Tuesday 24 April 2012

When a Big Prize Means Even Bigger Frustration

In a couple of weeks, I'm going to reach a depressing milestone. On 18th May, it will have been a full two years since I signed what I naively thought could be a life-changing contract. I won the 2010 Chapter One Promotions International Short Story Prize. I haven't scooped many first places, but this one was a biggie. I don't really like to say how much cash was involved, although I'm sure people can Google it and find out. Suffice to say it's a prize well worth winning. The mistake I made was to assume the big prize fund equated to slick organisation and a professional approach to the writers who'd be published in the anthology.

To say I was excited to have won is an understatement. The whole thing was quite surreal - the day I got the call to tell me the result I was on my own, slogging away at renovating my house. It was mid-March and freezing cold. After the call I sat down on the bare floorboards and wondered whether I was the victim of an unnecessarily elaborate and cruel hoax.

But, no, eight weeks or so later the contract came through as promised and I gleefully signed it and sent it back, along with a hard copy of my story and a biography. And then I waited. And waited. Out of the blue, in late August I think, I got a call from Chapter One. There was a problem with the payments, they said. It was going to take a while to get the money to me, and it would come in instalments. Okay, I thought, I'd prefer a big wedge of cash, but instalments are better than nothing.

The first chunk came through quite quickly. It was still a decent amount of money, but knowing it was a fraction of the whole took the shine off a little. I put it in a savings account and felt underwhelmed about it. After that, a pattern formed. The due date for the next instalment would come around and I'd wait a couple of days, check my PayPal account, then send a polite reminder to Chapter One. I'd get an apologetic reply, usually, and then the money would transfer over. Bit by bit, my prize dribbled in, and my enthusiasm for it waned with every passing month. I did get all the money in the end.

In the intervening months I'd done some basic research, and I'd found this entry on Sally Quilford's blog and the Absolute Write forum that triggered it. I took some comfort from the fact that people had received their prize, eventually, but it alarmed me that most were saying there was no sign of the promised anthology, in some cases years after the results had been announced.

It might just be me, but this seems worse than them dragging their heels over the payment of prizes. After all, the shortlisted writers will have their stories published, but their only reward will be a copy of the anthology. Plus, we're all writers, we all strive to share our work, to get it out into the world. Yet agreeing to have your work featured in a Chapter One anthology seems to be much the same as locking it up in a box and burying it in the garden.

I contacted them at the end of last year, to let them know my new email address. I also asked about progress on the anthology. I was told they were still waiting for bios from some of the authors. Really? I don't know a single writer who would be offered a chance of publication and think, "Yeah, I'll give that eighteen months or so. You can't rush a good bio." I remain unconvinced. Nevertheless, Chapter One said they were hoping to send out proof copies of the book at the end of January or early February, this year. I'm glad I decided against holding my breath.

If you were to take a look at Chapter One's website (you'll have to manage without a link from here - I don't feel I owe them any web traffic), you'd see the most recent anthology they're promoting contains the winning stories from 2006. Yes, you read that right: six years ago. And I'm using the word 'promoting' in a very generous way there. There's a low resolution image of the cover and a brief sentence about the book, above an 'Add to Cart' button. And that's it.

Still, if you decided you wanted to check out what was "inspiring and fresh" six years ago, bear in mind that you can't buy the anthology anywhere else. It doesn't have an ISBN; you won't find it on Amazon or in your local indie bookstore or Waterstones. There's no eBook version. Compare this to Bridport or Brighton or the Willesden Herald - competitions where the anthologies are put together in time for the awards ceremony. They're out into the world while the results still matter, they're well promoted, and readers can get hold of them easily.

After two years, I am entitled to demand that they publish my story or return my first publication rights. As the contract also states that I will have 30 days to review the proof copy and I haven't received one yet, I know they're going to miss the deadline. So I will be writing to them to request my rights back. Part of me is pleased by this. The story is one of the best things I've ever written and it has been a constant bugbear of mine that my biggest success is something nobody can read. But mainly I feel disappointed. I so wanted to be proved wrong about Chapter One, to find that my year was the year they got their act together, and delivered a beautifully designed anthology that me and the rest of the writers on the shortlist could be proud of.

Instead, it seems like the 18th will just mark the start of the endgame, where they have 90 days to respond to my request and the whole thing drags on for another three months. Perhaps, despite everything, by the middle of August I will be clutching a copy of the anthology and be so blown away by it, all of this grumbling will seem churlish and ridiculous.

I really hope so, but the odds don't seem that great.

Thursday 12 April 2012

Too Much Flash, Not Enough Bang?

Flash fiction: it’s so hot right now, as Mugatu – Will Ferrell’s character in the comedy Zoolander – might say.

It’s not by accident I’ve started this post by paraphrasing a film that plunders the vacuous world of fashion for most of its jokes. Mugatu lures Ben Stiller’s character, male supermodel Derek Zoolander, into a trap by offering him the chance to model his latest collection, Derelicte – a range of clothes “inspired” by vagrants and street litter. I’m sure the costume designers had a lot of fun crafting bin bags, cardboard boxes and all sorts of other junk into the various bizarre outfits featured in the catwalk sequence. The whole thing’s a not-so-subtle reworking of The Emperor’s New Clothes – while the fashionistas are going crazy for the new designs, any sane person can see they’re a load of old rubbish.

Flash fiction is hot right now. We’re a month or so away from the UK’s first-ever National Flash Fiction Day (NFFD), there’s an ever-increasing interest in short-short stories from markets keen to capitalise on the alleged shortening of people’s attention spans, getting flash stories onto the phones and tablets of the world. Every time I look there’s another competition wanting stories of fewer than 1000 words, often even shorter than that. There even seem to be more opportunities to get super-short fiction into print, although that remains a tougher prospect than getting it online somewhere. All this is good. So why is so much flash fiction so … rubbish?

I know taste is subjective, and there’s no real way to set a standard for the quality of a piece of writing. Generally speaking, I like flash fiction. I don’t think I have a particularly short attention span, but I don’t get a lot of time to read, and having written flash fiction from time to time I understand and appreciate the challenges of the form. When it’s done well, it can be astonishingly good. But there is a lot that’s just plain awful. And a lot of it seems to be winning decent sums of money in competitions.

I’m not out to make enemies here, so I’m not going to single out any particular stories for criticism. And before there are any accusations of sour grapes, I’ll mention that what’s prompted me to write this post are the results of a competition I didn’t even enter (although there are plenty of occasions when I’ve been annoyed at losing out to what I’d consider Bad Flash). I’m trying to be as objective as I can.

So, what’s Bad Flash? For me, it’s something that fails at the most basic level – that of being a short story. I’m an unapologetic traditionalist. I like tales with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Flash doesn’t always provide enough room for all of these to be explicitly contained within the story itself, but there should be enough there for the reader to figure out what’s gone on before, what actually happens, and what’s likely to happen afterwards. It shouldn’t feel isolated, floating in space – a good flash story will be like an instant caught in a photograph. It should leave you in no doubt that the character(s) involved came from somewhere and that they will end up somewhere else. That sense of progression is important. I’ve said it before, and I’m yet to change my mind – a story should describe a test for a character, and the reader should be able to understand whether they pass or fail that test, even if the final outcome isn’t revealed before the end of the story.

Before we go any further, I'll say I'm not suggesting I've never written Bad Flash. I'm sure I have. I'm still learning and I'm not trying to fool anybody that I'm some kind of expert. But when I see stuff that has so few redeeming features being heralded as great writing, it annoys me, both as a reader and writer. Here's what I'm talking about:

Bad Flash #1: The One Where Nothing Happens
Flash fiction is short, right? So by the time you’ve described where everything is, and detailed all the thoughts of the characters involved, you’ve run out of word count – but, hey, it’s flash, so that’s okay, isn’t it? No. No, it isn’t. What you’ve done there is set up a scene. That’s not the same as telling a story. If your characters don’t move through your story (not necessarily the same as moving in physical space), if they don’t respond to some kind of stimulus, then all you’ve done is describe stasis. Static = boring. And I do not want to read boring flash (which sounds like an oxymoron. But it isn’t, sadly).

Bad Flash #2: The One that’s Mostly Flashback
The main character is about to do something. The narrative skips back to their childhood and explains why the thing they’re about to do makes sense. Then it skips forward again and the main character does the thing. The end. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with this approach, but it doesn’t work with flash. It’s too short. The opening section is never interesting enough to make the reader care about the background, the middle bit seems forced or twee, and the ending is just an exercise in tying loose ends. Yawn, yawn, yawn.

Bad Flash #3: The One with the Big Idea
Don’t get me wrong; flash is a great arena for trying out big ideas, out-there concepts that would be hard to sustain in a longer piece. But all too often the initial concept seems to take up all the writer’s energy. Characters are wooden stereotypes. The story doesn’t go anywhere. The internal logic breaks down. The story fizzles out at the end or the author panics and wraps it up without taking it to any kind of logical conclusion. Ultimately, this kind of story can be hugely frustrating. If the idea appeals to a reader, they’re going to be annoyed when the writer gets all ham-fisted and messes it up or realises they’ve taken on more than they can handle and just chickens out.

Bad Flash #4: The One with the Surprise Ending
Again, a twist ending, done well, can be a good thing. It can stop you in your tracks or make you rush back to the beginning to read the story all over again. What doesn’t work is when the author seems to lose interest in what they’ve been telling you, and suddenly shoehorns something different in, just before the end. It’s jarring, and it makes you wonder why, when the actual story is supposed to be about that last bit, the author deliberately wasted your time with all the other stuff.

N.B. The other variation of this type of Bad Flash is the, “Surprise! The narrator was a ghost / cat / unborn baby all along!” ending, which, despite presenting a clear danger to public health, is yet to be criminalised.

Bad Flash #5: The Wilfully Obscure One
This one’s the prime example of Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome. Look, says the author, this story makes no sense whatsoever, or maybe it’s open to fifty different interpretations – I’m so avant-garde I haven’t decided yet. Principal variations of this type of Bad Flash are the Odd Character Behaves Oddly and the Normal Character Suddenly Behaves Oddly. There might be stilted, portentous dialogue, there’s usually a hint of some dark secret lurking in the past, but nothing’s actually explained. The reader’s not given any kind of insight into anything. The story, ultimately, means nothing. It’s not big and it’s not clever. It’s tedious. Stop it.

Bad Flash #6: The “Hilarious” One
I like a laugh. Seriously. And flash fiction can be funny. But it should never be a joke. The final sentence can be the pay-off, but if it’s the punchline then you’ve missed the point. If a story only exists to amuse, then it lacks credibility. The suspension of disbelief so vital for a story to work is undermined by that final line. And if you take away the believability, you don’t have a story, however funny you think it is (and to be honest I’m yet to read a joke-flash that raises much more than an irritated grimace-smile). Basically, if your story relies on a big reveal at the end that one of the characters is in fancy dress, or if you start off on a tale about Ancient Egyptians and your final line features the expression, “pyramid scheme”, then it’s the slow handclap for you, matey.

… and so on. There is good flash out there, but at the moment it’s in danger of being swamped by utter dross. The form as a whole risks gaining itself a bad name, ending up looking like a way for lazy or pretentious writers to get a story published and win cash prizes, offering little or nothing to the discerning reader.

I’m hoping activities like the NFFD help to bring wider attention to flash fiction and raise the bar for the kinds of stories hitting those top spots in competitions. I’d urge the organisers of those competitions to be choosy as to who judges them. A novelist used to writing, say, sprawling historical novels might not be the best person to pick the most accomplished examples of microfiction from a given selection. It’s hard to appreciate how difficult the form is, or how effective it can be, if you don’t read and write it yourself.

I’m sure if we work together, we can bring Bad Flash under control, and leave Good Flash to enjoy the bright future it deserves.