characters


by Gay Degani

There is no exact price one can put on words when we consider what words teach us, how they inspire us, where they take us, but writers selecting those words must always weigh their value—how much bang for the buck does each word give—before sending them off as a story, especially a piece of flash fiction. Words are precious in any work of fiction. They are the stuff that create mood, reveal character, offer tension, but in flash, each word must be absolutely worth the space it uses.  If it does not serve a very specific function, then it must be reconsidered for one that does.

If you read my previous essay about questioning the text, you know that one of the ways to learn craft is to spend time with the texts of admired authors to learn how they do what they do, how they manage to convey a whole personality, a setting, a complication in so few words.  How do they do it? Let me provide some examples.

From Sherrie Flick’s “Secrets(New Flash Fiction Review), her second paragraph:

High up in the hayloft, Robbie looked down on the pile of fresh hay. The sweet smells; stark blue skies ringing outside the barn door. Dust sparkled in the air around him–and his brothers romped all around. Hand-me-downs, crew cuts, hard-soled shoes. (43 words)

What do you know about this piece?  My suppositions are

hayloft = a barn, a farm, out in the country, rural

sparkled = summer or Saturday, at least a break. Could be winter but since there is no word used to provide a sense of cold weather…

brothers = family, at least two brothers, maybe more

romped = young, fun-loving, teasing

hand-me-downs = poor or at least middle-class

crewcuts = perhaps in the past, 40s 50s even 60s, unlikely current

hard-soled shoes = these boys work on the farm; this is probably just a break

Sherrie Flick In this paragraph, the author provides the reader with an anchor, a visual setting, a sense of the characters: a rural place where the air is pure, where poor farm boys roughhouse in a loft during a break in their chores. With the title Secrets and the first paragraph, which uses precise language to set up the rambunctious spirit of boys, “Robbie jumped out of the hayloft and hit his head,” Sherrie Flick sets up tension and foreboding. What happens in this 238-word story comes to the reader as a movie would with a specific situation, actions taken, a moment of revelation. The impact of the story comes from the opening, from the exact nature of information given. The reader does not have to wonder who, what, when, where, why, and how.  This evidence is there, not necessarily to be understood in an absolute sense, but rather tethered to a reality that can be “seen” and “felt” by the reader. Every word counts.

 

Here’s another example from Barry Basden’s story, “We Continue to Evolve ” (Fwriction Review) The first line:

“Since the drought, turkey vultures have begun riding afternoon thermals into town, gliding in on their enormous wings to survey heatstruck pets in parched backyards.”(25 words)

What are the suppositions?  What does “the drought” tell the reader?  Bad times! Vultures! But what does the word “turkey” add to this piece?  Why use it if words are so precious? For me, “vultures” alone hypes the piece, tipping it toward melodrama or horror, while “turkey” mellows the concept out just enough to put in a sense of gritty everyday reality.

After writing the above paragraph, I looked up the difference between “Vulture” and “Turkey Vulture” to help me understand why this might be.  According to the Audubon Society, there are “black vultures” and “turkey vultures,” turkey vultures being the more common. On some level, I think I understood this, and why I felt in reading the first line, I would be getting reality rather than melodrama. What else does this first sentence tell us? With the specific use of “turkey” and the specificity of “thermals,” I feel a confidence that this writer knows things, and I trust him.  He is choosing his words with great care.  I want to keep reading.

Then there is the image of birds of prey with “enormous wings” hunting for “heat-struck pets.” Again the author has worked a bit of magic.  It is the pets who are in danger—do they have any chance of survival? The stakes are presented for the story and they feel high, yet still grounded in reality. Then we are given wasps “there to fuss and worry the dove.” We don’t know yet exactly what this story is going to mean in the end, but now we have a dove in contrast to the turkey vultures circling.  The tension is ratcheted up because now we must worry not only about the pets, but this lovely dove.

We have a lyric opening to a story, high stakes proposed, as well as being engaged by tension created by the subliminal question, “What does this mean?” The next line, “It’s mostly quiet now,” brings pause to the story, before understands with the next line, that “Melissa left.” Ahhh, we meet the “dove.” There are two people in the story, the woman who has left and the man who is left behind:

“I’m sitting near the shrinking pool, skimmer pole across my lap, cooler at my feet, looking for snakes and frogs among the floating dead leaves.”

This carefully constructed sentence parallels the opening sentence, but now there is this man “looking for snakes and frogs” rather than turkey vultures seeking “heat-struck pets in parched backyards.”  Now a correlation comes into play. Although the birds are preying on the creatures below to pick their bones, the man is lying in wait “to save” the creatures who “bob up to gulp the fiery air.”  And this comes together in the last line, “Help me find a way to lure her back from the coast.” The careful placement of the word “lure” in this sentence brings with it a certain amount of discomfort. Wince by Barry Basden This word, every word, plays its part in this piece, suggesting not just a man whose wife has left him, but a man with a net, a man who believes he has the answer, a man presented to us in a way that suggests this is not a simple story.  There are complications here. We do not know the right or wrong of her leaving and therefore, we are left with something more thought-provoking, something that lingers. Ambiguity occurs at the end of these stories, but only at the end.

Both authors have taken great care to give readers specific concrete details throughout so we as readers are anchored in the stories. They have both used words as if those words cost about $1000 each. Thank you, Barry Basden and Sherrie Flick for allowing me to use your excellent work as examples!

Sherrie Flick is author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness (University of Nebraska), the flash fiction chapbook I Call This Flirting (Flume), and the forthcoming short story collection Whiskey, Etc. (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2016). She lives in Pittsburgh and teaches in Chatham University’s MFA program.

Barry Basden lives in the Texas hill country and edits Camroc Press Review. His latest flash collection is Wince.

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  Gay Degani’s suspense novel What Came Before is available in trade paperback and e-book formats and blogs at Words in Place where a complete list of her published work can be found.

by Townsend Walker

Townsend WalkerThe wind ponies of my mind take me to places I’ve never been. They race across plains of thought heedless of what they’ve never seen.

And a process begins, a thought, often an opening line, a search for a next line, a following line. A character may appear, or not. Keep writing. A location or event fully described, when that, then a person will appear to populate it, move around in it.

Flash is an experiment. What comes of it?

Capture an emotion—Charlie’s Life, MuDJoB

Charlie was a mean lad. Charlie was a mad lad. Charlie was rad bad. Charlie clubbed his cousin, then his aunt.

“Jail or Army, lad?”

Charlie got to go war. Charlie got to kill and maim.

Charlie got a medal. Charlie was a hero. Charlie was the man. Charlie was the man. Charlie got to come home.

Charlie got a wife, don’t know why. Charlie clubbed again, don’t know who.

This is not a life.

Charlie?

Develop a Plot—The Gun Wasn’t Hers, Flash Frontier

She hadn’t wanted it, but there it was, on the seat beside her. For your protection, they’d said.

She was driving I-90: Seattle to Chicago, beat-up Beetle. Running a package out for this guy she knew. A delicate instrument,—didn’t trust UPS. The pay was good and she was between gigs. Lots of empty country out there, they’d said. True. Miles of nothing but dirt and sky flying by.

Out past Billings, a rock hit the windshield. Shattered it. She jerked at the wheel, nearly drove off the road. Where the hell did that come from? She slowed the car to a stop and sat til her breathing got down to near normal. The sun caught hold of the edges of exploded glass, turning her windshield into a web of rainbow colors.

In the rearview, she saw something move—back alongside the road, by the loose rocks. Her stomach lurched. Grabbing the gun, she found the safety, clicked it off, willed her legs out of the car, onto the pavement. She walked down the road, scanning the horizon, hair whipping around her eyes.

But it wasn’t there anymore. It was behind her.

Play with dialogue—Overheard, Apocrypha and Abstractions

Probably wasn’t anything could be done about it.

You did everything you could.

When was it? A month ago we talked to him.

Given the circumstances, inevitable.

With what he was mixed up in.

Bound to happen, sooner or later.

Che sera, sera.

But to end up there.

I don’t know what else I could have done.

Did you hear about that thing a couple days earlier?

Why on earth would anyone . . .?

You know, it’s really been hard on Sally.

But she’s been a trooper though it all.

Did the police have to give out so much detail?

Hey, over by the pillar, is that her? Black hat.

These days . . . .

What do you think happens next?

There’ll be questions.

They talked to you yet?

Blonde in the blue dress by the window?

Another one?

By the way, who found him?

They’re not saying.

Think this will change anything?

Nah.

You see anything to drink around here?

 

Open a larger story—A Bottle in the Alley, Blink Ink

A broken bottle, jagged edges refract street light, emerald stripes on a gray lump, on patent leather boots. The figure in boots, now in white orthopedic shoes, walks into a Park Avenue apartment.

“Good morning Miss Chaney. A good night?” the doorman says.

“Profitable, very profitable.”

Strange, for a nurse to put it that way.

A small complete story—Swan Lake, Slice

The mountain of dirty crusted snow was turning to slush. Pedestrians huddled next to buildings to avoid being splashed by careening cars. A bus rumbled to its stop, five feet from the curb, five feet filled with Arctic ice melt. The door opened. A short man in a long, seen-better-days coat peered out, small blue eyes blinking. He moved cat-like to the bottom step. Passers-by saw his turmoil–the near certainty of an ice bath, the slim chance of safety on the sidewalk. He hesitated. Was he going to try? He peered across the chasm, bent his knees, rose on his toes, gracefully arced in a grand jeté, and finished with a delicate landing. The muffled beat of mittens greeted his performance. He bowed deeply. His audience moved on, carrying that balletic movement with them. That touch of theatrical surprise that softens the soul.

____________

Townsend Walker is a writer living in San Francisco. During a career in finance he published books on foreign exchange, derivatives, and portfolio management. His short fiction has been published in over sixty literary journals and included in seven anthologies. A novella, La Ronde, will be published by Truth Serum Press in Fall 2015. Awards: first place in the SLO NightWriters contest, second place in Our Stories contest, two nominations for the PEN/O.Henry Award. Four stories were performed at the New Short Fiction Series, Hollywood. Educated at Stanford (creative writing and economics), NYU (economics and anthropology) and Georgetown (economics and political science). Website: www.townsendwalker.com.

 

by Andreé Robinson-Neal

Andree-New

Happy 2015! Wait … we still have one 2014 loose end to tie: the Month in Review! In case you were tied up in wrapping paper or long lines, we want to give you a recap of the many bundles of joy our writers offered last month that you might have missed.

Mary-Jane Holmes got us into the spirit with one swan (as compared to seven) and shared how this lovely, creative, random, and original creature can develop into the best flash you’ve ever created. While we might have hoped for six geese to go along with Mary-Jane’s swan, Julie Duffy’s “A Funny Thing” did provide six delightful tips on how to craft a good comedic write. Or was it humor? Go check it out and decide for yourself.

We had no pear trees either but were treated to a peach of a list of flash fiction markets that each offered treasures of their own. Hopefully in between your holiday dinners and gift-giving you had time to write and these markets anxiously await your work. However, if you’re still agonizing over what you got down on that napkin between courses, know that you aren’t alone: James Claffey shared his thoughts on writing flash fiction and you might be re-inspired by his colorful explanation of his relationship to the genre. But if, like those ten lords rumored to have been jumping around for part of last month, you are leaping to submit your collection of flash fiction, check out the ten interview snippets from Bonnie ZoBell, who got the inside scoop on what some flash fiction editors and publishers say about story order. On the other hand, if you’re a few stories short of a collection, why not consider submitting one story to the Queen’s Ferry Press anthology? Jim Harrington got the particulars from editor Tara L. Masih, who shared that these anthologies collect the best and most innovative stories in a given year.

Some of the best gifts you’ll find in FFC are Susan Tepper’s UNCOV/rd pieces. Be sure to check out December’s offering with Harvey Araton, because it will be the last. Don’t worry — Susan will be back this year with something new, but in the meantime, enjoy her conversation with a journalist-author-who-writes-about-a-journalist.

And speaking of newspapers, Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s piece on inspiration was inspired by a recipe in the New York Times. Well, more to the point: the NYT recipe inspired a story and the whole experience inspired the piece. Get it? As Sarah said, inspiration comes from anywhere and you are sure to ponder the sources of your own as you read her December offering.

As our 2014 clock tick-tocked its way to a close, Aliza Greenblatt took a moment to introduce us to the EDF November top author, Angela Hui, whose story Birthday Girl got rave reviews. Before we close the book on 2014 and send our eleven pipers and twelve drummers back to the band, end your year with a laugh: Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s EDF Archive selection is a great topper from Samantha Memi.

Thank you for making 2014 a great year and we hope you’ll join us for more in flash fiction for 2015!

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Andreé Robinson-Neal got bit by the writing bug back in the late 1970s while watching Rod Serling and reading Ray Bradbury—both of whom are everyday inspirations; although she has worked in education for more than a quarter-century, she has never been cured of her penchant for speculative fiction. Find some of her flash fiction at starvingartist.com. She writes under the name AR Neal, who will hopefully one day be identified as a famous NaNoWriMo participant.

 

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

 Sarah AkhtarWhen a fictional protagonist has suffered the death of a child, the writer needs about as much artistry as an AP news bulletin to get readers on her side. Anything more is gravy.

I think I’m fairly sophisticated, but just describing poignant stories I read forty years ago can make my voice tremble.

I can reread a book–even a mystery–until the pages disintegrate–and I’m forced to buy another copy. But I’ll never go near Ruth Rendell’s The Tree of Hands again, though I consider it one of her finest works. The scene in which Rendell’s protagonist walks out of the hospital where her small child has just died is something I cannot revisit.

Thomas Cromwell is regarded as one of history’s least beloved figures, but Hilary Mantel, in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, gives us a man loyally serving the purposes of his king while enduring the anguish of a bereaved father. To make someone who’s been a villain in countless historical novels understandable in all his complexities was a stunning achievement.

So why did I find a recent flash fiction story about a mother’s grief hilarious?

The author turned her protagonist into an idiot with some dreadful word choices:

Unfortunately, a wave rolled the vessel, trapping Nicole in the compartment.”

In writing about the most unspeakable experience a human being can live through, less is more. That “unfortunately” trivialized agony. It’s unfortunate to lose one’s job. It’s unbearable to lose one’s child.

Later, the bereaved mother imagines a journey to the site of her child’s death.

“Instead, Sharon walked down the hill to the rocky shore. If she swam far enough, dove deep enough, would she see her daughter again? She didn’t understand the currents the way her daughter had, however. She would never find her way to the Bering Sea.”

Had the author stopped after the second sentence of that paragraph, she’d have left readers with a powerful image of loss and longing.

She leaves us with a foolish one, instead. That word “however” turns grieving reflection into what reads like a possible plan thwarted only by the fear of getting lost.

We all understand the protagonist isn’t actually thinking of leaping into the Atlantic Ocean (the story is set in New England) and performing the prodigious feat of circumnavigating the globe til she finds her daughter’s watery grave. So why put that silly imagery into our heads?

This cannot be said too often, whether you’re writing flash, poetry or novels. Every word matters. One misstep can blow the whole thing up.

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Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, 365tomorrows and Perihelion SF Magazine.

by Andreé Robinson-Neal

Andree-New

Hopefully you all survived the three most momentous days of November: Gray Thursday, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday. And if shopping and eating were not on your list of to-do’s for the month, Flash Fiction Chronicles had more than enough to keep you occupied. The month began with a visit with Rolli and a review of his latest book, I Am Currently Working on a Novel, which is enough to distract you from whatever else you planned to do online today. R.L. Black added to the distraction by giving us fantastic tips about writing spooky flash fiction. She points us to the things that make great flash but takes it further with one primary pointer for writing horror flash: “write what scares you.”

Some might interpret the slope as John’s descent, but he’d have to arrive somewhere first before having a drop off and I don’t think he reaches the pinnacle of anything other than his own misery.

That wonderful line is from Susan Tepper’s chat with Richard Fulco for November’s UNCOV/rd. He’s talking about the main character of his debut novel, There Is No End to This Slope. You will most certainly want to slip your credit cards away after you pick up this morsel.

For many parts of the world, November is a solid mark of fall—brown leaves, cooler temperatures—and drives writers in front of their space heaters or fireplaces to conjure unplagiarized versions of dark and stormy nights. Elizabeth Maria Naranjo gets us in the mood for what comes next: the editing process. Many writers hate self-editing but hate having their work dissected by someone else even more. If you came up with the next best seller during the month for NaNoWriMo, give her article a once-over so you know how to react when you take a first look at the mark-up after editing. But before you click “send” to get your tome into the hands of your editor, consider Cameron Filas‘ suggestion to make notes from previous rejections and comb through that manuscript first. He takes us old-school by suggesting sticky notes, but he advises we can keep it high-tech, too. And before you decide to chuck the idea of using a third-party editor (instead of your best friend), give Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s piece on what a real editor will tell you and how it helps your writing a good once-over.

If you are not a flash fiction writer but want to give it a go, Mark Budman offers practical points and examples of how it’s done. He even reminds us that “flash writers are the enemies of fat.” Perhaps his article should have come along in January when we make our New Year’s resolutions … Fortunately RK Biswas’s review of  My Very End of the Universe – Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form is a giant bellyful of flash and skill-builders. Rose Metal Press offers this hefty volume, not just for our reading pleasure, but to help us learn the what’s and how’s of “doing flash.”

Speaking of how to do flash, Aliza Greenblatt introduces us to Jeff Switt, the EDF Top Author for October, whose piece “Halloween Coming Out” gives us a sample of someone who has a handle on this flash business. Gila Green offers us a step-by-step for building character-driven flash in which we cut the fat and get on with the enjoyment of writing.

As we neared the end of November, Jim Harrington brought back an interesting quote for us to sink our teeth into. The point is something that serves as a main ingredient in most of the posts from the month: tell the story. And the period on the sentence? Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s share from the EDF Archive, in which the author offered a great story that, as she says, is also “a perfect example for writers on why less is so often more.”

Hopefully our November offerings satiated your mental hunger pains for flash and more! Be sure to visit for more this month.

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Andreé Robinson-Neal got bit by the writing bug back in the late 1970s while watching Rod Serling and reading Ray Bradbury—both of whom are everyday inspirations; although she has worked in education for more than a quarter-century, she has never been cured of her penchant for speculative fiction. Find some of her flash fiction at starvingartist.com. She writes under the name AR Neal, who will hopefully one day be identified as a famous NaNoWriMo participant.

 

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