Flash Fiction: Graft

FF Tree

Her mother told Mary she wasn’t hers just before she died. Blurted out the words like some sort of confession. Learning it though, suddenly made her whole life – all those sixty-five years – make sense.

Her grandson posted information on a few adoption search websites, but she knew it was hopeless, searching for birth parents who would be in their nineties, if they were even alive.

A few months later she received a newspaper cutting through the post. Anonymous, no note. Creased and faded as though kept for years: Police Still Searching for Child Abducted from Playground.

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This is a Friday Fictioneers story. Write a 100-word story inspired by the picture above (this week supplied by Sandra Crook) and share. Click here to read more or join in.

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It’s been a few months since I’ve written a Friday Fictioneer story, but I have been writing. My third book, Bitter Orange, will be published in early 2019. Click here to read more.

Flash Fiction: Pillow

untitled

I found it in the bath. I hadn’t put it there, I was sure. I hadn’t been in the bathroom since the morning, and I was alone in the house. Anyway, who puts a pillow in the bath? I bent to pick it up, and saw a grey hair curled across the cotton. Not mine, I was sure. It repelled me, like extracting a long hair from a mouthful of food. And yet it was my pillow – missing from my bed. I left it there. Every night I washed at the sink and laid my head on a rolled-up cardigan.

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This is a 100-word flash fiction story inspired by the photo above. I know it seems a long way from the picture to my story, but to keep it to 100 words I had to chop out all the bits about sunlight and windows. The picture this week is supplied by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields, our Friday Fictioneers host. Click here to join in, or here to read other people’s.

Other Friday Fictioneers might like to know that I had the pleasure of meeting a long-standing fellow FF, Neil MacDonald a couple of weeks ago. It’s the first time I’ve met another FF in real life since we’re all scattered across the globe. I can attest that he’s as lovely in person as he is on the screen.

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Do you look at an author’s photograph before you read the book? You’re not alone.

Flash Fiction: Running

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Lights. Over my shoulder their lights are coming, running through the trees, lamps and flaming torches. Coming for me through the trees, shouts, and hoots and laughter. It’s a game, for them. Dogs, teeth bared for blood. Running. Under the chicken house, into the nettles. Quiet!

In the morning she lures me out with food, and I let her paste the baking soda on my stings. I try to tell her about them, but my words don’t come right. She sighs at my tangled hair, my mother. Wants to keep me, but I slip away.

Tomorrow night they’ll come again.

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This is a 100-word flash fiction Friday Fictioneers story inspired by the picture above, this week supplied by Dale Rogerson. Friday Fictioneers is hosted by the lovely Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. Click here to find out how it works or here to read some more stories by other writers.

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“A deeply moving read, that keeps you turning pages.” Oprah.com on my second novel, Swimming Lessons. Find out more.

Flash Fiction: Blackcurrant Jelly, 26th August 1966

sp-overgrown-summer-house

Snails had almost eaten the paper, but the writing on the label was my mother’s. I’d decided to tackle the sunroom last, after I’d gone through the rest of the house making piles: keep, charity, ditch. A lifetime of parental belongings. The warm smell reminded me of silent meals, my mother picking at her food, me itching to get down and play, unaware of things unsaid.

I would have thrown the jar away, except the date on the label was my birthday. Inside was a curl of baby hair, the same shade as my own.

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This is a 100-word flash fiction story inspired by the photo above provided by Sarah Potter. And it’s part of the Friday Fictioneers group of writers, run by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. Click here to join in and write your own, or here to read some more.

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Find out more about my latest novel, Swimming Lessons, published by Fig Tree / Penguin (UK), Tin House (US), House of Anansi (Canada), and Piper (Germany).

 

What a judge looks for in a short story

Sally

Last August I was invited to the awards ceremony for the Jane Austen Short Story Competition. The event also marked the opening of a Jane Austen exhibition at Winchester Discovery Centre, visited by Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex. I’m not much* of a royalist but it was fascinating to see how these visits work (men in suits and wearing ear-pieces patrolling the library, lots of waiting and chatting with tea and cake, forming a literary ‘horse-shoe’ so the Prince could meet us all easily).

But the real event for me was announcing Sally Tissington as the winner of the short Ingrid HCT_RV_009story competition, and David Constantine announcing Ingrid Jendrzejewski as the runner-up.

In April this year that we got to see the longlist of 25 entries. (There were almost 300 in total from around the world.) I read the hard-copies I’d been sent many times, each re-read whittling the list down further until I had six that I liked the best. Luckily David had a similar number on his shortlist, and we crossed over with a few. We met (in a stationary cupboard, but with coffee, grapes, and biscuits) IMG_5675to argue our case for those stories we liked best, while understanding that we had to be willing to let some go. It was a difficult decision.

This was my first taste of being a judge and on the other side of the fence (I have won both the BBC Radio 4 Opening Lines short story competition, and the Royal Academy / Pin Drop competition), and I enjoyed it so much I’ve agreed to do it again for another short story competition run by Rye Literature Festival.

While I was reading the 25, I jotted down some of the things that made me put a story on the reject pile. This is not a definitive list of what to avoid when writing a short story (even our winners may include some things that made me reject others) – it’s just some subjective observations from those I read, which might be helpful:

  • Many stories were lacking enough forward motion (too much internal thought), especially at the start.
  • Many stories began with an event in the future and then spooled back, resulting in a pluperfect tense (eg – she had arrived), which meant that the forward motion of the story wasn’t as strong.
  • Lots spent too long on the backstory and justifying the actions of the characters. Have I mentioned forward motion?
  • Some stories were too big for the word limit, which meant characters, plot and location were skimmed. (Although our runner-up breaks this ‘rule’ to great effect.) Covering a lifetime in 2000 words is tricky to pull off well.
  • Nearly all the stories had a cliché or two (or a few more).
  • Sometimes the characters didn’t feel real. (This also comes back to avoiding clichés.) Real people have quirks, and ticks, and odd thoughts and mannerisms. I wanted to see these.
  • Too many stories had too many typos.
  • There were quite a few exclamation marks. And adverbs.
  • The majority of the stories were written in the first person. (Third person will open up more possibilities.) But if the writer had decided first person was best, it was those with a really strong narrative voice that worked well for me.
  • Many stories didn’t have a powerful enough opening. They lacked the ‘story questions’ I was looking for. I wanted to be intrigued, beguiled, puzzled and above all to have to read on.
  • Some endings were lacklustre. I wasn’t looking for things to be tied up neatly, but I wanted some logic and satisfaction.
  • A few stories started in the middle of a scene or with dialogue, and this is difficult to get right. It made me think, ‘who are these people, where are they, what’s their relationship?’ rather than paying attention to what was being said.
  • And finally – this didn’t make me discard a story but it did niggle – even if the competition didn’t specify layout requirements I saw too many stories with a confusing layout. I would have liked: double-spaced, no extra gaps between paragraphs unless it’s a change of scene, Courier, 12 point, first lines indented unless they were the very beginning or the start of a new section, etc.

Both the winning story, and the runner-up are available to read online here.

I hope this post has been helpful if you write short stories and enter competitions. Do let me know in the comments below.

(*Not a royalist at all in fact.)

Flash fiction: The Reunion

Roger Bultot

It was Sylvie’s idea. She sorted the date, the diner, booked the motel; she sent the emails. They’d met twice before – at the hen do and the wedding, but that was years ago. When they’d almost arrived – all three women driving from different directions – Sylvie texted that she couldn’t make it, some family emergency.

At first there was awkward conversation about their journeys, the weather and the cherry pie. They ordered cocktails, wine, they laughed and swapped stories, mostly about their mutual friend; went to bed late. They arranged to meet again. None of them invited Sylvie.

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It’s been a very long time since I last wrote and published a Friday Fictioneers flash fiction piece. I’ve been writing my third novel (hopefully more news on that in the coming weeks). Novels allow a lot of wriggle room, so it’s lovely to be back and being forced to write so tightly. If anyone wants to join in with their own 100-word story inspired by the picture above, click here. Or if you’d like to read some others visit this page. Picture supplied by Roger Bultot.

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Tonight I’ll be in Ealing (West London) at The Pitshanger Bookshop talking about my second novel, Swimming Lessons. And on Saturday I’ll be at the Wimborne (Dorset) literary festival. Do come if you live nearby. More information here.

Flash Fiction: Man on Train

ceayr3

The man sits beside me, his suited belly pressed against the table, his laptop open, a mouse plugged in. The train sways and we all sway with it. The man pulls a handkerchief from his trouser pocket, sneezes into it and blows his nose vigorously. Five minutes later: handkerchief, sneeze, blow. And again. The fourth time the sneeze comes unexpectedly with only his hand to contain it. From the corner of my eye I see him run the length of his tie between his fingers. His hand hovers over his computer mouse, considering, then he holds it and clicks.

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I’ve missed several weeks of Friday Fictioneers – just been too busy. It’s meant to be a short short story inspired by the photo, but this week I have written a scene of 100 words, which is much easier to do than a story, so I’m cheating really (or just easing myself back in gently). Join in here and write your own 100-word flash fiction, or read some other writers’. This week the picture is provided by C.E.Ayr, and the whole is hosted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields.

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Swimming Lessons

My second novel, Swimming Lessons, will be published in January 2017 in the UK, and Canada, and February 2017 in the USA. Click on the country links to pre-order.

 

Flash Fiction: Paper dream

lucy-sol

In a box labelled Images d’Épinal, Eva found a flat paper model called Statue De La Libertè. It took her three evenings to meticulously cut around each shape, fold every tab, and stick them together. There were little family groups to attach to the edge: a plump man with a young son gazing upwards, a woman with two children, a mother holding a baby.

When it was finished, Eva imagined herself part of that tiny perfect world; and chose to ignore the too-bright colours, the fixed smiles on the faces, and deliberately forgot that it was all made of card.

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This is a 100-word flash fiction story inspired by the picture. It’s part of the Friday Fictioneers group, where our hostess, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields gives us a picture to write to, this week supplied by Lucy Fridkin. Click here to join in, or here to read other people’s.

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Images d’Épinal were originally stylised and brightly coloured designs developed by a
Frenchman in the town of Épinal. The phrase is now used for something that is so perfect and happy that it is unreal, a chocolate-box image as we might say in England. I’d be interested to know what idioms fellow Friday Fictioneers use for this phrase around the world. s-l500

Flash Fiction: Cedar of Lebanon

campsite-jwf

It was hot that summer, the sun leaching colour from the grass, her hair turning blond. The cedar survived the drought though, 100 feet tall and the trunk too large for her arms to meet around it. Still she liked to press her cheek up against the bark, feel it breathe.

One evening Alex built a bonfire, and she stood drinking with the others, trying to whoop as the sparks flew, pretending to laugh when the bird’s nest caught.

Perhaps it was the hangover, but she couldn’t raise herself, couldn’t get out of bed the next morning to see the blackened stump.

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This is a 100-word Friday Fictioneers short story inspired by the picture above (the colour of the grass started it off), this week supplied by Jan Wisoff-Fields. Click here to join in, and here to read other people’s.

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My second novel, Swimming Lessons is currently available as a give-away on Goodreads to UK readers. Click here to enter.

Flash Fiction: Broken

ceayr-purple-door

When things got really bad Cara unlocked the door to the old brew house. In one corner a huge vat squatted, as if awaiting its moment of escape. A rusting metal walkway ran around the inside walls, and under it was a scattering of broken things: chairs, tools, tyres, and other rubbish. A stinking and stained mattress was dumped in the middle. Cara undressed, and lay on it, face and palms upwards, waiting. Sometimes she had to wait for an hour or even two, but they always came if she was silent and still enough. The rats always came back.

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Sorry my story is so dark this week, when the picture is so lovely. I should be happy, I have good news – my first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days has been longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award. It is a very long longlist, but lovely to be on it.

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This is a 100-word Friday Fictioneers short story inspired by the picture above, provided to us by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields (every week) and (this week) C.E. Ayre.