Posts Tagged ‘writing’

I admit it – I have neglected this blog quite shamefully and it is almost exactly a year since my last post. Having our house on the market for two years and attempting to keep both house and large country garden under control for viewings took much of my time. But the main reason for not posting was that I had run out of things to say about writing and the writers’ condition. The online writing sites that I have used for the last twelve years or so have fallen into what can only be described as the doldrums and I have perceived a general lack of enthusiasm for giving and receiving feedback in this remote fashion.

That is not to say people aren’t being busy and successful! On the positive side, many members of my favourite site have now been published or have agents and potential publishing deals, so the process of online reviews has clearly been working well. I have had a few small successes of my own, including several shortlistings in Flash500, acceptance of a story into Twisted Tales 2016 and – tarantara – I won the Worcestershire Literary Festival’s Flash Fiction competition, with another story shortlisted. So that was nice! Sadly, the announcement was made at the launch of the Festival and, since I couldn’t be there because of moving house, one of the judges had to read my winning story. But there you go. I’ll be reading both stories at the launch of the anthology on Sunday 20th November, all being well.

The reason for posting now is that I have joined an actual live writing group in my small town and thought it was an opportunity to share this new experience. It’s a five-minute walk to the weekly venue so I have no excuse for not turning up, apart from family commitments, disasters and holidays. I have only been to one meeting so far because of the first of these, but I did do the homework, which is limited to 500 words on each occasion. I had also done the homework for my first meeting: to write a love scene.

My first thought on the subject was – AAARRRGGGHHH! I would never put myself in the position of writing such a thing, especially if it were to contain sex. I don’t enjoy reading sex scenes and I can’t imagine the horror of writing one. But when I had calmed down, I realised that a love scene needn’t contain sex and that many of my very short stories are love scenes of one sort or another. So I wrote a new one and read it aloud when my turn came around. It went down well, with hoots of laughter in all the right places, along with a collective groan at one intentionally sickly bit and even a tear from one member at the end. Who could ask for more? I also got some useful feedback, which I have used to tighten it up for submission to Flash500.

I was very impressed by the general standard of writing – and reading – within the group and all the feedback was pertinent and kindly given. Having become used to somewhat more brutal treatment via online groups, this made a refreshing change. But I do want the truth, 100% of the time. Anything else is of little use, but I must be careful how I phrase any criticisms. Coming from Yorkshire, this isn’t really in my DNA…

So my first experience of the writing group was overwhelmingly positive. My only problem arose during the usual end-of-session five-minute writing challenge. The topic was ‘a message to a particular member who is sick’ and could take any form. The fact that I had never met this person shouldn’t have been the barrier it became, but my mind went completely blank and I didn’t write a single word. The others managed some very entertaining, irreverent and poignant poems and prose and I felt really stupid for not producing anything.

This failure probably wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows how I work. I’m not a jotter or drafter. If I have an idea for a story, I let it grow and develop in my mind until it is either forgotten or emerges fully formed and largely edited after a period of days, weeks or even months. I am extremely intimidated by the idea of writing ‘on-the-spot’, especially when everyone else gets their heads down and starts scribbling. It’s my recurrent exam nightmare all over again! When my turn to ‘show’ came round, I explained my predicament and was met with understanding and reassurance. Somebody said that the group is a safe place in which to try things out and no one should be anxious about any perceived failure, because it is about having a go and gradually building confidence. I hope I fare better on Thursday when the next challenge is set but if I don’t, I’m not going to beat myself up. I’ve managed three lots of homework on a given topic, something that is normally outside my ‘comfort zone’ – note the inverted commas, because the latest assignment is a maximum of 500 words using as many cliches as we can squeeze in. I’m not sure how this exercise benefits our writing but I’ve done it anyway. So I am already stretching myself a little further than usual and if the only benefit to my writing is that I achieve the odd submittable piece, it will be a good result.

I ought also to mention that it is lovely to meet new people and to share an experience, doing something at which we all want to improve. So no minuses, really. It gets me out of the house and away from the computer for a couple of hours and I heartily recommend it. So far…

Watch this space.

If you have any experiences of writing groups you’d like to share, please post a comment. Go on – scare me!

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I recently posted a new flash story of 500 words in my online writers’ group and received a number of critiques. These ranged as ever from ‘I really liked this! Perfectly judged,’ to (more or less) ‘I don’t really get it’. This is very much the nature of writers’ groups and is often an indication of the writing styles of other members rather than their ability to offer constructive criticism, but it led me to ponder the issue of ambiguity in fiction.

I love an unreliable narrator – it’s my favourite thing, both to read and to create (see Crossed Lines, Mother’s Pride etc). While it must be quite hard to keep it going over the course of a novel (I’m currently reading Gone Girl and am finding the clues a bit heavy-handed but check out The Dinner by Herman Koch for one of the best examples) it is relatively easy in very short fiction.

Even if I write a story in the third person, I like to create some ambiguity so that readers have to join some dots for themselves. I much prefer this approach when I’m reading someone else’s work rather than have everything laid out for me on a plate, because it then includes me as an active participant in the story and brings the reading experience to life.

But where do you draw the line? What proportion of readers need to ‘get’ it to let the writer know he or she has done enough ‘signposting’? Perhaps I am too cavalier about this, but if only one reader clocks it, I am well on the way to letting the story go as it stands. However, if a critic indicates that a tweak in a particular place will enhance the tension and lay another subtle clue, I am definitely and gratefully up for that.

Last year I parodied the Government’s hideous bedroom tax with a flash by the same title. I set out to be completely ambiguous in an effort to create mystery and humour, and was rewarded by this comment from John Hudspith, writer and editor: The huge level of intrigue and boundless possibility almost made my brain explode, and I just know I’ll have some good nightmares tonight. So thanks for that. As for the title I wouldn’t change a thing. It sits there like the malicious tin opener it really is.’ It was the perfect reaction, yet another reviewer wanted more clues! Which proves that it is down to you to assess and decide which type of reader you’re writing for. The Bedroom Tax was published last year in the National Flash Fiction Day anthology, Eating my Words but you can read it here. I would love to have your comments if you have a minute.

For myself, physical details are rarely necessary or desirable in very short fiction, where every word counts, unless it has a crucial part in the story. I might mention grey hair or gnarled hands if I want to indicate age, but not so the reader can see a character if appearance is unimportant to the meaning of the piece. The shorter the piece, the more implications each sentence has to carry to earn its place in the whole. Where a novel may take a whole chapter to reveal a critical character trait, flash fiction must achieve the same reader understanding in a couple of sentences. There is no time to dwell on eye colour!

So I will continue to put my stories up for criticism on the understanding that the same people will like them and the same ones will always need a fuller explanation. When those who usually ‘get it’ also need an explanation, that’s when I’ll know I’ve got more work to do. Just because I know what’s going on, doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve put it across. Hooray for second opinions!

In other news, I’m pleased to report that my flash, Message Understood  made the final twelve to be published in this year’s Twisted Tales anthology, so many thanks to the judges. I have also just heard that all three of my 300-word submissions to the Worcestershire Literary Festival flash fiction anthology will be published! I am obviously beyond thrilled about this. A Stash of Flashes will be available in October and launched with readings in November. More details on that nearer the time.

My reading in Bristol went really well to a packed house and I had lots of lovely comments. I decided on Bye Bye Blackbird in the end, which you can read here.

And that’s it for now. All comments and criticisms cheerfully received!

BristolFlash ReadingsI am really looking forward to National Flash Fiction Day’s Bristol event at Foyles on Saturday 27th June, where I will be reading one or two flashes. I haven’t decided which as yet, but there’s a five minute slot for each reader and it’s up to us how we fill it. One thing I have learned from my reading aloud experiences is that you almost can’t read too slowly, so I may confine myself to one five hundred-worder.

But which to choose? I have had a good couple of weeks with a short-listing (only ten writers long) in the Worcestershire Literary Festival’s flash fiction competition, a current short-listing in the annual Twisted Tales competition, and one of my favourite stories, Countdown, selected for Landmarks, the official 2015 National Flash Fiction Day anthology. I am tickled skinny and that’s a totally painless way to lose weight!

Everyone is welcome at Foyles and it’s free! The coffee bar will hold its usual temptations and there will be lots of chat, both writery and otherwise.

Earlier in the day there will be a free flash fiction workshop upstairs at Bristol Central Library from 13.30-16.30 with Calum Kerr, the Director of NFFD, and Ken Elkes, a prize-winning flash author. It should be fun, whether you’ve written very short fiction before or are a complete beginner to creative writing. The atmosphere will be relaxed and encouraging but you can always go along in disguise if you prefer!

There are many such events planned around the country, so please go and support your local writers. And even become one…

Have a great National Flash Fiction Day, wherever you are!

Are we mad?

The floodgates are open again for one week from today for your fabulous flash fictions, culminating in a special issue of the journal to run throughout National Flash Fiction Day, on Saturday June 27th. Send your stories on any subject, any style, any length up to five hundred words, and make sure it’s your best work because it may be in the running for inclusion in a future FlashFlood printed anthology! Not to mention the 190,000+ readers the journal has attracted so far…

The team has recently reread all the stories from the first three issues of the FlashFlood Journal and whittled them down to around seventy for the very first FF anthology and it was one of the most difficult challenges to date. The flashes were all brilliant, otherwise we wouldn’t have chosen them in the first place! So it really does represent the best in flash fiction. The book should be available within the next week and I’ll post a link when I have one.

So beat your ideas into shape and then follow the submission guidelines – remember, no attachments, please. We’ll look forward to reading a rich variety of work over the next few days. Please spread the word.

Good luck!


I haven’t done much in the way of submissions recently because (drum roll) I have been busy writing new stories. They’re all short (some only 140 characters) but are new stories nevertheless and that gives me great satisfaction.

wpid-fine-linen.jpg.jpegSo I was thrilled to hear that my submission to Fine Linen, a new Literary Fiction magazine, had been successful. ‘Dressing Up’ is a flash fiction of which I am particularly proud and started as an opening sentence that popped into my mind and wouldn’t leave, as with most of my successful stories. It is a gift that arrives apparently out of the blue and I count myself exceptionally lucky to receive it now and again.

Fine Linen Magazine is a curious and original ‘pack’. It consists of several parts, including an A5 magazine containing half the stories and an A3 full colour fold-up broadsheet with the remainder. There is also a little factsheet, a suggested reading order, a mini-bookmark displaying ten-word biographies of the issue’s contributors and another linen one.  It’s lovely but I’m not sure what to do with it! My other printed pieces are in conventional magazines and anthologies which can be casually(!) displayed on the coffee table or retrieved easily from shelves. Unfortunately, I think Fine Linen will remain in its envelope to keep the elements together and stop them getting dog-eared, which is a bit sad, especially because a remarkable coincidence occurred in this issue.

Fine Linen is based in the US and yet two of this quarter’s contributors (myself and Simon Kewin) live fifty yards from one another in a tiny English hamlet! As the list of selected stories numbers only fifteen out of hundreds of submissions, we were astonished to find ourselves back-to-back in the broadsheet. I’d like to think it was because I’ve trained Simon so well but, alas, he has a good many years of publishing successes on me!

You can subscribe to Fine Linen by following the link.

I was also delighted to be approached by the Editor of a new online Literary Fiction magazine, The Writing Garden, for permission to print ‘Decorated Hands’, which she found on Readwave, in her third issue. This is a story I wrote over ten years ago after sitting opposite a woman with decorated hands on a train following the death of my mother. Everything that happened around that time is still very clear in my mind and the story I wrote, though having nothing to do with death, has a great deal to do with loss. It is a story that has had many lives in print and online and I am so pleased it continues to travel independently.

And finally, please get your submissions in to National Flash Fiction Day’s micro competition (100 words) and anthology (500 words) by midnight on May 15th. I have nothing to do with the judging of either of these but you will recognise the names of all this year’s judges if you follow the flashing scene. I’ve got my three hundred-worders in but am still mulling over the theme of ‘Geography’ for the anthology. With only a week to go, I’d better get cracking, and so had you! Please use the links to spread the word.

Cheerio for now, Sue.

bookmuseFFoF Front Cover 2014Just a quick update, if anyone’s interested. Last Sunday I read my 300-word story, Care, at the launch of the Worcester LitFest Flash Anthology, Fifty Flashes of Fiction, and was thrilled to find that two of my flashes had been longlisted and included! The other was In Living Memory, which was previously shortlisted in Flash500.

Despite the complimentary glass of wine I was very nervous and black spots started to appear on the page as I was reading. It was a good job I knew it by heart! It was a good event and I was very impressed by the standard of writing and reading. It was also nice to meet some writers I had met before, and a couple with whom I had communicated on social media. I also have another nice book to add to my collection.

I had not really intended to enter the Words with Jam Spoof Genre Competition but the afternoon before the deadline an idea popped into my head, which I wrote down and sent off with no thought of winning, since my usual style is to agonise for weeks over a single word or phrase. Anyway, I didn’t win, but was a runner-up, which meant my crime spoof, The Pot Thickens, was included in the Bookmuse Journal, and a lovely little book it is too.

So that’s about it for now. I hope to get back to hosting Guest Blogs in the New Year, so if anyone has something interesting to say on a personal writery theme, please get in touch.

listen_with_mother2-229x300Some of you (though perhaps not very many) will remember this introduction to Listen with Mother on the BBC Light Programme back in the 1950s. Listening to stories on the radio, at bedtime and in the classroom, was (and probably still is) an introduction to literature long before we read it for ourselves. We learned how to sit still and focus; how to imagine ourselves in another world; how to suspend our disbelief.

I can still remember the frustration I felt looking at a storybook and being unable to decipher the letters. So each night, when my father read me the latest installment of Rupert Bear in the Daily Express, I insisted on studying the words so that I could match them to what he was saying. Soon I could tell if he was trying to cut corners and read the short verse instead of the much longer prose! These experiences translated into an insatiable appetite for fiction, long and short. But for reading, not writing. That came much later.

Although I speak the words aloud when I write (and often suggest to writers whose work I am critiquing that they do this to check the dialogue, sentence structure and clarity) the idea of reading to an audience was unthinkable for many years. All my life I have shied away from public speaking (which rather scuppered my early political ambitions) and always insisted in being on the production side of school plays because, although I knew how a role should be played, nerves would have strangled the words before they ever came near to being spoken.

So it was with great trepidation that I agreed to read my prize-winning flash fiction Mother’s Pride at a flash slam on National Flash Fiction Day in Oxford two years ago. The closer the date drew, the more nervous I became and every day I had to force myself not to pull out. But my husband came along for support, there were a couple of faces I knew from the internet, and everyone was very friendly. They were also, I realised with relief, at least as nervous as me. So I sank a glass of red wine and got the job done, and it was fine – even quite good! I can’t tell you how proud I felt when other experienced readers told me they would never have known it was my first time.

My second public reading wasn’t such a success. It was at the first meeting of Southville Writers, in a Bristol pub, and the background noise made it impossible for me to tell whether I was speaking loudly enough. Turns out I wasn’t! No one had any idea what my story was about until they read it afterwards.

My third venture was last Saturday in the Bristol Foyles, at an event organised by Southville Writers and Bristol Women Writers, where a mixture of poetry and prose was read over a five hour period. It was great to hear poetry read by the poet not in that monotonous, dreary way it is so often presented (think of Roger McGough on Poetry Please). This was real and vibrant and the writers knew exactly how to get the best out of it. I learned some valuable lessons about pacing, expression and delivery during those few readings, which I was able to use a short time later.

There were long breaks in between sections for chat and I had fun catching up with a couple of regular live performers I had met before, whose names (Pauline Masurel and Kevlin Henney) invariably crop up on shortlists and as winners of short fiction competitions. By the time my name was called I wasn’t too jittery, despite the large coffee. It went well, although I had a last-minute panic over differentiating between three separate voices, even though I’d practised and practised. I more or less pulled it off without stumbling and this time I knew everyone could hear because I had a microphone!

Again, the feeling of achievement was immense and I am now looking forward to my next performance – a reading of my 300-word story, Care – at the launch of the Worcestershire LitFest Flash Fiction 2014 Anthology in November, with much less fear. I’m hoping it gets easier every time, but I have a feeling I’ll always be grateful for a swift glass of wine beforehand.

As a listening experience, I can’t recommend live readings too highly. I find that hearing the words the way the author intended gives an extra depth to the story or poem and recreates that feeling of being immersed in another world that Listen with Mother gave us. In an age when it is all too easy to skim the surface of experience on social media, electronic games, film and television, this is a real treat. Please, if you see an event near you, do go along and support the writers. I guarantee you’ll be glad you did!

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If you have any tips or tricks for live performance, I’d be very glad to hear them. Please leave a comment below.