Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Moving On

I have moved.

Author's commentary will remain here, but there will be no new posts. You can find me now at:

Will Write Flash Fiction For Food

where I continue doing what I did here, but weave my life into the mix.

Thanks for reading,

John Xero.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Managing the Basics: a Flash Fiction Primer

What makes good flash fiction?

Basic skills make for good flash fiction. The mightiest story can be brought low by ignoring the basics.

Good, clear writing is a big part. And not just grammar, but sense. Without it, people are going to have to stop and start, they're going to have to re-read it whether they want to or not. (The goal is to get them to enjoy reading it, and make them want to re-read it.) Ambiguity is a great tool, but far too easily used for the purposes of evil. (evil, in our case, meaning 'bad storytelling')

Remember, you know what's happening, the reader needs your help.

Characters are pretty essential. But that's another statement so broad you could sink an empire in it. You can describe a society or an environment, but the reader is going to associate all the better with someone they can get involved with. There's an argument for the environment or society being a character in their own right, and if you can pull that off then fair play to you, but it isn't easy.

And don't crowd it. Too many characters in a small piece and people will get confused. Characters need to be more than a name, you don't have the space in flash fiction to individualise lots of characters and tell your story.

Get stuck in. Details are key. And this goes side-by-side with character details. Broad strokes are OK for story pitches or book blurbs, but they don't leave a lasting impression. Get involved, get the reader involved. You don't have to describe everything about a person, but one or two distinct features or mannerisms go a long way. State the species of tree, the make and model of car, the building material... 'oak', 'willow' or 'pine' takes no more words, no more space, than 'tree' but does so much more work.

Remember too, that people have more senses than just sight.

The meaning of plot is debatable. I've seen it argued that plot is more apparent in genre flash fiction than literary. Especially plot twists. Personally I see no reason for this to be the case. An interesting character is an interesting character whether they be in the living room or the bridge of a starship. Plot twists are perhaps more easy in a dramatic genre sense, especially horror, but a well-crafted, less-than-obvious plot twist is welcome anywhere. (read some Roald Dahl short stories)

I think the key to plot is movement. In a basic sense, movement of time, but also movement (or change) in character, in the reader's perception. Does your story end up in a different place to where it began?

Genre deserves a mention, but is so personal there is no right or wrong. Flash fiction gives you the chance to experiment, to try genres you might not consider 'your own', or mash-up several genres. The piece is short enough that depending how heavily it sits within that genre it might be readable and enjoyable by someone who wouldn't normally read that genre too, they get to try something different.

If the basics are right, if you have a well-crafted piece of fiction, then the genre doesn't necessarily matter. The setting doesn't matter as long as it feels real. The character can be human, or not, and that shouldn't matter if your writing is clear.

And finally, edit. Most of my stories sit for a few months unread before I go back to them and edit them with fresh eyes. If you have someone to critique for you (and be 100% honest), all the better. Don't be too precious, if that awesome line just doesn't fit, get rid of it.

Of course... I am talking basics. Maybe you want to abuse the system for specific effect, and that can be done really well. Stripping detail out and purposefully simplifying your story can give it a more fairytale feel, for example. Being ambiguous and confused can create a dream-like (or nightmarish) feel. But master the basics first, learn how to tell a story, practice, then start playing, with form and style, with genre, with the reader. =)

If you've read this far, please comment, I'm still learning myself. This is what makes sense to me, this is what I think about as I write. Discussion of process can only improve us all.

I hope this has been helpful to you. If it has, please feel free to share it (but please, credit and link me ;) )

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Startling Shifts in Form

So I've gone all shape-shifter with my fiction this week... (and because I'm on holiday for winter-een-mas everything is running late this week, including this blog... lie-ins and gaming take priority. ;) )

Starling was another flash fiction inspired by a piece of artwork, the cover of Little (Grrl) Lost by Charles de Lint, by Scott M. Fischer. Although I originally saw the image clean (i.e. without text). You can see what I've taken from the image and what I've altered and what I've made up. There's something of myself in the piece as well, I miss dancing. I miss it a lot.

I really like the shift in Starling, it jars a little, as it is supposed to. It's slightly unexpected and I think that jerky, flighty sentence actually captures something of the movement of a flock on the ground. It's supposed to make you stop and re-read and try to work out what's happening. Think of it as a forced double take, as if you'd caught sight of it actually happening in real life... 'wait, what just happened?'

Moonlight features a similar shift, an (I hope) unexpected one. I like the way it plays out, and that I take any ambiguity from the piece by the end. It starts of unsure and solidifies by the end, I hope it bears re-reading, encourages it even (in a good way of course).

Both pieces shy away from being too ambiguous by close of play. While I definitely think ambiguity has it's place, it's possible to leave people too confused. It can be a turn off if not handled properly. Think of it like spun sugar... it can look great and add a perfect element of sweetness, but overdo it and it looks like a mess and buries the other flavours.

The whole purpose of the Xeroverse, both Missing Pieces and 101 is to play with form and genre. Well, actually the primary purpose is to entertain, but for me it's the opportunity to do that with a variety of styles and characters. To explore both myself and other worlds.

The other thing that has shifted this week is Metamorphosis, my experimental piece of flash fiction. It will never be finished, but it will always be done. Until I next visit it... The interesting thing I've found is that it's not so easy to move things on and change things so dramatically purely through the editing process. The story has shifted, but more in point of view than in fact. It was supposed to tell different stories but through the process of shifting in small parts. It might still, who knows..? ;)

I've just found the #FridayFlash project too, which is a great, weekly, source of new flash from loads of different people. It's also brought a few new people to the Xeroverse, which is very cool; I hope they like it here. =)

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Words like sharks

Sometimes I really stretch to tie the title of this blog in with the last piece of fiction... can you tell? ;)

If you really want me to tie the theme in further then think of flash with a twist as words circling their prey, a hint of intent above the surface, just waiting for the right moment to strike...

Love like a Shark was one of those titles I came up with and instantly loved. I had a rough idea of a story and just needed to research a little about telomerase and sharks... when I found out that the same thing that almost makes sharks immortal (by letting cells regenerate indefinitely) could promote cancer in humans (by letting cells regenerate indefinitely) the whole thing kind of fell into place.

It's something I wrote a while ago, so I can't remember exactly what was behind my decision to write it in this script style. I do like to try different things though. It's good to mix things up and keep things interesting. New can be fresh. It can also be disastrous, of course, but for something of this length I think this style works.

101 has started well, I think, speaking of new things... Starting with Geek, one of the first ideas I had and the first piece I wrote for it, followed by iThing, my tribute to the Apple phenomenon and the most recent 101 I had written (until yesterday). It's one of my favourites.

And yesterday I posted Pan, another one of the early pieces I wrote and one that I had to work very hard to get down to the 101 words mark. A lot of my initial inspiration comes from artwork, and Pan was inspired by a painting by Dennis Nolan featured on page 190 of Spectrum vol. 2.

I love the Spectrum series, mostly for the variety of art you see and the generally high standards. Just flicking through I find the images often inspire stories in me, directly or tangentially. So I'm pretty excited that my copy of Spectrum 17 just turned up (a bit late, I know, but my initial order got lost somewhere down the line). I'm working on filling in the backlist too, I've been collecting for a few years, but it's been going for a while longer than that and I'm looking forward to filling in the gaps.

You might have also noticed the Twitter feed... @Xeroverse will have all fiction by John Xero linked wherever it might be posted. Obviously that's mostly on the two blogs, but I hope it'll be elsewhere too...

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Shaking Things Up

It's 2011, a week and a half gone by already, and a new year means a new look at things. It's an excuse to talk that way anyway. All those things you've been putting off because you were waiting for the new year, well you'd better be doing them now... ;)

So what's new in the Xeroverse? Well, 101 has now officially launched with the charming little story: Geek. It's a quick read, that's the point. Not only is the one hundred word limit an experiment and a challenge in form (forms, really, as I shall be trying to see just how far I can experiment within those hundred words), but it's short. In an effort to get attention on the internet, not only do you have to be good, but you have to allow for people's browsing attention spans.

I hope I'm good, I think I'm good. But it's difficult to get noticed on the internet. Because everybody is trying to get noticed on the internet. Now I'm not saying that people no longer have the attention span to read a longer short story or a novel, that blatantly isn't true, but when they're in internet mode most people will be flicking from page to page, and if there is no picture (and let's face it, the internet is a very visual medium) you have to work hard to keep hold of someone. I think if they can see the end of the story without having to scroll down then they might just read the whole thing, and if it's good, maybe another, and if they like that, than maybe they'll go on to read something longer. I hope.

Which kind of leads me nicely to my next new thing... At the bottom of my most recent Missing Piece: The Dull Sky Shook, I've linked to a piece of micro-fiction written by someone else. Someone I don't know. It's something I should have been doing all along. It's called 'recommended reading', and that's just what it is. Something I've read, that I've liked reading, that I think you will too.

I would love someone to read my work and like it enough to point people in this direction, so I should be doing exactly that for other people. I'll try and include a recommendation every week, but obviously that is somewhat dependant on me reading something that I want to recommend.

While I was browsing through micro/ flash fiction sites I came across someone talking about how they had loved the community they found; how they were so impressed with how much it was about 'go check this person out, they're awesome, first and oh, please read my work too, second.' It pains me that I can't find the original source now (stupid, stupid internets), but I think it was while I was browsing around the new Matter Press site.

So this is me going 'check this piece out, it's awesome'. It's about getting noticed, but it's about getting everyone noticed. Because I would love a larger audience, but so would other writers, and I'm no more deserving than them. It's not just about me, it's about micro/flash fiction, it's about storytelling; more importantly, it's about good storytelling and sharing that with as many people as possible... whether it be my story or yours.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Snappy Titles

I often try to work out what leads a story to be more narrative or image (see previous post). Sometimes an idea for a story comes to me, sometimes it's a character and sometimes it's just a title. I'd been swaying towards thinking that just working from a title often resulted in more of an image because I just sat down and let the words fall out; so I wrote the title rather than titling the story, if that makes sense.

Not so, apparently. Cold Snap is the kind of pun I love. It came to me in a flash (with the weather, obviously) cold snap, a turn in the weather, a neck broken in cold blood... perfect.

And what came out was one of the strongest narratives that I think Missing Pieces has seen so far. That's one of the reasons it's the second piece in this chapter, it sets a nice contrast with the first, both strong pieces (imo) but in very different ways.

So what difference does a title make? Well, it fires the imagination, it can set up a twist, it can round off a good story and make it excellent. Maybe not as important as the first line it nevertheless begins the work on the reader's impression of the piece. It is likely to be the first thing they see so it has to have some kind of punchy appeal or instil instant curiosity (depending on the market of course).

There are lots of things that round off a story. And the hard thing with micro-fiction is working them all into a piece. The fewer words you have to work with the more work they have to do. Cold Snap is one of the longest Missing Pieces, one of the few that will ever break the 1000 word barrier, so it better do a lot if I'm to justify that. To break it down, I've tried to include a sense of the greater world the characters inhabit, there are more places than just the story location, more people than just the lead characters. There is a greater twist than just the obvious (I hope), it would have made a more typical micro-fiction if he had just broken her neck, or if the twist had been for her to break his.

You could deepen the characterisation of course, work it more to short story length, work a lot more on Sami's motivation for breaking her neck, build the feeling of xenophobic aggression, then maybe build on his reaction and strengthen their relationship on the way back to the village. But then you could say that about almost any short (or short, short) story. Even the most perfect, short snappy piece might be an equally fulfilling longer piece.

It's also worth pointing out the names are all genuine Nordic names. It's something I was once advised to think about, when I had a propensity for making up ridiculous fantasy names. Real names sound more real. They can lend more credence to a story. I still sometimes go for the more ridiculous made up names, when I think they're appropriate or I'm intentionally going for a clich├ęd approach. But I think the more you mature as a writer the more you learn how you need to think about each part of a story (and how important each part is to the whole). It would have been just as wrong to call the characters in Cold Snap Gorath and Elee'ia as it would have been to call them Bob and Sally.