Litro Magazine and the Modals of Lost Opportunity

litrologo-black-shadowEvery month the funky and fiction-packed Litro (an online and printed magazine which covers writing, the arts, travel and lifestyle) publishes an interview with an author under the title A Flash Of Inspiration. This month the article is about yours truly and my very short story ‘Could Have, Would Have, Should Have‘.

It’s a bit of a chance to answer some about how I write flash fiction (generally defined as narrative stories under 1,000 words) and how I like the reader to do some work and fill in the gaps. Like a good three-minute song, I think a story should reward you and hook you the first time around, but have enough about it to reward another read where you might just pick up on some more of the subtleties.

Anyway, there’s plenty of such literary musings in the interview and analysis by Jennifer Harvey, the flash fiction editor at Litro. Oh and I nearly forgot. You can also read the actually story at Litro too. There’s a link to it at the end of the article.

A Flash of Inspiration: Could Have, Would Have, Should Have, by Ken Elkes

PS: In case you don’t know what the Modals Of Lost Opportunity are from the title of this blog post, read the article on Litro – all will be explained!

Ira Glass, a bridgeable gap and writing crap

There is a certain kind of joy in being part of the social media age because, among the rank garbage and fluffy kitten videos, you occasionally stumble on something worthwhile that plants a seed or reinforces an idea you have. Or maybe it simply represents a truth that gets lost down the ‘back of the sofa’ of your mind.

So it is with this short video from Ira Glass, the host and producer of radio programme This American Life (which you can listen to on Radio 4 extra I believe, or if not in podcast format – go find it yourselves, you’re clever people). I stumbled on this recently and thought it good enough to share.

Continue reading “Ira Glass, a bridgeable gap and writing crap”

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.



The stand up, the writer and the shipping container

Last year I saw a comedian at the Edinburgh fringe festival die, completely and utterly, on his arse. Naturally, the exquisite humiliation and human drama made me think of this writing lark.

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.