Prose you can see through

I’ve been proofreading the fifth of my books in Pearson’s ‘Brilliant’ series – it’s Brilliant Academic Writing. Those of you who’ve read earlier posts on the old blog site may remember me referring to another book for students which I co-wrote with Kathleen McMillan and the nonsense generator we’d created which produced pretty convincing examples of bad academic writing. It uses random numbers to generate gems such as:

‘Studies have shown conclusively that intuitively deconstructive morphologies lead inexorably to the paradox of indecipherable polymorphic structures.’

Of course, it means nothing. Well it may but if it does it’s a fluke. Our point was simply to destroy the myth that academic writing has to be incomprehensible, use sentences as long as paragraphs and words no-one except the writer has ever heard of. At its best, academic writing is clear and accessible.

But that’s what all writing should be, except that, with fiction, we’re allowed to leave gaps, make suggestions but allow readers to complete them. In an excellent article I read recently on the great Elmore Leonard, the writer (sorry, can’t remember who it was or where I read it) quoted the opening lines of his novel Tishomingo Blues. They are:

‘Dennic Lenehan the high diver would tell people that if you put a fifty-cent piece on the floor and looked down on it, that’s what the tank looked like from the top of that eighty-foot steel ladder … when he told this to girls who hung out at amusement parks they’d put a cute look of pain on their faces and say what he did was awesome. But wasn’t it like really dangerous?’

Leonard is renowned for the spareness of his writing, the elimination of anything that’s not necessary. This example is deceptively simple but look at how much information he gives the reader. The matter-of-factness of ‘would tell people’ (i.e. it happened all the time); the comprehensive description of all the aspects of his terrifying act in 2 lines and a simple image; the layers of information in ‘girls who hung out at amusement parks’; the deliberate impact of ‘they’d put’, ‘cute’ and ‘awesome’; and the sheer beauty of that final question, reinforcing the gap between the real danger and perceptions of it. All this and more.

Simple words and effects but great writing. And one of his recommendations in his 10 ‘rules’ is that you should cut, cut, cut. Get rid of the superfluous stuff, however wonderful or ‘literary’ you think it is. So, for those of you who like wee exercises (I know some of you do), how about this? It’s a passage I use sometimes in workshops. It’s definitely not literature or ‘good’ writing, but it’s the sort of thing that crops up pretty regularly in press reports. Your task, should you accept it, is to get rid of as much of it as you can but leave its main message(s) intact. At the moment, it’s 134 words long. What’s the lowest number you can get it down to?

‘The general consensus of opinion is that the complete elimination of greenhouse gas emissions is absolutely essential to the continued survival of our species. Martyn Gillespie, who is the chief protagonist of the carbon trading lobby, has proposed a temporary reprieve by adopting a policy which may possibly suggest that compromise is a viable option. His group is small in size but, at this moment in time, it is gaining in credibility. His opponents would do well to recognize its potential for growth and adapt their future plans in order to give advance warning of the complete monopoly Gillespie is beginning to construct. Nothing short of total unanimity will do. Researchers who care about the environment around them must spell out in detail the disastrous consequences that could arise if Gillespie were to prevail.’

There are several tautologies, some obvious, some less so. You can leave your version as a comment if you like, or just give your final word count. The important point, which I’m adding belatedly (sorry Diane) is that you’re only allowed to delete words, not rewrite bits or change the order. This is strictly a cutting exercise.

(P.S. I have no idea why the only avatar that appears in the comments is mine. I’m working on correcting that but if anybody has any suggestions, I’d welcome them.)


Short fiction

I’ve posted 180+ blogs on my old site but, because of the new format and editing system, this feels like a fresh start. If you followed the old one, thanks for sticking with it here. If you didn’t, welcome And you can still find its archives here. My blogs are often tongue in cheek or just frankly bizarre, but for this first one, I’ll stay with the writing theme.

Several months ago, someone asked me what I thought of short stories and flash fiction and, in my habitual lazy way, I’m adapting my answer to make a blog out of it.

The short story seemed to have gone into decline and lots of publishers/agents still say explicitly ‘No short stories’. I think they’re wrong because I think it’s definitely a form which fits our times – and, perhaps more importantly, is popular on internet sites. There are plenty out there that accept submissions – although they don’t usually offer any sort of payment. What they do offer, though, is a forum in which you can get feedback on your work and also learn from reading the pieces that others post there.

The beauty of the short story form to me is that it can be so many things, some of them just an evocation of a mood, others a complete, self-contained ‘story’ with beginning, middle and end, others still a simple memory or a dream. If they’re written with care, they don’t need to have an ending. Some very good ones simply set the scene for what readers know will be a lifetime of misery or bliss for the characters. In terms of length, my own range from 6000 to 500. And then there are the mini ones like those on the sadly defunct Rammenas site, of which the best example in my opinion was one written by my brother Ron. It was called Lost and, in its entirety, it went:

“That ring you lost, was it your wedding ring?”
“Not really.”

That’s’ a good example of how short stories, however complete they are, often still leave you with echoes, aspects of the story you’d like to know more about.

As for where the ideas come from, or how I know a particular topic is a short story rather than a play or whatever, I don’t think there’s a rule. My short stories tend to come from times when I think ‘OK, I have x hours free and I want to write something so I’ll write a complete story’. There’s a satisfaction about giving yourself exclusively to a piece of writing that you know you’re going to complete – in terms of its first draft anyway – at one sitting. You may not, of course; complications may arise, other, unsuspected characters may barge in. And, anyway, it won’t be the finished article because you’ll be returning to edit the thing in a day or two (or longer, preferably).

If you’re not sure what sort of thing to do or where to start, have a look for sites which have competitions and enter them. There’s one called glimmertrain which does that but you can find plenty of others. Those sorts of sites mostly set a theme, provide the opening sentence or a title, so it’s left to your ingenuity to construct your take on it. It becomes an exercise. It’s the best way to find out about the form and how it suits you because faced with a subject which isn’t of your own choosing, you’re left to grapple with formal elements and find out how best they can help you to approach a topic in which you don’t necessarily have a vested interest (at least, to begin with). (And that’s a really horrible sentence, with far too many subordinate clauses.)

Description is OK if it’s necessary but be careful – readers want whatever you’re doing with the story to be set up early, then sustained. So if it’s horror, action, mood, regret, tragedy, whimsy, establish the things you need for that very early and make yourself stay within its ‘limits’. I think that, whatever you use the form for, there has to be an emotional charge of some sort.

In the end, trust your characters to take you where they need to go. Flash fiction (between 500 and 1000 words, and sometimes a bit more depending on the site you choose) is great for the single central thought, idea, belief, moan, mood, whatever, and I think a maximum of 3 characters is the norm. In the 2000+ bracket, you can have more characters, but most of them will be peripheral or at best secondary.

And whatever you think of the finished product, keep it. Put it aside if you like, but come back to it now and then. They have a way of stimulating the imagination and you may see how a quick rewrite, an approach from a different narrative perspective, a change of narrator or any amount of other things could make it a different, perhaps better story.

And the badger has absolutely nothing to do with the blog..