Monday, 25 May 2015

Flash fiction – or How I Got with the Programme!

I suppose you could say I came to writing via a circuitous route.  I started the first Aten Sequence book a few months before I went travelling in 2007 around Australia, with all good intentions of having it finished by the time I returned. Well that never happened – too many beaches, kangaroos, outback trails, excellent restaurants and fun to be had!

On my return I discovered an American website called Hubpages and started writing articles and earning money online, so fiction writing was firmly on the back burner.  After several years, I turned back to my original project and the first two Aten Sequence books were completed and self-published

But like all things, if you are passionate about what you do, you want to learn, you want to improve, and want your writing to be the best it can be. So how to do it?  Of course, one of the best ways is to keep on writing, so I started writing short stories as well as starting on the third Aten book.  I also started reading everything I could on composing stories, structuring novels, marketing and how to get book reviews.

But the thing that always puzzled me was the amount of people who wrote flash fiction. Why?  What was the point of it?  Flash fiction, if you have never come across the term before, is a very short, complete story of under 500 words or so.  There is even micro fiction, which is generally accepted as a story of 300 words or less.  But if you have novels to write, why spend your precious time crafting these stories?

I finally learned the benefit of flash fiction and how I could use it to improve my writing skills when I joined a writers group.  Again this was something I had thought about for around three years before I plucked up the courage to attend one of the Monday night meetings, where regular flash fiction competitions are held. These stories have to be 300 words excluding the title and the theme is chosen by the group.

So how did starting to write flash fiction help to improve my writing?

·                   It made me start to consider every word I used and weigh up how important it was to the story.  Writing full length novels makes it very easy to fall into the trap of using too many words and indulging in long, rambling sentences.

·         If using adjectives and adverbs is the cardinal sin of writing, then flash fiction helps you eliminate them and forces you to find ways of conveying your meaning without using too many descriptive words.  If you have only got 300 to use, you want to make sure each one counts.

·         It helps bring clarity.  You have a story to tell, ideas to get across, points of view you want to share.  You have to get rid of all the waffling, rambling and going around the long way.  For a complete story you still need a beginning, middle and end, so you need to strip out all the unessential elements and get on with it.

·         This stripping out also means ditching characters, too much scene setting, and any dialogue that does not add to the plot.  The ‘KISS’ principle reigns supreme; to tell your story in so few words you have to keep it as simple as possible.

·         You need to wrap the story up with a decisive last line. It is too easy with so few words to leave a story hanging and not give your readers an ending that satisfies them.

·         Flash fiction poses a new challenge every time.  You are given a theme, a word count and you have to produce a piece of writing in set time period. Challenges can be scary but they push us out of our fur-lined writing ruts and test us to think differently about what we are doing and write on topics we would usually avoid at all costs.

.·        Writing flash fiction gives you the opportunity to have a long, hard look at the bad writing habits you have gotten into. What words do you habitually overuse? Do you have certain phrases or expressions that creep into every piece you write, whether they are appropriate or not?  In these very short stories, there is no place for your writing ‘comfort blankets’. They have to be discarded to crisp up your story and let it be told within the word limit.
I am no great expert in writing flash fiction and am relative newbie in producing these very short stories.  But I am already beginning to see the benefits and am starting to bring what I have learned to my longer projects.

So, if like me, you are sceptical about how writing flash fiction can help you develop as an author, why not give it a go?  There are competitions and sites online where you test out your skill or you can join a local writers group, where you will receive useful feedback and critiques.

Here is an example of flash fiction.  It is a story I wrote on the theme of 'beyond the gate' for the Watford Writers Group, which I am very proud to say won the third prize.  I hope you enjoy it.

The Darkest Hour

The shadows lengthened as the moon slipped behind the mountain.

Maren knew it was time to wake the American.  The wounded flyer would only get one chance and, if he didn’t get it right, they could both be dead by the time the sun rose.

He reached out and shook the sleeping man’s shoulder, shoving his other hand over his mouth to stop him calling out.

‘Time to go,’ he whispered. ‘The moon’s just set, so it’s as dark as it’s going to get. You need to keep low and make as little noise as possible.  I haven’t seen or heard one of their patrols in a couple of hours, but it doesn’t mean they’re not out there waiting for us to make a move.

Maren took the top off his water bottle and thrust it at the American, who took a few thirsty mouthfuls.

The young flyer gave the old Basque guide a grateful look as he handed back the bottle.

‘Won’t you come too?  Someone tipped the Nazis off, those patrols were waiting for us? It’s too dangerous to stay.’

Maren shook his head.

‘My family is here.  If I don’t go back I’m putting them all under suspicion.  Besides, Todor is only expecting one package.’

‘How can I thank you for what you’ve done for me?  You’ve risked so much?’

‘By not getting caught.  The Spanish border is over there by that stand of pine trees.  Get beyond the gate and you should be safe.’

At that moment a light flashed three times in the trees, the signal Maren had been waiting for.

‘You must go now,’ he said pushing the American out of the barn door, watching as he stumbled into the dying night to be swallowed by the darkness.

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