Flash Fiction Workshops

There are three main ways to produce really good flash fiction: start from an existing story and cut it down; start from a freewritten ramble and sharpen it up; or start from scratch and write with the mindset of a poet.

Our three workshops will guide you through each of these processes

WORKSHOP 3

Write with the mindset of a poet

Here is some advice from one of the most respected course guides for people studying poetry in creative writing at postgraduate level.

All truly creative writing – and poetry is no different – begins in the moment we go beyond opinions and arguments, into a territory we may know very little about. An image is a good place to start.

Inspiration

One of the things I do whenever I visit libraries, galleries or museums is look at the postcards. If any of them stands out enough to bring my eye back to it repeatedly, or to make me want to take it from a rack and read the back, then I frequently buy it. This is part of the process of building up the reservoir of images and ideas every writer must cultivate.

Taking photographs can work in the same way – and smart phones make it easier than it’s ever been. When selecting which image to use, don’t be too deliberate about your motives – the less set your goal in taking your picture, the more unrestrained your writing based on it is likely to be.

Composition

When you have found an image, write for 10-15 minutes about it from any of the following premises. (NB If you set an alarm before you start you are less likely to be distracted by checking the time.)

  • Imagine what happened immediately before this image, and what will happen immediately after
  • Focus on an object or person in the image: become that person or object and write in their voice
  • Imagine sending the image as a postcard to someone – it can be anyone living, dead or imaginary. What would you write on the back?
  • Imagine receiving this postcard from someone – living, dead or imaginary. What would they write on the back? Or would they be writing to someone else?
  • If you find yourself bending the rules – say, instead of becoming a character in the image, you start focusing on their story – go with it. If you strat with one premise, then move to another, fine. Remember: you are writing to find something that engages you creatively, not to produce a ‘correct’ response.

Revision

When the period of writing is over (be flexible: if taking another minute means you finish an important sentence, take another minute), then read what you have written. This may seem a trivial point, but it is in fact one of the more significant instructions I can give you. In itself, this action takes us from composition to revision.

Most people look at their writing in the sense of glancing over it – they don’t read it closely. What they see tends to be as much what they intended to write as what is actually on the page. Phrases and ideas that were never written down hover around the draft, becoming part of their reading experience – but no one else’s. Simply reading what you’ve actually written is by no means easy.

  • Mark those parts that you think might be worth working up later.
  • Indicate those parts you’re not sure are working.
  • Write down why, in both cases, and make suggestions on the page.
  • Ring words that aren’t exactly what you want, but could be replaced.
  • Underline rhythms you like the sound of.
  • If your piece was getting interesting when you ran out of time, make a note on the manuscript of where it might be heading. Don’t assume you’ll remember (you probably won’t).

This experience of drafting for an exercise is similar to all drafting processes. In each case you are writing to discover: you are looking for a hook, something that engages you enough to keep on writing, to keep on exploring.

Think on paper

It’s important that you do all this searching on paper. We can have wonderful ideas for things we’d like to write, and it’s tempting to daydream of these instead of getting something down on paper, which will always seem scrappy and inadequate in comparison. But the first suggestion I would make to you is: learn to think on paper.

Write down as much as possible on the process of approaching an idea, and especially the changes you want to make to it when you get a few phrases down. Thinking on paper is the beginning of drafting, and it’s always easier to tidy up a messy set of notes than to touch a neat draft.

Adapted from: Writing Poetry, by W N Herbert (Routledge/Open University, 2010)

 

Cutting down an existing story

Some novelists (not naming any names) never use one word when seven or eight will do. If you’re writing a blockbuster, it helps to pad out the pages; but if the following were sentences from a flash fiction story, they would need drastic cutting. So flex your literary secateurs and have a go with these.

  • ‘Why was it so hard,’ she thought? ‘So very, very hard, so god- damned difficult?’
  • He took a cigarette from the crumpled packet, rolled it between his fingers like a talisman, struck a match, watching the flare of sudden flame, and lighted the end, hearing the crackle of tobacco catching fire, drawing the welcome smoke deep into his lungs, and watching his blue-grey exhalation drift up into the summer sky. He sat down in the grass and waited.

Now try with these, selected by Tom Chilver for the Telegraph as being among ‘the 20 worst sentences’ in The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Setting aside the quality, it’s the width I’d like you to concentrate on here. How would you condense them to compelling bite-size versions?

  • His last correspondence from Vittoria had been in December – a postcard saying she was headed to the Java Sea to continue her research in entanglement physics… something about using satellites to track manta ray migrations. (from Chapter 6)
  • Pulling back the sleeve of his jacket, he checked his watch – a vintage, collector’s-edition Mickey Mouse wristwatch that had been a gift from his parents on his tenth birthday. (from Chapter 33)
  • The vehicle was easily the smallest car Langdon had ever seen. ‘Smart Car,’ she said. ‘A hundred kilometres to the litre.’ (from Chapter 32)
  • Captain Bezu Fache carried himself like an angry ox, with his wide shoulders thrown back and his chin tucked hard into his chest. His dark hair was slicked back with oil, accentuating an arrow-like widow’s peak that divided his jutting brow and preceded him like the prow of a battleship. As he advanced, his dark eyes seemed to scorch the earth before him, radiating a fiery clarity that forecast his reputation for unblinking severity in all matters. (from Chapter 4)
  • As a boy, Langdon had fallen down an abandoned well shaft and almost died treading water in the narrow space for hours before being rescued. Since then, he’d suffered a haunting phobia of enclosed spaces – elevators, subways, squash courts. (from Chapter 4)

And one last one, from Brown’s Angel and Demons:

  • Although not overly handsome in a classical sense, the forty-year-old Langdon had what his female colleagues referred to as an ‘erudite’ appeal — wisp of grey in his thick brown hair, probing blue eyes, an arrestingly deep voice, and the strong, carefree smile of a collegiate athlete. (from Chapter 1)

Now it’s time to prune your own prose.

Choose a story you have already written, and snip away at it, rephrasing as you go, until you’ve pared it back to one fifth of its original length.

Don’t do it all at once. Gardeners know that a very overgrown hedge or tree may die if hacked back too drastically. Return to it again and again, over several days. Each time you’ll find something new to cut, some new way to discover the core of your story.

 

Devised by Valerie Laws

Sharpening a freewritten text

Choose one of the prompts below and freewrite without pause, without editing, for 10 minutes. (You could also use any piece of text produced in a similar way in response to a prompt at your writing group of class.)

  • Choose a name of a place you’ve never been, or make one up. Go there – and encounter someone who changes your life.
  • Start by describe someone’s hands (or shoes) in great detail, how they look, what signs they show of the life they’ve lived. Now continue into a story…
  • Select one of these phrases and see where it leads:

My mother always…

You never…

He didn’t…

What terrifies me is…

It hurts so much, I…

No-one believes…

  • Write a story from your own life but reverse all the facts and results.
  • Choose a fairytale or mythical character, modernise them, modernise their dilemma.
  • You find something you thought was stolen. Or lose something and pretend it was stolen.

Read through what you have written. Is there a story in there you feel like using, or the germ or hint of one? Underline/highlight/isolate it somehow. (Remember, flash fiction isn’t prose poetry or poetic prose, it needs a storyline – maybe even a beginning, middle and end – something that makes it fiction, not just description or expression.)

Having identified the germ of your story, give yourself a further 10 minutes to develop it into a complete narrative. Don’t worry about the number of words at this stage. Just make sure you get to the end of the story.

Read your draft story with a poet’s eye. Which words are not pulling their weight? Which phrases are not moving the plot along? Which descriptions, however gorgeous, are just window-dressing?

Now for the hard part. Cut, cut, cut. Reduce adjectives and adverbs to a minimum. Try putting a line through any words that seem superfluous – does the text still work without them? Can you replace verbs or nouns with more powerful weighty words that allow you to dispense with qualifiers altogether?

Be ruthless about removing redundant phrases. Telegrams used to be priced per word. Imagine your story is a telegram and you will be charged for every extraneous word.

When you’ve cut as much as you can, count your words. If you have too many, see if you can cut it even further. But beware of cutting out the vivid and unique aspects of your narrative. Better to start the story later, or end it earlier, than remove the telling details that bring it alive.

Reread it. Is there room for a word here and there to deepen your characterisation or increase the tension?

When you have reached your target word count, spend some quality time adding and subtracting words and phrases to see if you can tighten and enliven the final version.

Devised by Valerie Laws

'I really love @Mslexia's little ms. It's so...perky'
@cathbore