It was the first of its kind, with attendees from all over the UK and further afield, and packed with presenters and workshop leaders representing many of the very best practitioners of the form. The Bath Flash Fiction Festival was an intense, roller coaster of a weekend – a chance to meet online writing friends, to attend the launch of the National Flash-Fiction Day anthology; a lot of fun, a lot of learning, and far too much to cover in one blog post – but in case you weren’t lucky enough to be there, I thought I’d share some of the inspiration I took away with me. Vanessa Gebbie – this woman is a writing powerhouse and such an energising workshop leader. I’ve read plenty of her short fiction, but never had the pleasure of attending one of her sessions before. She pokes and prods you, throws prompts at you mid-write like grenades, and she forces better writing out of you by making you consider deeply what is working, and what isn’t, on the page. When you sit down to write, turn off the screen, she suggests; cover it with a pair of old pyjamas or turn the text to white. Free the right brain to do its thing. And when you’ve done that, and you’ve got that first draft to grapple with, she had 3 more things for us to focus on:
- The necklace – comb your writing for the sparkles, not the chains that hold the piece together. Bring those out, polish them up, dazzle the reader with them.
- Cut, cut.
- Surprise the reader. Use unexpected props, preferably early on. It’s all in the detail, so make your text rich with it.
David Gaffney, writer of short fiction and novels, was up next – a man so funny that the man in front of me at his evening reading was bent over, crying. In David’s workshop our group spent a brilliant hour and a half dissecting many forms of the shortest fiction before attempting some of our own.
Some people write up to a word count; David’s the opposite, routinely cutting 1000 words down to a 150 micro fiction. ‘I once took away the last two sentences of a story and left a blank page,’ he told us. Here, in his own words, is his guide to writing flash fiction. It’s gold.
I’d heard of Pamela Painter, but as she works and teaches primarily in the US (Emerson College), I didn’t know too much about her – now I do. Another extraordinary woman, a true student of and specialist in human nature, with a brain like a firework display. Throughout the two sessions I attended, she was bursting with ideas: to ramp up the tension, to bring more conflict; seeing and extracting from us ways that the situations characters found themselves in could be made more tense, more intense, more meaningful, more bloody difficult to resolve. In her 12+ word title exercise, we saw just how much intrigue can be crammed into a title, setting up an engaged reader before they’ve even got to the first word of a story. And in her ‘What If?’ exercise, where you must think up 5 alternative ways a story could continue, we saw how important it is to fight the urge to settle for your first idea. The vast majority of the class found their best idea emerging after several cracks of the whip; in my case it wasn’t until the 5th attempt that I uncovered an idea I was happy with.
Writing this morning, such was the impression Pamela made on me, I’ve felt like I had a mini-version of her on my shoulder, challenging me to wring more out of my characters, to up the ante, to sharpen my empathy so that I can bring more of myself to my work. If I’m lucky, mini-Pamela will stick around for a while. If you ever get the chance to work with her, don’t miss it.
My last workshop was with David Swann, writer, poet and Senior Lecturer at the University of Chichester, another great workshop leader and a man who had the audience crying with laughter when he read his stories aloud. David’s put many books together, and he drew on this experience and the thoughts of others in his workshop on how a body of flash fiction might be brought together into a collection.
I came away with a great deal to think about: the book as a river to be crossed, with the collected stories as the means of crossing; about the linking of a collection through theme, subject, or at least a motif, and how the story ‘spine’ might work – an attention grabbing opening, a mid-point pivot/peak, and a (perhaps) upbeat ending. How the mood and/or attention span of the reader could be modulated by varying or interweaving lengths, styles, pace of stories – eg an emotionally charged piece might be followed by something light for comic relief; the strongest piece might sustain a slightly weaker one alongside it. How in short story collections, the inclusion of some flash pieces could be useful for readings. How asking a friendly (but good) reader might be a good way to identify the central images/moods in your work (what’s suggested rather than stated), teasing out things that are not obvious to you yourself. How (sub-)grouping can work well for flash fiction, and how the process of grouping may identify gaps in the whole. How what is excluded will be as important as what is included – each story needs to justify its place, published/prizewinning or not. It was a fascinating session, and one that I hope will be useful as I work towards a collection of my own (maybe, one day – fingers crossed!)
The Bath Flash Fiction Festival was a wonderful event that will stay with me for a long time. Thanks to Jude Higgins and her brilliant team for putting it on, and the Arts Council and Bath Flash Fiction Award for sponsoring it. I look forward to the next time.