I’ve been reading very very short stories this week – 100-words-or-less to be precise. But there were almost 500 of them, so it was no mean feat. As you may have already guessed, I’ve been judging a competition – this year’s National Flash Fiction Day Micro-Fiction Competition.
I’ve selected my quota to go through to the next round, so that list will now go back to the organisers and be collated with the other judges’ choices. Then we’ll be given the shortlist and tasked with choosing the winners. It’s always a struggle to make the final choices, as it’s a very subjective process, and I know that on different days I’d probably pick different winners.
This is the advice I gave when I was asked about what I look for in a short flash piece:
“Micro-fiction has only got time for the sideways glance; a glimpse through the crack. But a glimpse is not the same as a fragment, and I still need something whole – a full story rather than an observation or an anecdote. The skill is in conveying what lies off camera and beneath the surface when you have such a limited word count. Without those hidden depths, the story will feel hollow and the reader won’t care about the character/s. In a hundred carefully chosen words the writer needs to make the specific feel universal. In conclusion, it’s always worth reminding everyone to use their title wisely, as those are valuable extra words.”
I’ve also had a couple of great reviews come through this week. The first was a total – and very welcome – surprise; a review for my short story collection, An Unfamiliar Landscape, in Yorkshire Life magazine. The second was an advance review for talk to me from Adam Feinstein.
“Once again, Amanda Huggins’ poetry dazzles us with the exquisite vitality of its cinematic detail. It also possesses a scorchingly sensory intimacy. It is this combination of filmic power and quiet tenderness which makes Huggins’ work so astonishingly affecting. The smells of the bicycle repair shop, the pink ears of a new-born lamb, the boy who keeps his seat belt on to kiss, ‘as if scared you might persuade him to fly’ – such memorable moments run through talk to me, in poems that are often humorous and always acutely poignant in their musical conviction.” Adam Feinstein, author of Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life
I recently started re-reading all of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels, and last week I finished An Artist of the Floating World. It’s many years since I first read it, and I was pleased to find that it hadn’t lost any of its magic. I’m about to start The Unconsoled, one of my top three Ishiguro novels, and the one which readers tend to have a Marmite reaction to – or if they’re Australian (bad joke alert) a Vegemite reaction. Sorry!
I also received a proof from Pushkin Press of the new translation of Forbidden Notebook by the Italian-Cuban writer, Alba de Céspedes. I absolutely loved it. I read somewhere that this ‘rediscovered’ classic was the ‘female Stoner’, which immediately piqued my interest, as Stoner is a wonderful book. Forbidden Notebook has been highly praised by writers such as Annie Ernaux, Jhumpa Lahiri – who wrote the foreword and who quite rightly says that the novel “blazes with significance” – and Elena Ferrante.
I have also enjoyed finding out more about the author herself. Alba de Céspedes was the granddaughter of the first President of Cuba, married at fifteen, a mother at sixteen, and she started writing after her divorce at the age of twenty. She was also jailed twice for her anti-fascist activities in the 1930s.
Forbidden Notebook was originally published in Italian as a magazine serial in 1950, and this edition is a new – and captivating – translation by Ann Goldstein.
The novel is set in post-war Rome, and the narrative is written in the form of a series of secret journal entries from the point of view of Valeria. It gives the reader a piercing insight into women’s changing roles and expectations in the post-war years, as well as exploring class distinctions, mother-daughter/mother-son relationships, and offering a compelling dissection of a 1940s marriage. This intimate novel of domestic discontent is beautifully and elegantly written, haunting, complex, evocative of time and place, and totally engaging. I read it in two sittings, anxious to find out how and if Valeria dares to make fundamental changes to her life. I am still thinking about her…
(Thanks to Pushkin Press for the advance review copy. Forbidden Notebook is out on March 2nd)
We have a guest on Word Has It… this week. Author Wendy Beasley is sharing her musings on being an ‘elderly’ author – although I have to say that seventy-something isn’t elderly in my book!
The Musings of an Elderly Author
“When is old too old? That’s the question. If, like me, you write your first book at 70 and it doesn’t get published until you’re 72, is there still time for another?
Well, in my case, with two more published, two more written and one underway, it would seem there is! However, publishers – more used to dealing with younger authors whose creative writing future is still ahead of them – don’t need books produced at that rate. For them there is no rush, and they sometimes take up to six months to even consider and subsequently reject a submission.
Unless the manuscript comes from someone who’s already famous. Those who have made a name for themselves as actors, singers, dancers, chefs or comedians – or even as a prince – have a golden ticket to publication and to the bestseller lists.
Fortunately there are still a handful of small, ethical, conscientious publishers like Victorina Press, who judge each manuscript and author on their merits, regardless of age and status, and go out of their way, not only to publish, but also to encourage, advise and promote their work. So thank you VP, and good luck as well-deserved Regional Finalists in the Small Press of the Year category at the British Book Awards. As one of your very grateful authors I’m one of the many who are rooting for you!”
Thanks, Wendy! There was a lot of cheering at Victorina Towers when the news came through – and as you say, a well-deserved shortlisting. There are forty-eight small presses up for the title, so keep your eyes peeled for the next round.
This week we’re still looking at characterisation – narrative distance to be precise. Here’s another excerpt from the third tutorial of my short story course, The Heart of the Short Story. Next time we’ll take this further and look at how to apply techniques to create ‘deep’ point of view.
Narrative distance, also referred to as psychic distance, is the proximity of the reader to the character’s thoughts. As a writer, you need to decide how close the reader will get. Will we share the character’s entire thought processes, hear the beat of their heart, feel their pain and fear? Or will we be held a little further back, still party to the main character’s important thoughts, but surmising much of their personality and frame of mind through their interactions with the world around them. Or will you use a long-distance narrative, where we only see your character from afar – a bird’s eye view. This distance, or closeness, is intrinsically linked to show and tell – as we get closer we will be shown more and told less.
We can break this down further into five levels of emotion distance – as John Gardner does in The Art of Fiction. Here are his examples of the five ‘distances’.
1: It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
2: Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
3: Henry hated snowstorms.
4: God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
5: Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul
This is far away as we can get, an at first glance it appears to be a classic opening. We are given information – an idea of the time and place, yet no real sense of the character. It is an objective beginning, and if the story progresses in the same way then we will never be given the depth of insight we need to care about the characters. Not only is this unsatisfactory for the reader, it is very limiting for the writer.
In the second opening we are told about the setting again, yet this time we learn a little more about the character. He has a name, so he becomes a specific individual, and we learn something about his personality – how he feels about snow. Yet we are still firmly in the hands of the narrator; still being told, not shown.
The third sentence is a little closer, a little more personal, a little more specific. The narrator is taking us further into the story and showing us the character’s experience. This is the common mid-distance view that is prevalent in most fiction.
The narrator is receding into the background now, and we are finally getting inside the character’s head and hearing their voice. When this happens we start to experience the story from their viewpoint alone, seeing only what they see, hearing only what they think.
The final viewpoint is as close as it’s possible to get. We are at point blank range here, and the writing is completely subjective. It is a muddle of thoughts straight from the character’s head – a stream of consciousness. This is all show and no tell, the narrator has disappeared. However, from the point of view of the writer’s scope this is just as limiting as the far-distance example of the first sentence – if we stay this close we may lose sight of what is really going on.
BEFORE I GO…
Word of the Week is crepuscular – which has its origins in the Latin word for twilight. I like it mainly because I love the sound of it! But I also love twilight itself, that sliver of other-worldly half-light just before dusk and dawn.
According to the Treehugger website, the crepuscular activity of certain animals “is further broken down into matutinal animals, which are most active in the morning, and vespertine animals, which are most active at dusk. The domestic house cat is a great example of a crepuscular animal, as are rabbits, deer, some bat species, bears, skunks, bobcats, possums, and many, many more species.”
Find out more here: https://www.treehugger.com/what-is-a-crepuscular-animal-4864558
See you next time!
Great advice and fascinating facts