CONTESTS


by J. Chris Lawrence

Denise Beck-Clark, no longer having to earn a living as a psychotherapist, is a full time writer, Raphael’s mother, and not-frequent-enough traveler. She lives in metro New YorDenise Beck Clarkk.  Her blog and info about two published books can be seen atwww.denisebeck-clark.com.

 

The Handkerchief
by Denise Beck-Clark

My dearest friend Peter left New York for the West Coast, saying that if he didn’t accumulate a new set of esthetics he was bound for Gehenna.

“New York is too European,” he explained. “Too old. I can’t handle the emotional intensity here.”

I tried convincing him that you take yourself and your emotions wherever you go, but his mind was set. He was determined to follow this imagined route to serenity.

So he went. I missed our talks; I missed sharing books. Though we still communicated by mail and phone, it wasn’t the same as co-existing in the same neighborhood.

As the years went by, we corresponded less. Then one day I learned that Peter’s body was found in the home of a well-known drag queen in San Francisco, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot. Shortly after, I received a letter on scented paper in an unfamiliar hand. The message was succinct: “Peter saved this for you.”

It was a handkerchief. Pale, egg-shell, with delicate flowered embroidery. A little tag said, “Czechoslovakia, 1921.” Also, a note in Peter’s writing: “For Sarah, from a time before everything went south, and I went west.”

I had seen the handkerchief before; it belonged to his grandmother who was murdered in 1944. That this little square of cloth continued to exist while Peter did not was a sad, unbearable irony. I used it to dab at my eyes, then put it away so safely I would never find it again.

 ***

 J. Chris Lawrence: I love the theme of pursuing a false sense of serenity. It’s the classic “grass is greener” adage that so many of us can relate to that really brings Peter to life, and it is Sarah’s struggle to show him this that not only clutches the heart, but earns this excellent piece our PMMP award. How much did the aphorism influence your work before writing? Did you expect Peter’s fate to end as it did from the beginning?

Denise Beck-Clark: I’ve come to understand that a lot of my writing happens below the level of consciousness.  In preparation to write this story I looked over the prompt words and read the aphorism a few times, then just started writing.  I think this particular quote fit well into my thinking because I’m a former psychotherapist and, as you might imagine, a lot of what I did was help people to discover within themselves the truths they needed to know, about themselves and in general.

JCL: Speaking of themes, many authors tend to explore and revisit specific themes that may speak to them in some personal way. Are there any themes or genres that you find yourself returning to with your work?

DB-C: Definitely.  My work tends to be psychological and/or philosophical, and character-driven.  I tend to present emotions and behaviors that most of us grapple with to varying degrees, such as ambivalence, indecision, self-image, self-esteem, etc.

JCL: Despite the limitations of the contest, your story manages to capture a depth of history and a sense of a living world. What were some of your biggest challenges while attempting to do so much with so few words?

DB-C: To be honest, this story came rather easily to me, perhaps because of, rather than despite, having to use specific words.  But in writing flash fiction in general, the biggest challenge is presenting everything about the characters and what happens to them with a limited number of words.  You have to think of the shortest and most vivid way of saying things.  In a way I think that’s why incorporating prompt words into a story helped because the story evolved around them rather than the other way around.

JCL: How did the prompt words affect your process? Did you choose them prior to beginning the story, or did they evolve as part of the process?

DB-C: As I’m realizing now the prompt words had a large effect on the writing process.  I zeroed in on the words that I liked or was drawn to and constructed a story around them.  I had thought of doing a memorial to an old friend of mine who did move to San Francisco, live in the LGBT community, and die there, though of course, other details are fiction.  The story evolved as a process of semi-consciously combining the prompt words, the theme, and thoughts of my friend.

JCL: What is it about flash fiction that you find appealing? What drives you to create short shorts like this?

DB-C: What I love about flash fiction, both as a writer and as a reader, is that it’s one form of instant gratification I don’t have to give up because it’s not good for me!  I love being able to read a complete story in a few minutes’ time.  Likewise, I love being able to write and complete something without spending months or years on it.  I also enjoy the specific challenges of writing flash fiction, as indicated above.

JCL: Now that you’ve won our PMMP award, what’s next for Denise Beck-Clark?

DB-C: Well, before I win the Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes :), I’ll need to finish several works-in-progress and then have many of my already written works published.  This includes many poems, short stories, and novels, one completed and several in the works.  And, I will keep writing flash, because it’s an enjoyable treat that’s proven to be possible.

JCL: Finally, what advice can you give for the aspiring authors out there?

DB-C: Well, Chris, besides the old saying “practice, practice, practice,” I’d say stick with it.  Find whatever in yourself that is stubborn and tenacious and don’t give up.  It’s also good to learn craft, both by reading a lot and in more formal ways such as classes or workshops.  In the end, if you’re meant to be a good or great, and/or published writer, you will be.

____________

 j chris lawrenceBorn in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia, J. Chris Lawrence  spent much of his youth traveling and exploring the various cultural facets of American life. He currently lives in the Los Angeles area with his wife, two sons, and two cats. You can find more of Chris’s work online at jchrislawrence.com, or follow him on Twitter (twitter.com/JChrisLawrence) and Facebook (facebook.com/JCLFiction).

by Jim Harrington

Suzan Palumbo

Suzan Palumbo lives in Brampton, Ontario with her husband and two daughters.  Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, she is an ESL teacher who loves Alfred Hitchcock, curry, music and growing tomatoes.  Her stories are often inspired by clashes of culture and the gap between expectations and reality.

 

Roots
by Suzan Palumbo

Emily retraced the route she used to escape her parents’ biases. When the memory of her father’s fist cracking the kitchen table threatened to make her turn the car around, she glanced at Zoe asleep in her booster seat and continued down the old familiar roads.

Her mother’s prophecy had been half true. Zaid left but he had not used Emily and flung her aside. They were separated by the hot wheels and flesh distorting metal he used at work. Emily held Zaid’s hand, surrounded by wires and tubes, until he let go. Then, she clung to Zoe, whose pecan coloured skin and quick smile solidified his fading existence.

In her parent’s driveway she woke Zoe and let her skip down the path to look at a peach tinted flower. Emily’s mother came out from the side yard.

“Hello, are you lost?” She was confused at finding a small child in her garden.

“No, mom, she isn’t.”

Emily’s mother stood quietly staring at Zoe and then crouched down next to her.

“Would you like to help me plant a flower?”

“Yes!” Zoe flashed Zaid’s smile.

Emily’s mother showed Zoe how to dig a hole and not damage the flower’s roots. When they were done she wiped Zoe’s hands with a handkerchief and invited them both inside. Emily nodded and Zoe ran towards the front door.

“What about Dad?” Emily asked her mother.

“He’s been trying to fix the kitchen table.” Emily’s mother stepped aside and let them in.

***

Jim Harrington: What was it about the contest prompt that led you to write Emily’s story?

 Suzan Palumbo: I zeroed in on the word bias and saw the image of Emily returning home with Zoe, hoping to prove her parents wrong. I also liked that the word route, as a homophone, has opposing meanings.  Roots keep you grounded; they also don’t let you move, whereas a route is a course we use to leave.  I felt these contrasting meanings did a good job of symbolizing the conflicts Emily has been struggling to overcome.

There are aspects of my own life in Emily’s story.  My husband and I are from different cultural and racial backgrounds.  We’ve never experienced the level of intolerance that Emily and Zaid encountered, but there have been a few people who were skeptical that we could find any commonalities on which to base our lives. Emily knows that Zoe has the ability to shift her grandparents’ perspective better than any well reasoned argument.  Zoe is the commonality that this family needs to come back together.

I also want to recognize that this is also part of Zaid’s story. It was difficult writing about his death, as I felt I connected with him on a cultural and emotional level. He is definitely a character I’m going to explore further in the future.

JH:  Final Judge Meg Tuite commented on the “beauty of its language and the use of dialogue to tell the story of three generations.” Many authors struggle with getting the dialog just right. Do you have a secret to writing effective dialog?

SP: Whenever I write dialogue I try to keep the question, “So, what’s your point?” in the back of my head.” If what the character is saying has no impact on the plot, character or meaning of the story, I try to take it out or rework it while trying to keep the exchange realistic sounding.

Moments of silence are also important.  In my personal life I don’t always have a snappy, well thought out answer when I’m trying to have a meaningful conversation. People dialogue without speaking all of the time and I think it’s important to include aspects of non-verbal dialogue in our writing.

JH:  I like how the story circles back to the father and the kitchen table. What did you hope the show the reader by doing that?

SP:  Emily’s father realizes his anger and intolerance have cost him his daughter and family.  He wants to rectify the situation but doesn’t know how.  I hope one day this family can sit around their kitchen table and eat and laugh and talk.  Of course, Zaid will be missing and the crack in the table will never completely disappear.  This absence will always be present when they sit down together.  I don’t think reconciliation is going to be easy; there are going to be missteps, but I wanted to show that they were all willing to try.

JH:  Writing a captivating story in 250 words or less is a challenge. Do you write stories of this length or shorter regularly?

SP:  Yes. I’m currently working on a series of one hundred word stories.  It’s challenging but I like that the length forces me to consider the effectiveness of each word since each word may need to fulfill more than one function.  I’m also working on a piece that’s around 1500 words.  I tend to stick to pieces that are under 3000 words.

JH:  Do you have other works online that we can point our readers to?

SP: This is my first published piece.  It’s been a very rewarding experience.   Thank you for your thoughtful questions and for organizing a great contest.

____________

jimharrington2

Jim Harrington began writing fiction in 2007 and has agonized over the form ever since. 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 J. Chris Lawrence 

Martin Chandler

Martin Chandler is a writer from Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is currently perfecting his car-dodging skills, and running a blog at littleweestories.wordpress.com.

 

The Handkerchief Tree
by Martin Chandler 

The tradition began with a sad old man. To some it was a memorial, to others a tourist attraction.

The old man owned a small field that, over a lifetime, he had worked into an orchard. He eventually lost his son to a car accident, then his wife to cancer, and finally all but a single pecan tree in his fields had died, from what it didn’t matter.

As the old man felt God’s bias against him, he walked to the lone surviving tree, which sat near the edge of a cliff, looking out on the ocean. He tied his damp handkerchief to the tree, leapt over the edge, and ended his existence on the rocks below.

The executor of the old man’s will, a tired, lonely woman, saw his handkerchief blowing in the breeze, and tied her own to the tree while inspecting the property. She then returned to her work of handling the man’s terse, succinct wishes: Everything to the local land trust, for conservation.

Over time, the route to the coast transformed from a dirt track into a paved highway, the area around the tree from a green lawn to a paved parking lot. The long dead pecan trees were torn out, replaced with scraggly bushes. More handkerchiefs accumulated on the tree until there was little trunk left to be seen; only cotton blowing hope in the breeze.

 ***

J. Chris Lawrence: Congratulations again on winning second place in this year’s FFC String-of-10 contest! Some of the features of your story that really resonated with me was how it revolved around the tree itself, how it survived so much change, and how its persistence affected so many people. Did this concept play a role in your planning or did it come about organically?

Martin Chandler: Thank you very much! The concept of the tree came pretty organically. I sat down with the words and just started writing. “Route”, “scraggly”, and “coast” all built an image in my mind of a lone tree with a road leading to it. The rest built up from there; I had to answer why the tree was alone, what it was doing, and what significance it had. The words given all helped in that.

JCL: You managed to use most of the prompt words in your story, which is certainly no small feat. How did these words affect your process? Did you choose how to use them prior to beginning the story, or did they evolve as part of the process?

MC: The words really inspired the process for me. I worked more from those than the quote given, though I’m sure that was twirling around in my subconscious as well. And I actually tried to make use of all of the words. I think I managed it, though had to adapt a few to circumstance. “Exist” became “existence”, for instance. I didn’t plan it all out and then write. Instead, as I developed the story, I kept looking back to see which words I hadn’t used yet. They really helped drive its creation.

JCL: Writing Flash can certainly be a challenge. While working on this story, what part of the process did you find most challenging?

MC: I think the much smaller limit than normal was the greatest challenge. Editors all define Flash differently, from anything under 1000 words, which I’m used to, to less then 250, as in this case. I think most of my previous Flash stories have tended toward the 400-500 range, and even then it can be argued if I’ve really “told a story”. It was very educative, as well, choosing what needs to be said to tell more. You mentioned reading the change around the tree itself, its persistence, and its affect on so many people. I’m happy I managed to say so much in less than 250 words.

JCL: While on that subject, what is it about flash fiction that you find most appealing? What drives you to create short shorts like this?

MC: I think it is the paucity of Flash that I really enjoy. With so little space, you have to say as little as possible, but still create the world for the reader. It’s very interesting how much of the story is created by the reader themselves. A reader isn’t a passive actor, just reading the story; instead they are as active as the writer, building ideas and worlds, finding meaning in words. I think that’s what I find interesting about writing in general, but the limit of Flash really accentuates that.

JCL: Are there any specific themes or genres that speak to you?

MC: For themes, I’m not certain. I think, when writing, we assume we’re creating a particular message, but once it’s written, it’s up to the reader to really define what that is. I’ve written a book that I’m in the midst of having edited now, and I think I wrote an underlying theme. I’m curious to see if my editor reads the same theme, or something else entirely. Similarly, if I’m able to get it published, I’d be very curious to hear what future readers think.

In a broader context, though, themes that really resonate with who people are, how they are, and what they find meaning in is something I enjoy both in my reading and writing.

In terms of genres, if you had asked me ten years ago, certainly I could narrow it to one or two. I grew up reading almost exclusively science fiction and fantasy. In the past few years, that’s been expanding more and more, especially into more historical and experimental fiction. Italo Calvino is one of my favourite writers lately, just for the interesting and quirky stories he created, and I think that’s inspired some of my writing.

JCL: So, what can we expect next from Martin Chandler? Are there any other projects you are currently working on?

MC: Many projects! I have a number of short stories out to publishers now, and a couple of them I’m very hopeful about. And, as I mentioned I have a science fiction book that I’m in the pre-publisher editing phase, and a historical novel about the first Confederation meeting, which I’m now on the second draft of editing. I’m more hesitant on the historical fiction, in part because people tend to think, “Oh, Confederation? How boring!” but it really wasn’t! Especially at the first conference, there was intrigue, romance, attempted power grabs…a lot more can be read in some of the primary sources than we hear about in school.

JCL: Finally, what advice would you like to give to aspiring authors out there?

MC: I think the main thing that’s kept me going is not to get discouraged. Every writer gets a large pile of rejection letters; it’s part of the territory. Just give your work another edit, and send it off to another publisher. Maybe they’ll like it, or maybe they’ll send you another rejection, in which case read it again, and send it off.

And keep your eyes open for interesting contests; ones like the String-of-10 can really push you to try new things, which can help build your writing skills.

____________

 j chris lawrenceBorn in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia, J. Chris Lawrence  spent much of his youth traveling and exploring the various cultural facets of American life. He currently lives in the Los Angeles area with his wife, two sons, and two cats. You can find more of Chris’s work online at jchrislawrence.com, or follow him on Twitter (twitter.com/JChrisLawrence) and Facebook (facebook.com/JCLFiction).

by Jim Harrington

 Jack CooperJack Cooper‘s first poetry collection, Across My Silence, was published by World Audience, Inc., 2007. His work has been nominated three times for a Pushcart Prize, and chosen as a finalist in North American Review’s 2011 James Hearst Poetry Prize and in the 2014 Eco Arts Award in Creative Excellence.  His poetry and/or flash and mini-plays have appeared in Slant, Bryant Literary Review, Connecticut River Review, The South Dakota Review, The Evansville Review, North American Review and many other publications. He is a contributing editor at www.KYSOflash.com.

Jack’s winning story, “Options,” appears today at Every Day Fiction.

Jim Harrington: Congratulations on winning our String-of-10 contest, Jack. Do you enter many contests? Why did you enter ours?

Jack Cooper: Thank you very much. In graduate school, I rented a room from Florence Becker Lennon, author of The Biography of Lewis Carol. She was also a poet who regularly entered contests and submitted her work to paying journals. “It’s a good year when I make back the cost of my stamps,” she said. Clearly, entering contests can be an investment in fantasy, akin to the rabbit hole. The lure of prizes and payment or acknowledgment of any kind for creative work you are compelled to do anyway is undeniable, and I do succumb on three or four times a year at some level. The hitch is that the rules or dreams of riches might subvert your true voice and vision. Sometimes my decision to enter is based on the fee, other times on how I resonate with the idea or opportunity, and occasionally nothing but serendipity. Entering the “String-of-10” competition was serendipitous, or, perhaps a better word is synchronous. A publisher I work with notified me by email and, simultaneously, an editor I have great respect for posted it on Facebook. I felt called.

JH: When did the idea of showing the reader who the protagonist is by what he owns solidify itself in your mind?

JC: I had been playing around with this character for several months, a guy who cultivates a borrowed life. I imagined that such a person lives inside everyone. After all, we arrive kicking and screaming from a black hole, whereupon we’re loaned two sets of teeth and told to bite the bullet until we’re called back in. At the same time, we all breathe the same air and drink the same water. Even our molecules are passed around anonymously through the generations. So, paradoxically, life is as much a shared experience as it is our very own. It’s not that easy to know who you are, what is yours and where you belong. The particular set of words in this contest seemed to fit my character perfectly and the story naturally played itself out.

JH: Did you know how the story was going to end before you started writing it?

JC: No. The ending evolved out of the character’s ambivalence, which was expressed by his lack of commitment, ownership and self, more of those human-only traits we all share to some degree. Ironically, he was blindsided by death, fate having made the ultimate decision for him. For me, this says something about the futility of all this control we seek, this insistence on being independent and even important in the big scheme of things. I always remember the tragedy of Robert Atkins who thought he’d worked out the perfect diet for a long life, then slips and dies on the ice at age 73.

JH: You used all ten of the prompt words, even though only four were required? Was this your plan from the beginning?

JC: Yes. From the beginning I felt like anything less was falling short of the challenge, like writing a Shakespearean sonnet without a perfect rhymed couplet at the end, or a haiku without a seasonal reference. I felt it was important to go the distance. I was pleasantly surprised that it all came together. At the same time, I was grateful to have your backdoor minimum in case the story suffered. In the end, it’s about the best words for the story and not the other way around.

JH: Obviously, you like writing flash. Do you write other forms as well? Are there other works of yours online our followers can read?

JC: My primary passion is poetry and has been since the 1960s, when I discovered Cummings, Lorca, Plath, Carl Sandburg and others. Some of my new and older poems are on my website, www.jcooperpoetry.com, and, of course, like everyone now-a-days, my name can be Googled. I’ve always written short fiction, or flash, but only recently began submitting it for publication. Since November of last year, I have been contributing editor at www.kysoflash.com. The publisher chose to feature several of my pieces in a number of genres for Issue 2, which just came out, including flash, mini-plays, prose poems and free verse. I have also written two, one-act plays with my playwriting partner, the actor Charles Bartlett. Our play, That Perfect Moment, was a headliner at the NOHO Arts Center in North Hollywood and The Little Victory in Burbank in the 2009-10 seasons.

___________

jimharrington2

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 (http://www.everydayfiction.com/flashfictionblog/). Jim’s Six Questions For . . . blog (http://sixquestionsfor.blogspot.com/) provides editors and publishers a place to “tell it like it is.” You can read more of his stories at http://jpharrington.blogspot.com.

 

meg Tuite profile picby Gay Degani

Meg Tuite’s writing has appeared in numerous literary journals. She is the author of two short story collections, Bound By Blue (2013) Sententia Books, and Domestic Apparition (2011) San Francisco Bay Press,and three chapbooks, the latest titled, Her Skin is a Costume (2013) Red Bird Chapbooks. She won the Twin Antlers Collaborative Poetry award from Artistically Declined Press for her poetry collection, Bare Bulbs Swinging (2014) written with Heather Fowler and Michelle Reale. She teaches at Santa Fe Community College, is an editor for Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press and has a column up at JMWW. She lives in Santa Fe with her husband and menagerie of pets. Her blog: http://megtuite.com

Gay Degani: When you’re asked to judge a contest, especially ones that feature prompts, what kinds of things do you hope to find in the entries?

Meg Tuite: I hope to find originality, percussive language, and a story that stands alone with or without a prompt.

GD: What is your approach to reading the stories? Do you go through all of them quickly at first or do you take your time and begin rating them as you first read them? What works for you?

MT: I was blessed that I got to read the beauties that FCC selected for the excellent short-list. I was excited when Jim Harrington sent them to me, so read through all of the stories that evening. I marked my favorites on the next few reads the following day. Then I read them aloud to see how they resonated. I was curious and so underlined how many of the words were used from the prompt and finally, which story encompassed the theme most closely.

GD: What made you decide on the winner? What attributes did you feel it had over the rest? What is its strongest suit?

MT: The story “Options” by Jack Cooper was the winner from the first read, and its outstanding qualities did not fade on rereading over and over. If anything, I found more in it to love. In one paragraph, this writer took me places, had me feeling nostalgic and ‘like stained glass in a Spanish cathedral’ cultivates a fully actualized protagonist who takes us by the hand through his life by the objects and clothes that he has accumulated. And it deepens when the reader finds out that he even questions the validity of his inner being as first-hand: “Any courage he had he owed to innocence and his words to out-of-print books. Even his smile was borrowed from the mirror.” And I have to say, I was blown away when I underlined all ten of the words from the prompt in this piece. Quite remarkable.

GD: What did you like particularly about your second and third choices?

MT: Oh, the beauty of “The Handkerchief Tree” by Martin Chandler is that it’s told through the history of a tree that becomes a ‘tourist attraction’ and the handkerchiefs that adorned it. This story moves us through lifetimes. The protagonist is a pecan tree that stands steady through the demise of a family and all the trees in the fields around it, “from a dirt track into a paved highway, the area around the tree from a green lawn to a paved parking lot.” An exceptional story that used all ten words, as well.

The third place story, “Roots” by Suzan Palumbo, thrums with the beauty of its language and the use of dialogue to tell the story of three generations: “They were separated by the hot wheels and flesh-distorting metal he used at work. Emily held Zaid’s hand, surrounded by wires and tubes, until he let go.”

All three of these stories are thematically similar in that ‘loss’ inhabits each one.

GD: What advice would you give writers who enter contests?

MT: Make sure to read the guidelines. Jim told me that he had to disqualify quite a few because they didn’t use enough of the word prompts or they went over the word limit.

Read your work aloud before sending it. You will discover places in the story that sound stilted or errors that you might not catch if you haven’t.

Even if you’re just submitting to a magazine you should always read the guidelines and no matter what, listen to the cadence of your work. I always read my work out loud.

GD: What are you working on?

MT: I just finished a few stories that will be published in future anthologies and have been working on a novel for decades or was that just years?

Thank you so much for the opportunity to guest judge this contest for Flash Fiction Chronicles, Jim, Gay, and the staff of FFC. I love FFC and all that you bring to the writing community.

 _______________

Gay Degani

Gay Degani‘s suspense novel What Came Before is available in trade paperback and e-book formats. She is FFC’s founding editor. You can find a list of her other work at Words in Place.

 

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