Monthly Archives: February 2017

Flash fiction – or when size really does matter


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.