Top flasher, Alison Wassell, talks about the art of very short fiction

Posted: May 23, 2014 in Friday Guest
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Resized cover imageA lot of the people who know me have no idea that I’m a writer. I’ve always felt self-conscious about that label, because you need to be able to back it up; otherwise you’re just a bit of a weird fantasist. Or a romancer, as my grandmother would have said – meaning someone who makes up stories, which I suppose describes me fairly well. But right now I am holding in my hands an actual book, with my name on the cover, along with those of nine other talented women. Though I say it myself, My Baby Shot Me Down is an object of beauty. It includes both prose and poetry; some of it by far more accomplished writers than me. But if you type my name into an Amazon search, up it pops. It includes six of my short stories. So maybe I’ve earned the right to call myself a writer.

People tend to be impressed when you show them an actual book. My favourite response so far is ‘What are you doing in there?’ People who know me are pleased, excited, proud, and sometimes, to be honest, a little puzzled, because they thought I was just a rather odd person who gave up a secure, well-paid teaching job and ended up working part time for minimum wage and volunteering in a charity shop. Which is all true, but not the whole story. Anyway, my name is Alison Wassell, and I am a writer.

And then, inevitably, The Question is asked.

When are you going to write a novel?’ I wonder if, as Usain Bolt crosses the finishing line, anyone ever says

That’s nice dear, but when are you going to run the marathon?’

My name is Alison Wassell and I am a short story writer. I am not a wannabe novelist. I don’t view short stories as practice for something bigger. They are what I do, and my only ambition is to do them better.

DIGITAL CAMERAI almost got sucked in once. Several years ago, I registered for Nanowrimo. The idea is that, throughout the month of November, you attempt to write the first draft of a novel. The target is, I think, 50.000 words. I lasted about a week, and I wrote around 8000 words. I began to dread my writing sessions. I ran out of plot. But my head started to burst with ideas for short stories that I was desperate to write. That was when I realised that I was not a novelist, and that I had no desire to be one. The following November I set myself the target of writing a new story every day for 30 days. It was one of the best writerly things I’ve ever done. Several of those stories ended up as competition winners. I’m actually still working on some of the others.

Five of my stories in the anthology are flash fictions. It’s what I do best. I don’t do lengthy descriptions and I don’t do intricate plotting. I just like to capture a moment, or a single idea. I get most of my ideas from snippets of overheard conversations on buses. I once won £50 for a story based on something the cashier in the Co-op told me when I was buying cat litter. I think a piece of flash fiction is closer to a poem than any other form of writing. You can compose it in your head during a thirty minute walk. By the time you put pen to paper, it can be almost word perfect. I know this, because I do it, most mornings, on my way to work.

So, as a writer, I am a sprinter, not a marathon runner. Anyone who knows me personally will be smirking now, because I won’t even run to catch a bus, but I still like the analogy, so I’m sticking with it.

I’m well aware that short story writing will never make me rich. But for the last couple of years it has paid my fuel bills, mainly in competition winnings. I could have spent that time beavering away at ‘my novel’, with little or no hope of it ever being published. But I’d have needed a lot of extra jumpers to keep me warm while I was doing it.

DIGITAL CAMERAI don’t regard the short story as a lesser form. Alice Munro is my heroine. I prefer William Trevor’s short stories to his novels, and I believe that Dubliners is the best thing that James Joyce ever wrote. I’m thrilled to have my work included in My Baby Shot Me Down, because I can’t imagine anywhere else that would offer me such a fantastic showcase. But please don’t ask me when my novel will be coming out. My name is Alison Wassell, and my ambition is to be a better short story writer.

***

Alison is short story writer who specialises in flash fiction. Once a primary school teacher, she has won, been placed and shortlisted in numerous writing competitions, including 2nd place in Flash 500 (first quarter 2013) and first prize in the microfiction section of The New Writer Prose & Poetry Prizes 2012 with I Blame The Parents, which is included in My Baby Shot Me Down. By the way, Tania Hershman came third in that competition!  Her story The Mother Thief was placed third out of 1400 entries in the Final Chapters writing competition, organized by the Dying Matters Coalition in 2012, and was published in the Final Chapters Anthology (Jessica Kingsley Publishers) in 2014. In 2012 Alison came second in the 250 word category and third in the 1000 words category of the Words With Jam Bigger Short Story Competition. Her stories were published in the anthology An Earthless Melting Pot. In 2013 she came second in the 2500 words category of the same competition and was a runner up in the 250 words section.

I told you she was top!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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