This time last year, I had the honour of having one of my short stories, The Reason Why We Eat Turkey at Christmas, featured on the Mumsnet Advent Calendar.
Mumsnet, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is a highly-regarded, well-read parenting website. Dads are by no means banned from it, though some may be intimidated by the name.
Mine wasn’t a children’s story (though older children may enjoy it), because the calendar was aimed at parents – and what parent doesn’t love an advent calendar, big kids that we all are?
But in this age of the e-reader, another fun festive trend is emerging to get us in the mood for Christmas: the rise of the special Christmas e-books. These are usually short stories rather than full-length novels, because who has time to read much when there’s Christmas shopping to be done? Nor the budget to buy them – so these e-books are usually priced low, designed to provide an affordable treat that offers light relief from the stresses of Christmas preparations. Speaking as one who has yet to write a single Christmas card, post a parcel or finish my shopping, it’s a service made to measure for me. I’ve just enjoyed two very different such stories by my friends Joanne Phillips and Andrew Peters.
On finishing Andrew’s book, it dawned on me that here was a bandwagon (or perhaps I should say sleigh) on which I, as a self-publishing author, ought to jump. So last night I entered the fray, and hey presto, via the digital magic of Amazon, I’ve conjured up a new Kindle e-book of my Mumsnet Christmas story, under the new, snappier title of The Owl and The Turkey. As its original name suggests, it is a fun, frivolous and ever so slightly silly fable that suggests the real reason that we eat turkey for Christmas. The tale begins when a young Queen, bored of wild boar, despatches her Royal Huntsmen on a quest to find the medieval answer to fast food. No birds were harmed in the writing of this book, which is suitable for vegetarians of all ages.
The Owl and the Turkey is now for sale on Kindle at just 77p/99c here.
And while you’re reading it, I’d better make a start on those Christmas cards….
While we’re in wintry mood, make a mental note to come back to this site on Saturday, when I’ll be taking part in a special feature about the winter solstice, with links to fun and fascinating contributions from 30 other writers, kindly choreographed by my friend the historical novelist Helen Hollick.
This time last year, I chanced upon a phenomenon completely new to me: Flash Fiction, known simply as “Flash” to its fans.
Previously, if anyone had asked what I thought of “Flash”, I’d have assumed they were talking about classic sci-fi hero Flash Gordon (perhaps because he shares a name with my husband, Flash Young – no, only kidding, it’s Gordon, of course!) Still, there are worse associations that might have sprung to mind.
Little did I know on this first encounter that it was something I’d quickly come to love. (Again, just like my husband.)
“So what is Flash Fiction?” I hear you cry. Well, it’s a very, VERY short story, usually under 1,000 words but often much shorter – 500, 100, 50. (For comparison, this article contains 285 words.) I even know of one writer, Bart van Goethem, who’s managed a story of no words, simply by using the title “Memoirs of An Uninteresting Man”, with nothing beneath it.
Flash is perfect for anyone who thinks they have no time to read. Just a few seconds on the page will nourish your imagination for hours. It’s a form of fiction that lends itself well to the modern age, being easy to download and read on a smartphone or tablet. But technophobes won’t miss out – there is plenty available in book form too. I hope to be publishing one of my own soon.
(A new post about my discovery of the micro short story form commonly known as flash fiction – a challenge for every writer, whether you’re a short story writer, a blogger, a novelist, an advertisting copywriter or any other kind of author.)
Today I did something I’ve never done before: I flashed. Don’t be alarmed – that’s a shorthand that I think I’ve just invented for writing flash fiction.
What’s flash fiction? Think of it as the Pound Shop of story writing. (To my American readers: that’s the British equivalent of the Five and Dime Store.)
I don’t mean that disrespectfully – I LOVE pound shops, where you can track down all kinds of intriguing and useful items for the tiniest investment. The standard length of a short story is usually 2,000-3,000 words, but flash fiction applies the incredibly economical limit of around 100 words. Sometimes a few more, sometimes a few less (there are 99p shops too, after all). But you get the idea: in flash fiction, less is more.
As anyone who has commercial copywriting experience knows, writing the short version of a text can take much more time than the long version. Condensed thoughts don’t start out condensed. So don’t assume you can dash off a 100 word story in a moment. If you do, it won’t be much good. It takes hard work to craft an effective flast fiction story, complete with conflict and resolution, all within just a few sentences. Every word has to work hard and earn its keep, each one an essential brick in the structure of the story. When it’s done well, it has the lyrical quality of the perfect poem, the emotional punch of a novel and the beauty of a sculpture. Don’t underestimate this format just because it’s small. There’s no room for sizeism in short form fiction.
National Days on specific themes usually bring out the cynic in me. They are often transparent pitches to make you buy more of a particular commercial product. National Eat More Porridge Day, National Buy More Hairspray Day – I made those two up, but you get my drift: I don’t like days that exist to sell you stuff. (I’ll make an exception for National Wear A Tea Cosy On Your Head Day, which was apparently last Friday – I’m sorry I missed that one. I’m happy to comply with National Continence Week also.)
But Flash Fiction Day was quite the opposite. The organisers generously offered free, no-obligation downloads of flash fiction e-books. I got my Kindle on the case and imported a selection, thinking flash fiction would make the perfect speedy bedtime reading for people like me who always end up going to bed much later than they should do. A story a night for the next two and a half months – excellent.
That night I got stuck into 75×75 = Flash Fraction by Helena Mallett. This volume does what it says on the cover, offering 75 stories each honed from just 75 words. I was up till 2 in the morning, reading all 4125 words. I laughed, I cried, I admired. The book was masterful.
Ever since, I’ve been waiting for the inspiration to try it myself, though in awe that I could produce such perfect pieces. Then, flicking through Twitter earlier today, I came across 99Fiction, a flash fiction website with a free online competition for stories of 99 words or less. Its deadline is midnight tonight. Earlier in the day, I’d had an intriguing encounter with a stranger that I couldn’t stop thinking about. Those two bits of serendipity combined to trigger my pen. Numerous drafts and ponderous word-counts later, I emailed off my flash fiction story.
No, I can’t reproduce it here – yet – because if you read it in the next fortnight, I’d have to kill you. (Entries close at midnight, British time, but in the two weeks before they announce the winner, you’re not allowed to publish it elsewhere.) But I will in due course.
In the meantime, if you like writing, I’d encourage you to have a go. Whether you’re a blogger, a novelist, a commercial copywriter, a business report writer, or even just Angry of Tunbridge Wells who likes to fire off a punchy letter to The Times every so often, it’s a great exercise in the effective use of words. It will also remind you what a rich language we English-speakers are privileged to have.
By my reckoning, you’ve got just an hour and a quarter to harness your 99 words and send them off to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s almost a minute per word. What are you waiting for?
P.S I was wrong about Eat More Porridge Day. There is apparently a World Porridge Day. Scotsmen of the world, unite – you have nothing to lose but your constipation. It’s on 10th October. You have been warned.
P.P.S. Since first writing this post, I’ve penned another Flash Fiction story, which I’m using to launch the new Fiction section of this website. Click here to jump straight to it.