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Flash! Past: Cindy Vaskova

§ It’s a true pleasure to check back in with #FlashFridayFic regular and 2-time winner Cindy Vaskova, whose Spotlight interview appeared toward the end of Flash! Friday’s run. What has she been up to? Where can we read her writing? How is she? It’s my joy to pass the mic over to Cindy, aka @raptamei, for an update all the way from Bulgaria. Welcome back, Cindy!

SMVaskova

Flash! Past dragon Cindy says:

Hello once again! It’s so good to be back on the Flash! Friday horizon!

This feels like such a strange thing to write, if I’m honest, but the pandemic was less creatively obstructive than I thought it would be. Right now I’m commuting daily to and from work and the lockdown feeling, or even pressure from it has pretty much completely disappeared with stores, cafes and such reopened, but at the beginning, in March through to April, it was such a weird experience to be able to catch up with so many postponed activities while the world was in disorder. It’s possibly the definition of guilty pleasure for 2020 for a lot of people – stuck at home sort of meant catching up on creative tasks, on projects. I certainly had free time to not only strengthen my body with exercises, but also learn some new things, take some free courses online, do more Spanish lessons. I like staying proactive and being at home was no excuse to shy away from some sort of routine.

For me those were also a couple of months dedicated to editing and re-writing scenes from a novella I am working on called Inside the cave lived a Fox. In short and without giving away too much, it’s a story about a woman who finds herself in quite the predicament and somewhat reluctantly accepts the help of two total strangers who accompany her on a very rural journey which takes an impossible turn.

With it writing was a daily thing and it might sound somewhat pedantic, but it had a specific time frame in the evening when writing started and an end time of sometime around 2 AM where it ended. So there were at least 4 hours every day dedicated entirely to writing, taking notes, marking things which needed to change in the next session. It helped me to be in control of the process and gave me a hint of when I might be able to finish this story and send it off to some beta readers. During the lockdown it jumped from some 30 pages to over 90 pages, which on paper doesn’t seem that much, but it was quite the expansion story-wise and it helped to strengthen the narrative a great deal.

I’ve been working on it for a long time, possible a few years and it kept getting put on the back burner over other works, and that made sense since the story was in no way, shape or form the story that I wanted it to be, or the one I set out writing. So I did the reasonable thing and waited until the right time came to tackle it again and it just so happened to be during lockdown months. One version of it, an earlier draft went to beta readers and they came back with fantastic feedback that helped so much. Beta readers are so, so important. So from a flat, character-poor story it transformed to what I hope is this poignant story with recognizable characters, unsettling tones, a rich atmosphere and a surprising end.

I’m nearly at the finish line with the formatting itself and I don’t honestly know if this final version is as good as I want the story to be, but I believe it’s the best version of it, of what I wanted it to represent, of the type of story I wanted it to tell. Look out for the Fox, it’s going to be out soon!

Aside from working on the novella, I’ve been writing some short film scripts and documentary scripts. Back before the pandemic kicked off I had planned on starting a filming project dedicated to documentary shorts and short films shot fully on a smartphone. It was a venture I’d been thinking about for a while, so I was ready to finally realize it when we went into a lockdown. For a while it was mostly reading books, getting that movie making theory and watching videos to learn stuff I was hoping to put into practice. But being stuck at home 7 days a week clearly meant that I could freely experiment precisely with filming stuff: testing equipment, figuring out techniques, trying out different angles, different perspectives. It helped me to stay both active and creative. It gave me a reason to do something rather than just sit around killing time with movies or games. There’s nothing wrong with that, don’t get me wrong, by I do get fidgety when I’m creatively starved. This was my getaway card, a small shift out of the comfort zone.

In Bulgaria we more or less canceled our lockdown mid-May, I think, so in June I shot the first documentary with this guy who owns a 1968 MZ Trophy motorcycle and is an active driver, and I uploaded it across all social media channels that I’d created for Myalism Docs. As a fairly new project, it’s a precious little baby, but I hope to grow it to a full annoying adult.

For the short films I wanted to make, I created Myalism Films as a separate project. Some friends and I, basically a very, very small crew, shot the first short film called “The Surprise” and sometimes later we followed with the second short called “Clouds”. They’re both pretty heavy on the horror side, but it was pure joy to be behind the camera, lifting some story off of the script and transforming it into an actual film.

So scripts, short story ideas and documentary ideas, on top of editing have been occupying my mind in the past months on a daily basis.

About books…I started reading too many books at the same time, as usual, but this year and even as far as last year, I’ve enjoyed Asimov’s Foundation series quite a lot; I was blown away by Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea; of course I had my share of Neil Gaiman content with his Norse Mythology, finally was able to read Coraline and now I’m listening to the audiobook adaptation of The Sandman which is phenomenal and I highly recommend it. I discovered Tana French and her Dublin Murder Squad series – The Likeness, the second book in the series is by far my favorite. It’s so deliciously strange at times, so beautifully painted it’s a crime to not read it.

I got my hands on a nice bundle of books from a contest I won, which was great because I familiarized myself with new writers – Gary Fry with What They Find in the Woods, Simon Bestwick and A love like Blood, Paul M Feeney’s Kids to name a few. Fantastic books for an afternoon read! Very creepy as well.

Recently I started reading Michelle McNamaras I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. It’s a true crime book investigating the persona of the Golden State Killer. I’m a sucker for a good crime book with my fascination on serial killers and how they think, and this book is such an amazing example of a gripping, well-paced, well-researched book that reaches that chilling the blood edge.

Thank you for this Spotlight opportunity, it’s been great fun as always to share some news, I think good news, or at least positively directed news with you. Stay safe, take care and keep creating. We all surely need it now more than ever.

 


The original Flash! Friday Spotlight Interview below posted November 24, 2015

Please tell us about your writerly journey.

I’ve never really thought about the exact time when writing became a constant thing. It always seemed that it sort of happened, I sat down and wrote some words and they formed a story which followed another one and another one. Now that I go back I think it’s just to say that it all truly started around 2011 when I went back to Twitter. During that time, before I met some of the participating writers in the FridayFlash community I spent a summer working on a Victorian hell vs heaven historical/religious fiction which amounted to about 60 pages before it became just a background project and the blog came along.

The blog itself was a suggestion given to me by some of the FridayFlash writers and I started that somewhat reluctant because the only other time that I had written anything in English were two short pieces for Morgen Bailey’s blog. I’m really proud of those two, they mark the start of my fiction writing in English, but the blog is what concreted writing and what helped develop my writing and language skills, and boosted my interaction with the writing community in general.

Before that the stories I wrote were solemnly for myself as a gateway of sorts. Well before the blog, back in school I had a few periods during which I drabbled little horror and dystopian stories in notebooks. My poor hand! I keep those hidden in the back of my library just as a reminder of how passionate I was about them, how much I loved writing all night. I think the first one was about a group of adventure seekers invited to an old mansion by a letter sent from woman from the 18th century. Original, eh?

Did you grow up among books and writing?

I’d like to think I did, but I pinpoint that from when I started building my own literary world – I mark that as my growth amongst books and writing. My grandfather was a musician and a painter. I used to draw a lot and he was very supportive of all my little creative bursts. He was the person who allowed me to watch horror flicks believing that that would build up my personality and weirdly it did, because I love horror and I feel at home when I write it, or read it.

I wasn’t much of a reader in my youth, because I was too busy being a nuisance running around the neighborhood, but as soon as the Harry Potter saga flooded bookstores and everyone started reading the books, I did so too. I think it might be safe to say J.K. Rowling’s fiction helped build my broader interest in reading. Shortly after I experimented with thrillers and Dan Brown. Fun times. Thank the invisible force that brought me sci-fi novels quickly enough.

What are you working on writing these days?

As of now I’m trying to get back to editing and finalizing what would stand as my first novel called “The Dorley Cycle’; aside from that there are always short stories waiting to be finished, revisited, started. I’m looking forward to finishing a short story about a spirit roaming the Scottish mountains and then go back to a few projects that were started on the blog and await their continue. There are a few serials that I want to return my attention to; there’s a five piece story about interdimensional hitmen trying to close a final deal before they can retire; there’s a three piece story about a girl and a boy disturbing the domain of Chronos, the god of time whilst trying to prevent tomorrow from happening. Along with these things I still try to do as many flash stories as I can. There’s a list of ideas waiting to be explored!

What sort of genre(s) do you find yourself most at home in? 

When I first started the blog I used to write mostly magical realism, but along the way there have been slice of life stories, humorous stories, thriller ones and so on. I would love to explore more genres, but I always fear my knowledge of them will fail me, rendering the story impossible and pointless to read. I’ve mixed genres before; I think that’s my way of bypassing any possible failure. But I’d love to write a clean noir flavored story or a historical one, a solid fantasy too. The thing about blogs and blogging, especially creative writing blogs is that experimentations with genres are free and harmless and educational, plus the community is always helpful and supportive. I suppose my New Year’s resolution would be to diversify the blog a bit even though I do love to spawn wicked tales of disturbed individuals, or flunk them into a space oddity.

Give us a picture of your daily writerly life.

I used to keep a regular writing time, but with university and other things I’ve become slightly chaotic. I try to keep my Friday flashes going every week, and I feel really bad when I don’t have the time or stamina to write a story. So I write when I can, often shifting between projects. Now I’m trying to work out a schedule that allows me to fit in writing, university, work and gaming. Guess how that’s going?

I love playing video games. I can call myself a gamer, be that with MMORPGS or single player games. I just love the open world games provide and so often their stories are phenomenal. It’s a one of a kind experience that oddly enough books or movies can’t give you.

I sometimes do sketches and comics, mostly about some character of mine. I dabble in photography, just now learning landscape and street photography.  I’m still in university, though I’ve upgraded from BA to MA in Journalism.  As of recently I operate a small local news website and there goes my journalism practice for now.

I’m a huge fan of Doctor Who and a big fan of Neil Gaiman; I consider one of the highlights of my life to be shaking his hand.

Also, I can proudly announce that I tame a reasonably fat tom cat, who may or may not be a mixed breed between a demonic fluff ball, a dog and not so strangely, a dragon. You haven’t seen that tail or ears of his. I’m telling you, he breathes fire when I don’t watch.

Do you belong to any in-person writing groups?

It might be an odd thing for some, but I’ve never connected with any established critique groups, or in general any literature clubs. One reason is that there aren’t many really. For better or for worst I’ve isolated myself in that sense, but still I’m talking with people from across the globe, still discussing books and participating in things like NaNoReMo (National Novel Reading Month) or making lists of best reads for the year. In that sense I’ve fully digitalized myself and I’ve done that addressing mostly foreign authors and novels, pretty much completely ignoring modern Bulgarian authors and for that I’m somewhat ashamed, because I’d love nothing more than to be able to support aspiring, growing writers. Recently I found a list of “10 Bulgarian authors you might not have heard of” and I was actually astonished, because precisely, I had never heard of them, never seen their books displayed among the other popular, mainstream novels and yet they seemed to be the versatile, indie bunch who wrote of travel and human experience and adventure, and built worlds of chaos and fantastical elements. I wish I could see more of them and be able to read them, instead of what the market offers.

In terms of the said above I have disconnected myself so much from the literature daily in Bulgaria that I hardly converse about it with anyone else. Therefor I am not the best person to be answering those question, but still from my sideline observations, and like I said there aren’t really many books clubs, or workshops, or critique groups or anything of the sort. Aside from some online forums, I know of only one major bookstore that started a book club a few years back and has since kept it alive, diversifying it with different genres. I would love for that to become a trend, to grow and draw in not only readers, but writers and authors as well.

Recently I found out about an event called ‘Writers Without Books’ which offers a tribune for writers to read each other’s stories and exchange ideas and advices. I think this niche experiment, this group of people might be the key to expanding critique groups and workshops, because they basically took what blogs allow, upgraded it and took it to the street sharing it not only between themselves, but with a wider audience. They do it old school, but they don’t shy away.

As far as writing groups for me go, I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in one back in school, and the fun thing about having a writing group, or workshop as it would go in school, is that there are no limitations for how far creativity and ideas can go, there are no restrictions as to the genre; there’s a shared enthusiasm for the assignments, for projects, and a collective want for the written things to be good, to matter. Our literature teacher nurtured and guided us through two wonderful projects filled with sci-fi, horror, magical realism and fantasy.

My university class for creative writing wasn’t as much fun – I got dissed for writing a steampunk story based in Japan off of an assignment that centered on a dangling coat button. I was also dissed for saying Ray Bradbury was amazing.

Where do you do your writing?

I write mostly at home these days. I used to keep a notebook in my bag and write either in university or on the train, but I got lazy to be honest and at university I would get distracted, on the train I would fall asleep. I had learned to write down ideas and later work on them, but I got lazy for that too, so I would occupy my head with all sorts of ideas and later on struggle to pull out something essential from the “creative” chaos. Now I try to channel any thoughts about writing for the evenings. That’s why I decided I was going to write mostly at home, preferably in the dead of night when it’s quiet and dark and soft.

I remember leaving myself sticky notes saying “Learn how to write in the day you moron”. Writing solemnly at night can get exhausting at one point, especially during the week when there are classes all day long. I still do it, each night, till 4 or 5 AM. I’ve managed to work out editing during the day, which I found really helps, because the more the buzz and the noise the better the editing process goes. In terms of that without even noting, I’ve adapted myself to the ‘Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open’ regimen King talks about. Just with days and nights.

I don’t like noise, as in people talking or a TV working, but I do write to music, just something quiet in the background, usually long playlists of “trailer” music, or soundtracks of games. I always keep coffee nearby and it’s always cold, because I forget about it. I can do cold tea, but coffee… ugh!

I have written with other people in the past, mostly on short one sentence stories. In fact right now I’m working with three other wonderful writers on a project called The Beginnings.

What publishing trends do you see, and what challenges do writers in Bulgaria face?

I think it might not be as hard as in the US, though there can’t really be a base for comparison. I haven’t heard of anyone trying self-publishing via the common channels for that. Some smaller writers have funded their books in paper out of their pockets and hoped for sales afterwards.

The thing is that the market isn’t that flooded with local literature methinks. Most novels come from well-established persons, well-known to the media. In recent years there’s been a great deal of poetry resurfacing as a trendy, mainstream genre. Poets thrive in Bulgaria.

Perhaps most Bulgarians would agree that Georgi Gospodinov’s works are what defines fine literature. Aside from poetry he writes contemporary fiction too, which appeals to a wider audience. I’d point him as the top sought author in the past year or so.

I don’t really know many new writers who prosper solemnly from their prose, let alone from writing fantasy or science fiction. I’ve started to believe that the mainstream literature here carries certain affection for Thompson’s gonzo journalism and the rough, almost vulgar type of autobiography. There’s not a single journalist who doesn’t have a book out on the market.

There is also an intimidating amount of novels or poems which are reminiscent of the Socialist era and echo in some way the effects of that period. In those terms I don’t think we can expect anytime soon an author who experiments a great deal with fiction, not a mainstream one at least. I’d love to meet the people who do write in these genres, but I would also want to be able to buy their books, instead of any political thriller or drama.

There are solitary stories which are really strong in terms of narrative, but those I haven’t seen at the bookstore. I appreciate the presence of contests and websites which have submissions every now and then. There I’ve read better stories with richer language than in those widely pronounced as best Bulgarian novels.

Paint a picture for us of your home.

I am awful at this, but here goes something.

My hometown is small-ish, with just around 73,000 people living in it. It used to be a mining town back in the days; there aren’t any coal stains anymore, nor miners, but the town is reminiscent of those days somehow.

I live in a quiet neighborhood; after it gets dark there are pretty much no cars so you can walk in the middle of the road and hear your own footsteps. One of the views from the apartment I live in is of a fortress perched on a mountain hill – history says it was the last standing fortress in Bulgaria. Below it the highway passes, and sometimes you can catch the sounds of passing cars, distinguish motorcycle from truck.

I used to walk around and visit places that marked some enjoyable moment from my childhood. I’ve always found it strange, but also heartwarming how these places haven’t changed during the years. Nothing changes much around here. Renovations barely catch the eye, but the farthest a person goes the more he sinks into the past of his own memories. I think that’s sweet in a way.

One of the best things I’ve given myself is early mornings during summer when there’s barely a noise, even the air is still. Another view of the apartment opens to a set of high trees, just the tip of the forest. I used to have dreams that a giant red bird flies out of them and flops her wings lazily towards me.

The forest, though small, has always been a place birthing fascinating stories: in my imagination there have been tiny people living in the trees, riding squirrels, or demons hiding in the tiny witch house; there have been ghosts cascading the steps which nowadays lead to nowhere. Back in the day they used to lead to a zoo hidden above the park.

There isn’t anything much to do in the town, not really. Walking in the park is one option, I guess, or visiting the library, though it’s so old the smell has invaded the pages of the books. There are many café’s clustered near one another, and I think they did that because the sun always shines there. Teens love skateboarding, and I’m very fond of the sound the wheels of the board make when they run over uneven asphalt.

We’re a town with a loud history – one of the first rock concerts was held here and generation through generation carry that vibe and culture. Me as well.

I often tell foreigners about how beautiful Bulgaria is. It’s a very giving place, because there are colossal mountains that offer transcendental views and there’s the sea, which without the tourist is remarkably deep and vast.  But what’s really rich and amazing to experience are the small villages scattered throughout the country. If anyone stumbles upon a tiny village they are in for the tastiest treat in their lives – tasting Bulgarian homemade cuisine! I can’t describe the food, but imagine everything is cultivated, and the gardens are full with rows of tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, carrots, cabbages. The bread is homemade, baked in an oven a 100 years or more old. And the people there are ancient, mixing soups with spices they picked.

I think we are ancient as a nation.

Who are your favorite Bulgarian writers (both of all time, and today)? For someone unfamiliar with Bulgarian writers, which authors/books would you recommend starting with?

Svetoslav Minkov, Vladimir Polyanov, and Valeri Petrov are the most vivid examples I can think of when it comes to science fiction, weird prose and horror even. Back in the day, the late 70’s, if my memory serves me correct around 1979 there was this collection of sci-fi, crime and short story collections printed by a publishing house called “Galaxy”, and their works were there amongst many other foreign authors who were translated.

One of Minkov’s most famous short stories is The Lady with the Roentgen Eyes (I like to call it The Lady with the X-Ray eyes), which is widely considered a gem of satirical science fiction. Basically a squinty lady goes to see a charismatic doctor said to be able to fix any impediment. He makes an extraordinary beauty out of her, but also awards her with a piercing roentgen gaze. Oops.

Now perhaps my most favorite short story collections is “Diabolical novellas and short stories” by Vladimir Polyanov. I love every single story there. Death is a recurring character and he boils in boredom in the summer heat in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia. In one story suddenly he decides to fall in love.

Unfortunately Bulgaria lost nearly 5 centuries in slavery to the Ottoman Empire, and so we lost the 15th through the 18th century worth of culture and literature.  Renaissance, Modernism, Symbolism, Expressionism and so on in terms of short stories, travel writings, memoirs, essays, pieces of criticism, dramas and comedies came gradually after 1878, and again suffered a repression during the Communist period, especially the prose.

But regardless of these historical struggles there are many incredible pieces of literature.

As much as I respect revolutionary poetry and the working class poetry, I’m a bigger fan of the Modernist and Symbolist era. A lot of people would say it’s a good idea to start with Ivan Vazov’s works or Hristo Botev’s poems, and they’d be right, because they represent our nation at heart and soul; but there’s literature for everyone, and I strongly believe each period shows a different stroke of Bulgarian culture. For me the Modernist and Symbolist eras are really strong ones, and perhaps the two pivotal ones that have given inspiration for the future generations. Also my preference is because I remember feeling very overwhelmed by the themes depicted in earlier poetry – there’s a great deal of looming death, of hopelessness, of fallen sons and weeping mothers, stolen loved ones. The influence of these 500 years of Turkish slavery was carried in poetry for a long time, before comedy and satire and prose worked their way into the lives of people. War and politics too are  recurring aspects in Bulgarian literature, and considering how many poets were shot or sentenced to death because of their works, I can see how it had a tremendous effect during the years and how that crippled to great extent our expansion in literature.

A favorite poet of mine is Dimcho Debelyanov. Just for this Q&A I went on a sought to find a good translation of some of the poems. A man called Cristopher Buxton has taken up the task of translating some of the finest works, which is awesome. I hyperlinked those for anyone who wants to read something. Atanas Dalchev is also a favorite of mine and he worked quite a lot with the symbolism of objects and rooms in a very beautiful and dark way.

I was really fascinated with ‘To Chicago & Back” by Aleko Konstantinov which is essentially a book about Aleko visiting Western Europe and America, more particularly the World Exhibitions in Paris in 1889, Prague in 1891 and Chicago in 1893. I loved reading how fascinated he was with the inventions especially at the World’s Columbian Exposition. It made me appreciate how grand and incredible those inventions were seen from his eyes.

Talk to us about books! What are you reading?

Over the years I developed the tendency to start multiple books at the same time. It’s a bad habit when you think about it, because some books would go unread for weeks and end up taking months to be finished. But regardless of that, I can’t settle on a single title, because I always feel that there isn’t enough time. I’m switching between Murakami, Moorcock, Gaiman, Newman, re-reading Zelazny’s ‘The Chronicles of Amber’, revisiting Bradbury’s ‘Death is a Lonely Business’, trying out new authors to me, like Rick Yancey, catching up on George R.R. Martin’s epic ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’. My Kindle alone is overflowing with titles yet to be finished.

I started reading Clive Barker’s ‘Books of Blood’ and have gone through vol. 1 and 2 thus far, and I have to say, the stories are phenomenal. I don’t know what took me so long to start reading Barker. I fell in love two pages in. The sense of, I don’t know, madness and hopelessness is intriguingly charming; they are very solid feelings, very real in the sense of the narrative. I feel really calm when I read Barker, though its humanity’s demise and the individual persons torment that he explores. I think ‘Pig Blood Blues’ is my favorite from vol. 1.

Short story collections have always been a favorite of mine, I scout for interesting collections and this year I found ‘Machine of Death,’ which is essentially individual stories about a machine which predicts death via one word written on a piece of paper. It poses a set of moral dilemmas- would you want to know how you’ll die, but also understand that you wouldn’t be able to prevent it? Would you spend the rest of your life trying to avoid apples, because that’s what the paper said? It doesn’t specify how, when you’ll die.

Would it be a relief knowing and just await death while you live reinvigorated by the concrete certainty of your predicted demise – take the best of life and make it last?  How would one society where everyone knows how they’ll die function? Which persons are going to shatter at the weight of that information, and which are going to use it to their advantage? It’s an interesting anthology that explores different reactions and interactions with the machine. Each story just goes to show how peculiar we people react to news with such gravitas. I recommend it.

Another short story collection I’ve grown to love is “In the Court of the Yellow King”. The stories explore the King in Yellow mythos in different scenarios. If you’re not familiar with the name, Ambrose Bierce and Richard W. Chambers both wrote about this alien, god-like entity hailing from the distant, barren land of Carcosa. In “An Inhabitant of Carcosa”, a short story written by Bierce, the ancient city of Carcosa and the King are first mentioned, and then Chambers borrowed that and developed the mythos of that land, fitting it into the narrative of a cursed fictional play called “The King in Yellow”. Themes from that story went on to be a part of some stories from the Cthulhu Mythos. Because neither Chambers nor Bierce before that linger too much or are too detailed on the King himself, this anthology tries to expand his character and his world, his kingdom (which might be near Aldebaran). If you enjoy Lovecraft, and Chambers or Bierce, you’ll probably like the anthology. It pays great homage to the mythos and their respective works. I myself love everything Lovecraft, Chambers and Bierce.

The novels I chose for NaNoReMo stay with me for a long time, year to year. ‘Frankenstein’, ‘Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ and lastly ‘The Willows’ have all had their impact not only on my writing, but on me as a person, and all three have controversies and moral dilemmas written in them; they’re all haunting and rich in imagery and language. I remember debating the human nature, good vs bad for months after finishing ‘Frankenstein’ and likewise for ‘Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde’ defending or accusing the want to preserve and protect oneself from oneself, and I was angry that I couldn’t find a consensus within me to agree and side with one side of the story. ‘The Willows’, as harmless of a story as it is in its beginning, is actually a mind-boggling, stressful experience which very much depraves you of your common sense. As vivid as it is in the sense of its narrative, it’s like staring into pitch black the entire time you’re reading it. It positions the reader into an impossible situation resulting from a very natural phenomenon, and it goes to show how frail and how susceptible our mind is to its own tricks and horrors.

Something non-fictional that caught my interest was ‘The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made’, which as the title suggests is an inside look into the birth and making of the movie “The Room”. If you don’t know what that is, check it out on YouTube, be awed, dumbstruck, frightened, curious, sleepless and then read the book to salvage your soul. It’s worth it.

Last but not least I’ve been catching up on the 80’s ‘Hellblazer’ comics, slowly making my way through to whichever is the latest issue. I love John Constantine as a character so I decided to follow his story cover to cover from the very first issue. I can’t gush enough or praise enough the story and the character. It’s a very multidimensional and multilayered journey.

Tell us about someone who has inspired you as a writer. 

I’m not sure whether my inspiration about writing sits with a certain person, because I haven’t really been open with people about it. But I did have a teacher who propelled in a massive way my love for fiction and that was my literature teacher 9th through to 12th grade. He is a walking human encyclopedia of not only the classics, but sci-fi and fantasy also and mythology as well, and he’s quite an odd one, but I haven’t met a student who hasn’t been in some sort of awe by him.

Back in 9th grade I used to bring different books with me to classes and I used to put them on top of the desk in plain view waiting to see which one would spark a reaction from him, because as he had made an impression on me I wanted to do the same. Shame fact, I brought Dan Brown with me a few times, but I thought he was cool at the time and I actually drew only positives from him, like expanding my interest in actual history and obviously Freemasonry and the Templar knights.

Gradually our literature classes extended into a small book club after school where we discussed all of the novels that weren’t a part of the curriculum.  He introduced us broadly to Tolkien, Pratchett, the Asimov Brothers, Bradbury, Sheckley and many more, and we were never constricted in our chats about certain novels or stories, themes and problematics. Being able to write stories or even plot ones during class and then again after class was incredible.

With his support and guidance, I and two other classmates wrote a short story almanac of horror called ‘The Red Hills’ which we presented as our final school project. I think he does show it to students to this day.

How can we, as your fellow writers, support and encourage you?

I think it’s sometimes a challenge to take up a story that is foreign to you in its setting or theme, and I constantly doubt whether I’ve written the story in a probable way, whether I’ve used the proper tone, included the sensible element and such, but in the Flash! Friday community I’ve found a free zone, a comfort zone where all stories matter. I’ve read and seen many stories which tackle one specific theme, as was before the new rules, but they do it in such a way that I believe there isn’t a single perspective, outcome or scenario that is left out, neglected and unexplored. The collective power of these niche stories is incredible, and it has shown me that there isn’t a wrong idea, a wrong interpretation of the challenge; there isn’t a wrong way to approach it. Looking at the stories each week is like visiting an art gallery which has combining the creative minds of thousands of talented folk. I discover something new with each passing week, though it may seem that I’m not participating, I’m ghostly there, amazed by the sheer quality. I would only like to thank everyone for continually writing and sharing. That’s all the encouragement I need.

Writing in Bulgaria, is pretty much like writing anywhere else in the world – as long as there are people who sit down and put in word after word, there’s writing, be it good or bad, known or unknown.

Flash! Past: Carin Marais

§ YOU MAY RECALL the last time we spoke with two-time Flash! Friday winner and forever-beloved dragon Carin Marais, she hinted at the writerly magic she had brewing: namely, an untitled anthology of short stories and an unnamed epic fantasy. Here, she joins us once again, this time with links, titles, and a piping hot cuppa life in 2020 to share. 


CarinMarais

Flash! Past dragon Carin says:

It’s so great to be back! The time has just absolutely flown by, hasn’t it?
I have been writing a lot during the past few years – although more for work (I’m a copywriter by day) than working on fiction. 

Now, let’s see. In the past five years, I’ve written and given papers at two Medieval and Renaissance conferences (always fun), I’ve been published in the Jozi Flash flash fiction anthologies and I’ve let my own collections see the light. 

These past few months, I’ve been hard at work beating my planned epic fantasy outline (The Ruon Chronicles) into shape so I can start writing (what better way to take your mind off The Chaos That Is 2020?). On the flash fiction front, I’m also busy with a collection I’m calling Where the Stars Used to Sing that I’m planning on releasing in full in December 2020. 

In the meantime, I’ve also started a newsletter about my writing over on Substack. There I share flash stories and the journey I’m on writing my epic fantasy. My other fantasy novel I’m writing in Afrikaans first (I write in both English and Afrikaans) and, while I have the whole outline done, I’m letting it rest a bit while I outline The Ruon Chronicles. 

If anything, the chaos that Covid-19 has caused has also brought home that I just need to set fear aside and start writing Chronicles already instead of waiting to become a better writer. The same goes for my other writing endeavours. Hopefully there will be a lot of new fiction from me in the next five years!


This original Flash! Friday Spotlight Interview aired on December 1, 2015

Please tell us about your writerly journey.

For as long as I can remember I have made up stories, though I did not always write them down. I think growing up surrounded by books and being encouraged to read anything and everything I wanted to really spurred it on. I read very widely as a child (and still do). The classics were cheap so they always seemed great value for money, which meant that I read writers like Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, etc. early on. Roald Dahl, on the other hand, really brought home a kind of a stranger, darker fiction and reading The Neverending Story was a big step towards reading more fantasy and discovering writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Pratchett, and Robert Jordan.

I read Pratchett and Tolkien in high school and there was no turning back! Their books in turn also led me to texts like Beowulf, the Eddas, and The Golden Bough. I also started writing in high school after some personal tragedies. Writing has always been a way for me to work through personal stuff as much as it is fun and fulfilling. I can’t imagine not writing.

I find that I lean towards speculative fiction as soon as I start to write a new story even if I did not mean for it to have any of those elements. Watching series like Star Trek, X-files, Stargate SG-1, and Outer Limits growing probably had a big hand in that! I love the way you can ask any “what if…?” question in speculative fiction and work through your question in a world different from our own, whether it is a secondary world or just set in the future. I do tend to write fantasy rather than science fiction or horror even though some of my stories are quite twisted and dark. My love of mythology and folklore also has a definitely influence on what I write and the worlds I create.

At the moment I’m busy writing and editing my NaNoWriMo novel, which is an epic fantasy tale. In-between that I am also writing some short stories in both English and Afrikaans (I am Afrikaans, for those who perhaps did not know). I am hoping to finish the first draft of an Afrikaans short story anthology by April or May next year. I also write for Flash! Friday, Cracked Flash, and Three Line Thursday as often as I can.

How do you balance creative writing with a writing job and everything else?

I love having a job where I get to write and translate a wide variety of texts – it also helps for when I cannot write otherwise! Because the writing I do during the day is removed from the fantasy I write in my own time it is easier to switch between the two.

I write whenever I can, sometimes taking my lunchtime to work on something. Because I worked full-time and studied part-time for a few years, I have a work-study/write routine that I now mostly fill with writing and other projects and hobbies.

Introduce us to your writing life in Johannesburg.

I mostly write alone, though for NaNoWriMo I do go to the write-ins and at those times it’s really a lot of fun to be in that environment when everyone is giddy to get their first draft (and 50,000 words) done. I usually write at home or in one specific coffee shop (who makes huge cappuccino’s) close to where I live. The waiters know by now that they can just leave me and only need to refill my coffee mug or teapot every now and then.

When I do snack on something while writing, it is usually jelly beans. It was a habit which started while I was studying, and there’s this one brand which seem to put my brain into a mode where it knows that it’s time to focus and stop thinking about the weather and whether or not I need another cup of tea before I actually start working. Because I don’t drink much caffeine anymore, I tend to drink a lot of different teas. I especially like local teas such as rooibos, honeybush and the variations of those two (with cinnamon, vanilla, etc.).

What’s the publishing situation like in your part of the world?

NB Publishers, which is part of Naspers, is the biggest publishing house in the country and some of its most well known imprints are Tafelberg and Human & Rousseau. Some imprints, like Kwela Books, are specifically geared towards African fiction. There are also publishers geared specifically to Christian books.

As in the US and many other countries it is difficult to get published traditionally, but there are various new platforms available and writers can self-publish their work. One of the platforms which I am a member of is Woes, which is an Afrikaans platform for writing. You are also able to sell your self-published books there.

Introduce us to Johannesburg!

I live just outside Johannesburg. It is in Gauteng, which is the smallest province of South Africa. It’s in a part of South Africa called the Highveld and is at an elevation of 5, 751 ft. Our weather is mostly sunny and besides the late afternoon thundershowers in summer, I love that we still have a deep blue sky in the middle of winter. We very rarely get any snow, so the day that a few flakes fall almost everyone drops what they are doing.

About 4 million people live in Johannesburg, and it is a melting pot of different cultures, people, and religions. My own neighbourhood is diverse, which makes it a great place to get inspiration from. The city certainly has its own vibe that is a lot different from smaller places.

When it comes to entertainment we’re spoilt for choice because it is such a large city. There are, for instance, restaurants to pick and choose from serving food from around the world. For me the biggest treat is being able to go to the theatre and see live performances and there are various theatres you can visit. The Cradle of Humankind is also only about an hour’s drive from Johannesburg and you don’t have to go too far to feel like you have left the city far behind you. Soweto is also not far away and there are some great tours that you can do there as well.

Who are your favorite South African writers?

My favourite South African writers are Karel Schoeman, Nataniël, Dalene Matthee, and P.G. du Plessis. Karel Schoeman has a way with language that I admire so much – the way he can conjure places and characters as well as writing lyrical without it turning into purple prose. I love his books Hierdie Lewe (This Life), Na die geliefde land (Promised Land), and ’n Ander land (Another Country). They have all been translated into English.

Dalene Matthee’s stories about the Knysna Forest and the people living there have always brought my imagination to life (and I love forests, so…). I think there are very few South Africans who haven’t at least heard of Kringe in ’n Bos (Circles in the Forest) and Fiela se Kind (Fiela’s Child). Nataniël’s sense of humor and his stories, which many times are bittersweet, are for me some of the best writing. He writes in both English and Afrikaans.

The heart in P.G. du Plessis’ stories and the way in which he writes characters is absolutely wonderful. He is one of the few writers who can make me cry with just one sentence! Dan Sleigh is another favourite writer and his novel Eilande (Islands) made a huge impact on me when I read it. I can highly recommend reading any of these authors.

What are you reading now? 

I usually read more than one book at a time and at the moment I am busy reading Boris Akunin’s The Death of Achilles, which is the fourth book of his Erast Fandorin Mysteries series. I am also busy with the series of books The History of Middle-earth. (I can highly recommend both series.)

The Erast Fandorin Mysteries are set in Russia in the late 1800s and the hero of the tales is part James Bond, part Sherlock Holmes. What I like most about Boris Akunin’s writing is his characterisation and his dry sense of humour. He can make me laugh out loud even when I’m reading in public. The names do take some time to get used to, though.

Who has most inspired you as a writer? 

My mother always supported my writing endeavours and my sister is always there to lend an ear and to give me motivation to carry on when I get to the place where I think everything I have ever written are the most awful things ever to grace a page.

When it comes to fiction writing, the Afrikaans teacher I had in my last two years of high school had a big impact on me and pushed me to keep on writing.

How can we as a flash fiction community do better? 

There is such a great vibe in the flash fiction community! I have not come across any negativity and have only received support and encouragement from everyone. So I guess what I want to say is that everyone can just carry on what they are doing now! I hope that there will be some more flash fiction writers from South Africa joining in in the future!

Flash! Past: Image Ronin

§ WHAT MAKES A STORY GOOD? As they say, ask a dozen readers and you’ll get a dozen answers. That’s as it should be, because stories resonate differently for each of us. The haunting poem speaking to you now and the clever satire speaking to me, may each take second place to the fledgling writer’s imperfect but heartfelt etude next week which clobbers us both. There’s a place in our heart-libraries for all of these voices; it’s what makes the worlds of reading and writing so diversely beautiful.

At the same time (yes, same time! voice and authenticity work in perfect tension with the more objective measures) it would be silly to pretend there aren’t powerful weapons writers can learn to wield, or literature professors would be out of a job. As one whose dragonpast includes heaps of word judgery, I’m delighted to re-share with you this Fire&Ice season a clawful of my FF flash favorites along with a few comments on why they caught my dragoneye. First up: join us for a leap back in time with Flashdog Image Ronin.


 

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This original Flash Points posted June 9, 2014

Welcome to Flash Points. Today’s post resurrects an old (ish) romp in which a story from the previous week’s competition is devoured for its deliciousness, bite by bite. In other words, we look at it up close and personal to help us in our pursuit of what makes great flash. Hungry? Let’s eat!

Prompt: Bell Tower

Word limit:  140 – 160 words

Today’s chosen flash piece:  The Messengerby Image Ronin

From the bell tower Arcane watched orange flowers bloom in the twilight. One after the other, a constellation of beacons spluttered into life, sending their plight to the capital.

There was nothing else he could do. Arcane slumped down by the bell, whose rough rope had flayed the skin from his hands. He had tolled The Sentinel till his shoulders had ached, her solemn declaration almost overwhelming the screams and sounds of battle that emanated from the village.

Tolled till orange flowers bloomed.

The sound of wood giving way to force stirred Arcane back to reality. The invaders had gained entry. Soon they would ascend the worn stone steps to find the young scholar.

Shoulders complaining, Arcane took up his axe and buckler. He had hoped the invaders would have moved on, or that the Capital’s knights would arrive in time.

But such thoughts were that of a child.

Now he had to die as a man.

What works

It’s fun seeing how a photo often sends writers’ minds on similar treks. An ancient bell tower and a theme of “fire” brought a flurry of tales of warning and destruction. A few writers’ entries stood out as fresh and unique: Brett Milam, of course, and his (winning) metaphorical interpretation;  Tamara Shoemaker and William Goss and their poetic spins; and Maggie Duncan for a futuristic twist. When approaching a writing prompt, rejecting that first idea that pops into your head can be a helpful way to make sure your story will stand out from the others. Look beyond the obvious, the superficial, and dare to take a story in a totally different direction.

Image Ronin‘s The Messenger follows suit with the majority who wrote of the onslaught of war and an individual’s dramatic actions at the bell tower. In the case of this story, then, it is not the concept but the execution that sets it apart. Let me tell you a few things I love about this piece.

The story is written tightly and cleanly. The 150-word threshold at FF is roomier than one might think, but it does not allow for the tiniest bit of excess. No extra thats, no wasted movements, no character’s idle thoughts. Every sentence, every word, needs to push the story forward, which it does beautifully in this story. That’s some fantastic editing! Nothing could be cut from “The Messenger” without losing an important element. It is also grammatically clean and typo-free.

Many flash fiction writers’ first drafts are hundreds of words long, and then they hack at the story to meet the word count (like Cinderella’s stepsisters and the glass slipper!!). This is, of course, a perfectly valid approach; no writer can tell another the “right” way to pen a tale. The problem, however, is you need the right amount of story for the allotted space. In my own writing, sometimes it helps to worry less about cutting away words and first think a bit more about cutting down the underlying plot. Notice how much “The Messenger” doesn’t tell us. There’s zero backstory. We don’t know the country, the politics, the names of the invaders, whether the protagonist has a family. But in this piece those things are extraneous. The story Image is telling us, after all, isn’t of a village’s lost battle; it’s the very specific, very tiny arc of a single moment: a character’s shift from childhood to maturity.

In a similar vein, it’s easy to think of flash fiction top-down, i.e. sawing off the blubber. It can sometimes be more helpful to think bottom-up. In other words, instead of focusing on the extra words, look at the primary words. Some of the most powerful flash fiction is accomplished by words with multiple jobs. Look at some of the tools Image uses in his story:

Interesting, evocative verbs

Arcane slumped down by the bell.

beacons spluttered into life

Intentional structure (here, repeated phrases which echo the sounding of the bell)

Arcane watched orange flowers bloom

He had tolled The Sentinel

Tolled till orange flowers bloomed

Strong sensory language

Arcane watched orange flowers bloom 

rough rope had flayed the skin from his hands

overwhelming the screams and sounds of battle

The sound of wood giving way

Shoulders complaining 

Subtle little trick

Note the MC’s name, Arcane, which means Understood by few; mysterious; secret. How perfect!

And finally, “The Messenger” has something to say. It isn’t “just” a story. In this respect, its theme of defiance in the face of despair is reminiscent of many other stories this week, including the winner’s. What makes that heroic theme unique here is the defiance is only superficially against the invaders. The greater defiance is against his own exhaustion and pain, his inexperience, the immature temptation to put himself first. Man vs. self, as they say. That’s a heck of a textured battle for 150 words, and that layering of depth launches this story to another level altogether.

Wonderfully done.

Your turn! How do you approach a prompt? What tools do you use in your own flash writing which have proven the most effective?