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How to Keep Going: Tips for the Distracted Writer by Cath Barton

Writing.ie | Resources | Developing Your Craft
Cath Barton

Cath Barton

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We’ve all read about people who are incredibly disciplined and write for set periods every day. You may know people like that. You may even be one. But I’m certainly not. For me a deadline is a great motivator and focus, but for much of the time when writing fiction we have to create our own ways to keep going, and that’s a challenge.

I write both long and short-form fiction. When I’m working on a longer piece I sometimes take opportunities to write a shorter piece. I like to use random words to spark my brain off in different directions. Pictures can also do this – I particularly like the monthly prompt from Visual Verse, where the invitation is to write between 50 and 500 words within an hour. They publish up to 100 pieces each month, so there’s a good chance that others will see and read your work.

However, I find myself easily distracted from working on longer fiction by the myriad opportunities online to write and submit flash fiction. This is not to decry flash as a form. Writing good flash requires time, close scrutiny and ruthless revision. It’s not easier to write a short piece than a long one, though superficially it can seem that way. I can draft a 500-word piece in an hour and it may be good enough to share in a writing group. But it’s rather like eating a cream cake when you’re hungry – it’s attractive and delicious to eat, but it can leave you feeling a bit sick, or set up a craving for more sugar. There’s no satisfaction in that kind of quick fix.

What I’ve discovered in recent months, thanks largely to inspiration from the teachings of flash fiction doyenne Nancy Stohlman, is that there are numerous ways of incorporating flash into longer-form work.

I’m currently writing what I intend to be a novel-length story about life in the circus, and I’m finding that writing short pieces – between 500 and 1,000 words long – is a way to generate the raw material for the larger whole. Ultimately, some of those pieces will grow into longer chapters; others will stay short.

But those potential distractions are still popping up on Twitter every day – a competition here, a new magazine there. What to do?  Here’s my top tip – use these opportunities, rather than let them use you. Now, if I’m attracted by a flash submission opportunity online, I think about whether I can use it to write about the circus. It helps that I have a large cast of characters and many ways for them to interact as they travel. But almost any flash prompt can be used to help me stay focussed rather than distracted.

For example, recently in a local writing group, we each suggested a word to be incorporated into a story. These included ‘crocodile’ and ‘cabbage’. Here’s how I started:

‘Arlo and Franco would sometimes talk, late at night after a show, over a bottle of something strong. They liked to exchange horror stories. Some of them were true, others made up. That’s men for you. But the one about the crocodile was definitely true. Or so Franco said. He’d seen them come out of rivers in South Africa and bite the arm off a man.’

And then, as they muse:

In a corner of the caravan Arlo’s old dog turned in its sleep and broke wind.

‘Christ,’ said Franco, wrinkling his nose. ‘What do you feed him –  cabbage?’

This was just a tall tale, but what I’ve found is that it might be one of several such late-night chats threaded through the book, helping with characterisation.

Another opportunity arose with a competition to write a hermit-crab flash, in other words using a borrowed form for a new story: in this case I wrote something about clowning skills in the form of a cupcake recipe. As Dan Brotzel says, it’s a great way to experiment, and whether or not the competition judge likes it, I’ve got something to add variety to my book.

I’ve also used flash fiction to start a new and longer story. My novella In the Sweep of the Bay grew out of a short piece I wrote about a long-married couple, Ted and Rene, on a day out. I found that I had more I wanted to say about them, and they became the central characters in my book.

So, if you’re stuck, floundering, or just feeling you could do with something more in what you’re writing, but don’t know quite what, take a look at the many ways you can use flash fiction to help you tell a longer story. Nancy Stohlman’s book Going Short is a brilliant resource. Whether you’re new to the form or an old hand, she’ll give you some fresh ideas and impetus.

(c) Cath Barton

https://cathbarton.com @CathBarton1

About In the Sweep of the Bay:

‘They forgot the happiness. Or rather, pushed it away. But it was there, all their lives, waiting to surprise them.’

This warm-hearted tale explores marriage, love, and longing, set against the majestic backdrop of Morecambe Bay, the Lakeland Fells, and the faded splendour of the Midland Hotel. Ted Marshall meets Rene in the dance halls of Morecambe and they marry during the frail optimism of the 1950s. They adopt the roles expected of man and wife at the time: he the breadwinner at the family ceramics firm, and she the loyal housewife. But as the years go by, they find themselves wishing for more…

After Ted survives a heart attack, both see it as a new beginning… but can a faded love like theirs ever be rekindled?

A tender and moving study of a marriage” Alison Moore, author of the Booker short listed The Lighthouse.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Cath Barton is an English writer living in Wales. She is the author of two novellas: The Plankton Collector (2018, New Welsh Review) and In the Sweep of the Bay (2020, Louise Walters Books) shortlisted for Best Novella in the Saboteur Awards 2021. Her short stories are published in The Lonely Crowd, Strix and a number of anthologies. Cath is also active in the online flash fiction community. https://cathbarton.com @CathBarton1

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