Sunday, 12 July 2015

How My Micro-Fiction Grew Up Into Flash-Fiction

How a piece of micro-fiction that had no right to be anything more, grew up to become a published piece of flash-fiction - with my reflections on the writing process along the way.

I received some wonderful news in June.

A flash-fiction story I submitted for a special edition of the SirensCall ezine was accepted, and was published at the end of June. Oh, all right, all right. Since you insist, the link to SirensCall ezine issue is here:

The most amazing thing about this story is how it happened.

The initial seed of a story started life as a FridayPhases (FP) piece of micro-fiction on Twitter. An interpretation of the week's optional FP theme of "Wrong Decision", it went like this:

He took the road less travelled & came to a sign saying “Dead End.” He ignored it. They say those woods echo with human-like screams. #FP

I liked how this FP played with the theme and had an ominous little flick in the tail. I was happy with it and, left up to me, that should have been that.

However, FP-(&-Horror)-Maestro, @Jabe842, and the @FridayPhrases team tag-teamed to suggest/encourage/demand a short story which could then be published on the FridayPhrases #S4S (Stories for Sunday) segment. Now, I had been keen to do something for S4S, but that particular FP wouldn't have been my first choice to expand into a bigger story.


Not in a squillion years.

In fact, my initial reaction to the tag-teaming short-story suggestion was a roundly disbelieving "appreciate the thought, but I wouldn't have a clue how to expand that particular FP!"

I'm an unfortunate combo of being very easily freaked, and having an excellent memory for grisly, creepy ideas / images that I would rather have never seen in the first place. I manage this by staying away from grisly genres. This meant that I had NO idea how to go about constructing a creepy story out of that particular FP. Creepy it had to be, seeing as the scream was essential to the FP. Having some axe-wielding nut hanging out in the forest waiting for a victim wasn't an endearing or original start, but I had nothing else.

I'm a wee bit more competitive than I care to admit, but I would have let this particular story challenge fall by the wayside because I couldn't think how to go about extrapolating the story. However, the thought then fell into my head: what if the forest causes the screaming? Not a human but the forest itself... On purpose!



The cogs turned. I could now see a potential story. A short, manageable one. Maybe even with convincing creepiness. I straightaway spent a chunk of the Saturday on it.

Key elements leapt into my head.
  • Character travels to forest
  • Evoke creepy atmosphere
  • Forest chomps people
  • Story finishes with "human-like screams" (as per the original FP)
But, but, but...
  • Why would character go into creepy forest?
  • Make him a bad-tempered, stubborn a-wipe. He can go into the creepy forest against his better judgement. Also, it's immediately easier for me to give him a grisly demise.
  • How to show his a-wipery without just saying it? Give him a wife that he's mean to.
  • Uh-oh. My 'How to write a short story' books say to avoid one-dimensional characters. He can't be all bad and the wife can't be a saint. How to get around this?
I didn't have answers to this but started writing anyway. I named the character Vid mainly because 'vide' means 'empty' in French and it was a nice, subtle piece of symbolism for me. It was meant to be a working name till I thought of something better, but, in the end, it stuck. I initially chose Lettie for the wife's name because of the verb 'let' - suggesting that she lets herself be treated that way. A bit of a symbolic red herring, as it turns out.

Somewhere during writing, I realised that Lettie would have to come looking for Vid when he was trapped in the forest. Reluctantly... Then it occurred to me, what if Lettie had planned Vid's elaborate demise???

Boom! I had a twist to end the story, and got out of the saintly-poor-put-upon-wife cliché/conundrum. I then threw in an early hint of Lettie planning the whole thing by having her suggest the getaway trip to Vid in front of his boss.

In hindsight, this is an example for me of how you don't have to have all the finer points of the plot worked out beforehand. Sometimes the crucial points can come to you while you're actually in the writing zone.

The one-and-only lot of notes for the story - single-page of an A5 notebook. The rest went straight onto the computer.

The most difficult bit for me was firstly, to convey the forest's menace and secondly, to have the sequence of things happen to Vid in such a way that they didn't feel mechanical (I'm still not sure I succeeded with this point). Oh, and also coming up with suitably nasty things that a mostly stationary forest can do to a person was a bit of a challenge too.

I had a first draft by Saturday night (although I do edit and revise as I go, so it wasn't as raw as it might sound).

My next step was to tap @Jabe842 on the shoulder in his combined capacities as Horror Maestro, Skilled Wordsmith and Person-Too-Nice-To-Say-No and ask if he would be willing to read and provide feedback - which he was, and which he did with kindness and quick insight, picking up on proofing errors and ambiguous points, and also confirming that the story's creepy trajectory worked.

I was reassured at least that it was okay for public consumption, fussed around the edges some more, entitled "Dead End" and sent it to @FridayPhrases for their S4S selection and they were kind enough to publish it a mere week later. 

Done and dusted? Not quite.

A short while later, when I encountered the Sirens Call ezine call for submissions for its June 2015 special issue on Eco-horror, I was surprised at how well my story seemed to fit.

I checked the guidelines. Previously published material was ok... Check, check, check... My biggest hesitation was whether my story was actually good enough! Ah, Ye Almighty Gods of Self-Doubt! 

I wanted to re-write it a lot more but just ended up doing more faffing around the edges. I tried to throw in a couple more creepy lines and changed the title to the slightly less-obvious "No Through Road". I still nearly didn't send it in, but it was there, it was ready to go, it fit the special issue theme to perfection... If I'd wanted to write something from scratch, it wouldn't have happened. 

But as it was, in it went and I didn't worry about it any more. If nothing else, I told myself, I would know how much work I needed to do to get published in future.

When the reply SirensCall email landed in my inbox, I was on the train heading to work, wrapped up against the cold, stifling yawns and squinting blearily against the early morning sun. I woke up properly in a hurry and braced myself for the polite rejection.

I was very, very, very chuffed to read it had been accepted! Beaming to match the sun!

Gloria, the editor, was absolutely lovely and encouraging to speak with, and accommodating of all my queries. I was looking forward to making whatever changes were required, and was kinda chuffed (again) to realise there were only a small handful of mainly stylistic things to update.

And so, my story - the one which would never have happened if it had been only up to me - was published! 

It was funny to realise: the minute I saw it as part of the beautiful, finished, polished anthology, it read perfectly, strongly, and I couldn't see anything wrong with it whatsoever! Such is the power of a piece once it's published!

There are lots of morals to this whole experience! Find a supportive, creative community; Take up challenges if the idea feels right; Ask for help when you need to; Say thank you; Take a chance and back your idea and yourself - you've got nothing to lose; And never, ever go walking in a creepy forest alone.

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