#QUICKFIC 07/12/2018: The Winner

Thank you, lovely writers! I asked you for silliness, and silliness you did provide. Thank you everyone, for making me laugh hard enough that there was nearly a small incident involving a very full coffee cup and electronics. Here’s your prompt once again:

A quote from Jan Austen's "Emma" reading “Silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way.” against an image of a tree in the process of losing its leaves, with the contrast turned up and the image overlayed with a pink and orange colour gradient until the trees look like etchings - Faber Academy's Flash Fiction Competition #QUICKFIC

And without further ado, here are your #QUICKFIC Flash Fiction Competition winners:

Runner Up: Sarah Nash

A New Woman

“Enough is enough,” Jane says to her reflection in the bathroom mirror. “Thirty years in the same firm and never noticed. I am fifty tomorrow. Time for action. I shall take the morning off.”

“Never see you on a weekday,” says Tracey at Cut and Dried. “Same as usual?”

“I rather fancy going pink,” says Jane.

Tracey nearly drops her scissors, but seasoned pro as she is, rallies immediately.

“All over or just a touch?”

An hour later Jane strides, pink-rinsed, down her local high street. To her surprise, no-one laughs.

She decides (who is this new woman?) she needs a new face to go with the new hair and finds herself in the cosmetics hall of her local department store.

“Can I help?” asks an elegant woman.

“I wish I knew,” answers Jane honestly and submits.

On the way out, mascara-laden, she feels as if two spiders have landed on her eyes and tries not to blink in case they wreak havoc over her face. She pauses in shoe sales and remembers a survey (French of course) that stated women are more successful if they wear lipstick and heels. She licks her shiny lips and shops.

At noon precisely, Jane strides into Mr Carter’s office. (In reality, she teeters.)

He looks terrified.

She is Modesty Blaise, Wonder Woman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She is unstoppable.

“I want a promotion and a raise. Enough is enough!”

He surrenders.

Winner: Mary Thompson

John Coltrane, he is not

My beau’s penchant is the saxophone, and every Friday, after dinner and a small glass of Malbec, we retire upstairs where he extracts his instrument and begins to play. I want to be seen as a supportive lover so I perch on the end of the bed and murmur words of encouragement while he balances his sax on his extended belly, blowing into it as though it were a breathalyser. John Coltrane, he is not.

One day I’m on the top deck of the 133 with a banging hangover when he calls.

‘Not feeling well,’ I murmur. ‘Mixed my drinks and didn’t eat.’ And my head lolls back on the seat.
‘Hang on a second,’ he says.

Almost immediately I hear the sax. Its nail-hammering tones are so loud a baby starts wailing at the back of the bus. I try to switch the phone off but drop it under the seat and the screen smashes.

’Fuck!’ I scream, but he keeps on playing, even after I’ve exited the bus and staggered the five minutes to my flat, run a bath and watched the bubbles rise, dropped the phone on the floor again, submerged myself in the bubbles, lowered my head under the water so I can’t hear the damn thing any more, only I can as the crazy, fucked-up noise reverberates right through the bath tub.

Until finally, eventually he stops.

‘How was that?’ he asks, as I pick up the phone with a soapy hand.

Congratulations to Mary and Sarah! With that, I’ll send you all on your way for another week.

Until Friday!

For a look back at our previous #QUICKFIC flash fiction competitions, click here.

#QUICKFIC 23/11/2018: The Winner

a quote from H.G Wells' "The Time Machine" set against a background of a cloudy sky as the sun is setting. The clouds are all coloured in various gradients of pink, white and black. The quite reads "It sounds plausible enough tonight, but wait until tomorrow. Wait for the common sense of the morning."

Common sense isn’t typically what we go for in Faber Academy — we’re more on the whimsy and reaching for the sky and achieving your dreams side of things — so why would we take H.G.Wells’ advice here? No waiting until the morning for us, here are your #QUICKFIC flash fiction competition winners for this week:

Runner Up: Annie Bien

Sensing the Night

The crickets stopped their night strumming, a hiccup of silence. Then the bullfrogs stopped belching, two alligator seconds. She recognized the tiny feet of a friend scrambling across the grass and dirt, followed by larger feet pressing down the brush. Car tire sandals.

Car tires sandals were cheap and left no trace of a poacher’s foot size or shoe style, just another tire track on the road into the conservancy. She picked up her rifle, nudging her companion who nodded. They edged out, following the footsteps. Her eyes easily adjusted under the moon crescent. She lived here now, breathed the bush. No one would treat her charges the way her ex-husband had treated her.

She saw the back of a man putting the small ball of scales into a sack. She placed the rifle in the poacher’s neck.

“Drop the sack. Hands up. No pangolin for you.”

“Evelina? Is that you, darling?” Her husband asked, unafraid. “Come home, you’re tired. The children miss you. So do I.”

That singer’s voice, cooing at her. The sack was still. She cocked the trigger.

“Wait. You know I love you. There’s never been anyone else. Come home. A good night’s sleep brings a fresh start in the morning.”

Her companion put the cuffs on her husband. She never spoke to him again. Tenderly opening the sack, the pangolin unrolled and ran into the dark.

Runner Up: Alex James

Cycles

The sky was turning the colour of a bruise, of an inflamed gum. I stroked his head in my lap. He was shivering, his jaw working on nothing.

“I’m sorry,” he croaked.

“It’s okay.” We were leaning back into a pile of dirty duvets, a few reinforced shopping bags. Everything we had, soaking up the cold from the ground.

“What?”

The cars passing overhead were deafening. I had to shout.

“I said its fine.”

For a while, we just sat like that, watching the sun duck from cloud to cloud. Our stomachs growled. He picked at a scab on his hand and looked up at me. Under the grime I could still see the lines of his cheekbones. His eyes were hot, wet.

“I’ve got a plan. We can hitchhike to Stockport; post up at my uncle’s place for a while.”

This again. I said nothing. I knew he hadn’t talked to his family in a decade, maybe longer. Why did he say these things? Always at dusk, when he knew we weren’t going to go anywhere, or do anything.

“I know you don’t believe me. Doesn’t matter. We are going to get out of here,” he said. “Out of this life. I promise.”

“Sure, babes. Wait ‘til tomorrow morning, yeah?”

Tomorrow morning, we would wake up and hike into the centre of town, as we had done every day for a year. Tomorrow evening, we would be here, making our plans all over again.

The sun dropped, readying itself.

The Winner: Cait Gillespie

Nobody is Watching

She moved about the darkened room, following her hips as they beautifully crashed from east to west. It was past midnight. Her head turned like a hunting owl, catching my gaze before twisting back round in the opposite direction. Her fingertips caught the music and held it solid, pushing it in pulses through her belly and into the ground.

I was in my mother-in-law’s kitchen, and she had shape shifted into an Egyptian dancer. I liked routines and exercises that could be repeated neatly, with more accuracy each time. My mother-in-law didn’t do routines, and repeated nothing that wasn’t commanded by emotion. I had to shake off my Scottish cladding of self-consciousness, and move with her, to somewhere else.

I was now standing beside her, a veil swept across my shoulders. She starting moving her elbow in delicate circles, her forearm poised at an angle that suggested things unseen.

I was now the centre of gravity, as she passed the pulse to me. The tempo of the drums quickened and my hips started to twitch. I closed my eyes and pictured nothing. The drums tapped faster and faster. I listened to my joints, tested out my muscles. They were in agreement. They moved. I kept my eyes shut, and started to move my feet. They were ready, and stepped out a quick pattern, pushing the pulse back to her. I was caught in the dance now, and couldn’t stop until every possibility had been explored.

Congratulations to Annie, Alex and Cait. Many, many thanks yous to everyone that entered this week; that beautiful sky and reprieve from my nonsense made you produce some beautiful pieces!

Lovely weekends all. We’ll see you next Friday.

For a look back at our previous #QUICKFIC flash fiction competitions, click here.

Wednesday Writing Exercise: A Question of Conflict

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Tonight, our intrepid Writing A Novel students, who are almost halfway through their time with us, will be discussing conflict: what it is, how to create it, and why it’s important. They’ll be figuring out how to introduce obstacles for their own characters, and how those obstacles can help drive the story.

If you’re struggling with your novel – if you’ve made it past the Shiny New Idea excitement and are now wading through the Baggy Middle – it might be worth thinking about conflict, too. What does your protagonist want? And what is preventing them from achieving it? It could be that another person stands in the way; it could be that a situation does. Or it could be a more internal struggle – for example, a boy who dreams of being a singer but who has crippling stage fright.

Conflict can be both the engine for your story and provide tension; it will help you naturally structure your story too. Here’s an exercise to get you thinking about it:

  • Below are a couple of one-sentence stories. Each has a beginning and an end. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to insert six steps after each beginning, making it as difficult as possible for the characters to arrive at the end. Airline strikes, evil stepmothers, phobias – whatever you like. Just make them work for it.
     
    A woman wins the lottery and marries a bank robber.

    A man loses his job and wins a gold medal at the Olympics.

    A couple fall in love in the supermarket and adopt a tiger

 

Wednesday Writing Exercise: Story vs Plot

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The hot topic for our Writing A Novel students this evening is Story vs Plot. Now, despite us pitting them against each other like that, story and plot are actually good friends. They get along nicely. They need each other in fact. And our novels need them both. But understanding the difference is really important, too.

Story is how we sum up the novel in its entirety. It’s the flavour of the thing, the What. What’s this story all about? is the question, and you should be able, at this stage, to answer that in a single sentence.

Plot is the Where and the How. It’s all the individual bits that make up and drive the story from A to B.  Writing A Novel tutor Sarah May describes it as ‘the detailed scenario, event by event, which makes up the story, together with sufficient character motivation to link them logically.’ Sounds simple, right?

Welllll… maybe not. So for this week’s exercise, let’s pull that plot apart. We’ve sort of borrowed this particular one from very clever Shelley Harris, who just happens to be the tutor on our upcoming one day Fiction Skills course on Plot. So she knows her stuff.

  • Get yourself a roll of wallpaper, or wrapping paper, or any kind of paper that unrolls and is super long. Now get yourself two types of Post-It – two different sizes, or two different colours, even fancy shaped ones if you like. On the first type, write down all of the key events (there might even be an inciting incident in there) that happen in the novel, and stick them in order, down your unrolled and super long piece of paper.
     
    There! Your novel has a skeleton. It just needs fleshing out now… So on the second type of Post-It, write down all the things that happen between each of those key events, and stick them on.
     
    Now the thing to do is to look at it. Are there lots of Post-Its bunched up in certain bits, and then only a single one between another two key events? Would it make sense to move some of the Post-Its to other places? Could this thing happen here, to make more sense out of that one? And what is driving the plot? Are all of these Post-Its things the characters are doing, or are they things which happen to them, beyond their control? Could you have more of a balance between the two?
     
    Lastly, are there enough Post-Its? If not, look at your characters. Ask yourself How can I make this more difficult for them? Answers on a Post-It, please.

Wednesday Writing Exercise: Dialogue

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Following on from our discussion last week on voice, tonight our Writing A Novel students will be discussing dialogue.

How hard can dialogue be? you cry. We all know what talking sounds like! We all speak words to each other! Every day!

Well, actually, it can be a bit tricky to get right. The key to good dialogue in fiction, a reliable source informed us the other day, is to strike the balance between being true to life, and being Not Boring.

With that in mind, here are two exercises to help:

  • Choosing the correct vocabulary for each character is essential when bringing dialogue to life. Think carefully about each person’s background and lifestyle, the person they are and the person they want us to think they are. Consider who they’re talking to, too – do they speak in a different way when in conversation with their boss, than, say, a friend from home?
     
    As an example, here are a load of words which all basically mean ‘great’. Make a list of all of the characters in your novel, and, for each, choose the word(s) – you can add others if necessary – they’d be most likely to use in conversation. This should help get you thinking about the intricacies of each character’s speech, and how you can make them work harder for you.

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  • Often the most important part of dialogue is the things that are left unsaid; the information hidden in between the lines. There can be real power in such exchanges, especially if the reader knows more than the characters. Adding such layers to your dialogue can also really help with that Not Boring bit, too.
     
    Give it a go: write a short scene of dialogue (500-750 words) between two of your characters, where one or both of them are hiding something from the other.

 

Next week: Story vs Plot 

Wednesday Writing Exercise: Finding Your Voice

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Right. We’ve looked at ideas and what to do with them. We’ve talked about narrative and finding the right point of view, and about developing characters and giving them dimensions.

If you’re NaNoWriMo-ing or just soldiering on with your work in progress, this is all great groundwork. Hopefully things are chugging along nicely.

But maybe they’re not. Maybe you’re at that 10k or 20k wordcount, and something just isn’t quite working. Things feel a bit sticky or stilted, and maybe you’re finding it more difficult to motivate yourself to write each day.

As our Writing A Novel students will be discussing tonight, it might well be that you haven’t quite found your voice yet. Don’t be alarmed. It happens to us all.

Voice is a sort of nebulous concept which we hear talked about a lot in publishing. People will sometimes tell you how they fell in love with a novel’s voice, but it’s more commonly cited as a problem: ‘I love the concept, I just didn’t really think the voice worked’.  Sometimes it comes back to that old likeability problem, but more frequently, the issue is that the voice just isn’t believable or consistent enough.

This is important whether you’re writing in the third- or first-person. Even in the third-person, your voice needs consideration – is the narrator completely impartial, an absolute non-being, or do they have opinions and feelings which will colour the way they tell the story?

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If you’ve got a first-person narrator, think carefully about the choices you make with their language: the way they phrase a sentence, the vocabulary they use, the reference points they have. These need to remain true to the voice throughout your manuscript – for example, do they speak in long, flowery sentences for periods of time and then switch to slang? Does it work to have them referencing Homer in one chapter and then Homer Simpson in the next? It may well – we’re all contradictions as people, and that’s what makes us interesting – but thinking about every element of your voice in this way will make it convincing, compelling and something for a publisher to fall in love with.

So, a couple of exercises to help with that:

  • Write a transcript of an interview between you and the narrator of your novel. You can ask them about themselves, or about a particular event in the novel, or their relationships with the other characters, whatever you like (Interview them for a job! Arrest them! Pretend they’re famous and you’re Graham Norton!) – what really matters is to think about the way they speak, the way they would phrase things, the words they would choose.
  • Take your first paragraph – or first page, or even first chapter, if you like – and rewrite it using the voice of another character. Try and choose someone as different as possible from your narrator (for example, you could swap an omniscient third person narrator for the protagonist, who will have a much more personal and closed view on things). Think consciously about the words you’re choosing, the details your new narrator is picking up on, and why you’re making those decisions. Now look back at the original, and think about why you chose those words, those phrases. Are they the right ones?

All of this is also going to come in handy for next week, when we’ll be looking at DIALOGUE.

Wednesday Writing Exercise: How’d You Like Me Now

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Tonight, our Writing A Novel students are being treated to a guest tutor session from acclaimed thriller writer (and Academy alumna) Colette McBeth. Here‘s a really great thing she wrote about unlikeable characters over on Killer Women.

With this in mind, and given that we’ve spent the last couple of weeks thinking about character and point of view, today’s writing exercise is all about creating a character our audience can care for, even when they might not particularly like them.

  • Write a monologue (750-1,000 words) where your main character describes the worst thing they have ever done. How do they feel about it? Would they do things differently now?
  • Now write a shorter piece (500-750 words) about the best thing they have ever done. That might mean the most selfless, or the kindest – or the thing they feel most satisfied about.
  • Finally, write a short monologue (around 500 words), either from the point of view of your character’s best friend or from a third person narrator. What do they think about either of these events?

As Colette says, creating a character we can care for is all about building facets for them in this way. Nobody is all good or all bad, and people behave in certain ways for all sorts of reasons. Bearing that in mind as you go forward with your novel will mean you end up with rounded, interesting and believable characters, with whom we can empathise, even when we don’t agree with them – and who aren’t just there to serve the plot.

Wednesday Writing Exercise: Point Of View

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Tonight, our Writing A Novel students are in for their third evening session, where they’ll be thinking about Point Of View.

Choosing a narrator for a novel is one of the most important decisions of the process. Telling a story in first-, second- or third-person can make all the difference, and that’s before we even start thinking about omniscience. And what if you add more than one perspective into the mix?

Here are a couple of exercises to get you thinking about your own novel and its narration.

  • Take a short scene (250-500 words) featuring a single character from your work in progress. If you’ve been writing in first-person, try switching to third; if you’re writing in third-person, give the character’s own voice a whirl.
  • Now think about the closeness of your narration. If you’ve been working in third-person, think about what your narrator knows – is it only what the character does, or do they have more information? And if you’re working in first-person, how exposed are we to the character’s thoughts and feelings? How honest are they being – do we get a sense that this is the whole story, or that something is being held back?
  • Finally, have a go at switching tenses – from past to present, or vice-versa. Which works best with which mode of narration? What different things do you learn about the character and the plot from each combination?

 

Wednesday Writing Exercise: Kidnap A Character

On Saturday, our Writing A Novel students came in for their first full day session. And we sent them straight back out again.

The topic at hand was (and still is — they’re back in tonight) Character. So we set them free on a little expedition to find inspiration in the world outside (we’re next to the British Museum; there’s a wealth of amazing characters to be found out there). By the time they came back for lunch, they all had a fledgling character sketch just waiting for his or her own story.

It’s such a worthwhile exercise — thinking about what makes a good and interesting character; thinking about how to build a history and a voice for someone — that we thought we’d share a sort-of-version of it with you.

Here are four people; four potential characters. Pick one (or two or three or four) and write a character summary for them. Tell us about their life, their ambitions, their opinions. Try writing it in your voice first, and then try it in theirs, thinking carefully about the different way the two of you might see things.

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This will come in very handy for next week’s topic: Point Of View.

Wednesday Writing Exercise: Ideas And What To Do With Them

Tonight is the second session of our current iteration of Writing A Novel. Last week, the students met for the first time. They introduced themselves, and their novels, and they met their wonderful tutors. Biscuits were eaten. Muses were motivated.

Now the work begins. To kick them off, this week they’ll be looking at ideas, and what comes after them. Should you plan your novel? And how detailed should a plan be? And then how rigidly should you stick to it?

plan of The Mirror_799

So, inspired by that — and because next month happens to be the month when over 300,000 people worldwide (including all of us here at Academy HQ) attempt to write a novel in thirty short days — here are a couple of exercises to get you thinking about your story and how to shape it.

What if?

Stephen King famously wrote in his excellent and highly-recommended On Writing that a strong enough central situation made plotting unnecessary (he actually wrote ‘Forget plot’ but we’re not quite sure how we feel about that. Sorry, Steve). He said that ‘the most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question’. Like these ones:

What if a plane full of school boys crash-landed on a desert island?

What if the pigs plotted to take over the farm?

What if you lost your memory every time you fell asleep?

If you’ve already got a novel on the go, or an idea for one, see if you can shrink it down to that single question. It’s much harder than it sounds — and it might make you think differently about what the most important element of your plot is.

And if you haven’t got any Shiny New Ideas just waiting to be written, it’s worth keeping an ear out for any What Ifs your brain throws at you as you go about your day. King, by the way, swears by the power of a good stroll for dislodging those million dollar story ideas…

Start small

Not every novel idea can be boiled down to a What if? But how about a single sentence? That’s what followers of the Snowflake Method recommend.

Try and summarise the plot of the novel you’re writing, or want to write, in a sentence no longer than twenty words. Something like:

An orphaned boy’s life is changed forever when, on his eleventh birthday, he discovers he is a wizard

That wasn’t too hard, right?

But now turn that into a paragraph. And after that, into three paragraphs. Keep going, keep expanding, until you have a full page of synopsis. Doing this helps you really focus in on the key elements of the story you’re trying to tell, and the motivations of the characters within it.

 

Happy planning! Meanwhile, the faction lines are being drawn here in the office in the run-up to NaNoWriMo. We have one plotter in the office, one unabashed pantser, and one not-so-sure… Let’s see how that pans out…