Sunday, 22 November 2015

Flash Slam Dunk, Ali Bacon finds a new philosophy on a night out

Not long ago I blogged here about the possibilities open to writers of performing their work and I admit that I was thinking at that time that in view of the sudden death of my WIP, performance might be my next ‘career move’ (at least on the days when I consider myself as having a writing career!) However a few weeks ago when our writing group was invited to the Bristol Flash Slam, it felt like a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’.
It’s not that I have too much of a problem with standing up and opening my mouth, but flash fiction? In my writing life I may have come up with a couple of very short pieces, but I was never sure if they were truly ‘flash fiction’ or what they needed to do to bear that label.

Flash is not something I read much, although I do like hearing it. It has to be clever – yes? With flashy wordplay, a stonkingly original premise, brilliant execution and ‘an explosive ending’. Luckily the flash slam was a team event (and competition!) so I stood aside and made myself ‘reserve’ reader. No prizes for guessing what happened next. Yes, someone dropped out and so I pitched up with 250 words which I thought read well and hung together, but as we settled down on our team bench I was increasingly anxious that they weren’t the right ones for the occasion.

This graphic by Suzanna Stanbury (who also read on the night) sums up what I think flash fiction might be – and my piece contained none of these words! 
Waiting on our team bench (at the back!)*
I looked at my own frail story of love, death and its aftermath, the best I could call it was elegiac. I had a sinking feeling which I couldn’t even alleviate with alcohol for fear of slurring my inadequate words. Anxiety was heightened by not knowing the order in which we’d be asked to read. If I hadn’t been called up near the start, my increasingly constricted throat might have closed up completely!
But when it came to my turn (helped by an enthusiastic crowd whipped up by our super-charged host) the adrenalin kicked in, and I stood up and read and yes, it was okay. 

Not brilliant maybe, but okay. I mean I’m a writer. I can write. The applause felt genuine if not overwhelming. And even if the people who came after me really did hit the high notes: - a hilarious take on cafĂ© life enhanced by menu spoonerisms,  an extended image of rain falling as words, I certainly didn’t regret having said my piece. I felt even better when a member of the audience accosted me during the interval and said she had found it absolutely beautiful. What more could I ask?

A great host helps!*
So yes, performance – although I need to do it better – is still a good thing to do, and I still hold to the idea that shorter is better in front of a live audience. In fact since then I’ve tried my hand at another couple of flash pieces just in case I’m ever called upon again!

Since then our writing group has staged another event where a few of us read stories to an audience of local writers and guests. Compared to more established events in our area it was informal. 

Reading amongst friends
Although we asked for submissions in advance, we didn’t apply strict competition criteria or award prizes. Some people wrote a piece for the occasion (we were close enough to Halloween to have a spooky theme) others brought along previous work. It was at least partly just a chance to have an audience of our own making instead of having to wait to be selected by some other group of writers. It was relaxed, it was friendly and it was fun.  

Looking back on these two events I wonder now why I was so anxious (or was I just being precious?) about my flash fiction. In the hubbub of a Friday night in Stokes Croft, or a Sunday in Bedminster (Bristol peeps will understand!) did it really matter whether or not I conformed to some genre norm even if there is such a thing? And suddenly this feels like a rediscovery of something I may have lost sight of along the way. 

To be honest I’m not sure I ever saw myself as a ‘commercial’ writer, in terms of targeting a specific audience and giving them what’s required. But having published a book and tackled the marketing side, and having breathed the air  for quite some time of those (authors, tutors, agents, publishers) for whom best-sellerdom (or just sellerdom generally) seems to be the guiding principle, it strikes me that this philosophy of writing just doesn’t work for me. So here’s what does:
  • It’s not about what people want to hear
  • It’s about what I have to say
  • If I say it well enough someone will eventually listen
Obviously there comes a point when you look to the wider audience and adapt your work accordingly, but for me it has to start with what I want to write. If it finds an audience (via publication or performance) well and good. If not, at least I have the satisfaction of getting it off my chest.

Which seems to have brought me closer than I expected to Joanne Harris’ author manifesto of not following the whims of her readers. So there you are – if her success is anything to go by, it’s a philosophy that can work after all!

*Many thanks to Mel Ciavucco for her flash slam pictures and to Suzanna for letting me use her graphic. 


Catherine Czerkawska said...

I've done a lot of readings, but never the flash fiction thing - your experience sounds incredibly positive and also enlightening. Having attended various ordinary readings where people were asked not to exceed ten minutes, but then some guy (and I'm afraid it was invariably a man) stood up with a sheaf of papers and read for half an hour - without ever being politely asked to sit down and shut up - I can see the need for rules! I have a group of friends who are self publishing anthologies and small collections as eBooks and in paperback and they are now being asked to visit various groups, such as the WRI, and do programmes of short readings - it all goes down very well, and they always seem to sell a lot of books! But they do all live within the same locality.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Also meant to add that I think you're right about writing what you want to say. The problem with the gatekeepers is that they so often don't really know what the readers are going to want next. They are just going by what they wanted last year!

AliB said...

Thanks Catherine - I agree writing 'to order' only seems to work for a very lucky few (and how lucky is that, actually?) A.

Susan Price said...

But what was your flash-fiction piece, Ali? - I enjoyed your blog, but was looking forward to reading the piece you read out all the way through...

Chris Longmuir said...

Catherine - What you need with the ten minute thing is a bell. I did one once in Waterstones where we were give 3 minutes to read from a book we liked (only one author read her own work, quite a famous one who will be nameless!). It was supposed to be a book we'd read recently which we had enjoyed. One person had charge of a bell and a stopwatch and the bell was rung after 3 minutes and it didn't matter if you were in the middle of a sentence you had to stop. It worked very well. Great post Ali, and I admire your courage. I couldn't write flash fiction to save my life.

Susan Price said...

I should add, Ali, that I don't think I could write Flash Fiction at all. Short stories are hard enough!

AliB said...

Hah- I hadn't thought of that Susan, posting the flash, I mean. Maybe I'll save it for next time :)

Bill Kirton said...

I love the flash fiction form, partly because I believe that all writing is better for being severely cut, but also because, unless you're utterly brilliant, you can never get ALL the story told. That sounds weird but if what you manage to do is give the essence of the story, readers (and listeners, I suppose, although I've never read at a flash fiction event), flesh it out with their own experiences and perceptions and make it personal. I'd call it an Ur-story if I knew what Ur- meant.

Bravo Ali for taking the plunge.

Bill Kirton said...

I suppose I should have made it clear that, for me flash fiction is a story of up to 200-300 words.

AliB said...

Hi Bill
On this occasion we had a 250 word limit. I don't think I could go much lower (!) even if it is, I agree, only the essence of a story. I see some flash fiction comps go up to 1000 words - NO-O-O!