Sunday, 22 June 2014

28 Far cries - story prompts

In my latest collection of flash fiction "28 Far Cries", the stories were largely written over the course of 3 months earlier this year at the rate of one a week. This is a very different way of writing from say a novel, since you have to come up with a whole fresh idea from what you did a week before. But this is not as difficult as it sounds, since every day throws up potential story prompts, sometimes in most surprising ways. They can be just everyday observations, people, songs, books, or more specifically a phrase or word in a book. Sometimes a title can come to you first and then you have to find the story that the title conjures up.

So here are the prompts for each of the 28 stories in the collection.

“Road To Nowhere” - this started with the title after the Talking Heads’ song of the same name stuck in my head and just developed from there.

“The Idea Of A Man” - a coalescing of three images that had always stayed with me, a body from Pompeii, the convoys of Iraqi dead in the desert and a body preserved intact from a Scandinavian bog. 

“Ur, Um” -  I’d read those stories where someone wakes up one morning to find they are fluent in Chinese or Russian all of a sudden and wanted to think about what might happen if the original Ur-language came back from extinction and what it might provoke. I was really pleased when the title came along as it did albeit late in the process, a story about language and literacy captioned with almost complete illiteracy!

“Cop Aesthetic” - I can’t quite remember the full genesis of this, but I have always found vultures fascinating creatures and the notion of finding them meditative was one starting point, followed by the notion of the vulture taking care of corruption in the animal kingdom, with a detective doing the same among humanity.

“Staring At The Sun” - prompted by me developing floaters in one of my eyes.

“The New Editors” - this started life as being about the mutation of words on a computer screen under the effect of a virus, but the editor idea crept in and shifted the thrust of the whole story. I don’t think this about editors by the way!

“Nemesis” - I wanted to write an anti-superhero story while we were being bombarded with them in the movies with one lame new release after another. It turned into a realism tale that interrogated the genre of the superhero.

“Shape, Structure, Time” - after reading the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet, I wanted to try and write something along a similar idea. This is a story without characters, but represents a movement in time as traced across a human built structure. Robbe-Grillet is a genius at this. I aimed to make mine uniquely British however.

“Root And Branch” - when parents contemplate their failings, turned up to eleven!

“The Interplanetary Flaneur” - I wrote the bulk of this a long time ago when slogan T-shirts were all the rage. But it only fully coalesced when I hit on the notion of an observer from another world.

“Nocebo” - we all have issues with swallowing pills don’t we? Also reading about the high-ranking Nazis in Hitler’s bunker who took cyanide rather then be captured by the Red Army.

“Geiger Countering” - reading the short stories of Gary Lutz and the way he thrusts words together to make detonations inside the reader’s head, something incendiary just went off in my head and led to this tale.

“Happy Sour” - reading in the bath a book of stories by Brian Evenson and he used the simple phrase “Happy Hour” in a story and my brain went into association overdrive. What if happy hours weren’t actually happy? I had about seven sentences formed in my head by the time I climbed out of the bath and they were the skeleton of the story. Whole thing was completed in an hour.

“Fix Bayonets” - I saw a TV programme where singer Marianne Faithful was exploring her lineage and the programme covered how the Red Army had engaged on a series of mass rapes in Vienna as they went on to do throughout Germany. I knew about Germany, but had no idea about Vienna.

“Lupus” - another one of those hurling reality to do battle with a myth, in this case a real life disease against the myth of the werewolf.

“Percapita” - the videoing of Western hostages being beheaded naturally provokes utter revulsion, but I wanted to get beyond that since revulsion means a turning away from trying to understand the mechanisms at work. I wanted to think about the different cultural issues around the whole thing, including that of film-making, audience and the language of propaganda. About two months after I wrote this, Facebook showed beheading videos under the banner of debate. They soon pulled them under the public outcry.

“Still Ill Man” - I avoid central London as much as possible, but I had to go to Covent Garden where you are beset by jugglers, mime artists and human statues. There was one head to toe in silver paint and in that image was this story born. It was like a human being in a metal carapace and I imagined him imprisoned rather than encased. 

“The Quality Of Writing Is Strained” - I’ve always been interested in the physical act of writing, of forming alphabets and the play on the word “tablet” pulled it all together.


“Our Father” - an offshoot of a novella I was writing, so the two came in parallel. A slightly different take and tone in this story than the longer piece.

“Unsighted” - waiting to meet someone in central London who never showed up. I think I hung around uselessly for 90 minutes. Revenge is writing a story about it, though this went through so many drafts, the story ended up being at the expense of the person waiting, not the one who failed to show. 

“Skin Bar” - this was two separate ideas that became conjoined in one story. First was the angularity of a human body dancing against the unyielding metal pole and then there came all the stuff about skin once I realised that the surface of metal too was just another skin surface.

“Type-O Negative” - I’d just done a reading at a literary festival and was waiting around in an arts book shop in case anyone from the show was coming back and I was invaded with the words that mutate into other words in this story. I think something about the adrenaline high from being on stage prompted the space for this process. I had an hour long bus journey home and wrote the whole story during that trip.

“Off Colour” - riffing off expressions and phrases involving colours, such as “feeling blue” or “seeing red” and how unsatisfactory they were really. 

“Lord Of War” - I think I’d been reading about the all-conquering Mongols. It’s quite rare for me to write anything with faintly mythic undertones, but that’s how this story turned out.

“Night Terrors” - one of the few myths that does interest me is that of the incubus/succubus. But I wanted to write a story where the grim reality of human cruelty and persecution was far worse than any nightmarish monster.

“No Laughing Gas Matter” - I think what came first was the notion of drug addicts being immune from a chemical attack and only later did the notion of them saving the world come about.

“Human Viscosity” - I like writing about the physical properties of substances and in this case it was how various liquids moved. Liquids that form part of the human body and I wanted to portray a relationship through how these liquids acted, rather than directly referring to any characters.

“Quickie Divorce” - a parallelism of action and motive in two characters with a shared aim and a mutual contract. Told one word at a time. I like the pacing that enables.

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