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


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.

Carmel Bird Award shortlist

The shortlist for the 2013 Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award has just been announced on the Spineless Wonders website. These are all excellent, imaginative stories, and I’m so excited that they will be joining those by the invited writers published in The Great Unknown (including Carmel Bird herself). They range from an existential story from the POV of a pet bird (‘Bluey & Myrtle’ by Mark O’Flynn), to two touching stories about women reconnecting with their families after strange happenings (‘Navigating’ by Helen Richardson and ‘Significance’ by Susan Yardley), to two very sharp speculative stories (‘A Cure’ by Alex Cothren and ‘A Void’ by Guy Salvidge) and one very spooky outback tale (‘The Koala Motel’ by Rhys Tate).

Congratulations to the shortlisted authors! The winner of the $500 Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award will be announced soon.

Carmel Bird Award longlist announced

Hello from the heart of the Speyside Scotch whisky trail! I’m working at a guesthouse here for all of September. There are three dogs, and there’s whisky and time to write in the middle of the day. So I’m a pig in shit.

Today I’m excited to announce the longlist for the Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award. I’ve had so much fun reading the submissions (and often been truly spooked or disturbed). I could tell that many of you wrote to the brief, as there was a delightful array of stories in Australian settings with strange themes and much more going on beneath the surface. Thank you so much for going to the effort.

The longlist is now up on the Spineless Wonders website! Congratulations to the longlisted writers. You’ve brought me hours of pleasure and entertainment. The shortlist will be announced soon…

The Great Unknown: author reveal + comp closing soon

FRONTAbove: sneak peek at the cover artwork by Michael Vale.

It’s just one week until entries are due for the Carmel Bird short fiction award, and the stories are coming in thick and fast. I’ll be taking some on the plane with me tonight on my way to the UK!

What I want to reveal today, to get you even more excited about entering the comp (and, of course, reading the anthology down the track) is the list of fantastic writers I invited to contribute a story to The Great Unknown. The Carmel Bird short fiction award winner and shortlisted stories will join these authors in the anthology.

The contributed stories are strange, funny, spooky, suspenseful, smart, political, moving, atmospheric, absurd, and feature a range of voices and scenarios. Certain themes and threads are beginning to appear in the collection as a whole. Doo doo doo doo…

So here are some of the excellent ‘down under’ writers whose work will be appearing in The Great Unknown (click through for books, websites, bios):

Ali Alizadeh
PM Newton
Chris Flynn
Paddy O’Reilly
AS Patric
Ryan O’Neill
Krissy Kneen
Damon Young
Deborah Biancotti
Chris Somerville
Carmel Bird
Marion Halligan
Kathy Charles

Great list, yes? It’s been a pleasure working with these talented pros. The Great Unknown will be published by Spineless Wonders towards the end of this year. More soon.

Enter the zone! The Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award 2013

Burgess_Meredith_The_Twilight_ZoneI’m very, very excited to announce that this year I am judging the Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award for Spineless Wonders. The winner and shortlisted stories will be considered for publication in the Spineless Wonders annual anthology, which I have already been putting together, and trust me, you want to be published alongside these writers! The winner will also receive $500.

Entries close on 31 July 2013. Please read the submission guidelines very carefully, and do not send stories directly to me. I will be reading them blind.

So what’s the theme?

A woman driving across country sees the same hitchhiker again and again; another woman takes an elevator to a strange, deserted floor of a department building to be sold a busted thimble by a mannequin; the people on a quiet street begin to accuse each other of being aliens after the electricity goes off… these are some of the (trademarked) adventures in the realm of The Twilight Zone.

Watching and being spooked by these stories is a child in a lounge room at the bottom of the world. The settings are familiar, but also slightly strange. The child is used to these accents (except perhaps the way the presenter, Rod Serling, says Zyone) but it is not the way she speaks. She has heard that the water in her toilet even goes in a different direction. She suspects that, on this side of the world, they may be closer to the Zone than anyone suspects.

The ‘fifth dimension’ of The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling often said, was also the realm of imagination. And as anyone blessed/cursed with a good imagination may know, fear of the unknown or the inexplicable may not only keep you awake at night, but may compel you to write. Serling, and other writers on the show, developed frightening scenarios, and often with more than entertainment in mind. Episodes of The Twilight Zone are often metaphors for equality, justice, the nuclear threat and more. Though they are just as often pure, spooky fun.

You are being invited into the zone. You are invited to be inspired by it, by its mood, themes, characters, settings, symbols, liberal ideas, strangeness and openness; but you should also ponder the zone in relation to your own particular context. This competition invites zone-style, or zone-inspired stories from the bottom of the world. The ensuing collection will acknowledge the undeniable cultural influence of memorable American programs like TZ on our lives ‘down under’, but it will also engage with the way we appropriate the messages within them in our own context, and our own lives (and in regards to our own ‘uneasiness’). Your story can be set in any era, and any place (though our rich and varied landscape could provide so many great potential zones).

I’m looking forward to reading your stories…

Moments that transform us: AS Patrić on Las Vegas for Vegans

I first met AS (Alec) Patrić when we were both participants in the Overland Masterclass for Progressive Writers, back in 2009. Alec is an incredibly hard-working, dedicated and talented writer. Since we met he has been published in almost every Australian literary magazine, has won prizes and has released two collections of stories. His latest is Las Vegas for Vegans (Transit Lounge). He is also working on a novel. I got in touch with Alec to ask him a few questions about his latest collection.

So I want to ask first about your process of discovery. Las Vegas for Vegans reaches far and wide in terms of subject, setting and style. Before we get to the philosophical and psychological elements, can I ask about the process of selecting and engaging with the material aspects of the stories? Why hotel rooms? Why insects and gods?

Until now I didn’t realise how many of my stories are set in hotel and motel rooms. Then there are stories set in a post office and a book shop, rooms in hospitals and shelters, a boarding school and an acting academy, an airplane toilet cubicle and even a spaceship. Those settings open doors to insects and gods, and vitally, the stories themselves. ‘The Eternal City’ takes place in a hotel room in Rome but that material aspect is fundamental to the story. It’s not just a location. I don’t think it could be set in a Melbourne flat. ‘Las Vegas for Vegans’ takes place in a hotel that looks out at the Mojave desert and that’s just as crucial to the characters and ideas in that piece. ‘The Mirage Inn’ revolves around a motel on the edge of the Simpson desert, but the difference between the two deserts is significant. In one, a character has more of a chance to find himself, and in the other, he’s likely to lose himself—one man wants to find his way home and the other wants the opposite. If a story is set in the family home, as with ‘Beckett & Son’ or ‘Daughters of Vesuvius’, it’s because family is the chief feature of those stories. Whenever I write a short story or novel, the first thing I look for is a vehicle for the characters and ideas I want to explore. If you’re asking me specifically, why a hotel room, my answer is because it strips a person down to a fundamental state of transition, and the ways we change, moments that transform us for better or worse, is what interests me most about the characters I’m creating or discovering in books when I’m reading.

I’ve always been fascinated by the ‘in-between’ space of hotels and motels, too, so I really enjoyed those stories. Out of the settings and characters in Las Vegas for Vegans comes a range of intellectual, philosophical and moral enquiries. At least as a reader I was faced with questions about love, family, society, history (and personal history), death and what may or may not come after; space, existence… Do you see the stories like this? Or do you think there is more of a single overarching concern?

I don’t write stories with a theme in mind or to explore a philosophical idea or examine a moral, though I do feel gratified that you found yourself responding to those things in my book. I don’t want to educate my reader, but if there are those features you mention in Las Vegas for Vegans, they arise because what I’m doing is testing my own existence in each one of the stories. (I think that’s why writing can be so hard, even though it seems the simplest of activities—to sit comfortably at a desk and tap away at a keyboard). Despite the highfaluting rationale, the primary concern for me is always the dramatic potential of narrative and vitality of character. Hopefully, this translates to nothing more complicated than a great story and my motivation is as basic as wanting to be a compelling storyteller. Anything else is a bonus.

I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about your interest in flash fiction, or very short stories (of which there are a few in the collection).

A flash fiction might seem an exotic bird but they’re as common as canaries. Any three-minute song you’ve ever enjoyed is a flash fiction. Lyrics have word counts of 500 words or less and they open up the world through a window we call ‘story’. That’d be my technical definition of a flash fiction. Interesting articles in the newspaper might qualify as well, perhaps even a blog post or a weekend anecdote told at work Monday morning. And yet when we’re offered the same creature on a literary page it’s a dodo. A song has a singer and musical instruments (often an accompanying video) to help the story out the window, so it’s not easy getting the same story to fly off the page with so few words and none of those accoutrements. Creating a character, an involving narrative, satisfying beginning/middle/end—with tens of thousands of words—is a lot easier. That’s why many readers think the novel is the only place to find what they’re looking for. I don’t think we’re really interested in birds though; how big or small, how high they fly or how pretty the feathers. It’s still all about the song and what it does to our heart/mind/soul. The only question for me is whether that song gives us another way to fly.

It seems like you do want to play with different ‘effects’ though, in terms of what a story does to heart/mind/soul. Some of the stories in Las Vegas for Vegans are warm and tingly, like ‘Below Zero’; others have a kind of blank emotional tone. Numbness itself is a theme of the story ‘Measured Turbulence’. Are these tonal explorations deliberate? Or do you find it happens organically depending on what mood or state of mind you’re in when you sit down to begin a story?

It’s a lovely irony that the warmest piece in Las Vegas for Vegans is a story called ‘Below Zero’, but you’re right of course. It’s a flash fiction that is essentially a burst of love. It’s about falling for a person before they’re born. I wrote it when my eldest daughter was in the womb and I was delighted to be able to read it to her recently. Summer is almost three years old now. ‘One in a Million’ is at the other end of the spectrum, perhaps the coldest story in the collection. It’s about emotional isolation and so that blank tone was certainly intentional. That sense of ice-cold reality is what I wanted to capture. The emotional tone was primary. Tone is usually secondary to most other stories. ‘Measured Turbulence’ was inspired by Bunuel, Lynch and Fassbinder, and I have found in many of their films there’s a kind of placid tone that drifts along until very disruptive events storm through the narrative.

Tonal variation across a book (whether novel or collection) is vital to me. Many writers choose a narrative voice, rhythm, mode, and write in the same way in story after story, and often, novel after novel. That bores me as a reader. John Updike can be too persistently elegant in the same way that David Foster Wallace can be persistently pyrotechnic. As a writer, I want to do more than lull my reader into a narrative dream (or nightmare). I want to wake my reader up to an experience, jolt them with an idea, shock them with the warmth of an emotion, chill with a realization a few seconds later. And yet variation in tone is only valuable if it can open up the fissures of heart/mind/soul. A sentimental story like ‘Below Zero’ benefits from being very short—also from the brutal emotional tone of ‘The Mirage Inn’ which precedes it in Las Vegas for Vegans, and revivifies a reader ready to move on to the following story. ‘Boys’ is next, and I hope a reader at that point has no idea what might happen. Which is more true to life. And I suppose what I’m hoping is that I can offer a totality of experience with a book. One moment you have a careful hand to your wife’s womb waiting for a movement and the next moment the world breaks in with whatever comes next.

Alec also interviewed yours truly in 2011 for Verity La, an online magazine he founded. If you like our banter, you might want to check that out.

An Emotional Landscape: Laurie Steed reviews The World Swimmers by Patrick West

ICLL, August 2011
available at selected bookstores & through the author ($25, postage free, email: patrick.west@deakin.edu.au)

review by Laurie Steed

Australia’s literary landscape seems scarred by an increasingly commercial approach to what constitutes quality literature. Yes, publishers need to make a profit, but in chasing said profit, publishers close the door on any number of quality writers. All are keen craftsmen and women, and are equally keen to explore a broad definition of Australian literature rather than adhering to limiting landscapes of the national psyche.

The International Centre for Landscape and Language recently published Patrick West’s The World Swimmers, an unabashedly literary collection of short stories. Given the aforementioned centre’s name, one would imagine West’s book covers great geographical distances. West also lovingly evokes emotional landscapes, which are reflected and refracted through their geographical counterparts.

In West’s world, landscape serves to both echo and contrast with a character’s journey. In ‘Nhill’, and ‘U’, West constructs intricately detailed dual narratives: characters define their own limits within a broader, almost limitless landscape. West’s detail in these stories is exquisite, his patience indefatigable as time slows, almost to a standstill. Here, the endpoint is not nearly as important as the journey itself, and if one thing is constant, it’s the inescapable notion of change, that inability to return to a previous state.

Elsewhere West explores emotional escape and generational legacy in ‘Greenwood’ and ‘Shame’. In the former, one of two classmates named Chris reduces his past to a one-word response, and in the latter, a Japanese PhD student explores her country’s opposition to the US military while studying at UCLA. In both stories, the main character is hemmed-in by their past but hoping to create a new landscape, and indeed a greater understanding of the forces that drive them.

Throughout The World Swimmers, the author shows a willingness to write both in and outside of his own experience. Perspectives, settings, and structures change from story to story but they’re linked by philosophical investigation of the highest order. Time, identity and one’s impact on the greater world are all investigated in tight, lyrical prose. When coupled with West’s tender, at times micro-detailed evocation of landscape, a startling vision of contemporary narrative results, framed as it is by experience, one’s own preconceptions and the ever-pressing passage of time.

Such literary gravitas might frighten some but this reviewer appreciated West’s willingness to ask appropriate questions without answering back. Why is this a good thing? Well, I would argue that to reflect life, literature must by willing to at times leave narrative events outside of context. By doing this, the writing creates a dialogue, leaving space for the reader’s own emotions to permeate such rhizomatic narratives. If nothing else, it allows the reader to redefine their own perceptions when it comes to literature, landscape and language.

Laurie Steed is a writer, editor and reviewer based in Perth, Western Australia. He has appeared in various publications including the Age, Meanjin, Sleepers Almanac, and The Big Issue and he is currently studying for his PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Western Australia. In 2011, he was selected for both Rosebank and Varuna writing fellowships and is a recently appointed member of the Emerging Writers Festival PAC (Program Advisory Committee).