In a Spin

This is brilliant!

paulaharmondownes

It was Saturday.

My husband had taken the children out on their paper round.

Monday to Friday, I work in an office, assessing risk, writing reports and meeting targets instead of being creative. All week, the housework piles up. Recently, it had been piling up for a month. On that Saturday, I needed to get a grip.

One day, I thought, if I ever finish my novel, I might get rich and famous. Then I can write all day and hire staff to do the boring stuff.

I only needed to write twenty thousand more words and I’d be finished. Then…who knew what the future might hold.

But on that Saturday, the novel had to wait.

The house was quiet but I mustn’t get side-tracked. There were chores to be done before I could write.

I went to the laundry bin. It was empty. How wonderful, the children…

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Learning as I Go!

This blog’s been quiet for over three months this time – the longest gap since I began the blog. I do have a good-ish excuse though, among other things, I’ve been proofreading and editing my biggest piece of writing to date.

(Quick side note: the ‘other things’ mentioned above include finishing third year of a combined BA, including sitting an exam which involved writing two full length essays as well as revising for said exam…)

All of the above has taught me one thing: don’t leave all the editing until the end.

I generally keep an eye on spelling and grammar as I go anyway – I cannot physically leave a typo or misplaced comma once I’ve spotted it – but a lot of writing advice blogs* say that it is best to write the whole story down as fast as possible without making any corrections or doing any proofing. This is the way I work with short pieces of up to, say, about three or four thousand words, but I’ve come to understand that this is not how I am going to be comfortable working with longer pieces.

They say that the reason for writing straight through is so that you don’t lose the flow of the story, and I can understand that. However, for me, when I have a story on the go it tends to stay fresh (touch wood!), and – as long as I don’t leave it too long – I can pick it up quite smoothly after a break.

What I do struggle with is proofing. I don’t like the tedium of going over my work critically, and I find it very draining if I have a lot of text to go through. I managed the first read through fairly easily. The second was tedious, and took much longer than it should have – I tended to start reading the story, rather than scanning for sentence structure and errors. The third – and hopefully last, for a while at least – draft is almost ready, at which point I’m going to start scouting about for an agent. Any further drafts and amendments will be in response to the agent’s (should I succeed in finding one) suggestions.

For my next big piece of writing (calling it a ‘novel’ before it is ready for publication seems a bit pretentious) I think I will write it as I did this piece, in natural sections, but this time stop to edit each section as I go. As long as I make a note of any ideas I want to incorporate into the narrative (which I do anyway) I won’t miss any important pieces of information or leave out any crucial clues.

In hindsight  – 20-20 as always! – I should have realised that this would always be a better way for me to work. With my academic assignments, I very quickly learned to reference and footnote as I went along, to save the frustration and time-consuming agonies of trying to re-locate that really good quotation, or find the page number by trying to skim read the whole book again! Putting in quotes and references while the book/ article/ online source was in front of me, meant that a) I saved time and b) that when the essay was complete, so were the references, leaving just the bibliography and proofreading to do.

So there you have it: the reason I haven’t been around very much the last few months! Hopefully, it won’t be so long before the next blog post. I’ve attached a little anecdote-type flash narrative below, based on, as they say, true events… Enjoy!

Until next time

Liz

*There are many writing advice blogs out there, some good, some bad, some excellent, some awful: pick the good ones that relate to your writing style and ignore the ones that advise you to make huge and drastic changes to the way you work. Some of these bloggers seem unaware of the fact that everyone is different and that what works for one might not be ideal for someone else!

Graduate Job Seekers Training Session

We gather in a small room, with rectangular desks arranged in a square. None of us speak, except to the friends we’ve come with: business major remains with international business; creative writing with English lit. stays with English lit. and creative writing, and the criminology single honours ignores the microbiologist with an interest in brewing. Or is he a biologist with an interest in microbrewing?

We sit in near silence, and wait until 10am, when the session will begin.

The lady in charge begins, running through her planned timetable, promising to be done by 11, rather than 11:30 as advertised. (A latecomer slopes in, sits down in the nearest seat, self-important and unapologetic.)

‘To give you time to ask me private questions, should you wish to,’ she continues. ‘But for now, let’s go around the room and you tell me what sort of graduate jobs you’re looking for.’

‘Marketing.’

‘Marketing, lovely. That’s a huge field. Huge. You’ll have to narrow that down.’ She writes it on the wipe-board.

‘HR.’

‘I started in HR!’ She rattles off a potential career path that has the HR hopeful scribbling down lengthy notes. The rest of us allow our attention to drift.

‘Editing, publishing.’ The wipe-board pen makes soft squeaks.

‘Business.’

‘Microbiology-’

We are interrupted by the sight of the campus cat strolling past, tail held at a jaunty angle, tortoiseshell fur gleaming in the sun.

A whisper of excitement rises, fades, swells as the cat comes into the room. We have been chosen.

The microbiologist and the latecomer bend to stroke the cat. She ignores the latecomer, favours the microbiologist. The microbiologist scratches under her chin, caresses her ears. She approves, moves closer.

Then. The latecomer, bastard, grabs at the cat. Hauls her up, undignified. Puts her in his lap, holds her there. She wriggles. He tightens his grip.

She meows loudly, fights him, scratching. He releases her, with the air of one humouring an ingrate. She runs off, will not return.

We stare at him.

The lady asks, ‘What are you studying?’

‘Uh, psychology.’

‘You won’t be a full psychologist until you have your PhD, so you’ll be an assistant psychologist for some years.’

He nods, but she’s already writing.

Psychology, Ass.

We all nod in silent agreement.

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The campus cat

 

 

A Box Inside a Box, Inside Another Box

A Box Inside a Box, Inside Another Box

I’ve got a friend who is beginning to get slightly creeped out by my excitement whenever she joins me for lunch. The reason for my enthusiasm isn’t because of her food – no, that tends to the fairly mundane; healthy enough, but there’s not much excitement to be garnered from a sandwich, a few grapes or a cereal bar and a satsuma. The satsuma is important. Yes, really.

My interest is in her food containers. She has the most beautiful set of plastic boxes, that range in size from ‘generous sandwich’ (say four slices of medium-cut bread with a little headroom) to ‘not really big enough for anything’ – until she found that it can *just* hold a small to medium-sized satsuma. Told you it was important.

Anyway: she will sit and unpack her bag, laying out sandwich box, cereal bar or grape box and satsuma box, and then nibble her way through her meal.

Then, when she is done, she puts the lid on the smallest box. This goes inside the medium-sized box, and the medium-sized lid goes on that. Repeat for the largest, until you have what is apparently one box to carry home.

Mere words cannot describe the satisfaction engendered by watching this packing-up operation. It is partly that it is an attractive set – aesthetics are important – but it is more the way they fit together so neatly: so much storage space manipulated into such a small footprint. It is just pleasing to watch them clip together, almost like a magic trick. But a magic trick where you know how it is done, and it is still magical.

I think the reason I like flash fiction is the exact same reason that I am enthralled to watch my friend packing up her little boxes: there is a sense of something much bigger on the inside, so much more to be explored than what can be seen on the surface.

This analogy occurred to me tonight, as I sat reading my newest acquistion: Funny Bone: Flashing for Comic Relief (more about the collection below). Each story takes up a page or two, some only half a page. But you cannot rush through these stories as you would through a volume of ‘Dad Jokes’ or ‘The Bumper Loo Book: 1001 pieces of trivia’ (ahem, currently to be found in my loo, being enjoyed in instalments, so to speak) – each must be savoured, read over two or three times and digested, before moving onto the next. Read five or six stories, and you have visited five or six worlds, met five or six strangers and made them friends (or not!). You will also find yourself considering things from a different point of view, wondering why, exactly, you’ve never seen things this particular way before now…

And then, when you are done, you marvel at the apparent slightness of the story – it seems like magic that you haven’t actually travelled as far away as the moon. But it is magic that is understandable and no less magical for that. Just like the boxes.

Funny Bone: Flashing for Comic Relief

Published by Flash: The International Short-short Story Press; edited by Ash Chantler and Peter Blair.

Profits to Comic Relief.

A wonderful collection of sixty short stories, by acknowledged masters of the form: from David Gaffney to Tom Hazuka to Calum Kerr (and many more) there is something for everyone. From Superheroes suffering erectile dysfunction to parents trying to retrieve some kind of a sex life to foreshadowing the nostalgia of future empty nest syndrome, these little tales cover everything from alien invasion (cunningly foiled with the gift of rat-poison-laced cookies) to a day in the park with the kids (partly spoiled by loud sweary families): the full range from fantastical science-fiction to everyday mundaneity.

Do your bit for those in need by getting a copy (or two or three, they make great gifts!) of Funny Bones: not only will you be helping a great cause, you will enjoy the pleasure of reading the works of some of the finest short-short story-writers in the world!

Read more about how the book came about and buy it here: https://www.chester.ac.uk/node/40000

And here is some information on Comic Relief: http://www.comicrelief.com/

I’ve been working on a long piece of writing, what I hope will be the first in a series of detective novels, so I’ve not had a lot of time for flash. But here’s a link to Pandora’s Inbox which I am co-editing this year: browse through and click the links to read poems and short stories (including a couple of mine!) Teaser: one of the authors listed is the friend who owns the little boxes of joy! https://www.chester.ac.uk/node/23972

Oh and! Happy WordPress Anniversary to me! I’ve had my blog for a whole year, according to WordPress. Yay!

Checking in!

Hello everyone.

First things first: Happy New Year and I hope you all had a good one!

Next, many apologies for my lengthy silence, which is only partly due to the horrific fact of what happened in the USA on the 20th January. (And has continued to happen ever since – someone take his pen away, please (and his phone too, but at least his tweets just cause outrage and despondency rather than having a concrete, dismaying and potentially lethal effect on the very people he’s sworn to protect.)

Enough of him (only for now – I’m firmly in the ‘never normalise, never accept, never be silent in the face of atrocity’ camp) what have I been writing?

Well, a short story for my crime module is the short answer. I mulled it over and mused about it and finally got a spark of inspiration – the how of the murder. Once that had arrived, the other details kind of fitted themselves into my imagination until I was ready to write.

I’ll have to quickly interrupt myself here – I normally don’t know how my stories will end. I generally come up with a character who, having formed him or herself, then begins to say stuff and do things: all of which colour their personality and lead to the action and conflict that make the story. Often – nearly all the time – the ending of the story comes as a surprise to me, and I have even discovered, as I write, that the guy I’ve been rooting for as hero has turned out to be the villain on one or two occasions!

So the thought of writing a crime story to which I already knew the answer felt exceedingly strange. But it is the only way, I think, to write an honest crime story. You must know the ending and the perpetrator in order to fulfil the requirements of a detective story. Clues must be left for the reader, odd and random instances of happenstance or coincidence must be explicable (even if only becoming so once the grand denouement has taken place) and the crime must not have been committed by a random stranger who never otherwise comes into the narrative. There are more rules, laid out much more eloquently than I can say here, but these are the very basics.

 

So I thought, as it was my first ever crime story, that I would just write it, letting it be as long as it needed to be. A couple of days later I had 4,560 words and the first draft was done. A bit of tidying up and redrafting made it easier to read, but didn’t vastly reduce the number of words – something of a problem as I only need 1,500 and will lose marks if it’s over 1,650! While I mulled over the problem, I handed the story round to a couple of friends. One of them, handing it back to me, said, ‘I don’t know about making it shorter, but this could be the outline for a novel.’

I took the story home and focused on getting it to the required length, eventually achieving this by making it a story told to someone by my detective. This enabled me to cut through all the detail of post mortem and witness statements, just giving the results, rather than the process. Once the story was down to a manageable 1,700-and something words, I put it aside to mature.

In the meantime, I was on holiday from uni, and had a lot more free time than usual. The suggestion about making the story into a novel drifted back and, this time, took hold.

So I began. I started by expanding each paragraph out into chapters, then found places where more chapters needed to be inserted in order for events to make sense, or to bring characters more authentically to life, or just to pass chronological time in the novel. I rattled through splendidly, getting up to 30,000 words in a mere four weeks, with the whole novel plotted out in rough notes from start to finish. Since uni has been back in, my output has dramatically slowed down, but I am slogging through one to four thousand words a week, and am now up to 50,000, with a target of another 20,000 to get the novel up to an acceptable length. I know what I have to say, and I’ve actually already written the ending, which – so far – I’m very pleased with.

As you’ve probably gathered from this long, rather rambling post,  I haven’t been writing here, because I’ve been writing up a storm elsewhere! I have had time to write a new drabble, which I’ve included below, please do let me know if you enjoy it?

Hopefully, the next time I post, I will have a complete first draft of a novel, and will be thinking about trying to get myself an agent or a publisher, depending on which seems to be the easier/ most logical option.

Until then, take care, look after those who need it and stand up to those who need that.

 

x Liz

Medusa

They say I turn men to stone as if that’s a bad thing. They’ve made me into a monster, with snakes for hair and eyes that petrify. But that’s wrong.

It’s a different hardness they experience – you know what I mean. Yes, that.

I was hot. Sexy, daring and willing to do anything at all. That’s the truth of what they saw in my face and it worked on them. every. single. time.

So next time you hear someone talk about the Gorgon’s head, or my supposed ugliness, you just tell them.

You say, ‘No. I know the truth.’

 

What’s in a Flash?

Any regular readers will know that I’m something of a fan of the phenomenon known as flash fiction, the short-short story. To those unfamiliar with the art – and it is an art – of the tiny tale, it can seem like something of an easy option.

Paying markets for short stories are few and far between and those that do pay tend to pay in magazine copies or cash amounts so tiny that the kindest name for them is ‘token’ (‘joke’ would be an example of an unkind one…). Most publications don’t pay at all, and rely on the delight at ‘being published’ felt by authors to keep themselves in business.

This is because, I suspect, there is a tendency to believe that flash is easy to write, that anything so short must be whipped off in a matter of minutes and ready for publication within half an hour or so. As such, short stories are given little literary weight and are treated as amusing bits of fluff, lacking worth, importance or merit.

This dismissive attitude is unfair to writers of good flash fiction. Good flash is small, but perfect, as carefully crafted as a sculpture and takes up a great deal of time and effort. Because the word count is so small, each and every word must count and be chosen with precision. A true flash has a complete story arc, complete with characters, action and conflict. It can include dialogue, location and more.

But what really distinguishes a good flash from a poor one (or, in the spirit of fairness, from a prose poem  or story snippet) is compression. You should be able to read a flash and know that there is more to the story than the superficial narrative. By analysing words and sentences, you should be able to deduce and infer information: information that is not spelled out but merely hinted at or alluded to.

And yes, flashes can be written fairly quickly, and the low word count does make it easier to proofread, draft and polish. However, there is more leeway in longer pieces of writing for, not errors exactly, but for words that aren’t precisely right. The longer the piece of writing, the more you can get away with, simply because the higher word count hides any flaws. In flash, they’re always visible.

But a good flash  is like an inflatable life-raft: you should be able to read it and have a whole huge world explode into being in front of you, complete with everything you need to get you safely back home.

That’s enough from me for now: here’s another little story that I’ve had a go at – if you like it, you can read more from me here and here. Let me know what you think in the comments below?

Frankenstein in Brief

‘Ooh… I’ve got an idea!’

Several blood-drenched months later, after visiting morgues, hospitals and even the odd unguarded grave, Victor stood back, eyes wide with anticipation. He made the final adjustments and stood back, waiting…

‘Oh God, what have I done?!’ Victor fled through the doors, running away into the night, back to his mum’s house.

Some time later, Victor’s baby brother died in mysterious circumstances. Victor knew it was his creature. He decided to fix things…

‘We meet at last!’
‘My creator. Why did you make me?’
‘I wanted to make a man…’
‘But – that’s women’s work, fool.’

x Liz

Make it New…But Make it Your Own

I’m currently studying Modernism at university and some of the concepts make my brain hurt. However, I am slowly warming to the themes and underlying ideas behind Modernist principles.

Before university, I didn’t like it when people took the ideas of other writers and twisted them. I’m not talking about fan-fiction, although fan-fiction does swim in the same pool, albeit in the shallowest of shallow ends. I felt that these writers were merely unimaginative – being unable to think of their ‘own’ stories – and disrespectful, mauling and manhandling the original narratives, which I saw as being perfect, complete, unchanging and unchangeable.

Of course, you never read the same story twice anyway. I am sure everyone who reads a lot has noticed that they get something new from any book each time they reread it. I am a big Terry Pratchett fan, and the one thing that I’ve thought after rereading each book is: How incredibly clever and wise Pratchett was. There is a different look to the Discworld depending on how much you’ve learned since the previous reading, depending on your mood at the time of reading, depending, in fact, on your physical and emotional state at the time of each reading.

Now I am a bit wiser (I hope!) and I can see the value behind Ezra Pound’s ‘make it new’ and one of my favourite books is Angela Carter’s Burning Your Boats – a comprehensive collection of her short-story anthologies. In many of the stories she takes a ‘perfectly innocent’ children’s story and makes it her own, adding hearty, sensual femininity and often turning the narrative inside out or merging two,very different, narratives.

These are, in a way, perfect examples of what Modernists had realised and what they were trying to encapsulate – different points of view,different perspectives despite seeing or reading the same thing. Pratchett, of course, was a master at story appropriation, making it new – and yet making it entirely his own by placing it on a pizza-shaped planet balanced atop four elephants who are in turn precariously supported by the shell of a massive space turtle! Wyrd Sisters, for example, is basically the story of Macbeth, with a bit of Rapunzel thrown in there (probably along with a bunch of other references that I haven’t got yet!). But it is also an entirely unique story – and therein lies its greatness.

I can appreciate, now, the difference between making it new – á la Carter and Pratchett – and copying – stealing ideas and dressing them slightly differently – which is a huge difference.

I would like to write more, but I fear that my understanding of Modernism is still in its infancy and may wander off-track, so I’ll sign off for now, leaving you with my latest drabble, which can be read on the site here: https://drablr.com/lizmilne/drabble/g6m-another-little-pig. Let me know your thoughts, both on the story and on Modernist principles, in the comments section below!

x Liz

Another Little Pig

‘Let me in!’
‘Not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin.’
‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff: I’ll blow your house in.’
‘Bring it, Wolfie, do your worst!’

The wolf stopped, uncertain. Prey certainly wasn’t meant to challenge him.

‘What?’
‘I said, bring it, Wolfie!’ the pig sounded quite insane.
The wolf backed up and sat down, puzzled. He could see that the house was poorly constructed, easy pickings for him.

No.

He shook his head and trotted off. He’d heard there was an old lady nearby whose house was made of good things to eat.

He’d try there instead.

 

My Two Cents, For What It’s Worth

Okay, so this post is going to be a bit political, but sorry-not-sorry in this case. I think someone – many someones – need to say something, so that when, in the future, survivors, grimly picking through the desolate wastelands after the radiation levels have reduced slightly, ask ‘Why didn’t someone stop it? Why didn’t someone say something?’, there will be indications that we weren’t all so ignorant and blind that we rushed headlong into world-wide annihilation without some reservations.

I’ve watched, along with the rest of the world, the events unfolding in the US presidential race with mingled amusement and distaste – and over the last few months the amusement has shrivelled and the distaste has grown, with a healthy dose of fear creeping in there too.

There are many memes and cartoons about the matter, but for once – I usually embrace the gentle, humorous approach – I feel that this is too important, too real, too dangerous to joke about.

Mr Trump’s campaign slogan is ‘Make America Great Again’ – an admirable sentiment. However, what made America ‘great’ in the first place was its standing as a symbol of hope for the persecuted people everywhere else in the world. Rags to riches stories are the epitome of the American Dream – ragged immigrants (before it became a dirty  word) arriving on US shores with a few pennies, ambition and a dream… That is the ‘greatness’ that America offered: that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you have, if you work hard you can achieve almost anything.

What Donald Trump  is actually doing is making America hate again. We already have a near militant black civil rights movement akin to the Black Panthers back in the day; we have a resurrection of medieval ideas about women and their place in the world, exacerbated by Trump’s opponent being female, but hugely endorsed by his ‘pussy-grabbing’, daughter-leering, ‘just kiss, don’t wait’ rhetoric. And that’s just two sections of the population – we could also talk about, amongst others, the ‘entirely-to-be-abhorred’ Muslims and the ‘rapist’ Mexicans who are also apparently so stupid that they would pay to build a wall to block themselves from easy access to the apparent cornucopia that is the USA without any objections should Trump prevail and tell ’em to get on with it. (Who knows, maybe that wall will be needed to stop hordes of panicked Americans fleeing the Trump dictatorship in a year or two?)

I think my turning point from mildly amused to horrified came when I heard a snippet on the news in which a woman said, ‘We must bear in mind that we are entering the era of post-truth politics.’ She was speaking in regard to the UK’s disastrous Brexit (∗ see footnote) vote, another example of fear, hate and ignorance triumphing over the quiet voices of reason, common sense and truth, but it seems to be relevant all over the world.

Think about that phrase for a second: post-truth politics. Win your election, no matter what. Say what you want to say – say what they want to hear – and you will win. Once you’ve won, shrug and deny that you ever said it. (Nigel Farage, mentioning no Trump-supporting names…) Donald Trump seems to have embraced this policy with open arms and mouth – saying whatever he wants to, whatever he thinks will carry the crowd and completely ignoring the fact that this policy means he must contradict himself on a regular basis! Look at the whole ‘birther’ issue in which Trump went from ten years of demanding to see Obama’s birth certificate and claiming that he was ‘an African’ (as though that were an insult in itself) to flatly saying ‘Hillary started it, not me.’

A few weeks ago, I began to worry that if Trump won the election there would be a world war within months. I still think that – especially given his blithe assumption that if one has nukes of course one wants to use them- but now I am beginning to think that war of some kind is inevitable no matter what. Trump supporters are known for being both vocal and all too ready to use their fists to punctuate their opinions – how will they take a Trump defeat? Badly, I think… Which leaves us with no good outcomes to this election at all. If Donald wins, it win be a toss up between civil war decimating the States and world war breaking out over insulting 3am tweets from POTUS to other world leaders. If Donald loses, his supporters, I fear, will riot – whether he incites them to or not.

I have no solutions. I’m not an economist, a historian or a politician, not an expert of the kind we need right now. But I implore those who are to weigh in, to raise their voices and to do it NOW.

Before its too late for all of us.

x Liz

 

∗Footnote: Why do I think Brexit is a disaster? Because I lived in Zimbabwe when it experienced catastrophic devaluation – 2l bottles of milk literally more than doubled in price overnight (Z$16 to Z$34) – because the government decided that to get more money in the coffers all one needed to do was print more banknotes (along with various other poor decisions). This uncoupled the currency from the global economy, causing it (the Zim dollar) to plummet, making us all poor millionaires within a matter of months.

We, my family, managed to sell all our worldly possessions for the price of our plane tickets and get out before the trillion-dollar notes were put into production, which puts us amongst the lucky ones.

I do not want to go through that again.

Ever.