Thursday, 30 July 2009

Dial M For Monkey

I have often wondered where the connection lies between Flash and humor. Now I know. Adam Maxwell's 'Dial M For Monkey' is great fun, very English, wonderfully compact and deceptively simple. The writing never over-reaches itself but remains elegant, original and well-framed.

While the cover and the blurb gives the impression that Maxwell relies on shock-effect to get his ideas across, I don't believe that this is especially the case. His key thing is ideas. Each of these tales pivots on a single, powerfully imaginative idea. Reading the set, I consider Maxwell to be the kind of writer who constantly imagines the unusual behind the ordinary. The most congenial aspect of the book is the way that imagined explanations are used to impart a sense of wonder to the mundane. It is tempting to give examples, but that would ruin the book for the next reader, as these stories are almost entirely based on their core ideas. That's not to say, however, that the writing, phrasing and sentences are not fine in themselves. There's a lot of description here that leaps off the page with its originality and subtlety.

More than a few of the tales rely on first person narration, meta-comment and a kind of looping structure of the cliff hanger sort: 'Here I am in this weird situation, now how did I get here?' It's carried off so well, though, that it is a joy to read. It may even become something of a trademark. Hardly a dud in the pack - though one story did rely on a revelation that I have read elsewhere, in Ian McEwan's, 'The Child in Time', I think. That time it involved a strap repeatedly hitting the wall of a train carriage...

Witty. Stylish. Fine spun home humor of the top-drawer sort.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

I predict that is going to be the biggest node in the flashwork before sundown. It's a new site set up and run by Randall Brown (that's 'the Guvner' to you) that deals with flash and nothing but. It takes every aspect of the game and gives it a good shake down: craft, people, writing - the lot. It's not an all-fluff and no-trousers thing. It's the business. I would go so far as to call it a serious educational resource, and I don't do that lightly. It's also a lot of fun and big on the participation side of things. But you know that already, I am sure.


I am pleased to see my short piece 'Selkie' up online at the summer issue of The Linnet's Wings. It's based on an old seafaring legend about women appearing in the form of seals. The notion supposedly goes back to a Pagan soup of ideas concerning what happens to the souls of the drowned. Everything, naturally, turns out for the worse in the end.

The Linnet's Wings makes a fine home for the piece, as the legend is alive and well in Ireland, where the pub is based. I am pleased, too, to discover that it's published with so many other good pieces by writers I am a fan of. There's too many of them to list here, but all of them worth a read.

'Selkie' is almost certainly the last piece to be published under my real name of 'O'Connor'. From here on in it's Dahai all the way.

Monday, 20 July 2009


Saturday, 18 July 2009


"Bad artists drink coffee. Great artists, tea"
Pablo Picassa.

I never understood that Picasso quote about stealing, and it always struck me as basically stupid, so I won't discuss it any more.

Plagiarism. It seems it has it's own day now. Yesterday, I think. Never mind, I'll just take today and copy it.

Will Self once advised temperance if and when other people steal your work. If you're any good, he said, you can write more while the thief probably can't. Which is fine, except Will Self said it, and he's like tin foil placed gently against a filling. I wish someone else had said it. Maybe they did. Maybe Will, in a gesture of supreme ironic idiocy, stole that line.

The thing that gets me about plagiarism is that it is sad. It's as sad as an attention seeking clown faking his own death then turning up at his own funeral, in full costume, and finding the place deserted. No clowns for miles. Then the he goes to a cafe and accidentally chokes on a spoon. That's what plagiarism means to me.

Friday, 17 July 2009

The trouble in my shorts

When does a Flash piece stop being that and become something else instead, a short story for example? This question has been bugging me for the last few days, mostly because I am trying to do with short stories what I did with Flash. In short - get a few pubbed, check the feedback, test the water. And the water, right now, is shallow and somewhat sticky. I am getting very nice feedback from editors - helpful, positive and so on, but it's just not there yet, not with the short story. So what's the difference?

Here's the answer that's playing me so far: Flash arrives uninvited, lounges around on the sofa of my subconscious, tells a few jokes and leaves. Short stories require afternoon tea, at the very least. They need some planning, some construction. That much is clear, but the deeper implication is more interesting: because of they way a Flash piece bubbles up, almost complete in itself, it is in essence, the piece that I wanted to write. I didn't plan it. It provoked itself. It wanted to be written.

Because a short story needs planning, on the other hand, then it is not automatically the story I wanted to write. I might think it is, but actually my planning is usually inflected by outside motivations: 'I want to get pubbed in X', 'I want to be a writer like Y', 'I want to write in this or that style' and so on. That's a problem because it's always going to lead to a story that seems forced somehow - and readers always notice. Unless I'm writing the thing I truly want to write, then it's never going to work.

An easy answer at once suggests itself: Take those Flash pieces and extend them into short stories. Since the Flash pieces turned up unannounced, they must be hinting at something. There must be something in there that wanted to be written. So why not just spin those out into shorts? Because a Flash is, by definition, complete in and of itself. It might be pushing me to think about some aspect that could feed into a short story, but it's not the story itself and it never will be. It's a Flash.

So now I am asking myself how I find out what stories are the kind I want to write. And I seem to be falling towards the idea of taking some intellectual or moral principal and posing it as a question. So, as a very broad and simple example, I might consider: "Love conquers all" - then pose it as a question: "Does love conquer all?" And suddenly I am beginning to see situations and embryonic characters. I am seeing conflicts and question. And therein lies the beginning of the stories that I want to write. All I need to do now, it seems, is find the right principles.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Carver's 'Vitamins'

This is a story of endless branching. Right from the opening line: 'I had a job and Patti didn't', Carver constantly divides (carves?) the action, taking the reader up to a point when things can go either way, then sending them down the path less taken, less anticipated. The effect is to always keep the reader on their toes. I found myself wondering where he was taking me throughout the read.

The payoff for this strategy absolutely has to be a killer last line - the kind of line that just nails it, leaves you stunned. And Carver certainly delivers in that respect. The entire mitotic structure ultimately underpins that one line, and that line gives purpose to the process. It's a thrilling experience to read and I can see how it has influenced the final lines of many flash pieces - the ones that reach for resonance, anyway.

Carver leans a lot on the Hemingway inheritance, but he pares it down even more, right to the bone. This approach makes the odd flourish light up like a firework. Take the double meaning and striking oddness of 'tended' in: 'Patti and I and somebody else lugged her out to the back porch and put her down in a cot and tended to forget about her.' In times of such scarcity, the universal duality is your friend. This happens a lot in flash pieces too - a seemingly simple declarative line that has a specific meaning in the context of the piece also takes on a universal quality when read as a statement in its own right. Carver does this a lot. One quick example: 'There was no end of girls.' It's not perfect though. I found one sentence (one!) that jarred for me, because it used that 'began' word which grates and grates like tinfoil against a filling: 'Donna and I began getting out of the booth'.

The vitamins of the title symbolize, for me, a false vitality - a consumerist product that attempts to package life and meaning all in one handy capsule. They paint the background for Carver. One of his characters, Patti, struggles to sell the pills door to door. Her exhaustion comes across with vivid clarity when she complains of lack of sleep due to dreaming about making sales. It comes as no surprise that she herself is using the product by the handful. The optimist in me wants to see the vitamin thing as at least offering the hope of a true vitality - even it is entirely corrupted, it seems to exist. Perhaps the religious minded might read something else into that.

The casual sexism of Carver always gets to me. Whether it is supposed to be simply a reflection of reality or not, reading him can sometimes feel like being trapped in a room with a particularly eloquent boor. In this tale we have the usual weak chase-skirting man, beaten down by life in capital letters, betraying his hard-struggling partner for no apparent reason - at least not any reason that is apparent to him. I cannot identify with this kind of character. All I can do is look down on them with a kind of squeamish pity while admiring the surface texture of the text.

The thing with the ear, though - now that's inspired.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

When to sub?

A lot of pubs ask, quite reasonably in my view, that writers only submit their best work, their most polished pieces, the top drawer stuff. Which is fine, but provokes the next question: how do I know what's best? - and the one after that - how do I know when it's finished?

Let's dispense with the first question quickly, because it is impossible to answer. Experience has taught me that I am the last one to ask when it comes to the question of what pieces work or don't. My opinion counts for little. I've had pieces lauded that I never gave much consideration too. I've touted faves for years with little success. There's stuff on my hard drive that I hug every morning, because that's the only home it has and will probably ever have.

How do I know when a piece is done? Well, this is how it usually goes for me:

I start with a prompt or an idea. Then I wait. I ponder it for a while, dispensing with obvious solutions, looking for a break. Sometimes that can take weeks, sometimes hours and - on rare occasions - minutes. But when the break comes, it's like a key unlocking a door. It grips me like a fever. I have to get it down. Out it all comes in a rush, unstoppable. I get the piece done within minutes - basically as fast as I can type. And, because of the way this happens, when I punch in the last full stop I can lean back, euphoric that it happened again.

Now is the danger time. First of all, I have to force myself to sit on the piece for at least a day. It's easier now, in the light of experience, than it used to be. No matter how big the rush of the initial write, I know that there's going to be at least one tweak. This is where a site like comes in handy. I use it as a kind of holding bay. The pieces aggregate comments and I get a handle on what works and what stumps.

Even with that, though, there's all these judgement calls. When do I stick to my guns and go with what I feel is good, even if ten other people are calling me out on it (mental note: 'calling out' is a construction forever ruined by Palin et al.)? When am I over tweaking? Under tweaking? Am I tinkering away with this because I am afraid to send it out into the big bad world? Am I blinded by my own enthusiasm? So many questions.

So I wind up doing what I suspect everyone else does: muddling through. Pushing some pieces out, holding on to others - testing the waters. Seeing what works. And I get predictable results. I have one piece pubbed from the early days that was accepted long after I had revised the draft to something much better. I've had pubs tell me something is rushed or point out flaws that I should have seen. I've revised and revised drafts, only to return to the first one and realise it was the best after all. There is no end to it - no grand design. And that, as they say, is just that.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Why do anarchists drink herbal tea?

Because all proper tea is theft.

The Elimae Aesthetic

I have always been compelled by elimae. Like the quiet one at the party, it had its own presence. There's just something about it that I can't distill, try as I might. A verbal and visual aesthetic. Coop Renner, editor since 2004, talks about it like this:

'I find myself asking writers to get rid of merely functional writing: words and sentences which are primarily content and not 'music.'

'I don’t mind mystery; I don’t mind obliquity. I don’t want the obvious.' 'I sort of want the writing in elimae to work like a Zen koan.' 'Van Gogh’s Sunflowers: nobody looks at that to ‘learn’ about sunflowers. You look at it to admire the way he put the paint on the canvas.' 'I have a great fondness for the Victorians'

All of which points towards the extremities of the old chestnuts: 'show don't tell' and 'kill your darlings' (but make it beautiful to read). Except that thing about the Victorians. But then if you read carefully, there is a definite Victorian/Chekhovian vibe going on.

Bottom line - take it to the extreme. Cut away. Don't flag it up. Keep it subtle. And so on.

Which brings me to short shorts, and Eric Beeny's 'Two Fictions' is a masterpiece of the form. So much understated possibility in so few words. It's one to read over and over.