Flash fiction – or when size really does matter

flash

So I made my first attempt to write some flash fiction the other day. It was a competition entry – Reflex Fiction’s inaugural contest, which closes for submissions on 28 February if you fancy entering (details here) – and with a top prize of £100, I hoped optimistically to put a dent in the bill for the astonishingly expensive replacement tap I’ve just had to buy for our downstairs loo. Well, you never know. And inspiration comes in all shapes and sizes, right?

Except that was my first problem. How do you pick a topic for flash fiction?

The competition in question has strict parameters for word count: no fewer than 180 words and no more than 360. I’d never tried to write a story that short – the first draft of my last novel came in at over 150,000 words, so it seemed likely I’d find this a bit of a challenge.

A few years ago I went along to a London Writers’ Café workshop where the guest speaker was renowned author of short stories, Zoe Fairbairns. The most famous of her works is “Bus Ticket”, and she maintained that successful short story ideas often focussed on a single, small object.

The thing is, “Bus Ticket” is one of Ms Fairbairns’ shortest stories (and I’m far too scared to get her title wrong after reading it). It comes in at 756 words – more than twice the flash fiction limit. And a bus ticket is pretty small – as far as I can remember, anyway; it’s all contactless and Oystercards in London these days.

So how could I downsize from there? A postage stamp, perhaps? A button? Reasonable enough, but if everyone else was taking the same advice, those nice people at Reflex Fiction were going to be reading a lot of stories about philately and dressmaking.

I’m not sure I follow the logic that physical size has to matter here. Surely it’s the size of the idea, whatever it’s based on, that has to be manageable enough for the word count restrictions?

Then I wondered whether genre might be a factor. Would it be easier to pack the drama into a teeny tiny ghost story, say, or a murder mystery?

I tried looking at flash fiction websites to see if there were any themes. And guess what? There weren’t.

There were fantasies, and stream-of-consciousness pieces, and a rather beautiful story  about telepathy.  There were all kinds of different subjects and styles – which didn’t help at all but which was somehow reassuring in a funny kind of way.

At least I couldn’t get it wrong just by picking the wrong topic.

So I had a go, and while I doubt the resulting effort is really going to help with that new tap, I had fun doing it. Watch this space for the results as soon as I find I haven’t made the longlist. And I might give flash fiction another go one of these days – though I will have to live with that Queen song running through my head every time I think of it…

FLASH! Ah-ahh…

 

 

 

The tax man giveth…

HM Revenue and Customs formDoing what you love for a living, it turns out, is not as straight forward as you’d think. I speak, of course, of the challenge of accounting to the tax man.

It’s true that said challenge is not pressing. I doubt even the most zealous official of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is going to be knocking on my door demanding her cut of the £18.58 that is my current sum total of royalties. But great riches are surely only just around the corner! So in anticipation of those exciting times I’ve been endeavouring to do what all the websites say is crucial to successful self-employment: keeping records.

The trouble is, I can’t find many things to keep records of. It’s not like I have lists of orders, or a catalogue of stock, or receipts or invoices. I don’t have much in the way of costs (just as well, given I have even less in the way of income): communications with my agent are by email, I’ve yet to dip my toe in the self-publishing puddle, and I write everything on the same creaky laptop I’ve had for years.

I do, though, work from home, and those nice people at HMRC will apparently let me count some of the costs of maintaining it – utilities and council tax and so on – as business expenses. Hurrah! But in order to take advantage of this unexpected largesse, I need to find a justifiable way of identifying the proportion of those costs that fall to writing.

There’s apparently more than one way to do this. HMRC have a simplified calculation that will come up with an estimated cost for you – but I can’t help feeling that’s unlikely to err on the side of generosity. Or if you use one room primarily as an office, you can divide your costs by the total number of rooms in your house and use that. But do bathrooms count? And are my kitchen and dining room two separate rooms – there’s an archway between them instead of a door – or would the man/woman from the revenue claim them as a kitchen-diner? Perhaps I should get an estate agent round.

The alternative, as I understand it, is to record the amount of time you spend working- so if you spend 4 hours every day hard at it, say, you could claim a sixth of the costs of running your house as a business expense. All well and good, and keeping a timesheet appeals to the not-yet-completely-dead civil servant in me. Plus it will surely count as another one of those records I’m supposed to be keeping. Simples, no?

Well, no. Because now I have to decide what counts as working time. The bit where I’m actually sat at my laptop producing words seems fair enough. And ditto editing. But just how creative can we get here? Can I count reading “in genre” as research? What about out of genre? If I enjoyed reading something does it automatically become entertainment instead of research? And what about Twitter – surely a quick scroll through #amwriting is practically a requirement these days?

I remember reading once about lawyers getting grief for having billed their clients for time spent in the bath on the basis they were thinking about their cases. Their argument was that, like Archimedes, that might be when they got their Eureka! moments. It seemed like a load of old hollyhocks at the time, but I’m starting to feel more sympathetic…

It’s a minefield. Any advice gratefully received; and if you’d like to send it on the back of a £50 note, I’m reliably informed there’s no tax to pay on gifts.

 

 

 

 

Learning to love your writing

I’ve had a problematic relationship with my current work in progress.

There are lots of reasons for this. I didn’t plan it to within an inch of its life before I started writing, too impatient to get on with it to worry about my individual character plotlines or the scene spreadsheet. “I’ve done this before,” I thought, “I’ve got this.” Ha!

The early stages of writing were interrupted, repeatedly, by publishers rejecting my first book.  I had to put it to one side and focus on rewrites. I felt weirdly guilty about leaving my new characters – as if I’d just breathed life into them and then left them hanging around with nothing to do while I spent all my time with my old friends. It felt rude.

And when I was able to turn back to them, it was because of failure. A few British publishers had expressed interest in book 1 but none had offered, even after all those hours of rewrites, all that bloody effort. It was hard to work up a lot of enthusiasm for going through the whole miserable process again.

It felt hard. The words came slowly. I set aside writing days and sat grimly at my desk for hours, forcing out a few hundred words like a chicken laying a particularly large, square egg.

I dimly remembered the experience of writing the first book, utterly unable to think of what came next, how to move the plot forward; but the memories didn’t seem real. By then, book 1 had found a French and then a German publisher, and I was fond of it again. I looked back on the days of writing it as a sort of golden period, telling myself that the words had come freely, that I’d known what I was doing, that everything – the idea, the planning, the execution – had been better than the current exercise.

I bitched about book 2. I couldn’t find a good word to say about it. So consistent was I in telling anyone who asked how irredeemably rubbish it was, that when I eventually considered it in a decent enough shape to ask people to read it, the Husband – my biggest cheerleader – couldn’t work up any enthusiasm to do it.

Poor, unloved book 2!

It’s on its fourth draft now – two more than book 1 had before it went out to publishers – and there’s still a lot of work to do. But somewhere in the last couple of weeks I’ve found something I’d been missing before. I’ve actually started to like it.

I’ve come across bits of writing and thought, “That’s not bad.” I’ve realised I care about my characters. I can see there’s more depth to my story than there was last time around. In short, it has its good points.

What has brought about this change of heart?

Partly, I think, it’s that the re-drafting has improved things. Sheer time and persistence have succeeded in editing away the worst horrors.

Partly, it’s that my agent has asked hard questions that, while at first they made me want to go and cry in a corner, also made me realise that I do know my characters better than I thought I did. That they have more about them than I’d given them credit for. (Now all I need to do is find a way to transfer that knowledge to the page.)

And a big part is that two of the three people who’ve read and commented on it so far, people whose opinions I respect, have said that they prefer this book to the first one. That makes me happy. Really happy.

I know I probably shouldn’t care so much about what other people think. I know we’re all supposed to write for ourselves, blah blah blah. But I’m writing fiction – I want people to enjoy it. A bit of encouragement goes a long way.

So it’s back to the “to do” list for draft 4 and a half. And if I don’t have a song in my heart, there’s the beginning of a tune on my lips. And no matter what the outcome with this book, one thing I’ll remember from all of this: sticking with something helps. Even if you can’t see a way of it ever getting to where you want it to be. Even if you think it’s rubbish.

Because eventually the clouds part. And when they do, the darkness before makes the sunshine that much brighter.love-of-writing

 

 

 

fear

Fear of the dark

2017 feels a bit scary.

I don’t make a habit of attributing characteristics to years. It’s not exactly rational. But this time I’m making an exception.fear

Because in important ways, this year is make or break for the Yak household.

I’ve got six months to get Book 2 into a state where there’s some prospect of it bringing in some cash. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but it has to be something. If it fails – if I fail – it’s back to the day job. Except that the day job isn’t there anymore, so I’ll have to persuade someone, somewhere that 17 years of making Government policy equips me to do something other than make Government policy.

Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.

Then there’s the not-entirely-unrelated issue of having a two household marriage. Two salaries and one home, it turns out, was infinitely more comfortable than two homes and one salary. Who knew?

Finances aside, saying goodbye to the Husband as he left last night to return to the Sad Pad where he now spends the working week was hard. Not even the prospect of not having to share the  Waitrose chocolate truffles did much to help. The cats are discomfited by the lopsided parenting. Patsy is anxious and needy, and Poppy is cross about unnegotiated changes to the parental timeshare arrangements.

And that’s before we get to the big stuff. The Brexit and the Donald, and the it’s-OK-to-be-sexist/racist/fascist/just-unkind-because-we-won-and-you-lost-so-fuck-you. And all the sound and fury is bad enough, but what happens when the shit actually gets real?

This doesn’t feel like the way to start a New Year. This should be a time of hope, of resolutions, and fitness regimes and brand new word count targets. So let’s turn that frown upside down. What we need at times like this is a list. A top ten. Perhaps a top five then. Top five reasons for us all to be cheerful.

Here goes:

  1. Difficult times make for great art. Lots of writers hang around here – just think of all the material!
  2. The weather is pretty mild for the time of year. That’s good, isn’t it? Think of the little birds. And the sheep in the fields. And the hibernating ladybirds. (And if anyone knows of any reason why mild winters actually aren’t good news for particular species, please do NOT comment and tell me.)
  3. There’s a new series of Sherlock coming! You see, it’s already better than 2016.
  4. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Prince and even George Michael can’t die twice.

Ok, top four. Over to you for the fifth. In the words of Ferris Bueller’s teacher, “Anyone? Anyone..?”

 

In Search of Fairy Dust

Somewhere in here, nurse, there's a story, and we're going to save it!

Somewhere in here, ladies and gentlemen, is a story. Let’s try and save it!

I’ve got the editing blues.

After almost three years of sporadic work, the first draft of book 2 is complete and I’m half way through the read through. It’s confirmed my darkest fears: it’s in need of some serious surgery.

First, there are the slips of voice. Was I re-reading Pride and Prejudice, dear reader, when I came over all Jane Austen in the middle of my contemporary psychological thriller?

And what was I thinking of when I plodded my way through all those boring passages: she did this, then she did this, then she did this – and voilà! The cup of tea was made!

And then there are the abrupt transitions, the scenes that don’t seem to have an actual point, the echoes of words and phrases; and those damnable adverbs I’d tried so hard to purge but have somehow bubbled up anyway through the cracks of my subconscious and turned my sentences an alarming shade of mauve.

Keep breathing, I tell myself. It is good that you can see there’s work to do. Admitting the problem is the first step to solving it. Etc. Etc.

But the truth is, those problems are only part of the picture.

Before I started the edit, I took two weeks away from writing to cleanse my mind. It gave me the chance to read and re-read a whole pile of psychological thrillers, proper books by proper authors who had navigated the battlefield of publishing and landed an actual deal. It reminded me that there’s something else I need to add to the mix…

Fairy dust.

Because there are a hell of a lot of books out there. More specifically, there’s a truck-load of psychological thrillers aimed at the female market. Loads of victims and villains, secrets and lies, mysterious pasts and vengeful friends/siblings/former partners. And there are plenty that are competently written, with clean prose and a story that makes sense and keeps you turning the pages.

But the thing is, after a while, the vast majority of those novels sort of merge into one other. And that’s where the fairy dust comes in.

As part of my reading marathon, I turned back to two books I’d loved. No prizes for originality here, because they were both mega-sellers: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. I could see that they deserved their success. I could see that they both had something special, something that separated them from the rest. I tried to put my finger on what it was.

In the case of Gone Girl, you could argue that it’s about the voice or the language, those clever descriptive phrases that capture so perfectly a mood or an expression in just two or three words. For The Girl on the Train it might be the concept, elevating something so ordinary – the commute to work – to a stage for gripping drama.

But whilst those elements play their part, I think at bottom they both have something else, something that’s both elegantly simple and nightmarishly complex all at one.

Compelling characterisation.

I mean, I really liked Rachel, Hawkins’ troubled, alcoholic, quietly desperate protagonist. I rooted for her. Remember that time when she threw up on the stairs of her friend’s flat and then went to bed, telling herself she’d get up and clean it all up before her friend got home? Yes it was pathetic and disgusting, but all I wanted to do was take her by the shoulders and shake her, tell her to clean it up now, no matter how bad she felt, because I knew what was coming if she didn’t. I cared about her. I wanted to save her from herself.

And then at the opposite end of the spectrum there’s Amy, Gone Girl‘s anti-heroine. Amy isn’t so much flawed as twisted, psychotic, poisonous – and written with so much snap. She’s horrifying but fascinating, so dark that she sends a delicious shiver of fear down the spine. Like her husband, Nick, I had to know what was going on inside her head.

So I know that when I’ve cut the pointless scenes, and scrubbed out the adverbs, and improved the narrative flow, there’s another, more important thing on my to do list for the next draft:

I have to turn my protagonist into a heroine. I have to find the fairy dust.fairy-dust

Toddlerville: or Why Writing in a Café Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

I wonder… Did JK Rowling have kids?

I am now Living the Dream. By which I mean: here I am, on what to the office-dwelling population is a normal working day, sitting in a café and scribbling in a notebook.

It’s true that I’m doing this in a somewhat self-conscious manner. I’m pausing every now and then to scan the room under cover of sipping my green tea, wondering whether anyone is looking at me. Wondering whether they’re thinking “Look at that woman on her own, writing away in that notebook. I wonder what she’s doing? She looks an intelligent sort. Perhaps she’s a writer?”

The fantasy

The fantasy

But of course, no-one is doing that.

That might be because they have other things to think about, or that they’re just not as nosey as I am, or because actually I don’t look intelligent at all. But the main reason that they’re not looking around full stop is that they’re all engrossed in their children. Those small people who’ve colonized all the lovely places I’d dreamed of idling in looking arty, just as soon as I’d relieved myself of the millstone of paid employment.

I look around the room and every table has a minimum of one babe-in-arms. Most have two or more, surrounded by a hinterland of buggies and bags and bits of plastic in primary colours and scraps of clothing in – I’d be prepared to put money on it – organic cotton. And this isn’t Hampstead or Primrose Hill, for Christ’s sake. This is Lewisham. Where are all the pimps and drug dealers? They’ve been driven out by the bloody parents.

The result is a constant soundtrack of squealing, squawking, burbling, gurgling and the occasional distant bark (we’re in the middle of a park, but the dog owners are keeping a respectful distance). Which brings me back to my original question: did the JK Rowling who sat in a café penning her future mega-sellers have small children?

The reality - only with more chairs

The reality – only with tables

To be clear: I’m not imagining that any such creatures were with her at the time. It takes only a moment’s observation to see that if they had been, her time would have been spent cajoling, scolding, pleading and mopping, not getting Harry, Ron and Hermione to do battle with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. But surely she must have had that talent, peculiar to the parents of toddlers, of blocking out the cacophony they produce?

Did she, I wonder, also have a coffee budget? How forgiving were the owners of that café, wherever it was, unaware of how this daily drinker of single lattés (I’m just guessing here; they might have been cappuccinos) would one day put their establishment on the map?

And do these omnipresent parents have coffee budgets too? Did they take into account in whatever calculations they made about the financial cost of parenthood (assuming that they didn’t simply shout “Babies!” and abandon contraception) the sheer quantity of caffeine they would apparently need to get them through the Vale of Tears that seems to be years 0-5?

I’d like to think that I could wait them out; that if only I ordered another tea, then another, and perhaps another, eventually – as well as needing to find the loos – the parents would leave, taking little Matilda or Moses to baby massage, or baby yoga or baby cross-country skiing, and the space could once again be used by people higher than 2 feet tall, speaking at a volume that wouldn’t trouble a jet engine.

But the hope is a vain one. There is a never-ending supply. No sooner does one group depart than another arrives to take its place, clad in the same clothes, talking about the same things, taking the same supply of toys and soft-covered books and plastic bottles from the same bags hung in precisely the same way from the handles of the same buggies.

This is their world, and I am the interloper. I feel like Neville in I Am Legend (the book, not the film – damn you, Will Smith). Joining their ranks is unimaginable. I have only one option.

Next time, I’m bringing headphones.

Why So Serious? A day in the life of a civil servant

I don’t plan to join the ranks of those who for a brief period worked alongside the civil service and, having failed to make any meaningful contribution whatsoever felt themselves qualified to opine on its shortcomings (yes, Digby Jones, I’m talking about you). The truth is that the civil service is stuffed to the rafters with thoughtful, intelligent, conscientious people who do their very best to give their political masters what they want, whilst being pilloried in the media by those who find it expedient to blame their own failures on officials who are constitutionally prevented from answering back. bureaucracy

That is not to say, however, that the civil service is faultless. After 17 years of working within it, my humble opinion is that its fundamental problem – contrary to what Yes, Minister would have you believe – lies in its treatment of every part of the business of government with equal and total seriousness. In short, it lacks a sense of perspective and occasionally – and worse – a sense of humour.

Whilst names have been changed to protect the innocent, the following is a 100% faithful account of what happened when an area of policy responsibility recently moved from one Whitehall Department to another. For the uninitiated, the following is a quick guide to who’s who in Government bureaucracy:

Secretary of State: Minister who heads a department of State and is a member of the Cabinet. Usually addressed as Secretary of State for X & Y policy area, unless the Department they lead has delusions of grandeur, in which case they are the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary or Home Secretary.

Permanent Secretary: Civil servant who leads the department. Responsible for delivering what Ministers want and accountable to Parliament for achieving value for money for taxpayers. Also has the happy task of deciding what to do when those two things are mutually exclusive.

Director General: Civil servant who is one layer down from the Perm Sec. Responsible for a large area of policy, or for all corporate issues (finance, legal etc). In almost all cases, whatever collection of things they are responsible for is known as a “Group”.

 

Following a machinery of government change, the Department for Administrative Affairs has inherited a new policy responsibility – staplers. Of course, it will need a new strategy and set of initiatives to demonstrate why the previous department was so rubbish and that things are going to be different in stapler world now that the DAA’s in charge. But first things first: the bit of the department into which stapler policy has been absorbed – the Hole Punch and Envelope File Group – needs a new name to reflect its new responsibilities.

The Hole Punch and Envelope File Group’s strategy team swings into action. Advice is written covering options. The person leading the stapler policy team is asked to comment on it – should staplers be added to the title, or would it be better to start with a clean slate – say, the Stationery Efficiency Group? Great minds apply themselves to the question.

A second version of the advice is circulated with a request for the stapler policy lead to comment again. She does.

Time passes.

Everyone is still sitting in their old seats, but a pop-up banner has appeared in their bit of the office announcing to visitors that they are now entering the territory of the Hole Punch and Envelope File Group. The stapler team are restive – is their work going to be any more important to HPEFG than it was to their previous group?

Overnight, a post-it note is stuck to the banner. It reads, in red biro, “AND STAPLERS”.

The stapler policy lead asks whether there’s any news. There isn’t.

More time passes.

Then one afternoon she sees an email attaching a four page document: advice on a new name and mission statement is being submitted to the Permanent Secretary. The covering message notes reassuringly that checks have been made, and it is certain that any changes to HPEFG’s title do not need to be announced to Parliament.

More time passes.

Then one day another email appears: the Director General has discussed the matter with the Permanent Secretary, who has discussed it with the Secretary of State. They have concluded that the new name of the group should be…

The Hole Punch, Envelope File and Staplers Group.

The stapler policy lead allows herself a little smile and taps out an email to her team to let them know the good news. At last, staplers are on the map! (Though not literally, because you’re not allowed to stick anything on the walls in the open plan.)

Ping!

Barely has she pressed send when up pops another email. This one is from the Director General’s office and it has a red exclamation mark next to it. The stapler policy lead opens it at once. It reads:

“I’m sure I don’t need to tell anyone this, but please do not tell your teams about the Group’s name change yet. The comms team are currently working up a communications strategy to manage this.”

The stapler policy lead goes into the ladies loos and rocks quietly back and forth.