Friday, 26 June 2009

SmokeLong Quarterly

SmokeLong is the Viper Room of flash pubs. It's the velocity candy, the tote bag, the kind of place I cruised by in my second hand Smart, taking notes, watching and waiting. And then, suddenly, out of nowhere, they send a car. Can I bring my dog?, I ask and they say sure, because they're cool about these kind of things. So me and my dog get to go to SmokeLong with a story in tow.

Roll the dice. Pass Go. Take two steps left. Go straight to Oz.

Delighted to be a part of it.

Am going to take the rest of the day off and spend it reading from cover to cover, walking around in circles and staring out of the window, stunned.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009


I got two rejections today. The first one, a form rejection: 'Dear Writer...' Sent in roughly 24 hours, for three pieces subbed. Multiple subs allowed. Subbed 3, all different. Got back the response pronto. No, writer. No.

I read it, imploded quietly and stormed around. Perhaps I've been spoiled but I have not had a form rejection in ages. The ones I have had have all been personal and often very pleasant. Useful critiques, kind words and so on. So I reacted badly. After imploding, I regressed. Then I sat down, fuming, and searched for any dosh I could get on the editor of the fine pub that dared ... dared! Waaaah! ... to be so good as to read and reject me so quickly.

And I found the editor's blog. And it was all about their own rejections. How they tried and tried. Their dedication and so on. How badly they reacted to the form ones. Yes indeed, there was my own hubris and idiocy slowly draining away, like so much battery acid. It wasn't pretty, but it passed. I learned. Moved on. 'Dear Writer' grew up a bit.

The second rejection was even faster. The fastest I have had, in fact. Subbed in the morning, got rejected three hours later. But this one was personal and very, very helpful. The editor pointed out some spot-on problems with the piece and was very kind about the rest.

So, basically, next time I'll be more careful.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

One of those 'I knew I shouldn't have but then again I learned something' moments

No sooner do I make a ham-fisted stab at pinning down flash, when I discover Hobie Anthony's remarkable and incisive blog where he lays everything and more out on the dissecting table in perfect clarity.

Leap-frogging from there, I discover Stefanie Freele's Sisters, which is a complete revelation in how the story form can be re-invented in a micro. If you haven't read it, I recommend doing so, right now. It's very short.

The title keys the piece, which uses simply 'The younger' and 'The older' to switch between the reciprocal actions of two sisters. There's a kind of numeric structural underpinning that carries the story, something Freele makes more explicit with a line about the younger sipping 'her third.'

Freele, I think, makes a virtue of a limitation here - by squaring a story on its structural opposites. The two sisters are points A and B. The 'third' turns out to be the reader/writer, their engagement also made explicit in a powerful ending.

I think here, the usual conceptual resonance thing is neatly subverted by a structural resonance.

So, that just shows how long a way there is to go.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Definition of flash fiction

Don't do it! they say, but I can't stop asking. I'm certain that others have defined the form much better but this is where I got to so far:

I've been pondering this thing I call conceptual resonance. Simple example: Concept 1: frigidity. Concept 2: snow. Or: Concept 1: happiness. Concept 2: Sunshine. These concepts resonate on a very basic, almost vulgar level. Other concepts resonate on more complex, subtle, strange or crazy levels. Someone probably has an official name for it.

So, poetry is all about conceptual resonance. Story is irrelevant. In a poem you can just scrawl out your concepts any old way and hope they resonate in a pleasing way.

Flash is poetry + story. Conceptual resonance is still important, but you need a story too. You can't just waffle on about happiness and warmth. You need happy Carl to be trying to find a way to pay his heating bills. You need some story elements.

Short story up to novel also = conceptual resonance + story ... but ... the conceptual resonance is much diminished and story is much more important. Plot comes to dominate.

Why so? It's s a basic question of length. In very simple terms, because Flash is short (that's a given), all the concepts you deploy are going to bump up against each other. It can't be helped. Resonance becomes a vital factor to the reading experience. It's possible to write a Flash piece almost entirely as story but very boring, like this one:

Carl is cold. He has no money. So he decides to rob a bank. He succeeds! Now he has lots of money. No more problems with those heating bills.

As soon as you try filling in the details here - who Carl is, how it actually unfolds, you need to deploy concepts. They're the coloring in. The really good ones almost always, in my experience, run new and interesting concepts together that create resonance not seen before.

So, that's the definition. Flash is poetry + story balanced out in relatively equal importance. And where does that leave microfiction? Microfiction is just very short flash. A sub class.

I am sure that this is either really obvious, wrong, well-discussed or misuided. But it's what's rattling around the old head these days, and I have to get it down, pat, if only for my own benefit.

Friday, 19 June 2009


Everything has slowed down so completely that it is almost threatening to stop. The heat doesn't help. 32 degrees, blazing sun, air so dry that it could make a fortune on the comedy circuit. A small fortune.

Not much happening on either. Three pieces up on the flash board. Nothing. Actually one of them got a review that said I had captured everything that was wrong with humanity in less than 650 words. It's an ambition, I suppose. I don't know if I am to be delighted at the compression or upset that I have no words to spare for everything that is right with humanity. Well, to be honest, I do know. I was delighted, of course. But that passed and then nothing else happened.

I reviewed more and more to fill the void. Began to appreciate stasis:

I notice that your character does absolutely nothing. She simply sits in a forest, looking at a deer. The deer does nothing either. Then it ends. I LOVE this! It's so TRUE!

and so on...

Part of the problem was me being spoiled. I got some acceptances recently of the high grade cocaine quality. And now of course, I want that buzz every day. But the buzz is a buzz because of its scarcity. So now I am sitting, the wind wafting my beard, hopeless and untroubled.

But of course, that's all nonesense. Petty whining. And Duotrope's Digest is the cure, the reminder that it's not about acceptances, feedback and love. It's about writing and writing and getting better. And that's all.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Small change

Where do you get your ideas, people ask and I say, I find them in the street, like money.

We went for a walk in the park, sat on a bench and watched the water glitter. There, under the bench, was an idea. I picked it up and slipped it in my bag. Another idea was left lying near the gate. I bent and grabbed, quickly, before anyone else noticed.

Later, in a coffeeshop, I found an idea just laying on the table next to the sugar. Maybe the people who had just left intended to leave it as a tip. Too late, it's mine now.

Then, an evening drink at a student cafe. Spontanous guitar sessions, hot orange juice and amaretto. And a wonderful, shiny idea, just sitting there, in the middle. I bent, grabbed and slipped. It was glued to the ground. Everyone laughed. I smiled, nodded and shrugged.

There is always tomorrow.

Minor Robberies

OK, so I've given this collection a Five Star rating without reading the short stories by Dave Eggers and Sarah Manguso. Sue me. - says one

Although I enjoyed all three, Deb Olin Unferth's Minor Robberies stands out in this group. It is delightfully humorous, adventurous, and with a touch of mystery at times. - another.

Amateur reviewers are a strange mad bunch, and yes I am aware of the irony, naturally. There is a sense of pride in their assertions of having only read Deb Olin Unferth's 'Minor Robberies' collection, or that they only bought the collection for these ones, or that they are only interested in etc... However you cut it, the consensus seems to be well within Olin's orbit.

A bizarre phenomenon. For me, Olin's stories are the Dustin Hoffman of the McSweeney's collection. Accomplished, certatinly. Talented - of course. But they are also mannered to the point of impossibility. And, like Hoffman, wear their technique on their sleeve to the detriment of the impact. They are good actors, but they insist on working that 'look at me, I can act' thing into the plumage. Perhaps reviewers, like magpies, pick up on the shiny things.

Personally, I preferred Manguso's deceptive simplicty - a vastly more difficult trick to achieve - and Egger's erratic slight of hand - even more so, still.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Four short things

Every writer's fantasy: You write something, put it out there, the world reads, is stunned and pounces. 'I want this' says the world and you shrug, because what else can you do, except give it up easy. That, or something similar, happened to me today. Then there was an electrical storm.

The more I read, the more I get hot wired. Snatches of other people's ideas and sentences leap into me like sparks from super-heated paper. I note them all down in my book of ideas. There's a queue, now, winding around the block. One of the first ideas in the queue is 'watchmen at the junkyard' - a snippet of a sentence, slightly modified into a possible title.

A writer friend of mine just published his second book of short stories. An extract on his publisher's site shows me that he's really come on. The extract concerned a story about his girlfriend who could have pretended to be a prostitute, but in the end made him rabbit, stewed in wine. I remember that rabbit. I ate it with him in his apartment a long time ago. He was very proud of it and it tasted delicious.

A Romanian from New York came to look at our apartment today. We didn't think she'd buy it. She was a nice lady. On her way out of the door, she pointed at the row of cameras that I have pinned on my wall. 'I have a camera just like one of those.' she said. 'A Hassleblad.', I thought. 'A Hassleblad', she said. 'That' s a nice camera.' I said, glad to have had the conversation for free.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Quick Reviews

My bought pile outpaces my read pile about a factor of about ten. It's a common thing. Easier to buy than to read. Lots of people form a 'to read' queue on the shelf, the bedside table or wherever. And then you end up reading in patches. Word grazing. So -

One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in a Small Box: Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape, How the Water Feels to the Fishes, and Minor Robberies.

That title is almost as long as some of the stories. These are a revelation to me. Flash as it should be done. Each one a whole, an aphorism entire unto itself, like a hedgehog.

How It Ended by Jay McInerney

You know how you walk into a room and Grandad starts up all his stories about drugs and girls and fast cars? This is exactly like that. The old man's tales are full of holes and rambling exposition, but he knows how to conjur up a world in a fireplace, that's for sure.

Party in the Blitz by Elias Canetti

Who would have guessed it? Bertrand Russell, while being spectacularly clever, looked exactly like a goat and acted like one too.

Emily Anderson: 'Love, The Frontier', in McSweeney's 25

The journal of a young woman looking for love in the wild west. Grand overture indeed, but I mention it mostly because of the clementines. 'Celementines' are women who live in a shed. The acquiesce in men's desires for a security trade-off. Some women do that. It's true. Switch on MTV and what do you see? Celementines.

Friday, 5 June 2009

The Road to Guantanamo

An irresponsible film based on the testimony of the 'Tipton Three' - three English men, Ruhal Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul - who were taken by the American army from Afghanistan to Guantanamo and held for three years. The individuals are real, and their testimony is a genuine account - but there's serious problems with the truth of their claims. And by 'serious problems' I mean 'vast gaping holes in a gossamer thin sheet of credibility'. By taking these men's account at face value, and presenting it without question, the film fails both as a fully rounded account and as well-meaning propoganda.

Here's the account. See how seriously you can take it:

One of the men goes to Pakistan, to meet his chosen bride and get married there. After a week, he decides he likes the girl and calls his friends who go to join him for the wedding. Because a hotel is too expensive, (presumably all their money spent on plane tickets and wedding presents etc...) they stay at a mosque where a radical preacher happens to turn up and urge the young men to go to Afghanistan and 'see what's happening' and 'help'. This is about a month after 9-11 and before the American invasion. The men decide to go and have a look in Afghanistan. They think that there's really 'big nan bread' there and this entices them. So (wedding now apparently forgotten, return tickets too...) they jump on a bus to the border, where all three just walk into the militarised country with no questions asked, by anyone.

As they drive on into the mountains, the bombing starts. They find it frightening, but keep going, because ... well, they don't say. They all agree, though, that the nan breads are worth the risk. One of them gets seriously ill, but they keep going, because ... well, they don't say. After hanging around for three weeks, two and half of them in Kabul, they decide they're bored with Afghanistan and want to go back to Pakistan, where, I presume, they'll beg for plane tickets back home.

But, wouldn't you know it, by the worst stroke of luck, they jump on the wrong bus. It doesn't take them to Pakistan, it takes them to one of the last major Taliban outposts in Afghanistan. No matter how much they plead with the bus driver, he just won't let them off the bus. So they end up in the compound surrounded by men with guns. Not knowing what else to do, they decide to stay. Then the Americans attack the compound and they find themselves arrested and taken to Guantanamo on suspicion of being fundamentalist fighters.

I think Occam's razor is well applied here. The simplest explanation for all of this confusion is that the men were delighted by what happened on 9-11, because of a deep-rooted fundamentalist conviction, one strong enough to make them want to go straight to Afghanistan and help the Taliban keep hold of power in the country. After they were caught, and rather than admit this, they came up with a bizarre account involving nan bread and caprice. I think too that this is clearly the single most likely explanation to arise in the mind of any thinking person. I'm not saying it's true - because I'm not placed to do that. I'm just saying it's very likely.

So - it's likely then that these guys are lying and that they're fundamentalists (In fact, one of them later admitted, under a polygraph test, that they'd spent some weeks at an al-qaeda training camp). What then are we to make of a movie based on their account, that does not question it and that shows no other opposing views? Well, it fails, clearly, as a well rounded account of an experience at Guantanamo. But it also fails as propaganda, because, since it is so clear that the account is flawed, then anything in the account concerning what happened at Guantanamo is also highly questionable. We end up with a film where nothing is credible.

Those on the American right are likely, in fact, to applaud it with the thought that, if this is the best lie that three fundamentalists can come up with on Gitmo, then it can be ignored. Fundamentalists are probably going to enjoy it - even, and probably especially, knowing that the surface account is laughable. Some English teens might like it - especially with those endless and somewhat xenophobic flashbacks of good-wholesome English kids enjoying pizza before they grow their hair long and accidentally wander into battle.

I would love to see a film about Guantanamo that really showed me, convincingly and passionately, all of the injustice, fear, disgrace and events that actually happened there. A film that shows both sides - why these things happened and to who. A film that says something about us, as humans, stuck in a dangerous world. But this is not it. This is just an insult to any intelligence, from earthworm up.

Thursday, 4 June 2009


The day before yesterday, about 7pm, the sky went dark. Not slowly, but suddenly, as if someone knocked a hole in it and drained all the battery fluid. The wind picked up and kept on picking up. Strange things banged and rattled. Lightning flashed at angles. Streets turned to rivers.

Yesterday, we went for a walk. A residential street in the center was closed from one end to the other. Two ancient and massive chestnut trees had come down into the road, bringing all the powerlines, cable connections and telephone wires with them. Their remains leaned against the houses opposite, poking through broken windows. Workers ambled about, as if in shock.

Today I read a fine story by Elias Canetti, about a remote Scottish laird and his wife, who imported her dresses from Paris - the latest fashions - but had no one to wear them for. So she kept them, wrapped and sealed in her wardrobe. The couple had some servants from Poland, but they laughed too loudly so the laird sacked them and went looking for quieter ones. He found one in a lighthouse in the remote north. The new man understood quiet, and could perceive the laird's needs before the laird could himself. But one day his wife discovered one of her dresses missing and went to look for the servant. She discovered him, in his room, wearing the dress and practicing ballet moves in front of a full length mirror.

Monday, 1 June 2009


Here's how a story got imagined, written and pubbed, from start to finish.

I was listening to early German synthesizer music on my iPod, weeks ago. Really listening. Paying attention to the sounds. They went 'Zzzing. Plish. Squalk. Plash. Smeeaow.' It was raining too. I was outside. I thought 'This music sounds like rain. It's the kind of thing I would have noticed when I was a kid. That's interesting.'

'That's interesting' is like a bell to me. It means a story is at the door.

So suddenly there's this story about this kid in the rain, telling his mother that it sounds like
'Zzzing. Plish. Squalk. Plash. Smeeaow.' How does the mother react? Kid's a bit weird - make her weird too. Family trait: overactive imagination. So now the kid's a synesthesiac and the mother's kind of worried about him but she's too wrapped up in her own world to really notice. Oh the ironies of fate and miscommunication. But most of all, I liked the idea of getting into the head of a weird kid. Because I was a weird kid and I want the world to know about it.

Maybe that's why, when I sat and wrote, the kid just came alive. He was bouncing around and being very kid-like. That saved a lot of time. He didn't turn into a cliche. That was good. The mother was more writerly - a kind of left-field quirk thing, but she fitted in nicely.

For some reason, every time I wrote the word 'synesthesia' this big gong went off in my mind, warning me that the word was crashing in like an elephant. So I chucked it in favor of others more oblique - 'that Nabokovian thing' - stuff like that. Result - hardly anyone who commented on the story got the synesthesia part. But that's good, too.

I put it up on a writers group at Lots of comments telling me the POV was shot to hell. I had to choose - mother or child. I went with mother. Polished for a few weeks. Sent it out. Got it pubbed (under the real 'fiction' name of 'O'Connor').

And, naturally, now I don't like it at all. All I see is faults. I see a rock to leap from onto the next rock. But that's how it goes. Writing buries its pallbearers.