Monday, 27 April 2020

Stay at Home Lit Festival Fringe 27 April 2020

Thanks for joining me this morning at the #stayathomefringe Morning Workout.

Here are the prompts I used today.

Ideas are a tricky kettle of fish. Some writers like to lay traps for them and surprise them at dawn. Others go hunting at night with sharpened pencils and alcohol. But ideas are not always on the run: sometimes, they chase you, and ambush you at surprising moments: they hide in atmospheric pieces of music, in beautiful pictures, and childhood memories. They can be particularly troublesome at night when they have been known to disturb the sleep of unwary writers. To protect yourself from such nocturnal encounters always keep a pen and notebook by your bed: this almost certainly guarantees that no ideas will ever come to you at night.
-Helen Newell
(The road to somewhere: A creative writing companion)

Prompt 1:
List 10 items/Objects that come to your mind.
Now choose a few of these items that could be inside your character’s handbag/backpack. What
observations can you make of this character?
Write 250 words, describing this character, including some of the items listed above, in a situation
where he/she is preparing to go out to meet somebody.

Prompt 2

In fiction, however, dialogue is one of the main characterisation tools at the writer’s disposal. I would say it is the main function. So I see dialogue as an adjunct of characterisation, not plot. It does of course have a lesser function, that of dramatisation, moving the plot forward.  Invariable, if a writer uses dialogue purely as a conveyor of information, it sounds clunky, and inorganic.’
- Character, characterisation, Dialogue and Language, Tobias Hill from Short Circuit – A guide to the Art of the Short Story ed. Vanessa Gebbie

Write a scene of about 200 words, where the character's feelings change from the first to the second expression given in the following:

Prompt 3
Your Childhood Bed
Think about your childhood bed. Make a few notes describing the bed. Use your senses to describe what it looked like. What it smelled like. What it felt like etc
(Note: It doesn’t have to be your own childhood bed. But it needs to be a bed from the past. Perhaps a bed you slept in at your grandparents, or at boarding school, or at the summer Guide camp, hospital etc
Then move your focus to the room. Write short notes about the room. It needs to correspond to the bed you have chosen in the earlier exercise. Make quick notes about the room. 
Think about the quality of the light, the details of your setting, the colours, smells, sounds of the place you describe.

Take this scene and compose it following the pattern: 
Long Shot – Middle Shot – Close Up.
Now take the same scene, but compose it inverting the order of the presentation: Close Up – Middle Shot – Long Shot. (You can use different images.) 
How does the order of the presentation change or affect the mood. Which order was more effective for what you tried to achieve, which was easier to use? 

Hope you found these prompts helpful... Enjoy the rest of the festival and keep in touch :)

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Stay at Home Festival - Writing Flash Fiction

Flash Fiction Workshop

What is flash fiction… 
The guidelines for the Smokelong Quarterly advise:
       language that surprises
       narratives that strive toward something other than a final punch line or twist
       pieces that add up to something, oftentimes (but not necessarily always) meaning or emotional resonance
       honest work that feels as if it has far more purpose than a writer wanting to write a story

What makes great flash fiction:
       How to write flash fiction:
       Start in the middle.
       Don’t use too many characters.
       Make sure the ending isn’t at the end.
       Sweat your title.
       Make your last line ring like a bell.
       Write long, then go short.

Different approaches: Hermit crab style
These stories, which make use of ready-made templates such as recipes, board-meeting minutes and shopping lists, are a great way for experimenting with form in short fiction.

Instructions:10 minutes

How to build a home
How to leave the country
How to tame a lion
How to become a writer
How to throw a party
How to spend your money
How to cook in a lockdown
How to live in self-isolation
How to talk to your father/ mother

Choose one and start free writing. Take note – while the instruction is given in future tense, the story will emerge as past tense…instruction is given in second person – produces a unique tone that becomes the focus of the story. 

- Adapted from Barrie Llewlyn's prompt in Teaching Creative Writing - ed Elaine Walker

HW Write a playlist for a character. What is the relationship of the playlist creator with this character? 
An example:
from Flash Fiction Festival Three (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2019)

Write the same incident from 3 different perspectives
A character arrives late to a party, not knowing that an old significant other is attending too. 
The relationship didn’t end well. The host introduces them to each other, unaware of 
their history. In 300 words or less, write the scene from three POVs: The late arriver, the ex 
and the host.
•The late arrive – 1st person POV
•The ex – 2nd Person POV
• The host – 3rd Person POV.

Smokelong Quarterly
Flashback Fiction
Reflex Fiction
Flash – The International Short Short Story Magazine
Cabinet of Heed
Fictive Dream
Lost Balloon
Okay Donkey
TSS Publishing
X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine
Zero Flash
The Fiction Pool
Ad Hoc Fiction
Bare Fiction
Flash Fiction Online
F( r)iction
Jellyfish Review

You can follow me on Twitter: @susmitatweets
Short Story in a Weekend course:

My favourite flash fiction (my own, I mean):

Hope you enjoyed the session! Have a lovely day :) 

Friday, 3 April 2020

Stay At Home Fest Readings

Hi everyone,

Here are a a couple of links to short story writing and a selection of short story openings. You can follow me on Twitter @Susmitatweets and I will share more short story links there throughout the day. Do share your story openings with me on Twitter.

Happy Writing!

My friend Herb McGinnis, a cardiologist, was talking. The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin. It was Saturday afternoon. Sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind the sink. There were Herb and I and his second wife, Teresa—Terri, we called her—and my wife, Laura. We lived in Albuquerque, but we were all from somewhere else. There was an ice bucket on the table. The gin and the tonic water kept going around, and we somehow got on the subject of love. Herb thought real love was nothing less than spiritual love. When he was young he’d spent five years in a seminary before quitting to go to medical school. He’d left the Church at the same time, but he said he still looked back to those years in the seminary as the most important in his life.

 Beginners- Raymond Carver, New Yorker

I once met a man with a 40-litre monkey. He measured all his animals by volume. His Dalmatian was small, only 18 litres, but his cat, a Prussian blue, was huge – five litres, when most cats are three. He owned a pet shop just off Portobello Road. I needed a new pet for my girlfriend because our last two had just killed each other.
‘The ideal pet,’ the owner told me, ‘is twelve litres. That makes them easy enough to pick up, but substantial enough for romping without risk of injury. What did you have?’
‘A gecko,’ I replied. ‘I guess he was about half a pint.’
‘You use imperial?’ The man smirked and gestured towards a large vivarium in the corner. ‘Iguana,’ he said. ‘Six litres, and still growing.’
‘Oh right,’ I said. ‘I also had a cat. She must have been four litres, maybe more.’
‘Are you sure?’ He asked. ‘Was she a longhair, because they look big, but when you dunk them they’re small, like skinny rats.’

- The 40-Litre Monkey, Adam Marek

Two of us have been watching telly and as of last minute I’m the one heading to the shop. A game of rock paper scissors is usually what it takes for me and my housemate Hannah to decide who’s doing what between us, and now I’ve lost the best of three rounds I’ve to peel myself from our duvet nest and get going. You enjoy it, I say. Hannah says she will, her head dunking back into the covers, her phone    a periscope that’s snapping a picture of my defeat. Post that and you’re dead, I tell her. I’m in my comfiest clothes, greasy hair balled into a bread roll shape on top of my head, and no one needs to see that. I slide into our other housemate Smurf’s bubble jacket that I know he won’t mind me borrowing, then I take the angora scarf from the peg in Hannah’s room. I won’t, Hannah calls out. She’s such a liar.

Some Rivers Meet- James Clarke, Granta

Pranab Chakraborty wasn’t technically my father’s younger brother. He was a fellow-Bengali from Calcutta who had washed up on the barren shores of my parents’ social life in the early seventies, when they lived in a rented apartment in Central Square and could number their acquaintances on one hand. But I had no real uncles in America, and so I was taught to call him Pranab Kaku. Accordingly, he called my father Shyamal Da, always addressing him in the polite form, and he called my mother Boudi, which is how Bengalis are supposed to address an older brother’s wife, instead of using her first name, Aparna. After Pranab Kaku was befriended by my parents, he confessed that on the day we first met him he had followed my mother and me for the better part of an afternoon around the streets of Cambridge, where she and I tended to roam after I got out of school. He had trailed behind us along Massachusetts Avenue, and in and out of the Harvard Coop, where my mother liked to look at discounted housewares. He wandered with us into Harvard Yard, where my mother often sat on the grass on pleasant days and watched the stream of students and professors filing busily along the paths, until, finally, as we were climbing the steps to Widener Library so that I could use the bathroom, he tapped my mother on the shoulder and inquired, in English, if she might be a Bengali. The answer to his question was clear, given that my mother was wearing the red and white bangles unique to Bengali married women, and a common Tangail sari, and had a thick stem of vermillion powder in the center parting of her hair, and the full round face and large dark eyes that are so typical of Bengali women. He noticed the two or three safety pins she wore fastened to the thin gold bangles that were behind the red and white ones, which she would use to replace a missing hook on a blouse or to draw a string through a petticoat at a moment’s notice, a practice he associated strictly with his mother and sisters and aunts in Calcutta. Moreover, Pranab Kaku had overheard my mother speaking to me in Bengali, telling me that I couldn’t buy an issue of Archie at the Coop. But back then, he also confessed, he was so new to America that he took nothing for granted, and doubted even the obvious.

Hell Heaven- Jhumpa Lahiri, New Yorker

At first, people kept phoning, to make sure that Nita was not too depressed, not too lonely, not eating too little or drinking too much. (She had been such a diligent wine drinker that many forgot that she was now forbidden to drink at all.) She held them off, without sounding nobly grief-stricken or unnaturally cheerful or absent-minded or confused. She said that she didn’t need groceries; she was working through what she had on hand. She had enough of her prescription pills and enough stamps for her thank-you notes.

Free Radicals – Alice Munro, New Yorker

Daniel stands in the funnel, a narrow path between two high brick walls that join the playground to the estate proper. On windy days, the air is forced through here then spun upwards in a vortex above the square of so-called grass between the four blocks of flats. Anything that isn’t nailed down becomes airborne. Washing, litter, dust. Grown men have been knocked off their feet. A while back there was a story going round about a flying cat.

- The Gun, Mark Haddon

I cut my boyfriend in half; it was what we both wanted. I said once we could double our time together. He said he could be twice as productive. I don’t think it would have worked with just anyone at any time. It had to be now. 
Daniel got a spade off his mother that belonged to his father, and to his father – both men who were never really all there. He lay on the bench in the concrete back garden, knees bent to squeeze in. The yard was carpeted with silver slug trails. I suppose we could have used the kitchen floor, but I didn’t want to scratch the tiles.

- Don’t Try This at Home, Angela Readman

The Prompts:

Life story as prompts:

For this exercise, create a character whose life story you'd like to follow through. It is important that you find one important/surprising event or experience during that decade to write about. It doesn't have to be life-changing, and can be something small that is important only for the character...
i) Write down one surprising feature of your characters birth. 
ii) Write down one surprising thing that happens to your character from birth to age ten. 
iii) Write down one surprising thing that happens to your character from the ages of ten to twenty. 
iv) Write down one surprising thing that happens to your character between the ages of twenty and thirty. 
v) Write down one surprising thing that happens to your character between the ages of thirty and forty. 
vi) Write down one surprising thing that happens to your character between the ages of forty and fifty. 
vii) Write down one thing that happens to your character between the ages of fifty and sixty.
viii) Write down one thing that happens to your character between the ages of sixty and seventy.
ix) Write one surprising thing about your character’s death. Perhaps they died at an earlier age, or perhaps they have lived in to their seventies. 
Now you have 9 different story openings, or one entire story eg Claire Polder's Woman of the Century.
You can use these prompts to write different short stories, either with the same character, or with different characters. You could write a novella-in-flash. You could write flash fiction. 
Good luck with your writing, and do post your story openings in the comments. I'd love to read them :)
Sty safe everyone, and take care
Adapted from Tom Holloway's building characters for scriptwriting at the Bush Theatre.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Touchstone - A Cancer Diary

(Winner of the 2016 Winchester Writers' Festival Memoir Prize)

The last day of school. The mums stand around in knots, discussing camping, the weather, the holidays. I am with a few who are discussing the Big Forty. Yes, quite a few of us this year are turning forty. Which means we need to do something special. One suggests jumping out of a plane. Sky diving. The Dartmoor Challenge. Something to remember for the rest of our lives.
I stand there, wondering what I should do. A small party perhaps. Nothing outrageous. I have no idea that I too will do something very big, very very big for my fortieth.
The Unhappy Breast
It’s been a while that I’ve noticed something different about my left breast. The first time was when I finished breastfeeding my firstborn in 2007, my breast shrivelled up. I used to joke about it, how it puckered like a prune while the other one looked so cheerful. Breastfeeding changes the body, I was told. Slowly, she came around and stopped looking so sad. She geared up for the second round of breastfeeding. I found it odd that both of my babies never really took to the left side, always preferring the right one, leaving the left angry and envious once again. But this time she didn’t sulk in a corner. She decided to internalise, and soon there began changes within that weren’t apparent to plain sight. 
Fast forward to 2014, and I am busy, so busy I don’t notice anything unusual. There’s the children to look after, the novel to finish for publication, summer school teaching and usual arguments with husband. But in the midst of all this, I notice my left breast has gone into a sulk again. Not a sulk, she’s quite upset. The nipple appears darker, sunken and puckered. There are no lumps. No matter how I poke and prod, I don’t feel anything. And yet, I feel her unease. I feel her anger. 
So one morning, on my way to work, I call up my GP. Of course I know I won’t get through. They are always so busy, and my class begins at nine. I give up and go to class. My Chinese students are discussing Scotland and cutting up cardboard boxes to build the Edinburgh Castle.  We also talk about society, marriage and homosexuality. They are keen to give their opinions and viewpoints. Marriage is very good, the other not. We eat lunch at the cafeteria. Chicken curry and rice. Naan and salad. Brownie. I eat up quickly so I can get my bus back home. 
My bus is late. As I wait around, there is an urge from inside. Something inside is telling me to call the surgery again. I resist. I feel fine. The curry has made me feel warm and satisfied. The bus isn’t here still. So I make the call. 
Within a couple of hours, I am at the surgery. The GP says she can’t feel any lump. There’s nothing untoward, but yes, I am right in saying this breast looks a bit different. It’s completely normal to have this differences. Breasts change with age. With motherhood. But she still refers me to the hospital. Just to make sure. Just to cross out any probabilities. Armed with the referral, I return home.
Abnormalities of the breast are looked into very quickly by the NHS. On my way home that very afternoon, I am offered an appointment at the hospital ten days later. It’s on a Friday morning. Damn, I think. I’m going to have to miss class. I’m also going to have to miss the full English breakfast provided on Fridays for the teachers and students of the summer school. 
My husband will be away on an important conference the week of the scan. I don’t tell him what’s happening. My mother is here for the summer. I don’t tell her either.
Independence Day
The 15th of August. Such an irony that on India’s 67th Independence Day I am told such news that will take away my own independence for a while. Or for life. I’m not sure yet.
I make my way to the hospital on Friday morning. It’s a beautiful summer’s morning. The sun is shining. The sky is clear, and people are happy and smiling on the bus. I feel that’s a bit odd as it’s the bus that goes to Asda and to the hospital. Soon I am there. I dodge past the smokers who stand ceremoniously by the ‘This is a smoke free site’ and enter into the bowels of Derriford Hospital. I admire the knitted patchwork quilt on display in the charity shop on the way to the lifts. The cafe smells good and reminds me again of the full English I have missed.
I have to go to the Primrose Breast Care Unit. I like that name. It sounds delicate. It also sounds sturdy, a place for survival. I know this from the abundance of primroses that grow through the cracks of paving at the front of my house. They survive in spite of my vicious attacks on them. It feels good to know this.
But still, I don’t feel anxiety. This is a routine test. I will come out feeling relieved. I will go on with the rest of my life. I even contemplate lunch with the students if I finish the examination early. The room is very busy this morning. Women of all ages sit around the comfy orange and green chairs. There are lots of magazines strewn across the various tables. Mostly women’s. I wonder how a man will feel if he has to come in for a check up. There is a man who’s come in. He looks worried, and he doesn’t have a magazine to disappear into. There is a lot of chatter, coming in and going out. Names being called. Some take longer to come out. Some come out looking like they’ve let out a deep, long breath and now rushing to catch up with their morning. Some come out in tears. 
I wait. I want this over and done with. I flick through Good Housekeeping and remind myself to get lots of colourful cushions for the settee. They make a house a home, I’m told. My name is called. I always know when my name will be called because the person always comes out with a file, looks at it and hesitates. They probably say it once in their mind, by which time I know it’s me. By the time they stammer out a ‘Mrs B-Bh-’ I’m up and walking towards them. I feel sorry to give them such a hard time. My name is not easy to say even after a few drinks.
I’m seen by a breast surgeon. He examines me quickly and deftly. He marks a few circles near the nipple and says I need to go back and wait for the mammogram and ultrasound scan. I ask the nurse if there’s a long waiting period. She says yes, perhaps a couple of hours wait. While I settle back in my orange chair, the only man comes back out. He smiles at his partner and says it’s all clear. I feel happy for him. 
Within twenty minutes I’ve had a mammogram and am ushered in for a scan. The ultrasound technician makes me comfortable and smothers cold gel on my chest. She peers into the screen and says there are no lumps. I exhale. But wait, can you see the little speckles all over the breast tissue? I look. Yes, there are tiny spots all over. It’s called calcification. It’s an indication of cancer or pre-cancerous tissues. She does a biopsy. Suddenly, everything’s changed. The C word has entered the vocabulary. I’m not enjoying this conversation anymore. 
What do I tell at home? I ask. What should I tell my husband? He’s away and I don’t want to freak him out. Tell him the truth, the technician tells me. It’s serious enough. But yet, we are not sure until the results. She leaves the room, and the nurse attending cleans me up. A little white lie won’t help, she smiles. There’s no need to tell him everything now. He can’t do anything about it. I feel better. Yes, it won’t help anyway.
I wander back to the cheerful waiting room and hide inside a magazine. My eyes roll back into the head for a split second and I find myself trembling uncontrollably. This is unreal. This isn’t really happening to me. But it is. I square my shoulders and walk out the door. I don’t need to panic yet. The results are not out. It could just be pre-cancerous and that can be taken care of. I make my way to the exit. I meet the mammogram technician on the way out. She’s finished her shift probably. She walks beside me, and I can see she wants to hold my arm. Or pat my back. But she doesn’t. She tells me instead to sit down and have a cup of tea in the cafe. It’ll do me good. I nod and say goodbye to her. But I don’t stop for a drink. I just want to go home.
Too much chocolate is a good thing
The days pass in a whirl. The university course is keeping me occupied. I don’t think much about my condition. I haven’t even cried since the time at the hospital when the nurse asked me how old my children are. When I said three and seven, she replied ‘oh, then we must take care of you and make you better.’ That’s when I cried, briefly. 
We had planned a holiday with the family once my husband was back from India. The London museums. Cadbury World. The surgeon arranges to meet us the day we return with the results. 
It’s a good holiday. We do the Natural History Museum. Science Museum and a bit of the V&A. Not one to pose for pictures, I find myself taking a lot of photos with the girls, selfies even. I think I’m trying to keep images for the girls to look at later. Maybe I’m preserving pictures of myself when I am whole. I may not be very soon. 
At the science museum, M drags me to the exhibit of the human baby and says in her usual loud voice, ‘mummy, that’s me in your tummy. When I was being born, I was peeping through your belly button and saw Baba. Then I popped out and flew straight out to him.’ Everyone smiles. I tell her to talk softly. They are fascinated by the container full of human blood. The dinosaurs are a bit of an anti-climax. The children don’t care about the bones. They like the ‘real’ one roaring and stomping at the end of the room.
London is great because there is such a huge choice of Indian food. After the educational and cultural hunger is satisfied, we rush to Southall to satiate the needs of the stomach. Cadbury World is a chocolate lover’s delight. We gorge on so much chocolate that for that day we are oblivious of everything else in this world. We have to return to the hospital tomorrow. I suck on the spoon full of warm, melted chocolate. Life is so good today.
Mummy’s Lump
So we meet the surgeon and she’s got the results and I’m afraid it isn’t good. The tumour is definitely cancerous and because of the large size, a mastectomy is the way forward. Lots of technical terms fly about. I cannot make sense of anything. Grade 2 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. I feel better it has a name. I wonder how I never got a feel of its present beneath my skin? Sitting there quietly all this time, playing a waiting game with me.
There is a date free on the 4th of September. I am offered it for the surgery. We say yes immediately. Just three days before my 40th birthday. At first, I am devastated. But then I think, what a lovely birthday present. A cancer free body for my 40th.  I think I am good at psyching myself, and I feel proud of myself.
There’s lots of phone calls and discussion at home. My 7-year-old can feel something is going on. We haven’t told the children anything yet. What do we tell them? I cry at the thought of breaking the news to them.
Ro is tearful and being difficult. I know it is playing on her mind. So my hubby gets the book Mummy’s Lump and we sit down to tell the children a story. It’s a family story telling session, with my children, my mother, my husband and me sitting together, eagerly listening to the story as I read it out. 
The story is about a lump that grows in Mummy’s breast, and she needs to have it taken out. I tell them one of my breasts will be removed in a surgery in a few days time. M asks, you mean, they’ll cut it off and it can run away on its own? 
Yes, it will be removed but it cannot run off.
Then who will take your tete? She asks, cuddling up to me. She squeezes it reassuringly.
Ro says, The tete man.
That’s a good idea. The tete man will take it away, and keep it safe.
Then there’s the one about chemotherapy and losing the hair. 
Will you wear a wig?
Yes, I might.
What colour?
What colour would you suggest?
Mummy, I want you to wear a different colour on every day of the week. Rainbow colours. (By now you should know whose suggestion this is!)
We are all laughing and imagining me in funny wigs.
But that night, as I tuck them into bed, Ro has a question that she can’t ask.
Mummy, are you going to -? Are you going to-?
I look into her eyes. No, sweetheart. I’m not going to die. I’m going to be alright. I see the relief wash through her body. She closes her eyes and goes to sleep.
Come September
On the 4th of September 2014, I leave my children with my mum and go to the hospital with my husband. I am prepared for the worst. 
When I wake up, I am aware I’m missing a part of my body. I have a drain attached to the vacant space where my breast had been. I should feel upset, but I am glad it’s gone. The cancer has been removed. I have a window before the chemotherapy will begin. I have some time before this cancer treatment hits me like a truck and changes my life forever. I take a moment to think of my fortieth birthday in three days time. I am grateful that I have reached this milestone with something to show for.  I am ready for the rest to unfold...