Sunday, 12 June 2016

May the Fourth BristolFlash Be with You

Saturday 25th June is almost upon us! The fourth year of BristolFlash's National Flash Fiction Day events, and the fifth year of National Flash Fiction Day.

I was on Ujima earlier this week with Freya Morris on Cheryl Morgan's show promoting the day. Freya and I both read out a couple of flashes — mine was a drabble, "First Date, Last Date" — talked about flash fiction and plugged the Bristol events.

We've got a great line-up of events, kicking off with a flash walk in the morning. If you fancy a leisurely stroll with some stories, this will be walk around the centre of Bristol accompanied by a couple of actors who will be reading a number of flash tales inspired by the sites and sounds of Bristol.

In the afternoon we've got a workshop at Bristol Central Library led by Alison Powell and Ken Elkes:

And then in the evening we've got the launch of the NFFD anthology, A Box of Stars Beneath the Bed, and readings at At the Well on Cheltenham Road:

All events are free. All events are fun! Hope to see you there. And if Bristol is not convenient for you, there are a few other events that may be of interest, depending where you are.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Sound of Deadlines

People have a complex (and frequent) enough relationship with deadlines that it's not hard to find (mostly correctly attributed) quotes about them. When it comes to writing, Douglas Adams is possibly one of the most quoted authors:
I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.

Sometimes I'm with the late great Douglas Adams on this, but sometimes I'll cross the aisle to the late great Duke Ellington's side:
I don't need time, I need a deadline.
I recently confessed to a couple of people that I seemed to enjoy competition writing. And not just submitting a story to a competition — which naturally enough has a deadline — but actually a competition where the time for writing is itself bounded. It kicks off when you are given some kind of brief (a prompt, a genre, a title, etc.) and there is a deadline of days or hours to write to a word count and submit.

One such competition is NYC Midnight, which I have entered in both flash and short form in previous years. This year I made some progress, making it through the first round (8 days, 2500 words, 2100+ entrants), coming top of my heat in the second round (3 days, 2000 words) and then placing in the top 20 in the final round (1 day, 1500 words, 40 finalists).

(If this appeals to you, by the way, the next NYC Midnight flash fiction challenge is coming up soon.)

But it's not just a one-off for one comp. I did this again recently for the Sci-Fi-London 48-Hour Flash Fiction Challenge. Except I didn't have 48 hours: we were going to Istanbul for a (very) long weekend, so I certainly wasn't going to sit in the hotel room cranking out words. I received the brief just before we were told to turn off our mobiles on the outbound flight. That gave me around three hours of writing time. It was enough.

Looking back, I seem to have repeated this deadline-hugging behaviour again and again. And I love workshops where you have to write to a deadline of only a few minutes. And sites like Visual Verse, where you set yourself the time constraint.

Is this a general recommendation for writing? Absolutely not. It depends in part on personality and in part on the nature of what you are writing. Writing this way is not particularly sustainable, which is fine for one-off flashes and shorts, but terrible for, well, the need for sustained writing, such as a novel. For that, even flow is likely to give you an easier ride, e.g., applying the Pomodoro technique, which I know from the world of agile software development, but recently learnt Lucy Robinson uses in writing novels.

It is a question of motive. On the one hand, there is a buzz to it, and rush when you've done it. On the other, what now exists is a story that would not otherwise have existed. It may not yet be the best story it could be, but it is now in the world and not simply in your head, unrealised. If you ever find yourself stuck, blocked, procrastinating or perendinating, something like this may help you unblock.

As Chris Baty observes:
A deadline is, simply put, optimism in its most kick-ass form. It's a potent force that, when wielded with respect, will level any obstacle in its path. This is especially true when it comes to creative pursuits.
It seems the trick is to learn to wield it with enough respect.

Now, if you'll just excuse me, the Bridport Prize is closing in a few hours...

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Readings and Republications

In the last few months I've had a couple of my stories republished and snuck in a couple of readings.

Apparently "The Kylling" has one of the highest page hits of any story on the Cafe Aphra site. They got in touch asking if I had any more flash fiction I'd like to share. As "The Kylling" is one of three (unrelated) drabble-and-a-halfs of Scandicrime, I suggested the other two parts of the 'trilogy': "A Bridge Too Far", which was my 2014 Flashbang winning entry, and "Plans for Tonight", which helped me win the 2012 Oxford flash slam.

Alas, the Sorcerous Signals site, one place where my story "Milk Teeth and Chocolate Eggs" has appeared, is no more. The good news is that "Milk Teeth and Chocolate Eggs" has reappeared at The Spec Fiction Hub, and did so just in time for Easter.

It has become an annual tradition to have an open mic night at the BristolCon Fringe, with readings timeboxed to five minutes. This year the open mic night fell in the same week that I was timeslicing between a conference in Bristol and one in London, while also sneaking in a (non-novel) reading at Novel Nights. At BristolCon Fringe I read "Immune" and "AutoKnowMe"; at Novel Nights, following the theme of love and romance, I read "Starsigns". And on Saturday that week I did remarkably little.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

A Conventional Recollection

At the end of last summer, Ian Milsted contacted me to ask if I'd be interested in contributing to an issue of an old-style fanzine, Griff, that he was putting together in time for BristolCon. We were both at Loncon 3, the 2014 Worldcon in London; he remembered me comparing it to a previous Worldcon in the UK. That sounded like the perfect ingredients for a fanzine article. And it was out just in time for BristolCon.

It's late and dark when we arrive in Brighton, so no seaside sunshine or early start on the beach. Tom and I have driven down from London in a car that's seen a lot of time but is no DeLorean. Even so, this is time travel. It's summer 1987 and we're here for Conspiracy, the World Science Fiction Convention in Brighton.

I was here three years earlier for SeaCon, the 1984 Eastercon and Eurocon. In 1984 I only went to Brighton for the day, but some of the highlights of that day are chiselled into memory — Harry Harrison, Bob Shaw, Joe Haldeman, Brian Aldiss, writers whose names graced the fronts of books I'd lost myself in, but who had more depths than even those pages could reveal. I was there because of a pen friend — yup, back when you actually had to use pens and post to communicate — was over from the US. Josh was into SF and had figured out he'd be visiting London around the time of Eastercon, so he'd done his research (without Google...) and had made the suggestion.

Two years later, again with Josh, I visited Worldcon '86 in Atlanta. For a teenager from North London, even cocooned within the convention hotels, this visit to the American South was an eye-opener. I wrapped up my gap year with a couple of months travelling around the US, but my travels had been in Yankee territory. Me and a friend of Josh's headed south by van from New Jersey. When I wasn't lying in the back of the van listening to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy — "What do you mean you've never listened to it? But you're British!" "I've met Douglas Adams." "But how have you never listened to Hitchhiker's?!" — in van-wall to van-wall stereo, the view from the front seat revealed a shifting cultural landscape you didn't see on TV. Sidewalks were invisibly colour coded, black one side, white the other. Worldcon's name that year, ConFederation, also shows how far we've come — you'd have to be a sad puppy to think that name was appropriate now.

I was there for the full five days. There were five of us saving money and shift-sleeping in a room for two, but I used that room for little more than storage and showering. I did the first three days on three hours sleep, giving myself the luxury of seven hours over the final two — a sleeping pattern I could get away with only as an adolescent (or, a few years later, as a new parent). Worldcon was big even back then. It was non-stop sessions, parties, caffeine, bumping into American gods like Frederick Pohl, faux phaser fights in hallways between Klingons and Starfleet (pick a side, go on pick a side...), talking to people you didn't know, making friends that you did actually keep in touch with for a couple of years, even without cyberspace assistance of email and social media.

And some of whom I would meet again at Conspiracy in Brighton at the same Metropole hotel I'd visited in 1984. Tom and I were there for the weekend. My sleepless theme from the year before continued, but this time we actually had no room, which meant improvising. The first night ended up back in Tom's car, discovering in the morning that we'd parked on a main street, shoppers going about their Saturday passing by two long-haired con-goers crashed out in the front seats of an old car. The second night I crashed in the all-night movie room.

This Worldcon was smaller and less grand than the one in Atlanta, with a 1980s British seaside-town twist. But it still dwarfed 1984 Eastercon. There were writers I'd seen at SeaCon and in Atlanta, there were guests of honour (including Jim Burns), there were up-and-coming writers (a certain Iain Banks, with and without the M, comes to mind), there was Hawkwind (Tom's kind of thing, but thanks I'll pass), there were parties (in the hotel and on the beach) and more.

And then I took a break from cons and fandom. Quite a long break. A fairy-tale sleep whose spell was broken in part by Josh (yup, same one, after all these years) and BristolCon. And in good time for Loncon, Worldcon 2014.

I went to Loncon for the weekend, but this time sleeping arrangements and the need for sleep and creature comforts had moved on — and accumulated hotel loyalty points helped out. This time my companion was my tweenage son, so I had to do some serious roleplaying — instead of pursuing parties and teenage kicks, I got to play the part of responsible parent.

Loncon was in the ExCeL, which we'd last visited for the 2012 Olympics. Although not quite Olympian, the convention was large. We are living in some of the future that people imagined back in the 1980s, with location transparency applying almost as equally to our events as our communications. Panels were packed to the gills, with fire-and-safety regulations trimming back the standing overflow in each room, which meant that I missed a few sessions I wanted to attend, but enjoyed some I might otherwise not have attended. My agenda took in art, politics, conlangs and worldbuilding, as well as doing an open mic reading and some life drawing.

I bumped into people I knew both from Bristol and from software development conferences, and struck up the usual random conversations with people I didn't know, including a really great conversation in the queue for Chris Foss's autograph. Chris Foss's imagery is all over my school memories of reading — it would be fair to say that he was the reason I tried an airbrush in art class — so it was great to finally meet him.

2014 and 1987 in many ways could not be more different, balanced on either side of the millennium boundary, one with a foot in adolescence and the other in middle age, one when I had no cares and the other with a clear and personal duty of care. This makes it difficult to compare the two British Worldcons I've attended with any reasonable objectivity. But why bother? In this case there's nothing wrong with unreasonable subjectivity. I enjoyed them both and for quite different reasons. Perhaps the real question is... where might the conventional time machine go next?

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Talking and Choosing Tales

The last few weeks have seen a gentle easing into the events of the (now-not-so) new year. There's one or two technical writing projects in the pipeline — or at least waiting at its entrance — plus a couple of fiction projects (and there's at least one fictional project — it looks like it's going to remain in the imagination and not make into the real world).

My story, "Ragdolls", made the quarter-final of the ScreenCraft Short Story Contest, although sadly it didn't make it to the next stage.

Speaking of making the stage, my first spoken word of the year was Talking Tales, which had a killer line-up and a new slot on a Saturday night. With Easter just beyond the calendar fold, I chose to read "Milk Teeth and Chocolate Eggs". From what I can tell and from what I felt (quite pink, with shades of blue and black, from the looks of it), I think I may have finally cracked how best to read that story.

One thing I forgot to blog from last year was making a second selection of four stories for 101 Words Flash Fiction Sunday Edition. This time I chose "Our Shrinking Giants" by Freya Morris (who also read this particular tale at Talking Tales), "Down to the Sunless Sea" by Neil Gaiman, "The Factory Explosion" by Adam Marek and "A Song, Against the Metronome" by D T Friedman. If you're interested in the reasons behind these choices, read here. If you're interested in my previous selection of four, read here.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Spoken For

January was a blog-dry month, which makes this the first blog post of the year. We are so far into February that there is clearly no pretence this post is any kind of review of 2015...

So how was 2015? 365 days long and stuffed to the gills with minutes and moments. As well as work, and the travel that goes with that, and family, and the richness and memories that go with that, it was filled with stories and happenings and more.

I rekindled an interest in photography, but via Instagram and my phone rather than competitions and my DSLR. I wrote a bit less than I would have liked, but enough that I had stories published (e.g., "A Prolonged and Postponed Preparation of Procrastination" and "Ragdolls") and republished (e.g., "A Bridge Too Far" and "Hilary Is the Winters of Keith's Discontent").

On the fiction front, then, 2015 appears not to have been that busy. But then again, perhaps that's not the whole story: I helped put on the third BristolFlash event on National Flash Fiction Day and was on the organising committee for the Bristol Festival of Literature. I appeared on Ujima Radio to promote each event, as well as a flash-writing workshop I ran at BristolCon Fringe. I went to CrimeFest, EdgeLit and BristolCon, where I was on a panel. And I did readings of my stories. Many readings.

I hadn't really thought about it until the last Sanctum appearance when, if I recall correctly, Grace Palmer noted that I'd done a lot of spoken word events in recent months. And she was right. We had both read together at five events. And I'd read at others as well.

March saw me reading at Let Me Tell You a Story, Jack. April saw me reading at Talking Tales, as did June. In June I also read on Ujima in promotion of National Flash Fiction Day and then again on the day. In July I read a lab-lit story at Science Showoff. August? I had a break.

In September I read at Novel Nights. OK, given it's my stated ambition to not write a novel — and that's going very well, thank you very much — what was I doing at Novel Nights? It was a short story special edition headlined by Tania Hershman, with me, Grace Palmer, Harriet Kline, Helen McClory (whose flight was delayed, but turned up right at the end of the evening, just in time to read!) and Pete Sutton also reading. As planned, I read out my North by Southwest story, "Like Giants". Its tale of sea, displacement and loss, written in 2014 from a more abstracted and fantastical point of view, had an unexpected and particular resonance with events in the news. And then I read at BristolCon.

October brought the Bristol Festival of Literature, where I ended up reading four stories — including two new ones — at three events: Written from Art, The Flash Slam and the Talking Tales' Speakeasy.

In search of inspiration for a new story, I visited Carol Peace's studio, where Written from Art was due to take place, a few days before the reading. What I came away with — as well as a downed coffee and a good chat with Carol — was an inevitably deeper appreciation for her sculpture than I had got from her website — an appreciation that was already deep and inspiring — plus a slight surprise. Instead of a new story, I found the missing pieces to a story that had been sitting on the shelf for a couple of years — complete in one sense, but lacking a certain something. That said, I didn't finish rewriting it with that certain something until minutes before we were due to leave the house for the event! This is as close in spoken word that I've come to my (notorious) habit of not finishing my slides for conference talks until — sometimes (only sometimes...) — minutes before I'm due to present. No, I'm not claiming it's a good habit, but it's certainly a habit and there's nothing quite like a performance deadline to bring focus to the task in hand!

The Flash Slam was hosted brilliantly by Nikesh Shukla, with readings from six local writing groups (two of them combining forces as a single team). Two main rounds spanned four readers from each team, the first round marked by Nikesh and general audience feedback and the second by volunteers in the audience. I was on the North Bristol Writers' team and read out "Authenticity".

Reading at The Flash Slam (photo by Mel Ciavucco)

The final round came as a surprise. Doubly so: North Bristol Writers were in it, going head to head with Bristol Novelists, and instead of using stories we had brought along just-in-case, we were handed the challenge of writing a story in the few minutes that spanned the break from the second to the final round, based on suggestions from the crowd. Nothing quite like a performance deadline to bring focus to the task in hand. Our team threw ideas around for a few minutes, then we each wrote a flash based on that, after which we regrouped, read through and selected. My story was chosen. So it was all down to me. Ulp. Except that, in truth, it wasn't: Bristol Novelists were represented by Alison Bown.

I'm going to say that the standard of readings that night was very high... but Alison's story in the main rounds was, quite frankly, the best thing I heard all night. So yeah, that's a prelude to saying: the Bristol Novelists won. A flash fiction competition. Writing is writing, good writing is good writing, great reading is great reading. But irony makes it even more fun!

The festival closed with the Speakeasy, hosted by Talking Tales, where I read "Possession". The rest of October and November was filled with Sanctum, which incidentally marks the first time I've been paid to perform a reading.

Looking to the immediate future, I'll be at Novel Nights tomorrow night: Tobias Jones is talking words and language. And I'm in Bristol. How can I resist? I'll also be reading at Talking Tales this Saturday. Somewhat further ahead, the Bristol Festival of Literature committee has whirred into life and is gathering proposals and ideas for the festival this year. Please get in touch if there's something you'd like to see or organise.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015


I was there in the first twenty-four hours. I was there on the last day. I was there like an irregular heartbeat, sounding out different times of day, from morning to night, in the civilised hours and the times I wasn't entirely sure had either names or numbers.

I was there.

And that is something I am glad to be able to say and that I will be able to look back on.

I performed at Sanctum five times in all, each time was a different experience in terms of ambience and audience and, as promised, the stories I chose. It was an unexpected and wonderful experience, whether it was five people in the rain or five times that many in clear darkness or crisp autumnshine, whether it was attended by friends, family or just complete strangers, all there to sample the unique place and experience of Sanctum.

Twenty-four days, twenty-four hours a day, there was always a performance — whether music, poetry or storytelling — but never a published schedule.

Looking back, here's some photos and my set list...

Late morning, on Friday 30th October, I read out "Lost Love's Labours", "A Higher Calling", "Ashes to Ashes" and "Authenticity".

First thing in the morning, on Saturday 7th November, I read out "Wrecked", "Two Weeks in Spain" and "Hilary Is the Winters of Keith's Discontent".

For the slot just before midnight, on Sunday 8th November, I went for a ghost story and a fairy tale, reading out "Promises You Can Keep" and "The Woodcutter's Stepdaughter".

In the evening of Saturday 14th November, I opted for a near-future SF theme, reading out "AutoKnowMe", "Ragdolls" and "S3xD0ll". And that was the end of my solo reading slots.

A photo posted by Kevlin Henney (@kevlinhenney) on

But I was back on the morning of Saturday 21st November as the last reader of North Bristol Writers, reading "The Same Team".

And that was it. I was there.