instead of a whole paragraph?


How to Write Flash Fiction

Flash usually concerns a single incident or moment in time, and uses maybe one or two characters. The use of a powerful image to kick start your story is something that many writers use.

The same rules for fiction also apply to flash: jump straight in with the hook, grab the reader right from the beginning, and dive straight in with the story. Unlike short stories or novels, you don’t have time to provide background and in depth characters and so on. Instead, how you write your character can make the reader identify or empathise with your character without all the peripheral, descriptive detail.

As with any story, it should be about conflict and emotion. Remember to chuck out those adverbs and cut down on the adjectives. Avoid passive voice and stick to active voice.

Most importantly, the story must have a beginning, middle and an end. Don’t fall into the trap of writing about something and then leaving the reader with nothing at the end because of an abrupt end or from providing no information. The ending needs to be satisfactory.

To give you an idea of some of these elements, here’s a 200 word flash called No Way Out.


Pale skin shone beneath the moonlight.

The muscles in his throat slithered tight as he peered down at his sleeping wife and daughter. He blinked slowly, couldn’t stop the dark swell surging through his mind, couldn’t stop the emotion.

Hopes and dreams were gone; he’d failed them. Failed himself. Losing his job had set everything in motion. No job, no money. No way to pay the mortgage. No way to stop the bailiffs. No way out.

His gaze traced the soft outline of his wife’s face. Dark curls veiled a soft expression; she was unaware that he’d deceived her for the last eight months - leaving the house each day, pretending to go to work and coming home each night, fighting to tell her the truth. But he couldn’t. Didn’t.

Now shame squatted on his shoulders like a red-eyed demon.

He was losing everything, but both his heart and mind were set.
The little girl stirred, sighed softly, then settled against her mother.

His knuckles whitened. Grip tightened.

Slatted moon glow found his face. He took in a controlling breath, but his eyes brimmed; tears teetered. Memories, moments, voices...ribbons of thought trailed into the darkness...

He lifted the blade.



No Way Out, © A J Humpage 2009




Strategies

1. One of the best strategies to use with limited word numbers is make the surroundings work for your character. In other words, make references to the atmosphere, or immediate environment. For instance, hint at the eerie quiet of the forest or the sound of the surf as your character searches for something they lost.

In the example above, I make a couple of references to the surroundings. ‘Pale skin shone beneath the moonlight’ and later, ‘slatted moon glow’.

These tiny references help the reader form pictures in their mind without the use of long blocks of description.

2. Word bursts – These are what I refer to as powerful descriptive sentences made up of carefully selected words to illicit emotion. They’re usually one-liners that say so much with so few words.

Again in the example above: ‘The muscles in his throat slithered tight...’ This is a good use of word burst because it easily conveys the raw emotion the character is feeling, the way the throat closes up when we’re upset, want to cry, or when we're hurt.

3. Complete the story arc – don’t write a beginning, middle, and then forget a good ending. The story must make sense.

4. Understatement – when considering the ending, being understated works better if you’re looking for something concise, effective and to the point. As in the story above, the last line, ‘He lifted the blade’ is all that it needs. The reader will understand what will happen next, without lots of description.

5. Keep the reader guessing as long as possible with your intentions, especially so if there is a twist at the end.


Summary:

• Use a great opening line or hook.
• Use a powerful image for your story.
• Keep the reader guessing - Include a twist at the end, if possible.
• Be tight, be concise – limit adjectives and adverbs.
• Brevity – can you use fewer words?
• Beginning, middle and satisfactory ending – complete the story arc.
• Edit and revise.



Next time: Grammar mishaps - quite a few people have asked for help on the subject of grammatical uses, so we'll cover the most commons ones that give the most headaches...things like split infinitives, ambiguity, dreaded adverbs etc.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Theoretical and Critical Reflection. Or in other words, editing.

Get out that red pen!

Editing, like writing, sounds easy, but it’s not. Writing is one thing, but the real hard work starts with editing your masterpiece. That doesn’t just mean checking for grammar and spelling. There’s a lot more to look out for, because, like writing, editing is an acquired skill - the more you do, the more efficient you become.

Of course, stepping back from your work and reading it objectively isn’t that easy. To edit you will need an editor’s eye to spot those errors – and there will be errors. Nothing you produce will be perfect first time.

The best way to edit your work is to leave it for a while, a week or two, or a month, whatever feels best, and then come back to it with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective. There are several strategies that can help with editing and rewriting. Most writers tend to silently read what they've written, but reading it aloud is a useful way in which to ‘hear’ your story, and a good way to spot any glitches with the overall flow of the story.

Errors come in all forms, and not just the usual ones like spelling and grammar. You need to consider structure, continuity, plot flaws and accuracy (especially if your story is filled with facts and figures).

Let’s look as these more closely:

Spelling - Spellcheck tools are okay to a point, but don’t rely too much on them because US and UK variant spellings of some words may confuse, plus they don’t always give accurate types of possessive pronouns like its and it’s. Spellcheckers also have a tendency to confuse they’re with their. Invest in a dictionary/thesaurus. The best way to check words...look them up.

Grammar - Not everyone knows about nouns, verbs, adverbs or adjectives and so on, so if in doubt, use a dictionary to help you understand them better. I’ll break them down as follows:-

Passive/Active verbs.

On the whole, you need to avoid passive verbs and use active verbs instead. The active verb means the subject is doing something, e.g., ‘Mike watered the flowers.’ The passive verb happens when something is being done to the subject, like ‘the flowers were watered by Mike.’

Adverbs

Invariably this means turning a noun into an adverb. These are words that describe how something was done. For instance, the word desperately. ‘He shouted desperately.’ If the writing is skilful and realistic enough, the reader will know the character is desperate, without needing the adverb as a surplus endorsement.

It’s important to observe the same rule for dialogue:-

“Go away!’ she shouted aggressively.
“That’s beautiful,’ he said, lovingly.

Too many adverbs will clutter the writing and will end up irritating the reader, so avoid them in dialogue. It’s impossible to avoid them altogether in your narrative,sometimes they are needed, so if you do, make sure they're relevant, and use them sparingly, and never drop them into dialogue.

Adjectives

These words modify a noun or pronoun to give more depth to description, but too many adjectives will kill any description. Many new writers use double adjectives to pepper their narrative and plump up descriptions. Using a second adjective will almost always weaken the first one, so the advice here is keep it simple. See the following examples. The adjectives are in bold.

Mike fell against the brown muddy ground, his long grey shirt sinking into the dangerous, deep dirt.

By removing some adjectives, the sentence reads better:-

Mike fell against the muddy ground, his long shirt sinking into the deep dirt.

It would be better still to let nouns and adverbs do the work:-

As he fell against the muddy ground, his shirt sank into the dirt.

Don’t pay too much attention to the old rules of grammar taught to you at school either, since they don’t apply to general fiction. Why? Because it’s okay to start a sentence with the word ‘Because’, or ‘But’ or ‘And’.

If in doubt about the technicalities of grammar, consult a grammar book or suitable online references. Most of all, if it feels right, it generally is.


Overall Structure - when reading your story, does it all make sense; does it flow smoothly from scene to scene? You may find there are elements within the narrative that don’t belong there or don’t make sense. Are your descriptive passages too long or too short? Remember sentence and word structure, too– is there a balance within the narrative, and do the sentences have rhythm? Can you improve the sentence by a change of word order?

Every word is as important as every sentence and every paragraph.

Continuity – This is one of the easiest errors to make in any story/novel. This means knowing where the characters are, what they were doing from the last scene, and making sure they’re wearing the correct clothes/hairstyle/glasses etc. For instance, did the hero have a shirt and tie on in the previous scene, but in a new scene, he has jeans and T-shirt? The same principle applies to locations. Was the dining table a pine table on page 7 and then mahogany on page 12?


Just about anything can cause continuity errors, so I would advise making simple notes to accompany the story/novel as you go along, so you can refer back any time you have a query about the colour of John’s jeans or the date of the victim’s murder, etc.


Plot flaws/plot holes – You need to be able to spot inconsistencies within your story, illogical or unbelievable events, things that happen in your narrative for no apparent reason, or events that conflict with or contradict earlier events in the story. Sometimes you may find gaping holes in your plot, other times it may be just a small inconsistency like one of your characters dying early in the story and later popping up to chat to your main character. Close those plot flaws satisfactorily and logically without resorting to deux ex machina.


A little side note - beware Deux Ex Machina (Complete Cop Out)

This Latin word literally means ‘god from the machine’ and originated in Greek theatre. It means that a problem/gaping plot flaw/inconsistency is suddenly and miraculously solved by often contrived, outlandish means. For instance, the heroine’s house will be demolished unless she can find funding to keep it, but she’s unable. The bulldozers move in, all is lost...until at the last minute a bloke turns up and advises her she’s inherited £50 million. Ta da. Complete cop out.

Avoid relying on this kind of plot device in your writing, because it nearly always means lazy writing!



Accuracy – Are the facts correct? Are your dates, places and names accurate? How relevant is the information? If you have an historical story, have you checked all the relevant data for that period? Research, research, research. Always check your facts.

Editing is a key factor in recognising strengths and weaknesses in your creative writing, and the resulting rewrite is just as important as the creative element of your first draft. There are no set limits, so edit and rewrite until it is as good as you can make it.


Common grammatical errors to avoid:

•Possessive pronouns, such as It’s confused with Its. They’re called
that to denotes possession. It’s is a possessive pronoun and is a contraction of IT IS. Its, as in ‘In its heyday...’ is not a possessive pronoun.

• Noun and verb confusion – Things like advice and advise, effect and affect.
• Plural of collective nouns – Children’s, People’s, Company’s, Companies’.


Summary - Important points when editing your work

1. Cut your draft to size - cut any superfluous dialogue.
2. Structure – Does the story flow and make sense?
3. Check your facts.
4. Read the story silently.
5. Read the story aloud.
6. Check your grammar and spelling.
7. Timing/Continuity – Have you talked about character picking up a child from school, when the next day is Sunday?
8. Eliminate plot flaws.
9. Be objective.
10. Aim to be different


Next time: Flash Fiction