CONTESTS


By Jim Harrington

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As part of the 2014 National Flash Fiction Day-New Zealand, a contest was held for the best flash story of 300 words or fewer. Below I interview the winners–Sarah Dunn, First Place for Islands and Cities; Tricia Hanifin, Second Place for With Our Eyes Closed We Begin to Dance; and Sue Kingham, Third Place for Just My Luck.

Flash Fiction Chronicles: What draws you to flash fiction?

Sarah Dunn2

Sarah Dunn: It’s an interesting new shape. I didn’t give the form much thought until it occurred to me that flash fiction could be treated like a hybrid between poetry and traditional short stories, and there’s a lot of fertile space between those two poles.

Partricia Hanifin

Trisha Hanifin: A number of things: the challenge of brevity and intensity, and the sense of intimacy such intensity can create; the process of finding what is essential in a story and what is superfluous; and the condensed nature of flash makes it a close relation to poetry.

I’ve always liked Frank O’Connor’s argument that short stories represent a struggle with time, that they’re an attempt to reach some vantage point from which past and future are equally visible. I think this is especially true of flash fiction because what you often see on the page is a mid pointor flash point—between the past and future, both of which are not mentioned but are somehow made visible by the tiny, spotlighted moment of the story.

Sue KinghamSue Kingham: I am a student on the Hagley Writers’ Institute first year course in Christchurch. This year I began entering writing competitions and submitting my stories to the Flash Frontier website. I enjoy writing flash fiction and the length has enabled me to produce a number of stories in a short period of time.

FFC: Once you decided to enter this year’s NFFD NZ competition, what was your process for developing a story to submit? Where did the idea for your story come from?

Sarah Dunn: I might get into trouble for telling you this, but when I’m writing short pieces, I like to email early drafts to my work inbox and then leave the replies open all day so I can fiddle with them whenever I have a spare minute. For me, there’s a bit of a bell curve effect that governs how much effort I can successfully put into editing without sending the story off into wild and hostile territory, so addressing the job in short intervals keeps everything low-key.

The idea for Islands and Cities came from a combination of two pieces of media: Andrea O’Neil’s 2013 news story from the Dominion Post about the Spicer Landfill’s real-life seagull problem; and a majestic clip I saw on a David Attenborough documentary showing thousands of white seabirds plummeting into the sea all at once. Bird (and human) societies are fascinating.

Trisha Hanifin: This particular story developed out of an older, much longer story I’d been working on for a couple of years. I’d tried a number of different versions and lengths and never felt happy with them so this competition was an opportunity to try and find the core of the story again. In a more general way, a lot of my ideas for stories come from an imagined intersection between images, emotions and characters from popular culture and the character’s life in the story. Often I use songs, but in this instance, it was the Peanuts cartoon. I’m fascinated by the way in ordinary life, music, lyrics, images and symbols infiltrate our imaginations, become attached to our emotions and memories and become markers for important phases of our lives. I’ve always loved the qualites of sadness and bewilderment Charlie Brown has, and Snoopy’s joy and imagination, and I wanted to suggest all those possibilities and qualities in the story.

Sue Kingham: I frequently get ideas from reading the newspaper. I spotted the name Rowdy in an article and in the same paper I read a quote from someone who said they thought they were cursed although they didn’t believe in God. Creativity is a blending process, and these ideas were in my mind when I opened a photograph album with the intention of writing a story based on an old holiday. The image which caught my eye was of a South America street performer dressed as Jesus. My story came together from these three prompts.

FFC: Is your approach different depending on the length of story you plan to write? (Do you have an idea in advance how long a story will be?) For example, in the case of this competition the maximum word count was 300. What if the max was 1500?

Sarah Dunn: Whenever I’ve asked my chief reporter how many words she wants on a particular news topic, the answer has been: “Write it for what it’s worth.” It’s very difficult trying to craft story to fit a particular word count, but some ideas are worth more words than others. You get a feeling for which ideas might work with different shapes.

Trisha Hanifin: Mostly when I start writing a story I have no idea how long it will be or what will happen, I’m just exploring a mood or an emotion—sometimes I’ll have particular words or a voice in my head and I just try and follow that. I write very slowly over a long period of time, trying to find the center of the story. Writing flash fiction is often a process of removing everything unnecessary, no padding, no flab, so it’s a great writing teacher, a great discipline to learn. It’s enabled me to go back and look at longer stories and ‘flash’ sections of them—cut and shape them—until they’re clearer, cleaner, tighter. Less is, by definition, more in flash.

Sue Kingham: With flash fiction I enjoy capturing a specific moment in time while hinting at a complex backstory. There is little room for character development or a large cast list. If the maximum word count had been 1500 words, I would have been able to show some of the protagonist’s home life with his mother and Rowdy. However, the joy of flash fiction is that less is always more.

FFC: What other works have you published? What does your crystal ball say about your writing future?

Sarah Dunn: Working in the newsroom sucks up a lot of time and energy, and so far, all of my major writing achievements have been in journalism. I’ve just returned from six weeks reporting in South Korea, thanks to a grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation, and I’m looking forward to seeing the material I gathered in Seoul and at the Demilitarized Zone published as long-form articles shortly.

I’d love to eventually see my work in fiction and non-fiction evolving a little more in parallel, but as long as I’ve got interesting things to write about one way or another, I’m content.

Trisha Hanifin: I’m quite new to flash fiction, I’ve only been writing it for a couple of years. This year I’ve had pieces published in Turbine and in Flash Frontier. In the past, I’ve been shortlisted in longer short story competitions in New Zealand and I completed a Masters in Creative Writing in 2010. I’m currently trying to complete a novel that I’ve been working on for a long time but often get sidetracked by writing other things. I love flash fiction because I get to finish something!

Sue Kingham: My other two published works have been flash fiction. My story, Family Outing, was chosen for Flash Frontier’s February 2014 collection, and in May I won the Scottish Literary Trust’s 50 word competition with a piece entitled The Twitcher. I am currently working on a YA science fiction novel and my dream is to make a career as an author. I appreciate this is a long shot – my crystal ball must be second-hand, because it refuses to reveal anything beyond this year.

____________

Sarah Dunn is a journalist who lives in Nelson. She graduated from Wellington’s Victoria University with a B.A. Hons in English Literature and Religious Studies. She is 26.

Trisha Hanifin has worked in adult education and adult literacy for over 25 years teaching a range of subjects including reading and writing at both foundational and academic levels. She has written on the nature and extent of adults’ literacy issues in Facing the Challenge: Foundation Learning for Adults in Aotearoa New Zealand, (Dunmore Press, 2008). In 2010 she gained a Masters of Creative Writing at Auckland University of Technology. Trisha writes short stories, flash fiction and is currently working on a novel, Ghost Travellers. Her stories have been shortlisted in a number of New Zealand competitions including the BNZ literary awards. This year her flash fiction has been published in Turbine and Flash Frontiers.

The February 2011 earthquake shook a love of writing back to the surface of Sue Kingham’s life: a case of literary fiction as opposed to liquefaction. She joined Helen Hogan’s WEA creative writing class in Christchurch and went on to become a member of the South Island Writers Association. Sue has attended several short writing courses and is currently a first year student at the Hagley Writer’s Institute. She has written poetry, a play for children, numerous short stories and she particularly enjoys writing flash fiction. She is currently working on a YA science fiction novel. She is married and is a busy mum with two primary aged children. When she’s manages to grab a spare moment, she can usually be found with her nose in a good book.

**Ms. Dunn’s picture taken by Marion van Dijk.

by Jim Harrington

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Jim Harrington began writing fiction in 2007 and has agonized over the form ever since. His stories have appeared in Every Day Fiction, Liquid Imagination, Ink Sweat and Tears, Near to the Knuckle, Flashes in the Dark, and others. He serves as the Managing Editor for Flash Fiction Chronicles. Jim’s Six Questions For . . . blog provides editors and publishers a place to “tell it like it is.” You can read more of his stories at http://jpharrington.blogspot.com.

by Susan Tepperif

Alison McBain lives in Connecticut with her husband and two daughters. She has short stories forthcoming or published in SpeckLit, On the Premises, and the anthology Fundamentally Challenged. You can find out more about work and read her blog at alisonmcbain.com.

The Maybe Baby
by Alison McBain

The fetus is abnormal, they told Katie. No blame on you, the doctors reassured her. Faulty wiring, some problem with connection.

She sat there, blank, as they rambled on with praise for her one healthy child. Not safe at her age to conceive, of course. With eyes dripping sympathy, the words they did not say out loud: her problem, not theirs. Ultimately, when she didn’t respond, they used the “A” word.

“No,” she told them. “Thank you,” belatedly.

Tom wouldn’t be bothered, she thought as she drove home. Sad voice, but transparent with a lack of catastrophe. What was one person’s end-of-the world meant nothing to another. “Bills to pay,” he’d tell her. “Mistakes are expensive.”

Feelings marked out in cash. Just like the doctor: nothing wrong with him. It was her complication, her fault.

She pulled into the driveway through a litter of unraked leaves, the tires crunching them like small bones. The babysitter was waiting for her. The girl popped gum and checked her black fingernails as Katie counted out bills. “Thanks, Mrs. J,” she said.

Katie’s daughter sat on the floor, playing quietly with puzzle pieces as the teenager left. None of the puzzles were complete anymore–they were all missing something vital.

She sat on the couch and looked outside the window at the grey clouds rushing towards culmination. Sometimes, she wished for thunder and lighting, not just the peace of rain. A simple lapse. Maybe the storm tonight would wash the air clean again.

***

Susan Tepper:  Your story ‘The Maybe Baby’ asks more questions than it answers, which is a sign of compelling fiction. Do you think the husband will at some point come to understand his wife’s feelings?

Alison McBane: Through no fault of his own, I believe it would be hard for the husband to empathize with his wife’s feelings. Understanding has become a casualty of their long relationship, of lives lived side by side for so many years without much overlap.  If a tragedy overwhelmed her husband, would she be able to support him how he needed?  I think the answer might be the same.

ST:  Do you picture the husband capable of loving the baby, assuming it does arrive into this world?

A.M.B.:  If the baby survived, I think there would be love on Tom’s part.  In the story, there is no indication that his wife thinks he is a bad father, just that his problem – and his wife’s – might be in expressing love in a healthy way towards each other.  They can’t empathize with each other, and part of the fault seems to be communication.  Katie imagines how a conversation with Tom might play out, but she doesn’t actually have the conversation.  It stays internal, and thus remains wholly in her control.

ST: In this story you’ve created an immediate dramatic conflict, and also, in such a short writing space, you’ve created a strong sense of place. I feel her ‘aloneness’ as a physical space within and surrounding her. For me, it becomes the essential ‘place’ in the story. Do you think the husband has this alone space, too, or does he fill it up with ‘male things’ to escape what is pending?

A.M.B.: They approach the same situation from opposite perspectives, so while the husband is aware of a lack in their relationship, he probably wouldn’t see it as coming from within.  Whereas Katie has created a complete internal landscape, her husband occupies a more practical world, where a problem is only a problem because one hasn’t looked hard enough for a solution.  Problems to him aren’t internal, but external, and so can be solved with external things.

S.T.: Thank you, Alison, for your clear and frank answers about your story plot.  It’s a subject that carries a lot of heat both politically and morally. And probably will continue to do so for some time to come.

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 Susan-Tepper200wSusan Tepper has authored 5 published books. The latest is a novel in stories called The Merrill Diaries, from Pure Slush Books (http://pureslush.webs.com/store.htm#916515853). She is a named finalist in storySouth Million Writers Award for 2013, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction (2010), and nine times for the Pushcart Prize. Tepper is a staff editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles where she conducts the interview series UNCOV/rd.  www.susantepper.com

by Susan Tepper

Lexi Lerner

Alexis Hope Lerner is a violinist, composer, and biology nerd from New Jersey. A student at the Manhattan School of Music, she has been a prizewinner in multiple national and international competitions. When Lexi is not practicing or composing, she can be found in her high school’s Environmental Science Center (where she hangs out with the turtles) or watching movies with her cat Marie Antoinette. Lexi dreams of becoming a virologist, a film composer, an explorer, or some wonderful combination of all three. Next year, she will be attending Brown University as part of the 8-year Program for Liberal Medical Education.

Foreigner
by Alexis Lerner

Twenty feet from the left entrance of the Port Authority was where the man called home.

Around him was a semicircular buffer zone enclosed in broken bottles, shielding him from Manhattan’s noisy sea of taxis and commuters.

In his coat pocket: a blunt razor, half a comb and 87¢. No cardboard sign. He didn’t want pity.

He was more a grizzly bear than a man. A mother of four walked by–a swan with trailing cygnets. She huddled them into her arms’ nest. -Don’t get too close, children, or he might bite.

Through cataract-riddled eyes, the man saw the smallest break from the group and skip towards him through the snow. A six-year-old princess with Mary Janes and a mink hat. She accidentally kicked over a bottle.

“Excusez-moi. Voulez-vous un ami?”

Is she talking to me?- He grimaced, sinking deeper into himself. Only his bulbous nose and coarse beard showed between his hat and scarf.

She smelled like sugar cookies. Warmth. Safety. Protected by youth, innocence and socioeconomic status.

He hated her.

He heard a zipper; then the mother’s boots quickly clacking against the sidewalk. She snatched her daughter’s hand, hissing in a foreign tongue as they retreated.

The man lifted his gaze. In the child’s open knapsack was a teddy bear just as grizzly as he was–beady eyes yearning, disappointed.

He sighed and looked up past the Port Authority overhang, past the Times Square skyscrapers, and into the endless grey space, hoping to see some ultimate good there.

 ***

Susan Tepper: Your story takes place outside of a somewhat controversial NYC landmark. How do you feel when you enter it, or walk by it?

Alexis Hope Lerner: On Wednesdays, I intern at a recording studio in the city; to get there, I take a bus in from New Jersey to the Port Authority. Usually I have my headphones on and am planning out the long work day ahead as I go down all of the escalators and pass the various shops and cafes on the first floor: Starbucks, Au Bon Pain, Hudson News, etc. The Port Authority entrance is almost completely glass, and what I see – every week, without fail – rocks me from my complacent state. People with untrimmed beards and dirty faces, wrapped up in wooly, musty blankets, create little islands for themselves on the thick sidewalk in front of the building. To me, it is astounding how many commuters – including myself – look past them as if they were part of the urban landscape itself. It is unfortunately too common a sight in the city – especially at the Port Authority – to see the homeless in public places in broad daylight. We become numb to what is around us, and that is what I am most afraid of. The distraction of daily life allows us to look past the hunger and pain that is often right before our eyes.

ST:  In a surreal sense, the homeless, the grifters, the addicts that populate the area around Port Authority are ‘foreigners’ as compared with the lives of the day-to-day people who use the terminal strictly for transit.  Interestingly, you have given real ‘foreigners’ entry into this story.  Why not just some average Americans?

AHL: I agree with you in that the homeless are certainly “foreigners” within the Port Authority environment. But the other foreigners there are not the people whom we might expect. The fact that the French family is not native to the area does not necessarily render them “foreign” to the Manhattan sentiment towards the homeless. Actually, the only true outlier in the story – at least to me –  is the little girl, and that is for reasons other than her nationality. The point is that callousness towards the homeless is an international epidemic. Even the people we would expect to be foreigners in this story’s microenvironment – those who live across the world from the Port Authority – fit in all too well.

ST:  All too true. Did you know ahead of time that you would make them French (or other than Americans), or did this just strike you as you moved along the keyboard (or paper) writing?

AHL: I always knew there should be a language barrier between the little girl and the vagrant because I wanted her intentions and character to be clear beyond her words. The idea of making the family French, specifically, struck me as I was writing; it stemmed from the fact that our perception of French culture is often tagged with a romanticized view of its “poshness”. Consider how we view Coco Chanel, Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton… or even how we idealize the concept of being a “starving artist” in a beautiful Parisian flat, eating baguettes and sipping on hot cocoa in cafes and boutiques.

ST:  As in the famous opera La Boheme.  Which didn’t end well either.

AHL:  There is a certain sense of unattainable charm and glamour associated with French culture, which many Americans covet. But when I visited Paris six years ago, I saw firsthand a surprising number of homeless men and women sitting on steps outside of bakeries and museums. Even if Paris is the “city of love”, it is not exempt from the cruelties of reality. That realization affected me deeply and was integral to this story. Although the vagrant views the family as swan-like and elite, the mother’s ugly feathers show when she huddles her children away from him and turns a cold shoulder – a behavior that breaks our romanticized view of foreign culture. Even the most posh and beautiful of us can be ugly on the inside.

____________

Susan-Tepper200w

Susan Tepper has authored 5 published books. The latest is a novel in stories called The Merrill Diaries, from Pure Slush Books. She is a named finalist in storySouth Million Writers Award for 2013, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction (2010), and nine times for the Pushcart Prize. Tepper is a staff editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles where she conducts the interview series UNCOV/rd.  www.susantepper.com

by Aliza Greenblatt

JC Towler

J.C. Towler, the second place winner in our String-of-10 contest, is in the market for a gently used Time-Turner or Transmorgifier. He has been an editor at Every Day Fiction since 2010, but wears more hats than you could possibly be interested in knowing about.

 

Private Lessons
by John Towler

 Orderlies barged through the entrance of triage, dropping their litter on the table with an unceremonious bump.  The wounded soldier reeked of the battlefield, burnt gunpowder and mud.  Her left arm dangled like a pendulum in decline, blood running down fingers traced chaotic patterns on the once white floor.

I performed a rapid assessment of her injuries, as Costas snipped away uniform remnants.

“You safe now…” He paused over her name tag.  “Private Gomez.  Estás seguro.”

He hooked her to a cardiac monitor then brushed a few strands of hair from of her staring, unresponsive eyes.

Dr. Kerns marched in, razor creases and polished shoes rivaling any rear echelon four-star.  A stateside doctor on voluntary rotation, he’d tried to join every branch of the service but kept getting four-f-ed over because of mole-like eyesight.

“Report.”

“Two thoracic GSW’s, through and through. Bilateral pneumothorax.  BP’s dropping.”

Kerns peered down at chest of the dying soldier through Coke-bottle glasses.  His nose crinkled in disdain.

“Those are exit wounds.”

“Apparently.”

“Running from the fight, no doubt.”  He poked at the injuries.  “She’s done. Save the effort for someone deserving.”

“Sir, this soldier has a rhythm.”

He grabbed her chart began writing.

“Injuries incompatible with life,” he said.

Orderlies returning with another wounded soldier interrupted my possibly career-ending reply.  A platoon sergeant followed behind.

“Gomez in here?” he asked.  I nodded.

“Do your best for her,” he said.  He jerked a thumb at the wounded man.  “She was carrying him.”

***

Aliza Greenblatt: Congratulations on placing in the String-of-Ten Contest! Can you tell us a little about how this story evolved? What were some of the challenges of writing a 250 word story?

JC Towler: My brother, Blake, just retired from a military career (24 years in the Navy and Army).  One of his assignments had him flying medevac choppers on a tour in Iraq 2.0 and he’s a real hero.  So the military was on my mind. I work with several women in my primary job (law enforcement) and while things have come a long way, there are still a few social Neanderthals – like Dr. Kerns in the story – who have some reservations about women in “men’s jobs”. It all coalesced into the theme and plot of Private Lessons.

Flash is a challenge because you’ve got to incorporate all those elements common to any sort of creative writing that make a reader want to spend time with your words. A 250 word story is just four times more challenging to write than a 1000 word story.

AG: You’ve been an editor for EDF for several years as well as a dedicated fiction writer. What do you think is the key to writing an effective flash piece?

JCT: Be interesting. Your title must be interesting.  Your opening sentence must be interesting. Your characters must be interesting.  As long as the reader is interested, they’ll stick with your story short of an unexpected natural disaster in their immediate vicinity. But even if their reading is interrupted by a natural disaster, your story should be so interesting that, as soon as they pull themselves from the rubble or find high ground to escape the rising flood waters, they should get back to turning pages.

AG: What I find interesting about this story is there’s a pivotal moment where several characters’ life courses are going to be decided. One is obviously Private Gomez and the others are the doctor and the narrator whose decisions could be career shattering. Being that you didn’t have a lot of time (in terms of word count) to build the story, was it a challenge to find the correct balance of tension and information to bring that moment to life?

JCT: Yes. First draft: 517 words.

The narrator wound up losing the most time in the story, but in some ways the loss became a gain. Less defined (to the point where even the gender is a bit ambiguous) the narrator is more of a shell that the reader fills in with their own personality. It’s like telling a story in the 2nd person without the force-fed “you” point of view. It’d be hard to do with a longer piece, but with flash it worked okay.

AG: There is the theme in this story of the people who seem to have honor and the people who actually do. The doctor should – and appears to have it – but it’s the nameless narrator and the private who make the honorable choices. Do you think the doctor will change from this experience? Will the narrator?

JCT: For the doctor, probably not. There are a certain people in this world whose egos will not allow them to accept personal error or admit to bad judgement and a large percentage of that group are represented by politicians, Fox News Personalities, and surgeons.

I hope the narrator would be more assertive the next time something like this happens, but as a subordinate to the doctor in both military rank and in the operating room hierarchy, it would be tough. Laws protecting whistleblowers are completely inadequate and in reality when somebody is faced with “doing the right thing” the “right thing” takes a back seat to career, family, and reputation.

AG: I’m always curious what drives writers to become writers. Why do you tell stories? What keeps you writing? What type of stories do you prefer to write?

JCT: I’m principally a fantasy and science fiction guy (which is odd in that both times I’ve placed in the String-of-Ten contest, neither piece has been in that genre). Honestly, my writing has taken a back seat to work, family and my second job as a videographer.  I’m very visually and sound-oriented, to the point that when I write I have to remind myself “Don’t forget the other three senses” and video work appeals to me because those are the primary mediums of expression.  (My latest effort is about the rescue and rehabilitation of a hummingbird.  You can watch it here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jTyU_P0n4o)

AG: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.

JCT: Thanks for the questions.

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 Aliza profile-pic-2Aliza T. Greenblatt works in a firmly non-writing field when the sun is up and writes under a desk lamp at night.   Fueled by a sheer love of books and a tyrannical imagination, she writes the stories that appear over her morning coffee and won’t leave her alone until they are put down on paper. She writes, raves, and blogs at http://atgreenblatt.com. and on Twitter @AtGreenblatt.

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