Ladies and Gentlemen, seeing as I haven’t managed to post anything myself for several weeks, may I introduce you to my chum Calum Kerr, National Flash Fiction Day supremo? He’s got a new collection out (of which more below) and he’s on a blog tour to promote it. Here he is…
I have often been asked for a definition of flash-fiction. If I have the time, I tend to give at least three. After all, it is a truth universally acknowledged that if you get three flash-fiction writers in a room and ask for a definition, you will receive at least five.
My main one, the one I keep coming back to, is from the writer’s point of view. It says that flash-fiction is a story written from a prompt, without pre-planning, and written in a single session. This does, of course, refer only to the first draft – something which I am not always entirely clear to explain. This may be because I want people to engage with the form and not worry about the extra work that might be required to turn a ‘splurge’ into a perfect story. It may also be, given my sometime prodigious output, that I want to impress people which just how quickly I can write a flash. I have, it is true, published work that has taken little more than ten minutes to produce, and that it has required minimal editing because I was lucky in the way it came out, and also because I had more than a good idea of the tone, style, structure and content before I started the first word. But it is also true that I have published a piece only after many months of off/on tinkering and editing.
All of which is a way of saying that I have been examining my own definition of flash to see if I feel that it still holds true. You see, I spent last weekend at a creative writing conference in London, with writers from all over the world, and many of them were talking about flash-fiction. So, many lengthy (and not always entirely sober) discussions were had about this form, and I started to realise that one of my subsidiary definitions has started to become more important to me than the one about the method of writing that I outline above.
Before I get to the important one, let me just tell you my other other definition. This is about length and it does have something to do with what I want to say. You see, this is a largely external definition, created by editors and competition organisers. In order to have a category for flash-fiction, they impose a word limit. Sometimes it’s a thousand words, sometimes five hundred, sometimes, two-fifty, or one hundred, or fifty, or six. Or whatever number takes their fancy. It is a good way to knowing that something might be a flash fiction, but it’s no guarantee. I have seen stories of over a thousand words which I would still describe as flash-fictions, and I have seen many stories under five hundred which just don’t fit into my idea of what one is and what it should do. They were fragments, jokes, scenes, poems, and a host of other things, but not flash-fictions.
So, what, if that is the case, do I think is a flash-fiction? I must have another definition which allows me to say ‘this one is’ and ‘this one isn’t’.
The conclusion I have come to is that it’s about the use of words. It’s in the way that the piece conjures the world by implication, rather than description, and it’s in the way that it uses our understanding of what it is to think, feel, exist and abide – what it is to be a human being living in the world, basically – to encourage the reader to construct the story from the glimpse that the flash-fiction provides.
Let me give you an example, and talk you through it. Here’s a story which was originally written for Radio 4’s iPM programme in 2011 as part of the flash365 project. It’s one of the stories which made it into my new collection Lost Property. It was written by the above method, in a single rush, but the first draft was at least twice as long as the finished version below. A lot of cutting, editing, and tweaking went into it: trying to find a single word which would do the work of a sentence or a paragraph, removal of repetitions and of information that simply didn’t need to be there, creating a sense of something larger than itself.
I saw it on the way back from your funeral, my love. I know I should have been thinking about you. But I’ve been thinking of nothing else for so long, through the months of decline that my brain needed the break. Will you forgive me?
It was sitting in the window and looking at me. For a moment as the car passed I imagined holding it up to my lips and blowing one of those glorious bass notes.
I also didn’t mean to walk past it two days later when I went to collect your ashes. I stopped to look at it for a while, and again on the way back with you in my arms.
I found myself there again a few days later. And a few days after that.
And so this morning I returned and I bought it. I know you would have never let me have it, and that feels like a betrayal. But I know, once I’ve polished and cleaned it, when I bring it to my lips and blow, I will hear your voice shouting, ‘Henry William Henderson!? What is that appalling noise!?” and finally I’ll be able to cry.
Take a moment to read it through a couple of times and then I’ll tell you some of the things that you know about this story but which aren’t actually there.
- It is about a man whose wife has recently died.
At no point is the gender of the speaker, or of the loved one to whom he is talking, mentioned. We know it through the use of the name in the last paragraph. The use of the name and the syntax of the dialogue suggest that the imagined voice is that of a wife talking to her husband.
- The narrator is an older man, possibly in his 60s or above.
This comes to us in a number of ways. The use of ‘my love’ in the opening sentence feels like the speech of an older person, rather than a younger. The obsession with a saxophone – and a ‘bass’ saxophone at that – as opposed to a guitar or similar, also does this to some extent. The comment about ‘months of decline’, which could refer to any degenerative illness, but coupled with the use of the word ‘brain’ in the same sentence, suggests some kind of dementia, an illness associated more with older people. Finally, the name is doing still more work for us, as is the tone of the dialogue. ‘Henry William Henderson’, although a name which could belong to a younger man, feels older, and the way in which he imagines his wife speaking to him, also feels like an older person.
- We know that this is a story about the immediate aftermath of Henry’s wife’s death.
This may seem obvious, but look again, it’s not mentioned. The word ‘funeral’ in the opening sentence is doing all of the work in this piece. It tells what ‘the car’ is. It tells us what the ‘ashes’ are about. And it tells us something intrinsic to the human condition when Henry tells us that so far he has been unable to cry.
There is much more that could be said about this piece. It is one hundred and ninety-nine words long, including the title, and yet I have already managed to write nearly three hundred words discussing just some of its features. I could probably produce another thousand at least.
This, for me, is rapidly becoming the essence of flash-fiction. It is a story which, in its choice of words, the way they are juxtaposed, and its connection with the human condition, gives the reader a much larger picture than they are presented with, through the extrapolation performed in the reader’s mind. A single jigsaw piece is coloured and shaped in such a way that the whole of the puzzle can be inferred.
And this, I feel, is going to force me to change my definition of flash, because except in rare, lucky cases, this is not something which can emerge in that sudden burst of creativity. The groundwork can be laid, for sure, but it is in the editing, the crafting, and cutting and changing that these particular diamonds can achieve their true sparkle.
Calum Kerr is a writer, editor, lecturer and director of National Flash-Fiction Day in the UK. He lives in Southampton with his wife – the writer, Kath Kerr – their son and a menagerie of animals. His new collection of flash-fictions, Lost Property, is now available from Cinder House.
I was thinking it was about time we had another guest to this place, and as luck would have it, my chum Geoff Nelder is on (virtual) tour at the moment, promoting his latest book ARIA: Left Luggage (see below for how to purchase). Geoff is a terrific writer with a fiercely critical eye, which he has brought to bear on several of the stories in Dot Dash, either as a fellow member of the Café Doom online forum or as the judge of the Whittaker Prize.
The Lure of Bridges
Whether by physical need or arts medium, sooner or later we are drawn over or under a bridge. They are the subject of international competitions because they link territory and by metaphor, people with their cultural differences.
As a climatologist I have been fascinated by and measured the effect of bridges on microclimates. When built in 1832, the Grosvenor Bridge in Chester, UK was the world’s largest single stone span for 30 years. High above the waters of the River Dee the bridge separates airflow, mainly from the west so that it jets over the parapet threatening to blow this cyclist into the path of buses. Three miles downstream is the village of Eccleston where Chester’s coldest spot can always be found under a private road bridge to the Duke of Westminster’s estate. The road dips to go under and so katabatic cold air pools there, 5 degrees Celsius lower than in the city centre.
In science fiction literature there is hardly a more iconic bridge than in William Gibson’s Virtual Light. The first in the Bridge trilogy, Virtual Light has a preposterous dystopian concept of a community living on the San Francisco Bridge.
Chevette Washington, a bike messenger, steals VR glasses at a party she crashes. Corrupt police, private security and other mysterious people are after her. One, Berry Rydell, rescues her from a security abduction even though he is part of it. He falls for her though their relationship develops very late in the story without time to develop.
The bridge concept comes from a short story Gibson was commissioned to write by an architect group in San Fransisco. One character is a shy Japanese sociologist, Yamazaki. He is in awe of the bridge and their people as shown in this superb setting piece: Note the poetic prose – repetition and echoing normally expunged by editors.
He’d first seen it by night, three weeks before. He’d stood in fog, amid sellers of fruit and vegetables, their goods spread out on blankets. He’d stared back into the cavern-mouth, heart pounding. Steam was rising from the pots of soup vendors, beneath a jagged arc of scavenged neon. Everything ran together, blurring, melting in the fog. Telepresence had only hinted at the and singularity of the thing, and he’d walked slowly forward, into that neon maw and all that patchwork carnival of scavenged surfaces, in perfect awe. Fairyland. Rain-silvered plywood, broken marble from the walls of forgotten banks, corrugated plastic, polished brass, sequins, painted canvass, mirrors, chrome gone dull and peeling in the salt air. So many things, too much for his reeling eye, and he’d known his journey had not been in vain.
A difficult novel to get into and I might have given up too soon had it not been written by the iconic Gibson. The first chapter is in the point of view of an anonymous ‘he’ so we don’t feel engaged. We never find out who he is. Too many characters are introduced early with mostly unexplained actions and provenance. The plot has a dichotomy of the super rich buying security, and the jobless scraping a living. Whether this is truly a sociological class division is dubious. By 1993 when it was first published such sub-plots had run their time. Besides which the poorest characters, such as Skinner (my favourite grumpy old man) is rich in his thoughts and relationships more than the wealthy characters.
Although I like the concept of the famous bridge becoming a home, it is unrealistic even in a post-affluent, possibly post-apocalyptic society. It is dangerous in high winds, subject to many summer advection fogs and cold winters. There must be safer and easier places on dry land to inhabit. The middle plot occurs in a storm on the bridge but cold and danger are barely there even though the blackouts and wetness are portrayed.
In spite of the credibility gap of the bridge, it is that community that makes the dystopian nature of the narrative more human and warm. A better book, in several ways than Neuromancer. It is cyberpunk, a hard-nose crime story, with characters and action set in the future.
In Virtual Light, no one crosses the bridge. In reality, we want to get to the other side, hoping for a better future. Some only make it halfway, using the bridge as a suicide high point, so to speak. The bridge being then a crossing from this life to … something else, or nothing. For most of us, bridges are feel-good symbols.
There are bridges in ARIA: Left Luggage. In Canada, near Lake Louise a simple bridge crosses ice-blue waters of the Bow River as ARIA-infected Manuel crosses from safety to danger, and back again – maybe. Between the Welsh mainland and the island of Anglesey is Menai Bridge where: ‘The suspension bridge looked beautiful in the moonlight, earlier rain glistened metallic greens like slithering jewels down the support struts. Nineteenth-century graceful catena curves and vertical steel ropes tried hard to sooth the troubled minds looking out for trouble.’ Near the end, our heroes need to cross the double-decker Britannia Bridge – night time, driving over railway lines, encountering barriers and maintaining the need for surreptitious, sneaky behaviour. A cliff-hanger on a bridge; what more could you ask?
ARIA: Left Luggage
A bridge-like epiphany hit me cycling up a steep Welsh hill five years ago. An original idea: infectious amnesia. Not mass amnesia, but one you catch from being near someone else who also has it. Infectious amnesia doesn’t exist. Thank goodness, but imagine the ramifications if it did. You are on a bus when a man gets on with a new virus, one that loses memory backwards at the rate of a year per week. By the time the bus stops, all the passengers, including you, have ARIA (Alien Retrograde Infectious Amnesia). The driver has it too, and all her passengers until the end of her shift. You go shopping on the way home. Your spouse works in the power plant, your kids go to school. How long before industry stops, society breaks down, and your kids forget how to read, write and talk?
That’s why Mike Resnick, Robert J Sawyer, Jon C Grimwood, Brad Lineweaver and Charles Stross says ARIA is a fascinating idea, and makes us think of what is the most important things we need to remember in our lives.
Purchase ARIA: Left luggage from the usual online links or direct from the publisher.
Illustration from Nelder, Geoff Chester’s Climate: Past, Present and Future (1985)
But this week, it’s going to spring back into life, ‘cos I’ve got loads of exciting stuff for you. Really, I do. And the first of these is an extract from the lovely Caroline Smailes’ brilliant new book “99 Reasons Why”. It’s actually quite an important extract, because it’s the missing 11th possible ending. As you almost certainly know (unless you’ve been living in Pyongyang for the last month) the big innovation with “99 Reasons Why” is that the reader can choose from several different endings. Nine of them are provided with the book itself, one of them is being auctioned for charity and the last one is being posted in various places on the internet. And it’s my blog’s turn today.
So without further ado, here it is. Enjoy!
99: the reason why I was only worth ninety-nine quid
It’s been six days since the little girl in the pink coat went missing and me Uncle Phil’s in me bedroom.
We’ve been watching the little girl in the pink coat’s mam on the news. She was appealing to the public for witnesses.
‘Didn’t realise she had a mam,’ I says, looking at me telly.
‘Everyone’s got a mam, pet,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.
‘She sold her story to The Sun,’ I says, looking at me telly.
‘Got a few quid,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.
‘She wanted nowt to do with that bairn before all this,’ me Uncle Phil says, looking at me telly.
‘Do you know where she is?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.
‘Belle?’ me Uncle Phil asks me.
‘She’s safe,’ me Uncle Phil says to me. ‘Your mam’s keeping an eye on her.’
‘Can I be her mam?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.
‘No, pet, you’re a filthy whore,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.
‘Can you make Andy Douglas come back, Uncle Phil?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.
Me Uncle Phil shakes his head.
‘I love him,’ I tell me Uncle Phil.
‘Andy Douglas is your brother, pet. You didn’t seriously think Princess Di was your mam, did you?’ me Uncle Phil asks me.
‘You’re a cradle snatcher just like your mam,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.
‘Your mam miscarried when she found out I’d been banging Betty Douglas. Betty was expecting you,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.
I don’t speak.
‘When you was born, your mam went mad and I ended up buying you from Betty Douglas for ninety-nine quid,’ me Uncle Phil says.
‘Ninety-nine quid?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.
‘I paid a hundred but got a quid change for some chips for your mam and dad’s tea,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.
‘You bought me?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.
I’m a little bit sick in me mouth.
‘It was the right thing to do,’ me Uncle Phil says to me. ‘I got Betty Douglas pregnant straight away with Andy.’
‘I’m pregnant,’ I says to me Uncle Phil. ‘I’m pregnant with me brother’s baby,’ I says, and then I throws up on me purple carpet.
‘You’re a filthy whore,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.
‘What am I going to do?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.
‘You’re going to have the baby,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.
‘Have me brother’s baby?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.
‘Then I’m giving it to Betty Douglas to bring up,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.
‘You what?’ I says to me Uncle Phil.
‘It’s the right thing to do,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.
‘I can’t—’ I says to me Uncle Phil.
‘It’s either that or I’ll make you disappear,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.
I don’t speak.
I’m thinking, they’re all a bunch of nutters.
Mind if I barge through here?
Hi. The name’s Harkess. R B Harkess. I’m a writer. That’s why I’m here.
I saw JP’s blog tour for the awesome ‘Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens’ [Why thank you, Mr H - JP] and was so impressed by it I thought I would do one myself. And as he is with the same publisher as I am, I figured he couldn’t really say no if I tapped him for a spot [This is true. I'm a total pushover - JP].
So, time for the plug. I have a bright, shiny story to sell. It’s a Young Adult – wait, come back, I promise no sparkly vampires or love-torn paranormals – where was I? Ah yes.
It’s a YA science fiction story, full of adventure, and science, and stuff. And not just for boys, either. We have girl heroes just as important as the boy heroes. Suitable for all. And my first ever novel, too. Published as an e-book (see how we keep the science-y theme going there with the modern delivery technology?). Now that’s got to make it worth having a look [Definitely - JP].
Now, if I can just squeeze past to get to the door…?
Something new today, as I open up the blog to its first guest. May I present to you the very talented Mr Barry Napier, poet and author of dark fiction, with whom I have been privileged to share a table of contents or two? I’ll let him tell you why he’s here, but when you’ve read what he has to say, make sure you drop in on his blog and tell him I sent you.
I am currently on a miniature blog tour to promote the first book in my Everything Theory series. As the title implies, there is a bit of science fiction woven throughout it. Now, while I am a huge advocate of fiction not being totally restricted to the laws of reality, I also understand the importance of research.
In writing Everything Theory, I was led down some bizarre research trails. Some of the scientific experiments I came across were familiar to me in that I was already aware of them (and actually drew some inspiration from). But there are others that were new and equally strange.
Here are a few of the better examples.
6 – UVA’s Near Death Experiences Studies
Cardiologists at the University of Virginia have installed equipment on their ceiling in order to study out-of-body experiences during the time of death. Using a simple laptop computer sitting atop a filing cabinet, they have a series of images flashing on the screen as the patient dies. If they manage to bring the patient back after they have been officially dead for a short period of time, if there has been any sort of “out of body” experience, the patient should be able to report the images which are not visible from the floor or the hospital bed…only someone suspended near the ceiling would be able to see the images on the screen. So far, as you might imagine, results have been inconclusive.
5 – Macdougall Tries to Weigh a Soul
Duncan MacDougall was a physician/surgeon in the early 1900s who was so accustomed to seeing people die that he apparently figured “Death sucks, there’s nothing I can do about it, so hey, why not play around with the bodies after they’ve died?”
He did just that. Only, he did so with the intention of conducting a scientific study wherein he did his best to determine a) if there is indeed such a thing as a human soul and b) if there is a soul, does it have a physical weight to it?
To figure this out, he set up his own special scale in a doctor’s office specializing in the treatment of tuberculosis patients. This was the prime place to conduct his little experiment since the only cure of TB at that time as heaps and heaps of prayer or a quick merciful death. MacDougall constructed his scale with wooden blocks, a military-style cot and a Fairbanks model scale. MacDougall and a few partners would wheel doomed TB patients into the room, study and basically watch them as they died.
Sounds nuts, right? But keep in mind that MacDougall’s records indicate that directly after the patient died, the body’s physical weight decreased by three fourths of an ounce. This didn’t happen every now and then but every single time. Are there explanations for this? Sure…but what’s the fun in that?
4 – Demikhov’s Two-Headed Dogs
As part of an experiment on surgical techniques, a whacked out Russian scientists spliced the living head, neck, and legs of a smaller dog onto a much larger dog. After a few times, he actually got this to work: a living, breathing canine Frankenstein. Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of this entire ordeal is that he did this more than 20 times and some of the pooches lived up to a month.
3 – A Cat’s Point of View
Straight out of Mad Science for Dummies, researchers at Berkley heavily sedated a cat and implanted metal rods onto the whites of its eyes. These rods were connected to fiber electrodes that had been inserted into the cat’s brain—namely the part of the brain that processes and controls vision. Crazy? Yes. But the scary part is the fact that computer monitors on the opposite side of the room began displaying what the cat was seeing.
2 – Body Farms
A body farm is a place where dead bodies are stored and just sit out in the open so scientists can study the process of decomposition on the human body. While this sounds like fodder for a horror story, these places actually exist. In fact, there are three located in the US. Two of them take up stinky real estate in Texas(everything’s bigger in Texas, presumably), but the most famous one is in Tennessee.
On a college campus…on 2.5 acres of land.
1 – Stubbins Ffirth Loves Vomit
Yes, there are supposed to be two Fs in Ffirth’s name…that’s not a typo. And that extra F is necessary to properly express the disgust in the experiments he underwent. In the late 1790s, he set out to prove that Yellow Fever was not contagious. And he went about it in some not-so-pleasant ways.
He constantly came into contact with fresh vomit of those infected with the illness. And by “came into contact with”, I mean he fried it and inhaled the fumes. And that’s the most logical thing he did. He would smear the vomit, urine, saliva and blood of the infected into his own open wounds. And he’d also willingly drip it into his eyeballs. And just to make sure he was covering all of the bases, yes my well-nourished friends, he even ate and drank it.
Oh, the things we have to endure for research. Just think of Mr. Ffirth the next time you think you’ve got it bad having to research some history for your work-in-progress…