Story Writing Prompt: Getting Your Characters Out of Their Comfort Zone

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Following on from this weekend’s World Cup football drama, which took everyone out of their comfort zones, I’m sharing some story writing prompts here from the novella-in-flash.com blog – different ways to get your story characters out of their comfort zones… without having to use a footballer as your protagonist!

If you’re a fiction writer and ever feeling stuck for ideas, I’ve pulled together a diverse list of options here for people to refer to.

And although these monthly writing prompts are drawn from a website devoted to the novella-in-flash, I invite readers here to harness these prompts flexibly for all kinds of writing – not just fiction, but also poetry or creative non-fiction inspired by your own personal experiences.

Subscribe at the end of the weblink to receive these writing prompts in your email in-box (and get access to some soon-to-be announced deals on mentoring…!)

And… Two More Awards??

I guess this is the moment when I have to wheel out the creaky old joke about the buses arriving all at once?

I rewrote my planned blogpost this week, because my craft guide Unlocking the Novella-in-Flash: from Blank Page to Finished Manuscript (2022), first on Wednesday and then on Saturday received recognition in an international book competition – the International Book Awards 2023 and the National Indie Excellence Awards 2023, where in each case it has been announced as a Finalist in the Writing/Publishing category.

I’ll admit there’s a strange giddiness for me in this week’s double news – and also in having now been pipped at the winning post four times with this book – effectively four consecutive runner-up (or joint runner-up) prizes. Oh so close!

It’s the only book, however, in the Writing/Publishing category that has featured as a Winner or Finalist in all four book awards for independent publishing so far this year – the National Indie Excellence Awards, Next Generation Indie Book Awards, Reader Views Literary Awards, and International Book Awards. I still can’t quite believe that’s happened! But apparently so – I check the listings a day or so later and they are still on-screen, not mirages glimpsed by a dehydrated desert nomad. And I’m taking comfort in consistency… hopefully prospective readers of the book can find reassurance there too…

And this is a good moment to repeat something I’ve mentioned before: this craft guide simply wouldn’t exist at all without a TON of help from all sorts of writers who made suggestions and gave crucial support in the process of finishing it. They’re thanked by name in the back of the book, in a two-page acknowledgements list! This book wasn’t a solo effort.

Similarly, thanks are also due to all the writers who have bought the book so far, and those who have tweeted about it or posted a review online. (Please keep tweeting and writing the reviews! – this signposts new readers in the direction of a book that otherwise from its title might seem quite “specialist” in its subject matter. It’s my hope that this craft guide crosses over to readers who write all kinds of stories, not just novellas-in-flash.)

Huge credit is also due to the publisher, Ad Hoc Fiction, for designing the hard copy so beautifully. And to artist Lucie Arnoux for the brilliant cover images.

Here are the two new badges that Ad Hoc Fiction and I are allowed now to feature next to the book:

So… two metaphorical buses in one week. I’ve spent a fair time waiting for buses in my writing life. And been thrown off a few for not having the right ticket! So I hope you’ll permit me to hop on these two buses simultaneously. If there’s one thing all writers know for sure, it’s that the writing journey itself is full of ups and downs. So today for a while I will be celebrating, knowing that the ever-changing view itself is the real reward.

I hope you might be tempted to find out more about the book here!

And here’s a poem about life’s balancing act, by one of my favourite poets…

Night and Morning
by R.S. Thomas

One night of tempest I arose and went
Along the Menai shore on dreaming bent;
The wind was strong, and savage swung the tide,
And the waves blustered on Caernafon side.

But on the morrow, when I passed that way,
On Menai shore the hush of heaven lay;
The wind was gentle and the sea a flower
And the sun slumbered on Caernafon tower.

Unlocking the Novella-in-Flash: from Blank Page to Finished Manuscript (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2022)

Reviews:

“I know good teaching, and folks, this is it.” (Kendall Johnson at MacQueen’s Quinterly, read the full review here)

“[T]his brilliant guide… detailed, informative…I have never been so excited to start a workbook!” (Jonathan Cardew at Bending Genres, read the full review here)

“[V]ery much the printed equivalent of taking a focused MA on the topic of the novella.” (Judy Darley at the SkyLightRain blog, read the full review here)

“My copy is plastered in yellow stickies and I will be continually returning and delving into different sections of this craft guide again and again… think of it as a guide to writing good fiction and developing any narrative form.” (Tracy Fells at The Literary Pig blog, read the full review here)

“[J]am-packed full of knowledge…this book finds that sweet spot where most writers would feel empowered…[A]ll-encompassing, motivational and in-depth.. worth its weight in gold…” (Matt Kendrick, read the full review here)

“If you’re a fiction writer you should read this book.” (Sharon Pruchnik, read the full Goodreads review here)

“This book is a classic…a five-star resource that will help thousands of writers produce the best possible version of their creative work” (Lily Andrews, 5-star review at Reader Views, read the full review here)

“There is magic in what Loveday says in his craft book.” (John Brantingham at The Journal of Radical Wonder, read the full review here)

Next Generation Indie Book Awards 2023

I hadn’t expected to have further news to share about my craft guide Unlocking the Novella-in-Flash: from Blank Page to Finished Manuscript (2022), so soon after my most recent blogpost. However, I’m thrilled to say that this book has now received recognition in a second international book competition – this time the Next Generation Indie Book Awards 2023, where it has been announced as a Finalist. As with the Reader Views Awards, the Next Generation Indie Book Awards are a competition for English-language books published by independent presses, open to publications from anywhere in the world.

My craft guide contains ideas about best practice for all kinds of story development, and my intention has always been for it to help a broad range of fiction writers, alongside flash fiction specialists. The main workbook is full of exercises to help you understand your characters and settings more fully, figure out the key turning points or the structure for your narrative, and much, much more besides. You can read some of the reviews for the book below. And I hope you might be tempted to buy the book here!

“I know good teaching, and folks, this is it.” (Kendall Johnson at MacQueen’s Quinterly, read the full review here)

“[T]his brilliant guide… detailed, informative…I have never been so excited to start a workbook!” (Jonathan Cardew at Bending Genres, read the full review here)

“[V]ery much the printed equivalent of taking a focused MA on the topic of the novella.” (Judy Darley at the SkyLightRain blog, read the full review here)

“My copy is plastered in yellow stickies and I will be continually returning and delving into different sections of this craft guide again and again… think of it as a guide to writing good fiction and developing any narrative form.” (Tracy Fells at The Literary Pig blog, read the full review here)

“[J]am-packed full of knowledge…this book finds that sweet spot where most writers would feel empowered…[A]ll-encompassing, motivational and in-depth.. worth its weight in gold…” (Matt Kendrick, read the full review here)

“There is magic in what Loveday says in his craft book.” (John Brantingham at The Journal of Radical Wonder, read the full review here)

“If you’re a fiction writer you should read this book.” (Sharon Pruchnik, read the full Goodreads review here)

“This book is a classic…a five-star resource that will help thousands of writers produce the best possible version of their creative work” (Lily Andrews, 5-star review at Reader Views, read the full review here)

Reader Views Literary Awards 2023

I’m pleased to announce that my craft guide Unlocking the Novella-in-Flash: from Blank Page to Finished Manuscript, published in 2022 by Ad Hoc Fiction, has been announced as a Winner in the Reader Views Literary Awards 2023 – gaining the Silver Award for Writing/Publishing. This is an international competition for books published by independent presses, with thousands of entrants each year from all over the globe. In the meantime, reviews have been appearing for the book, and you can read some of them here: Reviews and Endorsements. This craft guide is officially about the novella-in-flash, but – as I hope you will see from the reviews – it contains material about best practice for all kinds of story development, and my intention has always been for it to help a broad range of fiction writers, alongside flash fiction specialists. I hope you will be curious to take a look at the book here!

Do What the Boss Says: Stories of Family and Childhood – out now!

My new short-short story collection, Do What the Boss Says: Stories of Family and Childhood, is now available to order from Bamboo Dart Press at this link.

Do What the Boss Says: Stories of Family and Childhood is a 40-page collection of 18 short-short stories exploring the adult-child dynamic. The stories draw from a combination of imagination, observation, and personal experience, putting the characters into situations that make use of fable and folk tale motifs, or exposing them to pressures in order to evoke the intense emotions of childhood. I wanted to try to capture what it’s really like to be a daughter or son in a world designed by imperfect adults.

A young Irish girl substitutes a cardboard cut-out for her presence within her own family; a daughter nervously visits her father who has now become a stranger; a naive, grieving schoolboy is tricked by a more streetwise young man; a child tries to impress her village by breaking the world record for stepping in and out of a doorway. This collection offers you a kaleidoscopic view of the pressures, conflicts and joys of childhood and family life: from surreal fables to memoir, to idiosyncratic realism, to supernatural tales about strange encounters.

Do What the Boss Says: Stories of Family and Childhood (Bamboo Dart Press, 2022)

Advance Praise for Do What the Boss Says: Stories of Family and Childhood:

“Such a perfect balance between free-wheeling imagination and absolute control of tone and character, shot through with sublime tragi-comic timing. A joy.” —Luke Kennard, author of Notes on the Sonnets

“Michael Loveday seamlessly straddles the line between reality and the absurd. The stories in his latest book are a juxtaposition of love and lunacy, a boundary where the logical meets the illogical, a balance of hope and dread as all the mothers and fathers and daughters and sons and all their doppelgangers stand banging, banging on the door, waiting to be let in.” —Nancy Stohlman, author of After the Rapture and Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction

“Step through the magic mirror to discover a version of family, but not quite as you know it. From the parents’ regular pillaging of pieces of their daughter’s silver heart to a child’s doomed quest for striped paint, a series of potent metaphors sheds light on a network of relationships and expectations. Expect some darkly hilarious but surprisingly intimate and moving moments in this delicious cornucopia of freshly minted tales and fables.” —Jacqueline Saphra, author of All My Mad Mothers and One Hundred Lockdown Sonnets

Here are two example stories from the chapbook:
This Be the Curse – The Journal of Radical Wonder
Silver and Blood – Fictive Dream

And a short film created by Dennis Callaci for the story The Glass House:
“Do What the Boss Says: Stories of Family and Childhood” – short film – YouTube

Available to order now from Bamboo Dart Press.

Prose Poetry, Flash Fiction, and Venn Diagrams

At the recent Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol, I had the pleasure of co-presenting a short workshop with the writer Carrie Etter about the relationship between flash fiction and prose poetry. It’s a topic that fascinates me – two forms that are close to my heart. During our presentation, we talked about some of their differences, some of their connections. Carrie Etter, for her ‘Sudden Prose’ undergraduate module at Bath Spa University, draws a very clear line in the sand between the two forms. That line helps her students write better prose poems and better flash fictions, knowing what’s expected of each form. I was interested to find out, in recent conversations, that from the start Carrie knows whether a piece of her own writing is going to be a poem, a prose poem, or a flash fiction, something that speaks of a clarity of process to be marvelled at. By contrast, I often don’t know – pieces go back and forth between prose and verse, are imagined in different contexts for different purposes. I find I’m often writing pieces that exist in a fuzzy, grey area in-between story and prose poem, deliberately ambiguous about their identity, reluctant to define themselves.

I’m not alone in this. Some useful and relevant links and quotes by writers defining prose poetry and flash fiction can be found at the Page Chatter website. For example, this by the American writer Denise Duhamel: “Prose poetry and flash fiction are kissing cousins. They are kissing on Jerry Springer, knowing they’re cousins, and screaming “So what?” as the audience hisses.”

Here is an extract from what I said at the joint workshop, in which I put forward an idea that Flash Fiction is at the mid-point of a Venn diagram of two overlapping circles that can be labelled Short-Short Story and Prose Poetry:

“I think of the relationship between flash fiction and prose poetry being a bit like a Venn diagram of two overlapping circles. At the extreme on one side you have a short-short story with a beginning, middle and end, one, two or perhaps three characters, conflict and briefly rising action towards a crisis with a resolution. And on the other side prose poetry, at its extreme it’s revelling in the play of the language, the music of the sentences, there’s no story as such, it’s maybe more about an idea or has some philosophical purpose or it’s provoking a feeling or mood. It may demand you to read it several times before you can extract everything from it.

“And in the middle of the Venn diagram you have this huge overlapping area of the two circles where you can’t tell what it is – there might be a character, something might happen, but may not, the language is beautiful or noteworthy, but probably quite accessible, there’s music in the shape of the sentences, and you don’t know how to categorise it but you know you really like the writing, whatever it is. Here I find Louis Jenkins, Ian Seed, pieces by Tania Hershman and Meg Pokrass, pieces from Robert Scotellaro’s Bad Motel, Russell Edson, Simon Armitage’s Seeing Stars, Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers, parts of The House on Mango Street, parts of Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, Vanessa Gebbie’sEd’s Wife and Other Creatures and so on.

In this Venn diagram, for me, flash fiction includes the possibility of prose poetry, whereas the short-short story does not.”

When aiming to publish in magazines, nowadays I often avoid labelling submissions as prose poems or flash fictions (because some editors don’t like one or the other!) and just call them “pieces”, leaving it to the editor(s) to decide. There are magazines such as Ambit, Stand, Under the Radar, The Frogmore Papers, Prole, Brittle Star, and Ink, Sweat and Tears that publish both poetry and stories, and I’m hopefully not wildly wrong in my impression that editors at these magazines seem more likely to tolerate stories that are closer to prose poems (and prose poems that are closer to stories). Quite a few of these magazines don’t use the Submittable system, so you don’t have to identify an online submission through a particular genre / form pathway (as many of you will have found, magazines using Submittable often filter their story and poetry submissions separately).

Something that does, for me, identify a piece as a flash fiction, is that it foregrounds a character, or maybe more than one. Whereas a pure prose poem, typically, foregrounds language, calls attention to itself as language. But there is much writing that foregrounds both character and language. So how else can we sift between the two forms?

Paraphrasing Charles Simic, for me there’s something about a poem that demands that it be re-read for it to work. A poem or prose poem demands a kind of double-take, builds a double-exposure into the reading experience. For me, that means that there’s some enigma at the heart of a prose poem, some sense of mystery to be savoured. It’s certainly not a story with a plot that resolves. Something remains unexplained on first reading, and must be lingered over, even at the risk of not being easily or immediately grasped. This degree of mystery, of lingering double-exposure, might correlate to the degree to which something is a prose poem rather than a flash fiction.

Some of the “pieces” in Three Men on the Edge were originally published as prose poems in poetry magazines. I’d suggest that the longer form of the novella-in-flash, especially, allows scope for individual pieces where the focus is music, image, metaphor, or description rather than story, allowing “narrative” to accumulate more gradually – rather than requiring it from every chapter. (Although many other novellas-in-flash that I love are deliberately novel-like in style throughout, consistently foregrounding the narration or the events / plot.)

The twelve-part sequence ‘The Invisible World’ in the middle of Three Men on the Edge focuses on a character grieving a death, but there is very little action in this section. I wanted to try a different approach to character, relying on description, symbol, metaphor, and the atmospheres of landscapes to suggest states of mind. At the end of this post is one piece (prose poem? flash fiction?) from this sequence.

Hybridity is built in to the DNA of the novel-/novella-in-flash, and I love the diversity of the works that appear under its label, from Kelcey Parker’s Liliane’s Balcony, to Alex Garland’s Coma, to Heather Cousins’s Something in the Potato Room, which range significantly in how plot-driven they are, or how closely they resemble something like poetry. For me, this diversity is part of the reason that the novella-in-flash form is so vibrant, and why it has a bright future.

You can find out more about Three Men on the Edge here.

 

ii. Bury Lake, February

His wife’s voice accompanying him, he circles the lake, breezes dragging shadows over the surface.

The water is troubled by a motorboat; waves lap at the land’s edge, nudging rotten branches lodged in the dregs of leaves, pulling, calling them back.

Honour me now I’m gone – companionship’s the cure. Don’t fashion yourself an abyss, don’t spiral within.

Sailors scurry across the lake, answering the winds. One dinghy flips, the pilot disappears beneath, only – as the vessel spins – to emerge, breathless, hugging the upturned keel.

 

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