Tuesday 29 September 2009

Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction

In his endorsement, James Thomas, co-editor of Sudden Fiction and Flash Fiction Forward says:
How many words does it take to tell an important story? In the many words contained in this Field Guide, written by masters of the short-short fiction form, you may begin to understand. Or not. There always remains the mystery that is fiction itself. Let's be glad.

I have neglected the lovely Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (Rose Metal Press, USA, 2009), which has now been out for some months. This book has received stunning reviews, including this much-coveted starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. HERE.
Accessible enough for pleasure reading but instructive enough for the classroom, this volume brings together brief essays by 25 writers known for their talent in flash fiction, aka the “short short story,” roughly defined as a tale “1-3 pages and 250-1,000 words” long. Along with personal musings on the genre, each author provides a prompt, and their own short piece to illustrate it. Editor and fiction writer Masih provides a remarkably thorough history of flash fiction, dating the phrase “short short story” to a 1926 issue of Collier’s Weekly. Contributors include award-winning writer Jayne Anne Phillips, who writes that “one-page fiction should hang in the air of the mind like an image made of smoke”; Shouhua Qi shares his thoughts on the Chinese short short, which they also call a “Smoke-Long story,” as in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette; and Vanessa Gebbie, who reminds us of Hemmingway's famous 6-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Robert Olen Butler and Steve Almond discuss the difference between flash fiction and prose poetry, the former remarking that “fiction is the art form of human yearning”; Almond, meanwhile, chronicles his journey from bad poetry to good short stories. An expansive list of further reading rounds out this smart, fun, provocative guide to an increasingly popular form.

Another heartwarming review from Flash Fiction Online, by Jake Frievald, HERE: picks out my work and that of Steve Almond, very generously:
“…many essays reminded me of the educational power of a good story. Vanessa Gebbie’s description of what flash means to her, ultimately encapsulated the words, “You blink. But no — it is not over,” is a tiny story that makes you want to write something that reaches her — reaches anyone — like that. Steve Almond’s essay, subtitled “How Writing Really Bad Poetry Yields Really Better Short Stories” made me laugh; and his advice may not be applicable to everyone, but I wanted to try it just to see if it worked for me.
These things will stick with me. They are, for me, the heart of the book.

What a wonderful thing to say. And how mesmerising to be a paragraph-fellow with Steve Almond!
New Pages carried a review back in August, by John Madera, HERE:
For the beginner, the book is a tremendous resource offering various glosses and overviews of the short short’s history and widely divergent definitions of this resurgent genre. Each of the twenty-five brief essays here, written by twenty-five peerless writers and editors, is followed by an exercise or prompt, and includes a demonstrative story.”

How Publishing Really Works carried a review by Jacky Taylor, HERE. Jacky is a colleague. But I was still delighted to read this:
It seems churlish to single out specific authors from the pack when so much of the writing here is good, but both Jennifer Pieroni and Vanessa Gebbie deserve a special mention for getting me to briefly abandon this review, in order to go and write a new flash myself! I really can't think of a better recommendation than that.”

Fiction Writers’ Review carried a review by Sophie Powell, Professor of Creative Writing at Boston College: You can read the whole review HERE, but here is an excerpt:
This book is an Aladdin’s cave of gems, a brilliantly versatile guide to invigorate any written piece, any writer’s working life. Flash fiction is the impetus for all these essays, and the fantastic prompts and exercises that each includes, yet most of the commentary and advice can be applied to stimulate and aid any creative writer. For example, Vanessa Gebbie encourages us to try writing freely and continuously, without pausing and censoring our words, in responses to certain prompts, telling us “I have seen whole stories written in this way in a very few minutes. And in my own case, I know that work produced like this has a liveliness that writing I agonize over for days just does not”.

It is a testament to the book’s impact that I am using it as a set text for my creative writing classes next year. Hopefully the day is not too far away when we will see a flash fiction collection win a prestigious literary prize like the Booker. The best things do often come in small packages.

How lovely. It is such an affirmation to see some generous comments about my chapter. But also, it is such an affirmation of the vision of the small press that backed this book -Rose Metal- and the skills of the editor -Tara Masih- who worked so hard to make it appear.

Monday 28 September 2009

Which University?

It is an interesting and challenging time for son no 2. University choices time. We had his last parents evening at school last night, and it all comes home, rather... the end of school is rushing towards the lad like a train.
I can't help thinking that, in the recession, sitting it out at Uni and bursting on the world afterwards, fresh-faced and full of energy, might be a good thing.

Exeter seems to be a possible (my old Uni, and a lovely place to spend a few years).
Leeds is another. Newcastle? And Edinburgh is also a strong contender, visted earlier this year, a nice city. My husband and sons are McLeans, although using it is too much of a mouthful except on passports. I remember taking said son to Culloden when he was ten or so, and him standing by the McLean clan grave marker, lost in thought. It would be nice for him to be educated in Scotland.

Sunday 27 September 2009

Beryl Bainbridge on the short story...

At the Small Wonder festival today, the top speaker Beryl Bainbridge prefaced her reading with this:

"If a writer thinks up a good idea, it seems silly to waste it on a few pages..."
I was very glad Tania Hershman had gone home and didn't have to hear that. I felt deflated, very saddened, and not a little cross that a writer of her stature felt it right to make this remark at a festival dedicated to celebrating the short story.

Thursday 24 September 2009


(Pic:Sunset from Anam Cara.)

Retreat Roundup
I had a wonderful two weeks at Anam Cara Writers’ and Artist’s Retreat. A full fortnight to work hard, focussing on nothing else - plus two days for travel. And lots of good creative company, all under the conductor’s baton of owner Sue Booth-Forbes who among other incarnations has been an editor at Cambridge University Press, and whose input into my writing life is invaluable, always.
Some great company, some fantastically useful conversations. Lots of laughs. Most residents were there for a few days to a week, except Eileen, a Professor of design from Syracuse NY, who is staying for five weeks. I very much enjoyed her company – although we were working on very different projects, we fell into a routine and seemed to have productive days and frustrating days in synch. And many laughs during walks and swims.
Yes, swims. The weather was more than kind- we enjoyed a whole week of unbroken sunshine at one point. It was perfect for walking, and I tried to get out most days. But also perfect for swimming. There is no Gulf Stream on this coastline; it is seriously freeeeeeeezing! But for once, being chubby has its advantages. (!) Once in, I could swim for ages, dead from the neck down. Which is arguably better than dead from the neck up...
There is a lovely beach almost at the end of the peninsular, where we took a picnic lunch one day and swam in clear cold water accompanied a little way out to sea by brilliant white gannets with black wingtips, diving for fish. The crow-like black birds that flew over our heads as we swam were choughs. Please note: The pink blob in the water is meself.

But most days, it was lovely to sink into the Anam Cara routine.
8.30 meet in the kitchen for breakfast – cooked by Sue. Porrige, bacon, waffles, pancakes, duck egg scramble, tomatoes… endless and blissful.
9.30 off to the room to collect the thoughts and start work. I often worked in the grounds.
1.30 lunch all ready in the kitchen. Either collect it and go, or:
2.30 back to work
5.30 technically the end of the working day, but I sometimes carried on or went out for a walk then. Down to the village of Eyeries and on down to the sea, where there are rocks you can sit on, listening to the waves.
7.30 dinner is ready in the kitchen.



(Pic: A quick sit-down with Jack the Dog.)

So what did I do? I wrote about 15,000 new words including a completely new section of the novel. My wordcount is now over 90,000 words. Really? Yes, really.
I finished rewriting another two sections, added a new character to one section, identified areas of work neeed in others, especially on the voice. I reconfigured, organising sections into three or four separate chapters. I wrote a contents page. That was really useful, for structural considerations...

Subliminal inter-species communication.

One day I wrote poetry. The cows in the fields around us had been calling all night. Both Eileen and I only cat-napped that night, so we discovered at breakfast. And we both had painful dreams about children. It turned out that the cows had their calves taken away the day before.
I wrote a poem and several haiku that morning. My first haiku experience – and it is SO hard to get the right words when you are only allowed seventeen syllables. (Some conventions say a different number. I chose that one.) It was lovely too, to get an email that day from poet Caroline Davies, and to swap some work.

Green and blue cliffs…
One afternoon, needing a change of scene, I drove to Allihies and the copper mines. The new museum is very good, and there is now a marked walk/road to all the mine sites. Allihies is littered with old engine houses, mine shafts, and other relics of the industry. The cliffs still run bright green/blue with malachite in places. I spent hours walking over the hills, visiting the ruins, listening to the wind in what’s left of the mine chimneys.
.Two hags...
I always make time to visit The Hag. Legend has it that her man went to sea and she promised to wait for him. He never returned, and she is still waiting on the rocks. Another legand says that she was a witch with great powers, who challenged a Christian saint when he arrived to convert the populace. He turned her to stone. Whatever, The Hag of Beara is covered in gifts from women. Coins, ribbons, flowers, fishing lures, messages, coloured stones. Toys. She is also the centre of witchery in these parts. last year when I visited, taking her a coin, there was a half-burned doll at her feet. Blackened plastic face, hair gone... seriously spooky.

Short Circuit, a Guide to the Art of the Short Story
The proofs of ‘my’ forthcoming text book, (due out soon from Salt Publishing) arrived mid-stay. I sent the file to all the contributors to proofread their chapters. Very exciting.

Booking for 2011!

Finally, a week-long short fiction/inspiration workshop has been arranged for May 2011. It will be lovely to teach in this most inspirational of places, with boundless resources right at our fingertips. Places will be limited, and I guess it will be publicised nearer the time.

Bridget Whelan, Bernadette Cremin

An added bonus of my stay was an event on Sunday 20th, one in a series of literary events held at Anam Cara that raise funds for various charities. This was a stop on a publicity tour by novelist Bridget Whelan, together with performance poet Bernadette Cremin. And the fundraising is for the provision of fresh water to a village school in Uganda, which will save the children daily hours of lugging filthy water from a swamp used as a watering hole by cattle and pigs, for drinking washing and cooking. It will save lives, in more ways than one.
Talking of water- there is something adrift with the water supply in the area, so we had to draw drinking water from the well in the village for the duration of my stay. The water tastes peaty, and rich. It makes toothpaste taste very odd...


(Pic: Tina Pisco and Sue drawing water, Eyeries village pump)

I came back relaxed, pleased with progress, thankful for creative friends both old and new. Within a couple of hours of arriving back, fellow writers Jo Cannon and Claudia Boers arrived to stay while they attend the Asham Atelier, part of the Small Wonder Festival. Today, Tania Hershman arrives, and tomorrow, Selma Dabbagh. A house full.

Other news
There is actually too much, but for the moment, just this:

Tales of the Decongested

Selma and I are reading tomorrow night at Foyles Charing Cross Road, for Tales of the Decongested. 7.00 pm for anyone who is about and wishes to hear a tale of woe and colonic irrigation…

.(All pics by Eileen. Sunset pic edited by me)

Monday 7 September 2009


1) Going to Anam Cara Writers and Artists's Retreat, on the Beara Peninsular, West Cork. The pic above, on their website, was taken by moi a year or so back. It shows the swing seat in the conservatory, which has a view out over the gaden then to the hills on the next headland. People ask why I need to go away when I have a perfectly good house, study, here. I tell them it is because I get work done there at a depth I rarely manage at home. I switch out of being a wife, a mother, a daughter, a housewife, a colleague, a reluctant forgetful shopper (our fridge is full of dead things) and a procrastinator, and I become nothing but a writer. Sue-Booth Forbes has created the perfect environment for working in, keeps us fed fabulously well, insists on work and not natter between 9.30 am and 5.30 pm. Books live everywhere. One gets the sense that they own the place, and graciously move back to their shelves to allow residents to share their space. It is like going to my spiritual home - I have never yet failed to write well when I am there, and wrote among other things I Can Squash the King, Tommo there (2nd, Bridport, 1st, Daily Telegraph), Silver Leaves for Judah Jones (Per Contra Grand Prize, and it provided me with so many of the images and feelings for the title story of Words from a Glass Bubble (2nd, Fish).
2)Having spent a summer holiday in Cornwall with my family. With the age gap we managed between our boys (14 years - we waited until the eldest could babysit (!))it is not often that we all get together these days - so to have them both with me was very special. Two six footers, of whom I am very proud. One established in his own business, and doing fine, married to a very special lady. The other entering his last year at school and being given many responsibilities. And thriving on it. What more can you ask of your kids than they grow up caring about others, honest, fun to be with, prepared to work hard and play hard... and far too bloody handsome for their own good.
3)I am happy that I have a mind that creates its own characters, images, connections, sparks, thunderclaps, mudpies and snowflakes. That I see things strangely. The potential in things. That my work surprises me, changes, shifts about and is not the same story repeated, clad in different rags. Someone said to me not that long ago: 'Look beneath the dressing. How many writers are actually repeating the same story like a broken record over and over again?'
4)I am happy that I find the hilarious side to things, even when they are sad. people are endlessly fascinating, funny, weird, strange. I am happy that I can stand back and see events sideways, and giggle at the absurdities of life, always. That I may get low, but it doesn't last. Did you read about the American woman who married the Eiffel Tower?
5)I am happy about creatures that seem to have no reason for being. Like wasps. They are actually stunningly beautiful. And animals we give dreadful names to. Like the dugong.
6) I am very very very happy to have discovered a software programme called Freedom, which allows me to ban myself from the internet for hours at a time on my Apple laptop.

Sunday 6 September 2009


Please give a thought to supporting the presses, both short story and poetry.

It was great to receive my contributor’s copy of Etchings, the Australian literary journal, a few weeks back. And what a brilliant journal it is. Beautifully produced and full of fascinating writing and illustrations from some exciting writers. HERE
I was amazed to find that the journal contains a section of J M Coetzee’s new novel, Summertime. One of my favourite writers, I had no idea he now lived in Australia, and am somewhat dumbfounded and delighted to be in the same publication.
So, even though I am sadly lacking in the funds department, I opted to be paid for my eight micro-fictions with a year’s subscription instead of taking their money.

And through the post comes another gem. The Rialto, the poetry magazine, to which I also subscribe. And was pleased to find a poem therein by local poet and colleague Clare Best, who I featured on this blog, here.

Friday 4 September 2009

THE WEEKLY POST - 4 September 2009

The Weekly Post is bit late off the press thanks to great couple of weeks in the Cornish surf.

Rose Metal Press calls female writers…
This message from them:
The press has recently re-opened to manuscript queries after having been closed to them for a while. We’re excited about reading innovative work by all kinds of authors, but we—like many, if not most, magazines and presses—have found that the vast majority of the queries we’re receiving are from men. We’re talking close to 85 percent here. We like to keep our list balanced and we know that there have to be plenty of women out there who are writing works in innovative hybrid forms, too, but for whatever reason, they’re not contacting us at the moment.
This is where we hope you come in. Could you please spread the word to the inventive, hybrid-genre loving female writers you know (including, of course, yourselves), and share with them that we are reading queries now and would especially like to hear about projects by women?

Rose Metal Press HERE

This year’s final judge is Richard Peabody. This from the Willesden Herald website:
"Richard Peabody is an author and poet based in Washington, D.C. A native of the region, he is perhaps best known as one of the founding editors for Gargoyle Magazine and editor for the anthology series Mondo. He also runs a small press called Paycock Press; aside from acting as the official publisher of Gargoyle Magazine, Paycock Press has released a number of anthologies and works by individual authors."

All about the competition, guidelines, entry details, on Willesden Herald HERE.

Followers of this blog will be aware that I sought legal advice about protecting unpublished work from misappropriation by a writer with whom I had worked closely for over a year after he approached me for mentorship and subsequently became a trusted colleague, but was then found to have closely used the work of other writers for his own gain. Including elements from my own unpublished work and ideas shared privately. (See the unravelling of the saga on How Publishing Really Works here and here, linked to this blog here.)

I am pleased to say that Douglas Bruton has now given me, through my solicitor, written assurances that he will not misappropriate my unpublished work by using my creations and seeking to pass them off as his own. He has agreed in writing not to use my named characters, their storylines and backstories, other plots, images and devices created by me, either from our collaborative work, or from the novel section I sent him for comment as a trusted reader.
He is apparently unable to return my work as requested.
A propos: It seems we were not the first writers to have unfortunate experiences at his hands, and certainly not the first working colleagues he has apparently used poorly. A representative from a writing group called Pentlands Writers, which he was asked to leave for copying, has been in touch.

The Fiction Workhouse has closed, and has been emptied of all the craft libraries, discussion threads, stories, flashes, poetry, and allied debates, and will remain in a state of suspended animation until I decide what to do with it. I am somewhat unwilling to work on my writing online these days. The team are all in fine fettle and are working in a new home called The Fiction Forge.
I had a very happy, creative two years and more working there with some excellent and decent writers, and would like to thank them for their professional companionship.

I said it here. Elegy for Easterly is very good. Also shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor.
Guardian First Book Award Longlist HERE


I am looking forward to playing landlady to four writerly friends for the festival.

Also looking forward to reading at Decongested again, and meeting up with writer Selma Dabbagh, who is staying for Small Wonder.


I am looking forward to attending the prizegiving brunch for this year’s Asham Award, in the morning of Saturday 26th September, and meeting the other readers for next years award.

I am then looking forward to driving like the wind up to Sevenoaks after the above, seeing fellow Salt writer Carys Davies on the afternoon of Saturday 26th September, when we are reading from our collections and talking about the short story at the Sevenoaks Celebration Book Groups Tea event.

The rewrite reached 11,250 words. The novel is now pushing 80K. And I am off to Anam Cara on Monday for fourteen working days. I hope to do the following:
Polish and finish all the individual pieces already written.
Write one more section from scratch.
Write three sections from extensive bits already there in wordcount.
And come back with a workable complete first draft for surgery.

Words from a Glass Bubble has had some lovely reviews on Amazon, and I have not acknowledged them here.

Thank you to Sophie Playle for this:

Just like a certain famous ogre, this book is like an onion: it has layers. These short stories have more depth to them than first meets the eye, and they leave quite an impact. They will make you cry, too, sometimes - both tears of laughter and tears of sadness.
Don't be fooled by the innocent skipping girl on the front cover. Even though many of these stories are poetic and subtle, some of them are gritty and dark.

Thank you to Mr Lee Williams for this:
Beautiful, lyrical writing, by turns thoughtful, passionate and funny. I loved it.
My favourite stories would have to be 'Dodie's Gift' and 'Harry's Catch' - they are masterpieces of understanding and compassion, without ever seeming mawkish or overly sentimental. All of the stories are great, though. I just can't recommend this highly enough.

Thank you to Nik Perring for this:
Loved this collection of short stories, some funny, some tragic, some downright dangerous and all written expertly.

Thank you to Melissa Houghton for this:
idiosyncratic and developed with sensitivity, bravery and a robust sense of wit. It is no coincidence that Gebbie's craft is at the forefront of a new-wave of literary storytellers. Her work is fine-tuned and Words.. comes as a remarkable debut for a versatile and extraordinarily talented writer.

Thank you to David King for this:
I have admired Vanessa Gebbie's short stories since she first started to write fiction seriously, and it was no surprise to me when prestigious prizes and awards began to come her way. Many of the stories that won those accolades are included in this collection, and I urge anyone who enjoys good literary fiction to buy this book.

Thank you to Fiona Mackenzie for this:
Intriguing, gripping and poetic stories whose characters live in your mind long after you've finished the book.

And thank you to Linda Witts for this:
I'm not usually a short story reader but I was lucky enough to meet Vanessa on a recent holiday and so decided to 'take the plunge' and I am so glad I did. As soon as I started to read 'Bones' I could visualise the Jewish cemetery in Prague and have found out that it was indeed that cemetery that was Vanessa's inspiration. I don't know if I have a real favourite among the collection but I thought 'I can squash the King, Tommo' utterly brilliant. I'm looking forward to Vanessa's next collection.

I also stumbled over this, on a bad day a month or so back, on a blog belonging to one Mike Harrison. It was heaven-sent.

S sends me Vanessa Gebbie’s Words from a Glass Bubble. I am captured instantly by the first three paragraphs of the title story, which begins:
The Virgin Mary spoke to Eva Duffy from a glass bubble in a niche halfway up the stairs. Eva, the post woman, heard the words in her stomach more than her ears, and she called her the VM. The VM didn’t seem to mind.
You think this is a voice, but it isn’t: it’s storytelling. You can’t easily find the point where “style”, “plot”, “characterisation” & “worldbuilding” separate, because they don’t. The result is, literally, to captivate. Myslexia called Gebbie’s “a blithe and energetic narrative drive”. I’d have called it that, too, if I’d been clever enough to think of it.

I don’t know who S is, but thank you to S for sending Words from a Glass Bubble to Mike Harrison, who turns out very happily to be someone whose opinion matters.

Thank you for your lovely words, Mr Mike Harrison.