Christina Dalcher - author of 'The Definition of US'
Christina Dalcher - author of 'The Definition of US'

Ad Hoc Fiction is a brilliant weekly flash fiction competition where incredible writers produce 150 words stories that contain a specified prompt word. Each week the public vote and a winner is selected. The voting system does an incredible job of finding the diamonds in the, well not rough. Let’s say the public do a great job in selecting the most polished diamonds from a grab bag of gems… no that sounds poncey. You know what I mean. Right?

The winner each week gets free entry into the Bath Flash Fiction competition proper, which has a top prize of £1000.

Last month I interviewed Alison Wassell and I’ve been keeping an oar in and an eye out ever since. Last week I read ‘The Definition of Us’ by Christina Dalcher and I just thought – it was a really interesting piece. So I asked Christina about it and this is what she said:

How often do you enter stories on AdHoc fiction?

Since August 2016, I'd say every other week on average. I don't set a clock, but whenever my fingers start to itch and I don't already have a flash piece (or two) cooking, I head over to AdHoc and check out their word of the week.

How do you usually approach key words / prompts? Was this different?

The very first thing I do is look up the word in the OED and in urbandictionary.com. I dig deep, keeping an eye out for archaic/obsolete uses, etymology, unexpected parts of speech or meanings or references. Since the prompt word that begat "The Definition of Us" was cast, I farmed a metric ton of raw fodder from dictionary entries, and that gave me the idea to capitalize on the rich lexical semantics of that single word. Once I knew where the experiment was going, I plugged the string 'cast' into an online Scrabble dictionary and pulled several of the longer words that contained the four-letter string.

Did you outline your piece before you wrote it?

Outline? What's an outline? No, seriously, I didn't, mostly because I didn't have much time left before the deadline, and also because I never outline my short work.

How did you approach the writing / redrafting of 'The Definition of Us'?

This piece started differently than most of my flash fiction. Rather than begin writing, I allowed the dictionary entries of 'cast' and words containing 'cast' to create the story. The bones, so to speak, were about two dozen dictionary entries. Since the top entry happened to be one of the more common meanings (direct one's eyes at someone), the theme was headed for romance right from the start!

Roughly how long did you spend writing 'The Definition of Us' ?

I'm afraid if I tell you this, you might not like me very much! Once I had a short list of the dictionary entries, the piece came together in about ten minutes. I owe this to my fabulously fast mother, who taught me how to type.

Do you tell others when you have posted a story?

Sometimes. "The Definition of Us" was the first AdHoc piece I sent to my critique group (the inimitable FastFlash5). I confess I'm a rather sporadic tweeter, though, and when tomorrow arrives, I tend to forget yesterday.

Do you think about your story much during the week it's up on the AdHoc site for the public vote?

Oh, goodness, if I thought about every story that was out on submission, I'd go mad in a New York minute. I do love reading the weekly AdHoc entries, though!

Do you enjoy writing within the 150 word limit?

Absolutely. And the 300-word limit and the 50-word limit and the 743-word limit. Since I'm also a novelist, anything under 80,000 words is a refreshing break, a quick sprint to interrupt the marathon. Also, (and I'm recalling the wise words of my late syntax professor, Charlie Jones, here) I believe that if you can't say what you want in the confines of a page or a paragraph, you probably can't say it in a few hundred pages or a few hundred paragraphs.

'The Definition of Us' is one of the most imaginatively structured pieces I've seen on AdHoc. Can you tell us about it?
'The Definition of Us' - all in the etymology.
'The Definition of Us' - all in the etymology.

First, thank you. That's a lovely compliment. The narrative itself is quite simple (girl loves someone, girl's parents are against the couple—you've probably seen this before in, say, Romeo and Juliet). It probably wouldn't have worked as well if I'd just come out and written what these characters wanted and how they went about achieving their goals. Complicating the form lets the reader have some fun in assembling the pieces: the key word, the definition, and the application of that definition are all there on the page, but their arrangement is a bit of a surprise. People like surprises, right?

Is experiment with structure something that you do a lot?

Oh, yeah. Almost half of my published short work is in some sort of experimental form: emails, diary entries, recipes, word games, and epistles are a few examples. I particularly love playing with words—it's the linguist in me. Also, I'm a cryptic crossword addict, which will make sense to my fellow Brits, not so much to my fellow Yanks. As a side note, the first piece of flash I read was a fantastic story by Ani King titled "Conjugate 'to be', using complete sentences." It's over at freezeframefiction if anyone fancies having a peek.

And do you think structural experimentation is particularly suited to flash fiction?

Very much so. And not at all suited to longer writing—imagine an 80,000-word novel all in dictionary format or Associated Press blurbs! There's a certain amount of work that needs doing when you read a story through the filter of unexpected forms, and the novelty can grow old if it's overdone or prolonged.

What advice would you give to other writers having a go at the AdHoc fiction competition?

Read the winning entries, read the long listed entries, stretch outside the box of the first thing that comes to mind when you see that single-word prompt, write some stuff, edit and polish and read it out loud. Hit submit. Do it all again the following week!

Read more by Christina Dalcher

Christina is an incredibly industrious and prolific writer... I am more than a little awestruck. She has about 45 flash credits so far and was placed second in the Bartleby Snopes Dialogue-only Contest this year.

 

If you'd like to read more of Christina's work, check out the following:


The Molotov Cocktail: Prize Winners AnthologyAfter the Pause Year 2christina-d2Vine Leaves Journal, Issue #17christina-d3I really loved this interview. I've ordered the Molotov title and look forward to hearing and reading more of Christina's work in the future.Find Christina Dalcher at www.christinadalcher.com or tweeting @CVDalcher.







 

Introduction
As a blogger about writing, it probably comes as no surprise that I dabble with story myself. I recently read K.M Weiland's 'Outlining Your Novel' as I am looking to scrap and restart an old project. K.M. Weiland takes a non- prescriptive approach to outlining, recognising that writers are an idiosyncratic bunch, and that each one of us needs to develop our own approach to outlining. What Weiland does brilliantly is to describe her own process and to offer other strategies that may appeal to others.

One of the strategies that she uses herself and recommends is the character interview. Weiland has developed a comprehensive 100 question interview on her blog and you can get it here.  I decided that I would give it a go as a part of my own process.

If you listen to the Story Grid podcast as I do, you may have heard editor Shawne Coyne talk about the importance of the antagonist, about how these bad guys are the most important character in terms of driving the story, about how despite this they are often neglected by novice writers like me.

So I interviewed the bad guy.

Practical stuff

Secrets: are your characters hiding something?
Secrets: are your characters hiding something?

The interview begins with biographical stuff: places lived, education and schools, dating history, self-image. I found myself in 'interview mode' writing fairly fluently in the first person, thinking little or nothing about the literary quality of what I wrote. And I found that I was coming up with stuff about my character that I didn't know – most significantly a failed marriage, and a sadistic pair of step-brothers.

This was powerful stuff that I simply wouldn't have without having done the interview.

However, I came unstuck a bit on 'Is he lying to himself about something?' I couldn't answer this in the first person, and if I did I would obscure the information I wanted to detail.

The next section is a description of the character's appearance, preferences and habits, and I felt I had to stay in the third person for this. That said the physical stuff made me see that I really had not considered the character in adequate depth. My descriptions led me to do an image search on Google, where a found a rugby player who pretty much matches the ideas I had.

I saved the image so I can load it into YWriter. I even came up with a few usable similes!

Getting to know the character

Game of Thrones: every character has a story to tell.
Game of Thrones: every character has a story to tell.

 

Some of the most exciting questions in K.M Weiland's interview are the ones that you could almost transplant directly into a key moment in the book.

Questions like:

 

What’s the worst thing he’s ever done to someone and why?
And
What does/will he like least about the other main character(s)?

Answering these questions made me think about those revelatory moments in Game of Thrones where George R.R. Martin's characters share character forming incidents in their pasts. I could just imagine my antagonist revealing the angry 'self-defence' attack on his brother at some key moment I have yet to discover. This was feeling like a really useful exercise.

Developing my own approach

In terms of developing my own approach I think I need to divide up the questions into those I can answer in the first person and those I need the third person for. I'll put the first person questions first so that I can dive into the character before defining them from the outside in.

Having considered my story's overview using the Story Grid foolscap method in previous weeks, I really wanted to make sure that I was considering my characters in terms of their link to my controlling idea and key themes, and about the values they represent more specifically.

I also want to move the history to the beginning so that I can add key dates as I think of them. Also I imagine that these dates may be useful to me, and that I am likely to want to access this information quickly.

Conclusion

K.M. Weiland author of 'Outlining Your Novell'.
K.M. Weiland author of 'Outlining Your Novell'.

I'm always a little bit envious of writers whose characters speak to them. K.M. Weiland writes about characters that 'speak' in relation to this exercise. If you are one of those people then this exercise might get you there quickly. If you are more like me, however, and your characters just don't like you enough to chat, this exercise will give your plotting more power and fuel emotive revelations that will fire up key scenes. Either way the task is really enjoyable. It is, as K.M Weiland says, 'grand fun'.

See my character interview here.

 

Crisps, AdHoc Fiction
Alison Wassell's excellent 'Just a Crisp' : winner of a recent round of AdHoc Fiction.

What is AdHoc Fiction?

For those who don't know, AdHoc fiction is a weekly competition in which writers enter a 150 word story that contains a specified key word. The stories are voted on by the public and the winner each week gets free entry into the Bath flash fiction award proper which has a top prize of £1,000.

I am always surprised at how effectively the public vote system is in choosing the best work, and the winners are always tiny gems of real literary quality. I entered five consecutive competitions myself last year without winning or deserving to either!

The skills that the winners of this competition never fail to impress me. And I cannot help but check the winners from time to time. This month I came across 'Just a Crisp' by Alison Wassell which you can read here.

Alison kindly agreed to tell me a bit about how her winning entry came about.

Alison Wassell -  The Interview:

How often do you enter stories on AdHoc fiction? 

I've only ever entered three times.

How did you approach the key word?

I just let it float around in my head, with all the other rubbish that's in there, for a day or so. The key word was 'crisp', and could have been a noun or an adjective. I had a few different ideas. Then when I was bored in work I read an article on The Guardian website written by someone whose sister suffered from anorexia, and that became my inspiration.

Did you outline your piece before you wrote it?

No. I'm not much of a planner, either in life on in writing.

How did you approach the writing / redrafting of 'Just a Crisp'?

I 'write' very short stories in my head when I'm walking to work at 7am in the mornings. The walk takes about 40 minutes, which is plenty of time for 150 words. I fiddle around with the words on my way home, or going round the supermarket. Which I suppose counts as redrafting.

Roughly how long did you spend writing 'Just a Crisp' ?

Probably less than two hours, in total.

Do you tell others when you have posted a story?

In the past I have posted on Twitter etc. that I've entered. To be honest I've always been a bit cynical about these competitions with a public vote. I thought they were probably won by people with lots of friends who were told which story to vote for. But I can honestly say that this time I told absolutely nobody.

Do you think about your story much during the week it's up on the AdHoc site for the public vote?

No. Mainly because I assume I have next to no chance of winning. I just send it out there and get on with the next thing.

Do you enjoy writing within to the 150 word limit?

Yes. My winning story was actually less than 130 words long. I was always criticised, at school, for not being 'more prolific' in my writing, and it always really annoyed me, because I say what I've got to say, and then I stop. Flash fictions suits me perfectly. The shorter the better.

What advice would you give to other writers having a go at the AdHoc fiction competition?

Just have a go and don't take it too seriously. Nothing is ever wasted. If you end up with something you're even slightly happy with, that's something to work with and build on, and it costs you nothing. That tiny germ of a story could become something much bigger. Or it could stay small and, with a bit of editing, end up published elsewhere.

Read More of Alison's work.

Alison's work is currently available in two anthologies (and I'm pretty sure that there are more anthologies in the pipeline). So, if you like the AdHoc piece you might like some of these other pieces too.

The most recent anthology I've appeared in is A Box Of Stars Beneath The Bed, the National Flash Fiction Day Anthology 2016. I have 2 pieces in that.

 

 

Also the anthology of women's writing My Baby Shot Me Down (Blinding Books 2014) has a selection of my work.

I've just bought them myself. And I can't wait to read them.