#100RPM : Coming along nicely

In these ‘value brand’ recessionary days, it’s always nice to have a bit of good news for a change. A while ago, I told you that my story ‘Baker’s Shop’ based on the song ‘Baker, Baker’ by Tori Amos was to feature in an anthology of stories being put together by Caroline Smailes (author of In Search of AdamLike Bees to Honey, and  last seen promoting 99 Reasons Why on BBC Breakfast)  as an ebook, with all proceeds going to the charity One in Four, which provides support and resources to people who have experienced sexual abuse and sexual violence.

Last week, my story was edited. I shuffled a couple of commas and semi colons around like a sheepish schoolboy (so much for a Grammar school education!) but I survived. This week, there’s more progress. Caroline now has a title 100 RPM and the beginnings of what looks like being a brilliant cover. It’s all coming along nicely.

I’m pleased about this as I haven’t written anything for the past three weeks. My mind is full of too many other things (some good, some bad) and I’m finding it difficult to concentrate on any one thing at any one time. Sleep is elusive and even gardening, my best way of relaxing, isn’t helping. 100RPM is reminding me that I can write well and hopefully there are other stories ahead.

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National Flash Fiction Day – 16th May

On 16th May, the UK will be holding its first National Flash Fiction Day. If you don’t know what Flash Fiction is, then here is a great introduction to the genre. I love writing Flash, partly for the challenge of conveying a story in the absolute minimum of words but mainly because I’m too harsh an editor of my short stories and what was once 1000 words becomes 250!  There are some fantastic writers taking part including quite a few twitter friends. I don’t think this is a coincidence – if you have to make a concise point in 140 characters, 140 words can feel like a whole novel!

I’m planning to celebrate the day by attending the event (reading in my broad Lancashire accent) in Oxford headlined by possibly the finest writer of short and flash fiction in the country, Tania Hershman, author of the hugely acclaimed ‘The White Road and Other Stories’. Before then, I wanted to publicise the day and know more about the idea behind National Flash Fiction Day so I spoke to the creator and organiser Calum Kerr.

Hi Calum, what gave you the inspiration to create a Day to celebrate Flash Fiction?

Hi Pete, thanks for having me.

Well, there were a number of inspirations which came together. The first was the fact that I am a devotee of flash-fiction. I was introduced to it about two years ago in a workshop run by Vanessa Gebbie, and then last January I started writing one a day for a month. That became a book called 31 and I thought that was that. But I had caught the bug, and on May 1st I started a project to write one a day for a year. At the time of writing it is day 284 and I haven’t missed one yet. So, yes, I was living and breathing flash when I had the idea.

Calum Kerr

The second thing came from a friend of mine, Jo Bell, who is the poetry editor for my literary e-zine, Word Gumbo, but also the Director of National Poetry Day. She was promoting her day and I thought… hmmm, is there a National Flash-Fiction Day I could get involved with? I looked and looked and, while I could find National Short Story Day, there was no Flash-Fiction day. It seemed obvious to me that there should be, so why not set it up myself?

The third reason also gave me the tools I needed to set it up. Since starting to write and publish Flash-Fictions I had met a host of writers working in the form, but there was no sense of a community as there is in poetry. I thought it would be a great way to bind them together, and introduce them to one another.

And so one day I just set up a Facebook page, a blog, an email address, picked a date which fell between National Poetry Day and National Short Story Day, and announced it to the world.

Do you regret it now?

Ha! No. Not at all. It’s much more work than I expected, and it’s looking like it’s going to be bigger than I could have imagined (especially with pressure from the US, Ireland and elsewhere to make it International Flash-Fiction Day) but it’s also a wonderful thing. From the moment I announced it everyone has been really enthusiastic, I have been introduced to additional hordes of flash writers. I have been interviewed and commissioned to write stories because I am now ‘that flash guy’, and I get to read lots of wonderful fictions from all of the new friends I’ve been making.

And, beyond the personal, I can see that I am forging a community of writers. Not only am I meeting all these people, they are meeting each other. Events are being organised, competitions run, anthologies compiled. New flashes are being written, new writers are being drawn to the form, the word is spreading and it feels like I’m the midwife to the birth of something wonderful. Hyperbolic I know, but true. Flash-fiction writers, who have previously been separate and isolated, are becoming a single group, and we are all really enthusiastic about what we do, so it’s already feeling like a party – with words.

Do you think this will be a one off or an annual event?

I hope it will be annual. I hope it will be international. I hope it will become as much a staple of the yearly literary round as National Poetry Day, the Booker and the Oscars. We have put in a small bid for some Arts Council funding this year, and if it’s successful we can add some extras to the day. If it’s not, the day will still go ahead and still be a success. But for future years, I’d like to see some funding coming in to help it grow bigger and better. And if everyone’s enthusiasm holds up, there’s no reason why it can’t.

You’ve got some of the best flash fiction writers around to take part, how did you get them to become involved? 

Honestly? I asked. Some of them are friends, or friends of friends, and that helps. But others have been complete strangers until I emailed and said ‘National Flash-Fiction Day… Wanna play?’ No-one has turned me down. It sounds big-headed, but it feels like one of those ideas whose time has come. It’s almost as though people were already waiting to be asked.

What has also been amazing is the number of writers who have sought me out. Some of them I have tracked down, but some of them just turned up and asked what they could do. That’s always a sign that you are doing something worthwhile.

What do you think makes a great flash fiction story?

I think it’s about capturing something fundamental in the fewest possible words. It doesn’t matter if it’s only a couple of hundred words, if they are the right ones then you can talk about all the big issues: life, death, love, hate, sex, loneliness, and, of course, cake, just as easily as you can in a couple of hundred thousand. And I think, because a flash asks a lot of the reader – asks them to bring their own knowledge and to do a lot of work to decode meaning – then the impact of the story can be much greater. It’s like distillation. A novel is a few pints of lager, and a short story is a bottle of good wine. But flash-fiction is a measure of 20 year old single malt. All you need is a sip to be able to get the full complexity of the flavours.

What do you think is the future for flash fiction?

I think we are entering the time of flash-fiction. Everyone is so busy, on the move, bustling, but they still want to read. Short-short stories are perfect for them. And with the increased use of e-books, tablet computers and people reading on their phones, it’s a convenient form too.

But, beyond that, the thing I have found in organising the Day, is that there is a real hunger for flash-fiction. There is something in the form which excites readers and writers alike. The novel isn’t any more dead now than on the several dozen times that its demise has been announced. That could also be said for the short story. But the flash-fiction is undoubtedly on the rise, and I’m giving it a leg-up.

 Thanks Calum and all the very best for National Flash Fiction Day on 16th May.

Whatever your interests, I hope this will encourage you to learn more about flash fiction and take part in what is shaping up to be a special day. If you want more information on the day, then the website is the best place to start. I’ll be looking to doing some other flash fiction features nearer the date.

The Great Escape

Empty vessels make most noise and this one was no exception. She’d been talking for ages now and, apart from the occasional pause for breath, didn’t look like stopping anytime soon. She was now recounting the breakup with her fifth boyfriend and by his estimation, they were still only somewhere around the late 1990s. ‘Cool Britannia’ they had called it in the newspapers and it was cool for a while until musicians started to hang out with politicians; Geri Halliwell draping herself over Nelson Mandela and Noel Gallagher going round to Cherie and Tony’s for drinks. It had, in his opinion, ‘all gone a bit Pete Tong’ and so had this blind date.

He nodded his head and made appropriate noises, oblivious to what had been said for the last five minutes. He thought about checking his watch and inventing an excuse to get away. He’d arranged for one of his (less reliable) friends to ring him and conjure up a domestic crisis requiring his urgent and considered attention if things weren’t going well. There had been no phone call. His friend was probably in another pub somewhere with his other mates having a laugh at Sean’s expense whilst Sharon (it was Sharon wasn’t it?) had moved her life story into the 21st Century.

Sean hated dating. It was something to endure like visiting the dentist. Sean contemplated the joys of root canal surgery as an alternative to another decade of Sharon’s relationship history which would be closed by the words ‘and that’s me’. This would be the signal for Sean to respond with the Holy Trinity of Dating; outlining a relationship track record suggesting fidelity whilst intimating that he had yet to meet ‘the one’, hinting at financial stability and an ambitious career plan and professing if not a love of, at least a tolerance for romantic comedies.  Sean may have hated the dating game but he knew how it worked.

‘You need to get out and meet someone.’ Kate, his sister had told him. ’You can’t go round moping forever.’

‘I’m not ready for all that. It’s too soon.’

‘Nonsense Sean, it’s been over a year. I’ve got a friend, well maybe more a friend of a friend. Anyway she really likes you. You’d be great together.’

Sean was considering the new definition of the word ‘great’ when Sharon’s mobile started to ring loudly to the tune of ‘Single Ladies’. The phone vibrated and sped across the smooth wooden table towards the edge. For a split second, he considered letting it fall. He’d always hated that song but realised that the call might contain salvation and caught it just as gravity took over.

‘No, no, he hasn’t, has he? Aw you poor thing!… I’ll come over… Don’t cry, he’s just a man…. I know, they’re all bastards. I’m coming over now. See you soon.’ Sharon hung up. ‘Look I’m really sorry, I have to go. It’s my friend, she’s just…’

‘I heard. Don’t worry. Yeah, it’s been well been…erm… like really great. I’ll call you.’ Sean promised without much conviction. He gave her a peck on the cheek as Sharon disappeared into the evening and history. He wondered whether the call had been genuine or whether she too had arranged a ‘get out of jail’ call. It didn’t matter. He doubted he’d see Sharon soon. Perhaps they’d bump into each other at Kate’s wedding? They’d survive; Sharon would probably have a boyfriend by then anyway. She didn’t seem to go without one for very long if the period 1993-2002 was anything to go by.

Sean pulled on his coat and headed for the exit. Kate would be annoyed with him but she’d get over it, she always did. As he approached the door, it swung back sharply and hit him squarely in the head. As he picked himself off the floor, he stared up into a mass of wild black hair, deep brown eyes and a whole lot of trouble.

Sex and Drugs And…

The crowd had gone and the house lights were up. On stage, instruments were being packed into flight cases and the lighting rig lowered. Backstage the party was in full swing. Matrix’s rider had been huge, naturally. There was alcohol to intoxicate half of London and enough frivolous items to test the patience of the venue management and amuse his band. Drugs were kept off the list; available, of course, but with a little more discretion after the ‘incident’ in Berlin. And of course there were girls, most young enough to be his daughter and some of them who could be. There had been many tours and too much time to kill before and after each show. Each new city brought a new set of attractions and distractions, both sexual and chemical. It was just so difficult to remember any of it.

So he had sought out new thrills, ones his band and audience would not understand. Something he could indulge in whilst that night’s girl slept it off and he came down from the high of the evening’s show before the tedious journey on to the next gig. Matrix finished the bottle, looked around the room and beckoned the young blonde over. She looked eager, pretty enough and not too clever. She’d do. He was eager to get on. He signalled for the limo.

In another part of London, the printing presses were starting up.  There’s always someone who knows a secret and a price to pay for fame.

Big Boy

Dad looks pleased this morning. We’re wearing the same clothes. He’s dressed me in a white shirt, just the same as his. He gives me a hug and we get ready to leave. Mum groans and pulls a funny face. ‘Men’ she says as we set off. I have no idea what she means.

I’ve been on the Tube before but this time lots of people are wearing the same shirt as us. Dad holds me tighter than usual but he’s smiling. After we get off, we’re all going in the same direction; hundreds of us. My Dad picks me up and carries me pointing towards a big building, even bigger than my nursery. He tells me all about it but I don’t really take it in; I’m hungry. Dad buys me a burger and I cover it in tomato sauce. Mum doesn’t let me do that but my Dad just winks at me and tells me it’s our secret.

We go through a funny gate and climb the stairs; lots of them. Soon we’re in a place with so many chairs with grass in the middle and posts at each end; just like the park. My Dad asks if I know how many people will be here soon. I start to count; one, two, three but I don’t know enough numbers. He laughs and tells me a big number but it doesn’t mean anything. I just know it’s more than I’ve ever seen and it’s exciting. The building is soon full of people and men run onto the pitch to loud music. Some are dressed in my shirt and we cheer. Others are in red shirts and we shout boo, just like we did at the pantomime.

If we go out to a restaurant and I make a noise, Mum and Dad tell me to be quiet but here no-one seems to care. They sing nursery rhymes I don’t know, sometimes with bad words, and they shout at the men kicking the ball. Then there’s a huge noise like the roar of a lion. I can’t see because everyone stands up. My Dad picks me up and kisses me. That’s funny. He only ever kisses me goodnight, never in the day. Dad is happy and I’m happy too but I’m getting tired now. I have a little sleep and I wake up in the arms of my Dad being carried through the crowds.

The Tube is busier than before but people make room for us. Mum tells me never to talk to strangers but my Dad speaks to the people around him even though he doesn’t know who they are. The people smile, make jokes and ruffle my hair. I don’t like it but I think my Dad would be upset if I say anything so I don’t. He says it’s my first game and looks at me proudly. He tells me that I’m a big boy now.

The River

In spring and autumn they walked down to the river bank, watching the changing colours of the trees and the stream of human life that passed them by. Summer was best left to the heat and the tourists; the winter weather too cold for their shrunken frames. They sat in companionable silence for hours on end, sometimes with books but often just hand in hand. They watched the world but there was no one else. ‘For better or worse’ and ‘ for richer or poorer’ had been and gone. Now all that mattered was the time they had together.

The house was full today. It was not their choice, too much fuss and bother, but the children had wanted to do something. The grandchildren had pleaded for a party and who could deny them that? They sat, hand in hand taking in the congratulations from all around; so many people, some who had travelled from so far away. The applause died out and the music started. The song was unfamiliar but they moved together as they always had, their wrinkled hands joined together, looking into each others eyes. Today was a day for others but tomorrow would be theirs, down by the river.

Greyhound

Seven hours into the journey, the romance of the Greyhound bus and the American highway had long been replaced by a deep hatred of my fellow man.  I sunk lower into my seat and stared into the darkness beyond the window, trying to ignore the human zoo around me.  Opposite me, a couple sucked on each others’ faces as if stuck together with superglue.  The snowboarder behind with the headphones on continued to kick my seat at ten second intervals and the middle aged man in front of me mumbled to himself; all of which was beginning to draw heavily on my lifetime allowance of goodwill to others.  ‘Sammy the Psychopath’, as I had named him, left at Sacremento.  As he had reminded us every thirty seconds since San Francisco, as he’d walked up and down the aisle, he’d forgotten his medication and it was with some relief that I watched him wander downtown in search of pharmaceutical salvation.

‘Next stop Truckee’ announced the driver in a friendly but disinterested way.  No-one would get off here.  We were all heading for Tahoe where we would attempt to lose ourself in one diversion or another; skiers and snowboarders on the slopes of Heavenly and those of a more addictive nature in the casinos on the Nevada side of the State line.  The bus stopped and the latest batch of human rejects shuffled their way aboard.  I picked up my book in an attempt to avoid contact but seats were filling fast and my hopes for any kind of personal space were disappearing.

‘Can I join you?’ came a voice from somewhere inside a shapeless blue hoodie as it settled down in the seat beside me without waiting for a response.

‘Please do.’ I replied though more out of politeness than necessity, eager to retreat back into my book.

‘Hi, my name’s Julia’ as the top came down to reveal Californian bleach blonde hair and whitened teeth.

I put my book down.  Perhaps the human zoo had something to offer, after all?

Getting Started In Flash Fiction

Until this year, I had no idea what flash fiction was. Having looked it up, I’m still not sure I know exactly what it is but I know it’s short.  Longer than a tweet and shorter than a ‘short ‘story (however you define short!) seems to be the only consensus. But given a word-count and a theme, I thought I’d have a go at writing one and entered ‘Forty’ into a writing competition to celebrate author Rebecca Emin’s birthday. You can read all about the competition, how it developed and the winning stories on on her blog at http://ramblingsofarustywriter.blogspot.com/

There were 39 entries in all and I was pleased to make the shortlist of 14. How good is that?  It got even better today when I found out I’d come joint fifth.  Normally joint fifth doesn’t jump out, but for someone who’s just starting, that’s great encouragement.   Two groups of people I don’t know read my story and liked it.  And that’s what writing is all about.

Flash Fiction – ‘Forty’

I can’t move but I can breathe, for a while at least.  I know people are looking for me but the air is running out and I’m losing body heat.  How many minutes left; twenty, thirty minutes; forty at most?
‘Forty, it’s only a number’ I said a few weeks ago.  ‘Life begins at forty’.  I wasn’t sure I believed it but I said it anyway.  I should be at home surrounded by friends and drinking champagne.   Instead I wanted a ‘challenge’.  Now the only thing on ice is me. I remember the avalanche hurtling towards me and a fall that lasted forever.
It’s so cold. I don’t know how long it’s been; I can’t see my watch.  What are my odds; twenty, thirty, forty to one?  I’m feeling tired but I know I shouldn’t sleep.
It’s warmer now.  I can see myself.  The room is packed with people and equipment.  I’m the centre of attention like a birthday boy at a party but there is no cake nor candles.   I am wired to machines.  They are worried about my heart rate.  I don’t need to look at the screen.  Some numbers stay with you, for life.
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