Wipe Your Feet And Come On In…

This is the small and imperfectly formed blog site of writer KM Elkes, or sometimes Ken Elkes, depending on how the mood takes me. Visit my About Me page to find out more about my publications and prizes, or browse the posts below. Yeah, I know there aren’t many but I’m supposed to be writing, okay!

Characterisation and the car crash

MotorwaySome musings on writing. Let’s start with three examples:

1. I was in a road traffic accident the other day. I didn’t suffer any injuries, though my car may not be repairable. Unfortunately it was my birthday.

2. I had an interesting birthday. Got into a car crash on the motorway. Not a scratch on me but my car is on its way to vehicle heaven.

3. I was in the middle of a five car pile-up in the fast lane of the motorway. The car was minced front and back but I managed to get out alive. Some birthday present that was.

Three examples above of describing the same incident. They represent a simple exercise in characterisation, taking the same dramatic incident (a plot point if you like) and showing something about character in the way the incident is described.

So number one is dry and dull. He pushes his spectacles up a greasy nose with his index finger. He likes facts, works with numbers. Some people suspect he may be on the spectrum.

Number 2 is friendly and happy to tell the story, but look a bit closer. Is he/she using humour to disguise the emotion of the event. Is there some underplaying of the drama here?

Number 3 is angry, look at that word ‘minced’. He/she is wringing the most from this. They’ve probably gone down their local boozer, because you can be sure this type of person has a boozer, in order to tell their story. They’re a bit hardcore, but bursting for sympathy.

So far, so obvious. A character’s reaction to an event can be a good way of elucidating or reinforcing what type of person they are (and let’s face it, how they don’t react tells us about them too).

But wait. What about the reaction to the reaction? How people respond to the way the information is given by Character A can not only shed light on THEIR character, but also on character A. In other words, the relationship between the two characters, how they react to each other can be as important as what either of them says or does.

What if Number 1 goes home to his mum and tells the story as above. Her response is panic, she insists they go down to the Emergency Department to get him checked out. What does that say about her? What does that say about their relationship? You could play it lots of different ways, all of them interesting.

And what if Number 3 walks into his boozer, tells his story to his mates a few times over a couple of pints and they sympathise. Then he goes home to his wife. Tells his story. She says: “Well, you’re still standing and you’ve had drink, so don’t be expecting me to wait on you hand and foot.”
What does that tell us about them? Does it explain why he stopped at the pub first? Where do our sympathies lie – with him or do we fill in and side with her?

I should come clean at this point. I did have a real-life car crash on my birthday last week. I posted something on my personal Facebook page which was pretty similar to Number two above. And as a result of that slightly underplayed, slightly humorous ‘nothing much to see here’ post I got some very telling reactions, which illustrated something about the character of the poster, about their relationship with me and about how I had described the event.

One person mentioned how the incident itself might make a good storyline and maybe they were right. But for me the writing lesson here is about characterisation, reinforcing my belief that strong characters are built not just from what they say and do, but also their relationships with others and how they are perceived by other characters.

 

 

Read All About It Two…and Fish.

fg1coverLovely to see the winners of the Fish Publishing Flash Fiction prize for 2014 published here. Congratulations to the winners and all those who made the short and long lists.

I hope the winning entries felt as happy as I did when I found out I won this prize last year. I strongly advise them (like they’ll be reading this!) to hop on a plane or boat and go to the anthology launch. It’s fun, Bantry is a lovely place and there’s drink involved.

Admittedly, I did have a twinge of envy too. Fish have a policy in place that means you can’t win one of their prizes more than once, which is sensible as it keeps the prize relevant and within grasp of people like me, relatively new writers, rather than established names. The entry fees are not cheap, but the rewards are worth the effort.

Meanwhile, there’s some comfort to be had in having a wee flash piece in a new publication Flash Gumbo, created by Calum Kerr – Director of National Flash Fiction Day. You can see my story and some other flash goodness at Flash Gumbo

Read all about it

Conspicuous Accents CoverThose nice people over at The Bohemyth have published a flash of mine called Love, Labour, Loss (thanks Shakespeare, I owe you one!).

It’s about…well go read it and make your own minds up.

The Bohemyth, according to the blurb I have shamelessly cut and pasted from the website,  is an online literary journal publishing Short Fiction + Poetry + Photography + Essays on a monthly basis.

Meanwhile, a very nice cover (see image) has been revealed for a Canadian anthology which will feature one of my stories from last year. It’s published by Longbridge Publishing for Accenti Magazine. There’s more details via the Accenti website.

Right that’s enough self-promotion. I’m gone.

 

It’s raining anthologies

imagesAny short story writer worth his or her salt will tell you what what successes are like, you wait ages for one and then a load come together.

So, hard on the heels of news that one of my short stories will be on the education curriculum in Texas for the next ten years – yes that’s right, Texas and no, I’m not quite sure how that happened either – I found out that a Canadian publisher wants to publish one of my stories in an anthology (still sorting the details on that one).

Then I find out one of my stories is being published in an anthology as a Runner Up in the Words With Jam competition. Which is nice, particularly as I won the flash fiction category of the same competition last year, judged by Zoe Fairbairns (you can see more about Zoe at www.zoefairbairns.co.uk).

Not only did I get to meet and have a all to brief chat with Zoe at the anthology launch (which, by the way, is still available on Amazon) in a room above Foyles Bookshop in London, but there was also miniature food available, which gave me and Mrs E an opportunity to pretend we were giants gatecrashing a buffet. A great and diverting game for at least 5-10 minutes if you ever get the chance to play.

And it appears that one of my flash stories will also be appearing in this year’s Lightship Publishing anthology (though I’m not entirely sure when) and another very, very short flash fiction will get its 15 minutes of fame in the Leodegraunce Fiction Anthology sometime this year.

For now though, its back to waiting and hoping, as ever.

The Short Story, The Novel & The Antiques Roadshow

 

antiquesroadshow2010 008NB: This is a transcript of a conversation overheard on the 93 bus*

“So come on then Terry, you said you’d have an answer by today.”

“What you mean a working analogy for the difference, apart from length, between novels and short stories, given that they are both forms of prose fiction Dave?”

“That’s the one.”

“As it happens, I did think of something.”

“Sweet. I’m all ears.”

“I have to admit Dave, I was struggling up until Antiques Roadshow came on the telly.”

“I’m bearing with you Terry, carry on.”

“As you know I’m partial to Fiona Bruce and the antics – excuse the weak wordplay – of the antiques experts. Anyway, I was wondering what big house or stately home they were going to be at – there’s always some big posh place in the background. Then I was thinking, I bet we’re due an episode with that jewellery expert bloke with the minty accent.”

“Has this got anything to do with short story and novel comparisons or are you just playing for time until you get to your stop Terry?”

“Easy now Dave, I’m getting there. Don’t forget that pace is an important element in all forms of prose and delaying the moment of revelation can build tension and suspense…

“Get on with it will ya Tel.”

“So, big house, posh expert, minty accent. I was thinking I really like the way he says Faberge. Faberge egg. Fab-ah-shay egg. And right then it struck me…

“Thank God!”

“Big house, Faberge egg. Novel, short story. Now I know Dave, that Faberge eggs aren’t to everyone’s taste, but there’s no doubting the level of skill that went into making them. Small but intricate, beautifully worked, exquisite pieces that pack in a huge amount of detail. They hold colour and light, darkness and mystery.

“They are bold but restrained, they don’t give all of their secrets up in one go, they are the product of many hours of learning the skills to create, they dazzle, forged in heat and dirt yet appear flawless. They are made from a desire to create the most beautiful thing the maker could achieve.”

“So you’re saying that though small, your Faberge egg is an intensely beautiful object full of subtle detail, which is the result of great craftsmanship – just like a short story or flash fiction.”

“Pretty much what I just said Dave, but well done.”

“Thankyou. And the house?”

“Well that’s achieved with high levels of craftsmanship and skill too. But there’s more structure and architecture involved than the egg, more planning on a grand scale. There’s many rooms to visit as you work your way through the house, lots of nooks and corners to poke around in. And when you walk out of the house and look back you see a different view from when you were inside it. You can kind of see the whole thing, but not all the detail.

“I think you might have done a decent job here Tel, I think this analogy could take a few punches without hitting the canvas. You could work it round the body, give it some left hooks to the kidneys and it would still be in the ring.”

“Don’t try to make an analogy of an analogy Dave, that’s just being a smart arse.”

“My apologies Terry, moving on.”

“There’s not that much more to add Dave, just that even the greatest house has flaws. It is too big a structure not to have a bit of shoddy workmanship in some high, dark corner. Sometimes the ceilings sag or the floorboards bow, or there are walls in the wrong place. But you accept this, know this even before going through the front door and accept that in a great house, you can easily overlook the weaknesses when being dazzled by the strengths, the complexity, the sense of lives carrying on within it.”

“That it Terry?”

“Pretty much Dave, this is my stop.”

“Whatcha want to chat about tomorrow?”

“How about the ontological argument versus the teleological argument. Or the essential differences between Man United and Chelsea.

“I’ll have a think and text you later Terry. Give Doreen a kiss for me.”

*Or completely made up, I can’t quite remember…

Nelson Mandela

Mandela“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Nelson Mandela

A few years ago I visited Robben Island just off Cape Town in South Africa, the place where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner for 27 years and once described as: “the harshest, most iron-fisted outpost of the South African penal system.”

Our guide was Patrick Matanjana, a former member of the ANC’s military wing who was sent to Robben Island in 1967 for terrorism. He spent the next 20 years of his life there.

Round-faced and brimming with anecdotes, Patrick showed us round the main prison block, including the cell where he spent years sleeping on the floor under a thin blanket. The same sort of tiny, grey, forlorn cell where Nelson Mandela spent most of his time on the island.

The conditions on Robben Island were brutal, but, as Patrick described, the regime there also like to twist the knife: “Many things were done to try to oppress us. We were even given brown sugar for our rations because they said white sugar was for whites only. On special days like Christmas they gave us coffee and said we were being classified like white people because they put milk in the coffee.”

In the much-despised Mail Room warders would cruelly alter letters. A love letter from a prisoner’s wife might be transformed into a message saying she wanted a divorce. For years the showers were freezing salt water and the beds were concrete floors.

Despite the attempts to crush his spirits, Patrick emerged as a sanguine man, who told us he now socialised with his former warders: “Listen, you can’t correct a wrong thing by doing a wrong thing. We are making the right foundations for the next generation; so we are prepared to forgive because we need to build, not destroy.

“Besides, it means they have to buy the drinks.”

When I heard these words, I realised that this attitude, this forgiveness, this humour, were something that stemmed from the decision of Nelson Mandela – and others – not to become bitter, not to swear revenge but to do something better. That was the spirit that helped end Apartheid and make Mandela the icon of humanity he deserves to be.

Before we left Robben Island, we visited the quarry where Nelson Mandela and others laboured for 13 years, chipping out bits of lime to surface the island’s roads. The sun had come out and a dazzling light reflecting off the rock face, making us squint.

Mandela and the others had to campaign for three years before they were allowed sunglasses to protect their already damaged eye-sight from this glare.  But in another example of making something great out of something meant to weaken and oppress, the quarry was where prisoners began to empower themselves by educating one another. During breaks in work it became, quite literally, a crucible of learning, so much so that some of the men who could not read or write when they arrived left the island with a university degree or two.

‘Each one teach one’ was the motto. Patrick had earlier stressed how important education had been to the prisoners: “It gave you something to concentrate on, so that you didn’t think so much about your sentence or your family. In the beginning we were not allowed to study and it took a lot of work and effort to gain our rights to learn.”

As I gazed into the quarry, thinking what a hot, barren and miserable place it must have been to work, I noticed clumps of bright yellow spring flowers were growing, softening the hard edges of the quarry. It seemed neatly symbolic. Like Nelson Mandela and the prisoners who had once worked here, nature had found a way to turn the harsh conditions into something worthwhile.

The stand up, the writer and the shipping container

A couple of weeks ago I saw a comedian at the Edinburgh fringe festival die, completely and utterly, on his arse.

In mitigation, it was the first day of the festival (so he probably hadn’t got into his stride) and the show was held in what appeared to be half a shipping container – a hot, airless space about as conducive to laughs as a clown at a wake.

But it also made the whole excruciating affair more intimate, more intense, more like sharing a phonebox with someone having a nervous breakdown.

The comedian started well enough, getting a few decent laughs. But as time went on and he began to sweat and swear and get that panicked look that horses sometimes have in his eyes, the laughs became chuckles and the chuckles became wry smiles and then just a restless scuffling of feet and glances at watches.

The less response he got the harder he tried, but in truth, he lost us well before the end when, following a long silence, he said; “And that folks, was my big finale.” Then he trudged from the stage, defeated.

So what’s this got to do with writing? Quite a lot, I think. For the most part writers don’t perform in public – and when we do, it’s generally reading something that has met with acclaim or won a prize, so much of the pressure is off.

But we tend to do a lot of our writing in small rooms, hoping for an audience that will be receptive. We imagine, like a comedian, that audience lost in the world we have created, hanging on our every word, amazed at a turn of phrase. We want people to be amazed, moved, inspired, we want them to finish a story and to think differently about the world.

Doesn’t a comedian, with their observational humour and their witty insight want something similar? And don’t writers also suffer when someone says: “Sorry but this isn’t for me.” “I need to love this, but I didn’t.” “Sure you will find a home for this elsewhere.”

These aren’t the equivalent of being booed from the stage, they are the same quiet rejection that my comedian suffered in front of an audience who didn’t want him to feel bad, yet just didn’t enjoy what he was offering.

So what’s a comedian to do in such a circumstance, once he’s gone into the wings, wiped the sweat away and listened to the audience file out like grateful freed hostages?

Well, probably the first thing he does is contemplate sticking three fingers in an electrical outlet. But beyond that initial “fuck you, fuck this” knee jerk reaction, what he does is resolve to learn and improve. To hone his material more, to cut the padding, improve the pacing, make the flow better, chop the stuff he really likes that the audience blanked and go back, do it again, risk it another time.

And yes, that’s the same for writers. It’s an unending process of putting it out there, inviting the spotlight, dealing with rejection, making the material better and getting back on stage again.

At some point my comedian will get it right. His material will be tight, his delivery slick. He’ll get a rousing reception for his ‘big finale’ and he’ll go off stage thinking that actually, it is worth all the trouble after all.