Flash fictions: key words and after-images, on Booktopia

franz-kafka

On the Booktopia blog today, I discuss flash fiction and short fiction; my own and others’ stories, intentions and possibilities. Here’s an extract:

In a short story, every word must count. What is left out is as important as what is left in. The writer must create and maintain a particular tone, or mood, and create a piece that feels whole (not a fragment) but that may evoke much outside its confines. With my own very short stories (also called flash fictions or microfictions), I want the characters, images, themes to live long in the reader’s mind. I want them to have some impact.

You might compare a very short story to a complex painting – a narrative-based painting – where the symbols nestled in the setting and upon the figures work together to not only suggest a particular story but hopefully move you to feel something, something you may not even fully, consciously comprehend.

I hope you enjoy reading the rest.

Signing a contract for an unfinished manuscript, on Writers Bloc

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Click here to read my piece on Writers Bloc about signing the contract for Captives before it was finished, and the ensuing writing process (while travelling). Here’s an extract:

I wrote a few of the stories around sessions at the Edinburgh International Book Fest, including a couple which are postmodern or referential. This reflects the fact that, like the narrator of Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman who knows Lolita’s mother better than she knows her own, I don’t like to separate out my ‘real world’ and ‘cultural’ experiences too much, because I’ve spent so much of my life immersed in fictional spaces. Not only in books, but in places like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, or the post-apocalyptic glam world of David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs.

CaptivesFCR (1)Captives is available for pre-order from my publisher, Inkerman & Blunt, until 30 April (free postage). And the book will soon be available (or at least available to order) at all good bookstores. The official release is only days away! The ebook will also soon be available…

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Angela Meyer (ed), The great unknown (Review)

Angela Meyer (LiteraryMinded):

Reblogging this fantastic review of The Great Unknown from Whispering Gums, a blog I’ve read and admired for quite some time.

Originally posted on Whispering Gums:

Angela Meyer, The great unknown

Courtesy: Spineless Wonders

The great unknown is a mind-bending collection of short stories which explores, as editor Angela Meyer says, “the unknown, the mysterious, or even just the slightly off.” I was, in fact, expecting more horror, thriller even, which are genres that don’t really interest me, but this collection is not that. There are some truly scary scenes – so if that’s your bag then you’ll appreciate this collection – but many are more subtly mysterious, giving the collection a broader appeal.

There are nineteen stories, most of which are the result of Meyer’s direct invitation to some favourite authors. Six, though, come from the shortlist for the Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award, 2013, of which Meyer was the judge. The invited authors were given the same brief as that for the competition, which was to write a story inspired by the “fifth dimension”, that is, the world found in shows like

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Detachment, surfaces, excess: No Limit by Holly Childs

No LimitHologram is a new venture publishing novellas by writers under 30. Hologram is associated with Express Media, a fantastic organisation that provides support and development opportunities for young Australians in writing and media.

The first book to be published by Hologram is No Limit, by Holly Childs. It’s about Ash, who is stuck in Auckland due to a volcano, or the apocalypse—she’s not sure. Ash is seeking her cousin Haydn but then is dragged in aimless directions, encountering people and places. This book is all detachment, surfaces and excess: pop culture references, superficial nostalgia, technology, and falling quickly for one another. There’s a dissociative aspect, between the characters’ experiences and reality: one character Skypes her sister while the sister simultaneously uploads screenshots from the conversation to tumblr, without using her hands. The characters rave during the apocalypse, making comments about clothes and shoes, movies, tech. This could be symbolic of a detached interplay of online and offline worlds, connected and disconnected selves.

The action in No Limit is quite banal, there’s no ‘plot’ per se, and the characters’ motivations are faddish, shifting (no doubt deliberate and conceptual, though as a reader it takes effort to care about what might happen). The novel’s strength lies in Holly Childs’ intense novel-world (reflective of contemporary Gen Y and Millennial experience), which is completely self-contained. All metaphors and similes are relevant:

Haydn is looking right into her eyes, ‘When I came, my cum was green. Like bright green.’ His lip trembles. ‘Like Gak.’

The language is at times overwhelming, in the sense that excess information is overwhelming, like having too many tabs open. And so I think this, too, is deliberate—this onslaught—though it could alienate some readers.

Texts that are name-checked reflect the tone of the novella (retro-futurish), such as Tank Girl and Hackers, and if you like William Gibson or Bret Easton Ellis you might also want to pick this up.

I’ll be publishing a review of the second Hologram title, Elisabeth Murray’s The Loud Earth, in May.

Captives available for pre-order!

CaptivesFCR (1)In her first book of fiction, writer and literary journalist Angela Meyer demonstrates her gift for painting vivid pictures with a few adroit, restrained brush strokes.
—Jennifer Peterson-Ward, Books+Publishing 

You guys…

My first fiction book is being published in May: Captives. It’s a petite, dark collection of flash fiction, with a cover and layout beautifully designed by Sandy Cull. Here’s the blurb:

Captives opens with a husband pointing his gun at his wife. There’s a woman who hears ‘the hiss of Beelzebub behind people’s voices’, a photographer who captures the desire to suicide, a man locked in a toilet who may never get out, a couple who grow young, and a prisoner who learns to swallow like a python.

Angela Meyer’s Captives is a collection of shimmering story wafers, each of which hovers at exactly the sweet spot of just enough. Individually piercing, Meyer’s fiction slices fit together like the best poetry does, amplifying what came before and chiming with what comes after. —Tania Hershman.

I’m so excited that some of my fiction has found its way out into the world, thanks to Inkerman & Blunt. You can follow the publisher on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Captives is now available for pre-order! If you order from Inkerman & Blunt directly before April 30, you’ll receive a signed copy (only $14.99)! You can also order it from your favourite local or online bookstore (the ISBN is 9780987540126).

I’ll be doing plenty of events around the release of Captives, which I’ll announce mainly via Facebook and Twitter. I’ve also started a dedicated events page here on the blog.

Thanks, as always, for reading. (Can you believe this blog will be seven years old the month Captives comes out?) 

The Great Unknown authors: PM Newton

The Great Unknown w blurbs small imageThis is the twelfth post published in conjunction with the release of The Great Unknown, where authors share their experience of writing eerie stories for the anthology. The Great Unknown is available from BooktopiaReadingsAvid ReaderFishpond (free shipping worldwide) and all good bookstores. You might also want to add it to your shelves on Goodreads.

PM Newton is the Sydney-based author of The Old School and Beams Falling (which I am currently enjoying). Today, she tells us about the nightmarish north coast of NSW and the scariest activity of all: writing short fiction…

PM Newton (credit Peter Rae - Fairfax)

PM Newton (credit Peter Rae – Fairfax)

What did you enjoy/find challenging about writing to this particular brief or theme?

I find short stories a challenge no matter the brief! They are a very exposing form that can leave a thin idea with no place to hide. The theme of the collection was very tempting, so I decided to face my short story fear and have a crack. Numerous blown deadlines, unproductive fretting and massive insecurities later, a short story appeared. Thank you, Angela.

Tell us about your story in The Great Unknown.

It sprang from landscape and my memories of living for a short time in the hinterland of northern New South Wales. The valleys that follow the rivers back up into the Great Dividing Range are stunning but it’s an intense landscape, the climate can be extreme and the place does affect people in different ways. Lots of people are attracted to the north coast; they come following dreams that sometimes turn into nightmares, and like most small rural communities there’s a strong sense of who is a local and who is not. The story took those ideas and then stirred in a big bucket of what if?

What memories do you have of watching The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits or of reading spooky/uncanny stories (or comics) as a kid? Did these play any role in your developing imagination? Which films, TV shows, books etc provide that same sort of allure for you these days?

TZ eyeballAs a little kid just hearing the theme to The Twilight Zone was enough to scare me, and as for the eyeball… I was under ten when it was playing on TV and my older siblings must have watched it because I remember it as being really creepy and quite possibly true! Then again, I was also terrified of Daleks.

I didn’t watch or read horror although I was a big fan of The Omega Factor, a BBC Scotland series from the late ’70s, which dealt with the uncanny and was incredibly atmospheric, very much a progenitor of The X-Files, which I also loved. I’ve always been a fan of SciFi: Dr Who, Blakes 7, the Star Treks and Wars, and Philip K Dick is a writer I return to again and again. I am still a big fan of the genre. The potential to explore contemporary questions and push the limits of What if? is incredibly exciting and can be found in the unlikeliest of places, such as the brilliant reboot of BSG. Dick’s recurring question What does it mean to be human? turns up again and again, reworked different ways such as in the Danish TV series Real Humans and the British TV series Being Human. Margaret Atwood writes work that tests the limits of social and technological development. Her trilogy feels like it comes from the same universe as JG Ballard’s The Drowned World.

What thoughts do you have on the current status of genre fiction? 

The genre is blooming, in print and on TV although movies seem to be locked into a death roll of rebooting superheroes every couple of years. In writing there is active engagement with ideas and also with acknowledging the lack of diversity in the genre, both in writers and the characters written about. Again, this is changing, with voices such as Nalo Hopkinson, NK Jemisin and Saladin Ahmed gaining better recognition.

It’s interesting that TV series like BSG and Game of Thrones have cut through and gained plaudits and viewers who are quick to say they ‘don’t read/watch SFF but [insert name of exception] is really good‘. Meanwhile in literary SFF, the SFF v Spec Fic debates rumbles on, and the genre as a whole still bubbles beneath the radar of the big book awards, with all the cachet and cash that entails. At the Key West Literary Seminar in 2012, China Miéville spoke in defence of pigeonholes, arguing that it need not be reductive but merely taxonomic, although he did acknowledge the seizing of the term ‘literary fiction’ with a wry ‘Well played, sir, well played’. Miéville’s advice to the genre was to embrace what made it different—its ‘swagger’. So here’s to embracing the genre and swaggering the hell out of it.

You might also enjoy reading about stories by Deborah BiancottiChris FlynnHelen RichardsonA.S. PatricMarion HalliganGuy SalvidgeKathy CharlesAli AlizadehRyan O’NeillCarmel BirdRhys Tate, and Alex Cothren.

Chairing panels and interviewing authors on stage: a few things I’ve learnt

Short story session @ Bellingen Readers & Writers Fest 2012 with Marele Day, Robert Drewe and Charlotte Wood

Short story session @ Bellingen Readers & Writers Fest 2012 with Marele Day, Robert Drewe and Charlotte Wood

It’s been five years since I first wrote a piece like this, and after seeing the topic come up in an author’s Facebook thread, I figured it was time for an update.

I’m sharing what I’ve learnt about chairing and interviewing authors on stage, particularly through watching good, mediocre or bad sessions at festivals, not just due to my own experience chairing panels at writers’ festivals in Australia and overseas. Let me acknowledge that I’m well aware, compared to many of my colleagues, that I’m still green-ish (in terms of years ‘in the field’), and that I’m not saying I’m an authority or have mastered all of these points. Like anyone, I have good days and bad days, and times where I’ve simply taken too much on. I also suffer from nerves.

This post is not intended to target anyone in particular; I hope it will benefit people both chairing for the first time, and those who’ve become a little too comfortable (and perhaps even over-confident) in their methods. I mention this last point because I’ve had a few recent conversations with friends where we’ve agreed that a panel or interview was badly chaired, but the interviewer is generally a ‘good egg’ and we don’t know how to broach the subject, or whether it is our place to.

To the person I later found out had snorted cocaine before chairing a writers’ festival panel: no. Just no.

These are simply observations from someone who has spent a lot of time (enthusiastically) at these events in the past few years, someone who thinks the general standard can be better. Please feel free to add your own tips, observations, experiences and stories in the comments section below.

Writers Who Blog panel at Sydney Writers' Fest 2013. Mark Forsyth, Tara Moss, Lorraine Elliott &  myself.

Writers Who Blog panel at Sydney Writers’ Fest 2013. Mark Forsyth, Tara Moss, Lorraine Elliott & myself.

1. Prepare well. Read the authors’ latest books, and if you have time, dip into their backlist as well. Both the authors and audience appreciate an in-depth knowledge of the work (as long as you don’t show off about it). If it’s relevant, also read up on the topic. For example, I recently chaired a panel with Margaret Drabble and Rabih Alameddine called ‘Grand Allusions’, and so I dug out my Oxford Dictionary of Allusions to swot up on literary allusion and reference.

2. Get in touch with the authors in advance. You don’t have to overwhelm them with information, just let them know that you’re preparing the session and that the channels of communication are open. Then they can let you know if there’s anything they are really keen to focus on, or avoid. I also contact them again the week before the event to give them an idea of some questions and topics I may raise on stage, so they have time to ponder them beforehand, or select an appropriate reading. I’ve also found this helps to assure the authors that the conversation will have direction and that you’ll get to certain topics, so they don’t feel they need to explode on the first question and say everything they have been thinking about.

3. That said, you don’t want to exhaust the topic before the panel or interview even begins, leave plenty of room for spontaneity.

A New Frontier: Blogging, Dissent & Solidarity at Ubud Writers & Readers Fest 2009: Dian Di SudutBumi, myself, Ng Yi-Sheng and Antony Loewenstein.

A New Frontier: Blogging, Dissent & Solidarity at Ubud Writers & Readers Fest 2009: Dian Di SudutBumi, myself, Ng Yi-Sheng and Antony Loewenstein.

4. On the day, keep the introductions brief and respectful. Use the information the author has provided to you/the festival. Also give a brief general introduction to the panel topic.

5. Try to use the names of the authors’ books when referring to them, instead of saying ‘your book’. It will help the audience to remember the titles.

6. Be sure to ask individual questions of each author, as well as more general ones. This will allow more in-depth insights into their individual works, and the audience will leave knowing more about them. It’s also respectful to the authors, and shows you have read the books carefully.

7. That said, don’t over-analyse the authors’ books as part of your question. This is the first tip under ‘it’s not about you’. It’s OK to lead in with a little bit of info that will help to place the question, but if you analyse an aspect of the book and then just ask: ‘what do you think about that?’ you often don’t give the author much room to move, especially if they think you are wrong but want to remain polite. Don’t treat your preparation the same way you would if you were writing a review or essay. As an example, instead of telling the author and audience that the book has strong female characters, you might ask the author about a particular character and then prompt them from there to give their own opinion or analysis. The audience wants to be party to the author’s own insights, not yours.

8. On that note, don’t show off. Don’t over-quote, or take too much time to delve into the book’s relation to (insert your own specialist area). One or two well-placed quotes or references can be incredibly effective, but I’ve seen panels and interviews where the chair will throw in a quote before every second question. Though the author is undoubtedly very smart and well read, you may be putting them in a potentially awkward position (or risk them thinking you’re a smart-arsey douche). The audience, too, will be groaning inwardly, or outwardly. They’ve come to hear what this author thinks about love, writing, death…

9. In sum of these last two points, keep the lead-in to your questions brief, and actually ask a question. One that works well for me is: ‘Could you tell us about…’

Relaxing with a drink by the authors' yurt, Edinburgh International Book Festival 2013.

Relaxing with a drink by the authors’ yurt, Edinburgh International Book Festival 2013.

10. Be flexible. I’m definitely someone who over-prepares, and writes everything down. I would panic if I didn’t have my notebook on stage with me. However, I don’t entirely follow the questions as a script. I try my best to listen for the moments when an insight can be taken further, or when I can take something the author has said and tie it to another idea we’ve discussed, or throw it to the other author/s. If you’ve read your panellists’ books carefully, and also studied them and their careers, you’ll be able to carry off this segue action more easily.

11. That said, it’s nice for a panel to have an arc. So if you sense your panellists are giving away too much of the gold too early, or there’s a point you want to lead to, communicate that to them and the audience. It’s as easy as: ‘OK, that’s fascinating, I definitely want to come back to that, let’s just get more of a feel for your character. Could you tell us…’ And then, if you have a bad memory like me, make a squiggle in your notes so you do remember to bring it back to that awesome point.

Eleanor Catton, Tom Cho and I at the signing table at Perth Writers Fest in 2010.

Eleanor Catton, Tom Cho and I at the signing table at Perth Writers Fest in 2010.

12. Try to avoid um, ah, kinda, sorta, ‘sorta thing’ – oh I hate myself when that comes out of my mouth on stage – and upward inflecting too much when you speak, particularly in the introduction (that’s one I’ve tried to tackle after a nasty tweet at Edinburgh International Book Fest). Also, don’t ‘verbal hug’ the author/s too much. Nodding is good, but try to avoid lots of ‘yep’, ‘aha’, ‘cool’, ‘right’, and so on into the microphone.

13. Watch your feet. Are they jiggling, or swinging out whenever you laugh? Remember that your feet on stage can be at the eye level of the audience. Lots of movement can be quite distracting.

14. Most of the authors you end up chairing will be experienced, and will know how to talk about their book in a way that is genuine, insightful, and interesting. But wow, there can be some wildcards. Sometimes authors are nervous and can barely speak, other times they’ll completely hog the microphone. My hardest interview was with someone famous, who was used to performing solo. To the last minute he kept asking me to remove questions from my plan until I was panicking I’d have nothing left. Then he paced wildly, lay on the floor, and performed all sorts of other personal rituals before going on stage. I’ll admit to having a shot of whisky before that session… Luckily, it went fine, because his book is fantastic and he’s funny and smart, and I’d read and researched thoroughly. The point is, people are people, just be as open-minded and diplomatic as you can be. Be aware of both author and audience, and if someone is going on too long, try to butt in gently. If you’re chairing a complete arsehat, well, sh*t happens – try to channel their negatives into insights, or at least try to frame it as entertainment for the audience. It’s not always gonna work. Have the whisky ready for afterwards.

15. Sometimes, no matter how well you’ve prepared, and how great everyone is on stage, there’ll be a strange lack of chemistry. This has happened to me once or twice, and I’ve spent far too much time thinking about it afterwards. One time I think there just wasn’t enough to the topic, and it was difficult to draw the works together in relation to it. Another time I think I just didn’t prepare the best questions. Or maybe there was a full moon. Who knows. Just make sure you do the best you can.

16. Also, if you get nervous like I do, or if you’re tired, sometimes you might just completely blank. It can be hard to juggle ideas: seeking those titbits to carry further in the conversation versus going to the next planned topic or question. There’s a lot you have to hold in your head. Just try to breathe, relax, and be there. The notebook, again, can help. If your blank causes dead air, just be honest and apologise to the authors and audience, have a laugh, and then get back on track.

Bad pic of one of my favourite sessions: interviewing Alex Miller at Perth Writers Fest in 2010.

Bad pic of one of my favourite sessions: interviewing Alex Miller at Perth Writers Fest in 2010.

17. Individual festivals/venues will have their own guidelines for audience questions. Some audiences will be hanging out to get in on the action, especially with well-known authors. Other authors or topics won’t attract so many questions. Ten to twenty minutes is usually how long you’ll give over to audience questions. Make sure you still have some yourself in reserve in case there aren’t any. And be prepared to be tough with audience members who grandstand or try to make a long comment instead of a question (you know the type). The rest of the audience will get cranky if you don’t keep them in line! That said, some audience members are just nervous and may take a little while to get around to a really great question… It’s your call.

18. I just want to say it again: it’s not about you. Mention your own book or who you are in the intro, and then that’s it. Be curious about the person/people with whom you get to spend this hour. You have the power to create an enjoyable, memorable experience for both them and the audience. It’s a great gig, you’re privileged to be up there. Do the job well.