Monday, 10 February 2014

Books to Inspire – No. 2

‘Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction’ edited by Tara L.Masih (Rose Metal Press) AND ‘Short Circuit : A Guide to the Art of the Short Story’ edited by Vanessa Gebbie (SALT publishing)

Okay, I know there are two books here, but they make such perfect companions it feels unnatural to split them apart. They work so well in tandem and if you haven’t come across them before then you’re not only in for a treat, but also some of the best writing advice you could get.

I shall admit straightaway that I know the editor of ‘Short Circuit’, but that’s not why I’ve chosen it, although I could sing her praises long and loud! I know some people don’t like to review work by colleagues, to avoid accusations of cronyism etc. but this guide is just too good to miss and if you doubt my word just check out how many creative writing courses have it on their reading lists. The endorsements on the cover are pretty impressive too:

        On ‘Short Circuit.’: ‘An essential read. A gold mine...’ – The Bridport Prize
‘...wisdom and insight hop off the page like light on water.’ – Clem Cairns, the Fish Prize

And ....

On ‘Field Guide..’: ‘...Each essay is a gem, encrusted with outstanding 
                                   prompts and valuable exercises.’ – Dinty Monroe, editor of 
                                   The MAMMOTH Book of Miniscule Fiction

Hopefully, that’s whetted your appetite! Both books follow a similar format with chapters created by writers with an impressive track record in the respective mediums; most are multi-award winners, with prizes from some of the most prestigious writing competitions under their belts. Both books also cover a wide range of subjects, within each form, with suggestions for further exploration, plus a variety of exercises. 

Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction edited by Tara L. Masih (The Rose Metal Press)

'A successful flash enchants us, each small story successfully rendered engulfing us for a brief moment .... in its own brand of light, or truth.'  So says Tara Masih in her informative and engaging introduction.   

A burgeoning form in this twenty first century, Masih informs us that it has actually been around much longer than most people think – in fact since the early part of the nineteenth when Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe were amongst its earliest proponents. 

Now, in this age of compression, where all aspects of life are crammed ever more cheek by jowl, the flash seems the ideal bite-size fiction to savour in those increasingly brief moments we have to ourselves. So it follows that as the flash itself garners more attention, with a high online profile and a growing number of writers engaging in the form, the inevitable 'How To Do It'  books should start pouring from the publishers. 

There are many writing guides, brought in on the wave of Creative Writing courses steadily multiplying across the globe. There are good ones and bad ones: the Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction is definitely a good one; I would even say a very good one. It doesn't promise unparalleled success or anything else it can't deliver, but does provide real insight into how writers work in this medium doing exactly what it says on the cover – providing guidance that gently leads the would-be flash writer along the path to making their own work truly shine.

Collectively, the twenty five essays contained here explore the different facets of writing good flash fiction and such a prismatic approach reveals much of the art to writing the very best of them. The authors, many distinguished and multi-award winners amongst them, are all actively engaged in the form as either writers, teachers or editors – some in all three – and precisely because of this experience, they don't mess around but go straight to the heart of what they want to say. Each focuses on an aspect of either writing, teaching or editing flash fiction and what they convey is frequently eloquent, often illuminating, always passionate as forceful advocates of the form.

The book covers ten main areas ranging from 'In Defense of the Exercise', through others such as  'Beginnings and Endings' and 'Taking Risks' to 'A Call to Action'.  Each of these is further defined by the essays themselves with inevitable titles like Expose Yourself to Flash and Flash in the Pan, but don't let that put you off, under the puns you'll find some incisive, educative writing.      

Many sections are inspiring and with the added bonus of both top notch examples of the form, and exercises to get the creative juices flowing – at the end of each one – this makes the volume an invaluable addition to any writer's reference collection.    

A couple of the contributors do get a little caught up in their own philosophising, but are no less interesting for that and there are some truly inspiring pieces to get fingers flashing across keyboards and pens moving in hot little hands.

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.

(My review for 'Field Guide' first appeared on Jane Smith’s blog. ‘How Publishing Really Works’.)

‘Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story’ edited by Vanessa Gebbie

There are twenty seven sections here covering such areas as ‘Finding Form in Short Fiction’, ‘Writing and Risk Taking’, ‘Setting’, ‘Endings‘ and ‘Short Story Competitions ...’ 

One of the joys of this book, as with its companion above, is the multitudinal approach to its subject. As well as examining the nuts and bolts of writing, by choosing so many different writers to talk about them a huge variety of perspectives are presented. This shows, with real clarity, just how many different approaches can be taken, how rules can be made, followed and broken. It’s not that any one writer here specifically contradicts another, far from it, but that each offers their own unique approach and encourages the reader to pursue their own too. There are examples of what excites them as readers themselves and what gets their own creative juices flowing:

    Adam Marek sums this up brilliantly in the section ‘What my Gland Wants – Originality in the 
    Short Story’:       

‘When I read or write fiction, what I’m really doing is hunting for a very particular sensation. It’s a feeling a bit like delight, a bit like surprise, a bit like weightlessness. It’s the excitement we get when we discover something new, something which in childhood we can’t take a step without tripping over, but which in adulthood is woefully infrequent. ....Originality is the most important thing in fiction for me. My gland needs things it has never experienced before. And when I’m thinking about ideas for a short story, it’s my gland that I’m guided by.’

For each writer there is their own way, their own uniqueness to embody and ‘Short Circuit’ celebrates this, encourages the writer to explore, experiment and dare themselves to push their own boundaries. At the same time it highlights elements that are common to them all and gives invaluable practical advice. There are lists of reference books to consult, anthologies to explore, individual stories to encounter and free pages at the end for notes too. It is thorough, engaging, informative, a delight and one of the best, (if not THE best) books on the short story. In fact, I can only think of one that might just top it, buy a slim margin, and that’s its new edition!

If I am stuck, get swamped by ideas, need to home in on the heart of a piece etc. it is to these two books that I return again and again. They help me cut through the layers and engage with the nucleus of what I am trying to say; they are quite simply brilliant.   

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