Tag Archives: fiction

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…




Out of time

Last week, courtesy of an offer from someone I follow on Twitter, I had the privilege of reading an advance copy of Joanna Trollope’s reworking of Sense and Sensibility in a modern setting.  As part of the evidently industrial-scale marketing of their “Austen Project”, which will see six contemporary novelists “reimagine” Jane Austen’s works, Harper Collins sent pre-publication copies to reading groups around the country, in return for their blogging about them, taking part in Austen-related activity and generally “immersing yourselves in the romantic world of Austen”.

It take more than an iPod to make a twenty-first century heroine...
It takes more than an iPod to make a twenty-first century heroine…

Well, I didn’t sign up for that; but given that I’ve received a rather beautiful edition of a book for precisely no pence, I’m happy to join in.  Sadly, though, I’m not sure my thoughts on this literary outing are going to be quite what HC were hoping for…

This has nothing to do with the writing.  I’m not the biggest fan of Joanna Trollope – the covering letter says that this book “perfectly affirms the description of Joanna as a modern day Jane Austen” whilst subtly avoiding the direct claim that anyone has ever actually described her as such before – but from my limited exposure to her novels, she seems to write a reasonable story perfectly well.  The disease stems simply from the misguided attempt to transpose Jane Austen’s characters into today’s world; unfortunately, it’s terminal.

It is difficult to imagine it working well for any of Austen’s novels, so bound are her characters by the social mores of her time.  It certainly doesn’t work for Sense and Sensibility, where at the very core of the plot lies the Dashwood women’s vulnerability, their inability to fend for themselves.  At a time when women’s opportunities for work were strictly circumscribed, and any attempt by a woman of a certain class to enter paid employment would be accompanied by plummeting social status and the loss of former friends, the death of a provider and accompanying loss of a home is genuinely pitiable.  Anyone with a second X chromosome can be grateful that this is not the case in England today.

The result is that it’s difficult to summon up a lot of sympathy for Trollope’s tedious, middle-class women bleating that they’re simply not “fit for work.” Send them to ATOS forthwith! And instead of feeling indignant at the sisters’ dreadful sister-in-law Fanny and her lily-livered husband John, you can’t help feeling that they’re not, actually, behaving all that unreasonably.  What’s wrong with wanting to move into and redecorate a home you’ve inherited? What’s wrong with feeling disinclined to share it – and otherwise financially support – your shiftless sisters and pointless mother, none of who have apparently seen fit to do a day’s work in their lives?

It would have taken a little more than having Marianne listen to an iPod to bring this story successfully into the twenty-first century. It feels like we need some kind of desperate illness for Mrs Dashwood at the very least, if we’re going to be able to muster a bit of sympathy; perhaps Marianne could be autistic and Elinor have some kind of mental health problem to convince us that they really, really couldn’t be expected to work for their bread. Does take us rather far from the original story though, doesn’t it?

And that’s the problem. We are all, to some extent, products of our time (anyone who’s cringed at racist comments by their grandparents will know the truth of that) and characters in fiction are no different.  That doesn’t mean we appreciate their trials and tribulations any the less if they’re set in an historical context ; simply that when they’re plucked out of their own time and plonked down in another era, they’re often left shuffling uncomfortably in their new surroundings.

Shakespeare, of course, is the greatest casualty of this inexplicable desire to transplant characters out of time.  The success of the Globe theatre demonstrates it’s a ploy that simply isn’t necessary to draw audiences: people are just as capable of imagining their characters in sixteenth century Verona as they are of empathising with them through their fears and hopes and loves. And whilst no-one has had the temerity to “reimagine” the Bard’s words just yet – not under the same title, anyway – the violence done to his language by ill thought-out changes of context can be gruesome.  I’ll never forget the production of King Lear, attended with my A’-level English class, which had a 1930s Gloucester in a straitjacket instead of stocks, loudly declaiming his “wooden prison”.  There were loads of those verbal-visual mismatches.  Apart from being wildly distracting it Made No Sense.

That’s not to say it can never work.  I saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in a mud bath – yes, really – and it was brilliant.  But it takes a lot of care and skill.  You can’t just say, oh Shakespeare’s so wonderful, he transcends the boundaries of place and time, and set Macbeth in a New York doughnut factory without any consideration of the actual words.

But back to Trollope (any relation?) and the Austen project. I’d like to say that, regardless of the difficulty of transposing Austen into the modern era, this is still a good read.  Honestly though, I can’t.  All the characters we’re supposed to sympathise with are so bloody annoying: Marianne is self-indulgent, self-regarding and downright rude; Elinor’s such a martyr she needs a slap; and this Colonel Brandon is even more of a wet fish than the original.  Enough of them all!

I see Alexander McCall Smith is lined up to rework Emma.  I think he’s got an easier ride with that one, but even so…  I might just content myself with re-reading the greatest English novelist of all time.

Columbo and the art of character in fiction

I was watching an episode of Columbo this weekend.  That’s virtually unavoidable if you have a TV, given the frequency with which reruns are scheduled on one or another cable channel.  And that’s a good thing in my book.

I didn’t catch the very beginning of the episode, but that didn’t matter.  Peter Falk was there in his crumpled mac, mumbling away innocently to a well-dressed gentleman of a certain age, who was condescendingly explaining to the hapless inspector how to do his job. “Aha!” I thought, “And there’s the murderer!” Columbo - questions

It’s a strange thing for a detective story to ensure you’re so certain of whodunit from virtually the opening scene. And often, the opening scene actually shows the murder itself, so there’s not even any mystery about how they did it.  There were 69 of episodes altogether, you know – I looked it up.  I’ll admit it, I haven’t watched every last one – well, not so far as I know – but I’d be willing to bet that you could switch on at any point, and identify the perpetrator in less than a minute.

Can you imagine pitching that idea?

And yet Columbo ran for over thirty years, winning a whole pile of plaudits in the process. If Peter Falk had been immortal, they’d probably still be making it today.  In that time, there were even a few of what Wikipedia calls “repeat offenders” – actors who did the dirty deed in more than one episode.  Patrick McGoohan was the arch villain, appearing as the murderer in four episodes, while George Hamilton and William Shatner – yes, The Shat! – were each twice the guilty party.

What was the secret to its success?

It can only be one thing – the character of Columbo himself.  And yet, how much do we actually know about him?  Far from the heart-wrenching sub plots about neglected children or dissatisfied spouses that are an essential component of the modern TV detective, we never even set eyes on Mrs Columbo. We hear there are children, but they’re never seen either.  In fact, what we see of Columbo is virtually the same as is seen by the people he’s investigating.

Perhaps that’s part of the trick.  Whilst the other characters in general, and the murderer most particularly, underestimate Columbo, we never do.  We can congratulate ourselves on appreciating his shrewdness, enjoying the game of cat and mouse he plays with his increasingly irritated suspects as they gradually realise that they’re not, after all, going to be successful in getting away with murder.

I’m still not quite sure how the writers pull it off; how they keep things interesting whilst sticking rigidly to the formula for every episode.  Perhaps it’s just that, despite not really knowing much about him, Columbo is an inherently likable man – warm, affable, the kind of chap you could take for a pint.  And the visual props are an essential part of the package; the dishevelled hair, that tatty old raincoat, the cigar.  Here, they seem to say, is a man who is comfortable in his own skin, a bit messy maybe; he has his vices, but they’re only small ones.

Is it just me, or was the young Peter Falk actually quite hot?

Is it just me, or was the young Peter Falk actually quite hot?

Like I say, I don’t know how they do it. But if I could pull off a character like that, I’d be a happy writer.