Flash Fiction! Aah!

Many years ago, when I first came across the concept of flash fiction, I thought it sounded like a fashionable waste of time, without literary value of any kind. These days, I realise how totally wrong I was. I have seen the light. In fact, I am a fully converted reader and writer of 500 word, 100 word, 50 word and even 6 word stories, though today I want to focus on stories that fall somewhere in the region of 50-500 words (I find the discipline of writing a 6 word story is somewhat different, though many of the same rules apply).

One of the obvious perks to flash fiction is that you can have it written in a relatively short period of time. After all, flash fiction is usually defined as a story which is written in fewer than 1,000 words – the length of an average Penstricken post (in fact, the posts on this website often go a little over 1,000 words). Well, I manage to write these posts in a single morning most weeks so… how hard can it be to write a story of half that length, or even less?

Harder than you think. Remember, we’re not writing a poem or an essay here but a story. That involves the same basic elements common to all stories such as characters, plot and so forth.

One of the most important things to remember is that no matter how long your story is, it must have a beginning, a middle and an end. A beginning, where everything is normal for your protagonist until that fateful day; a middle, where your protagonist faces the conflict or problem the story focuses on; and an ending, where your character’s problem has been resolved one way or another and life goes on (though it may never be the same again). I do apologise if this is teaching your granny to suck eggs, but it’s a point worth labouring.

You see, one of the traps writers of flash fiction (myself included) often fall into is missing out one or more of these vital parts because their word count is so limited. Usually (for me anyway), the temptation will be to skip straight to the ending. So the first line of your story might look something like this:

Michael stood with his father’s blooded sword in hand, glaring at Kar across the volcano’s fiery chasm…

Woah, woah, hold the bus a minute! Who’s Michael? What happened to his father? Whose blood is it on the sword? What’s his beef with Kar? What are they doing on top of a volcano? This is the kind of line you might expect to find at the climax of a story, not at the beginning! You’re starting at the end!

I know, I know… you’ve only got a couple of hundred words to play with, if that much. But the way to deal with that limitation isn’t by chopping off vital parts. Instead, try to include all the parts using as few words as possible. It might be tempting to do this by dividing your word count in three and allotting so many words to each section (so in a 100 word story, each part would be about 33 words long). I’m not entirely convinced that’s the best approach however. In most stories, the middle section is usually the longest part and I would argue that the same is true in flash fiction. Aim, therefore, for a very snappy beginning and ending. For instance, in the last 100 word story I wrote, my beginning was only 17 words long and my ending was 14 words. That gave me 69 words to play with in the middle in which my character faced and dealt with his problem.

Which brings me neatly onto the subject of characters. Characters are the beating heart of every good story. Because your word count is so limited, you need to give yourself as much room as possible to develop your characters. The sensible thing to do, therefore, is try to keep the number of characters to a minimum. Any more than three is probably pushing it and I wouldn’t even go that high if your story is fewer than 100 words long.

Introduce your characters at the very beginning. We don’t have time for detailed backstories, so my advice would be to keep it simple. Tell us who they are and what their situation is:

Simon thought about boarding a different bus today and escaping forever. He hated Mondays.

Boom, job done. He’s called Simon, he is toying with running away and he hates his job (we can glean that from the fact he is planning on running away from a place he regularly commutes to and the fact he hates Mondays; after all, why else do people hate Mondays?). That’s a slice of the everyday for Simon. This beginning also works because his fantasy of escape foreshadows the possibility that he maybe will escape. It forces the reader to wonder whether or not Simon will ever be free from his monotonous life. Obviously if we were writing a novel we would need a lot more than this, but it’s plenty for flash fiction.

Now comes the middle, where we turn Simon’s life upside down.

‘Simon Brown, I am going to make you a wealthy man.’ Someone said in his ear. ‘Follow me.’

Well, I’m not going to write the rest of the story for you but I’m sure you get the idea. Does he go with the mysterious stranger or not? Whether the answer to that question is yes or no, I would generally recommend centring your middle around this one key event. If we’re going to develop a satisfactory character arc, we need something that will change Simon for better or worse, but we need to do it in only a few sentences.  Therefore keep the action simple but loaded with significance.

I recently read an excellent 100 word story by one Jeanne Waddington entitled The Accident (available here – round 1, runner-up) in which a teacher “accidentally” spills a cup of water on a pupil who has wet himself. That’s the central event. Simple, right? And quick – it’s easy to describe this event in a few words. However, the result of this seemingly minor event is that the protagonist goes from being afraid and ashamed to being confident and happy. So:

Beginning: Percy is sitting in school having just wet himself. This is a slice of his normal life.
Middle: Suddenly, the problem strikes! It’s playtime! Everyone will know he wet himself! Fortunately, along comes Mrs Gently to spill water on him.
Ending: Percy’s problem is solved. He can enjoy playtime without shame.

That, I believe, is what makes flash fiction uniquely valuable as a form of story telling. By writing with such a tight word count, a skilled author can turn even the most small and seemingly insignificant events into something meaningful and even exciting. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be imaginative or even include a bit of magic or fantasy in your flash fiction (my most recent 100 word story involves time travel!); just be realistic with how much you can squeeze in and don’t let the length of your story compromise the quality of the story.

6 ‘Six Word Stories’ for the 6th

If you’ve been following this site for a while, you will perhaps remember that I have occasionally written posts featuring 6 six word stories (you can view previous ones here and here). Since I happen to think it’s a great way to put the imagination through its paces (not to mention test my skills in brevity), I thought it would be a good idea if I made such a post whenever the 6th of a month happens to fall on a Sunday, since I only ever post on Sundays.

And… I’ll just check the calendar here and… yep, that’s OK. If we do it this way, you should still only have to put up with one or two of these kinds of posts a year at most. So it’s all good!

You probably know the rules by now. I roll Thinkamingo’s Story Dice six times and I write a six word story for whatever image is displayed on each die starting from the top left. As ever, the following stories are entirely my own work.

Alea iacta est.

  1. My treasure? Buried by my ex.
  2. Took the bait. Snap! Hard cheese…
  3. Rolled the dice; wrote six stories.
  4. While others cooled, our house burned.
  5. Nine parachutes; ten passengers casting lots.
  6. Turned up volume: ‘…will self-destruct.’

Well, I’m sure you can all do a better job of coming up with six word stories for those stimuli than I can so why not give it a bash yourself and pop your responses in the comments section below? Then we can do it all over again on the 6th of August 2017!

6 More Six-Word Stories

If you’ve been following Penstricken since it started in 2015, you may recall that on one occasion I set myself the challenge of writing 6 six-word stories using Thinkamingo’s Story Dice as stimuli. Since I am in an unoriginal sort of mood today, I’ve decided to do it again. The only difference is that this time, in addition to taking my cue from the story dice, I also intend to make each story a different genre, i.e. sci-fi, historical fiction, etc.

As before, I am using one die per story.

Alea iacta est (again!).

Now let’s see what I can come up with based on that starting from the top left and working my way down to the bottom right. As ever, the following are all my own work and have not been published anywhere else before:

  1. KING FELIX DEAD: Nine assassins executed (fantasy).
  2. ‘I shall avenge thee!’ Bambi vowed. (fan fiction)
  3. Rose wrote to Henry: ‘Dear John…’ (romance).
  4. ‘Butler dunnit’, written in Butler’s blood. (murder/mystery)
  5. MARTIANS: No spacesuits on the beach! (sci/fi)
  6. Sword drawn, Julius crossed the Rubicon (historical)

That was even harder than last time! Without a shadow of a doubt, the most difficult one was the cat (though I will admit, I was scraping the bottom of the barrel a bit including a Bambi fan fiction as well). I didn’t have the foggiest idea what to do with it and I’m not even all that sure that I pulled it off terribly well but never mind. It was always meant to be a challenge.

Why not grab some story dice (or use the images I’ve posted here; I am certain you can come up with much better stories than I have) and give it a bash yourself? And remember to share your efforts with the rest of us by posting them in the comments section below!

 

A Fanciful Tale of Heroes and Call Centres

It’s been a while since I posted one of my own humble stories, so I’ve quickly knocked together this little bit of nonsense for your enjoyment. Unlike a lot of the stories I’ve published on the site before, this is not a rejected competition entry. I wrote it for no purpose other than to amuse myself and hopefully, dear reader, to amuse you as well. I suppose it’s best described as a fantasy (since it features heroes guilds and all that kind of stuff) but it also draws heavily on some of my own less fantastic experiences. It also happens to be a little experiment in writing a story using minimal narration; it’s almost entirely dialogue. As ever, this story is entirely my own work and has never been published anywhere else, whether online or in print. I hope you enjoy it.

—-

I Need A Hero

by Andrew Ferguson

 

Brrp, brrp.

Brrp, brrp.

‘Good afternoon, you are through to the Free National Heroes Service. My name is Colin, how may I help you?’

‘Yes, good morning, I’d like to book a knight please, for three o’clock tomorrow.’

‘Oook, if you just give me a minute I’ll take some details off you…’

‘OK.’

‘Now you do understand I can’t guarantee it’ll be a knight because—’

‘Why not?’

‘Well you see—’

‘It really needs to be a knight, I always get one. If you check your records you’ll see, I always get a knight.’

‘Oook… well, let me just take your details then and I’ll have a look for you, OK? What’s your name please?’

‘Shona Forrester.’

‘And your date of birth?’

‘Age of Esfin, 03, 36.’

‘Aaaand your address?’

‘0/1 1236 Esclimber Way’

‘That’s great, thanks. Oook, you don’t seeeeem to be registered on our system just now but that’s OK, I’ll just add you on—’

‘Sorry, what do you mean I’m not registered? I’ve had heroes out here loads of times and I’ve always got a knight. It’s never been a problem before. Has it all changed now?’

‘No, madam, as I tried to explain before, we’ve only ever had three categories of hero available. You can have a warrior, a mage or a ranger. And you’re definitely not on our system either, but that’s no problem, I’ve just added you on now.’

‘Oh! So I can’t have a knight then?’

‘I’m afraid it’s out of my hands madam, the best I can do is put you down for a warrior and I’ll put it in your notes that you wanted a knight. That way Control will see that on their screens when they come to allocate heroes and will do what they can to accommodate you.’

‘So I should still get a knight then?’

‘I really wouldn’t like to make any promises, madam, but the Controllers will do their very best if there’s one available. You will definitely be able to get a warrior but that’s all I can say for certain until you’re assigned a hero in the morning.’

‘It’s never been a problem getting a knight before but right, whatever… well, OK. Can I go now?’

‘Nooo, not quite yet, I still need to take a few details off you first if you don’t mind. Now was it AM or PM tomorrow you wanted this for?’

‘PM, three o’clock please.’

‘OK, now because we’ve only got so many warriors on at one time, I obviously can’t give you a cast iron guarantee that it’ll be exactly three o’clock. It just depends what’s available. Normally what we’d do is book you in for an AM or PM slot just now and you’ll be assigned a time by the Controllers depending on when there’s a warrior available. So I’ll put you down for PM and put it in your notes that you’d prefer it for three, is that OK?’

‘Well what time is he likely to arrive then?’

‘I honestly couldn’t say for sure, madam, that’s entirely down to Control, I’m afraid. An afternoon booking could be any time between twelve o’clock and half eight.’

‘OK, make it AM then.’

‘Are you sure that’s OK? That would be any time then between nine o’clock and twelve.’

‘It’ll have to be, it’s no use him coming at all if he’s any later than three, half three at the latest, so I’ll go with AM. Can you let me know roughly what time that’s likely to be? I’ll be at work in the morning so I’ll need to ask my neighbour to let him in.’

‘Like I already said madam, I’ve no way of knowing until you’ve been allocated a hero what time it’ll be, except that it’ll be in the morning between nine and twelve. I can get Control to give you a call once you’ve been allocated if you like?’

‘Fine, thank you.’

‘Nooo problem, now I just need to check your eligibility to use this service—’

‘Why do you need to do that? I’ve had heroes out before, loads of times.’

‘I’m sorry madam, but there was definitely nothing at all on our system for you. Are you sure you didn’t use a private guild last time?’

‘No, I’ve always dialled this number. There must be something wrong with your system.’

‘Mmm, maybe but I need to check your eligibility anyway or my system won’t let me make the booking. Is that OK?’

‘How long do you think he’ll be anyway? I mean, I need to know when he’ll be back from his quest so I can make sure there’s someone in. I’ll be at work till two.’

‘Well, that really depends. I was actually just about to ask you exactly why you need a hero. I mean, is there any one else who can go for you?’

‘What difference does that make?’

‘Well, you see even though this as a free service, we don’t receive any government or lottery funding so it’s really only those who are completely unable to go on the quests themselves that we can provide this service for.’

‘Bu—!’

‘And there’s no way I could guess at how long your hero will take to complete his quest unless I know what it is. Also Control need to know in advance if he needs any special equipment; things like enchanted armour or really bulky things like rune stones or armoured horses might take a bit longer to arrange.’

‘Well, he won’t need any of that so there’s no problem.’

‘I’m sure there isn’t, but I need to ask you what his quest will be anyway or I can’t take your booking.’

‘I just need him to go to the supermarket for me. I need him to pick up some things for my son’s birthday and I can’t go ’cause I’ve got work!’

‘The supermarket?’

‘Yes. It’s never been a problem before today!’

‘I’m really sorry, you’ll need to go with a private guild for something like that.’

‘But—!’

‘I am really sorry, but there’s nothing I can do. This is a free service and we don’t receive any government or lottery funding so we really can only provide this service for extremely dangerous or difficult quests and to those with a household income of less than twelve-thousand quil per year. Is there anything else I can help you with today?’

‘…’

Click.

‘Bye then.’ Click. ‘Geeeeeez… Unbelievable!’

‘Let me guess,’ said Colin’s supervisor. ‘It’s young master Forrester’s birthday again?’

‘Yeah!’

‘Hmph! That’ll be his fifth birthday this year then!’

A French Fiction Revolution

When I was a teenager, vending machines in schools were a controversial topic. Everyone and their granny seemed to be obsessing about how they could encourage children to eat healthily, lest the words ‘CLINICALLY OBESE’ should be (figuratively) branded on their foreheads. So one day, I came in to school to discover that the vending machines that had once given out sweets, crisps and fizzy juice had been replaced with these vending machines abominations, which produced healthy snacks and bottled water.

I was appalled.

Perhaps if they had replaced them with the kind of vending machines you can now find in the French city of Grenoble, I wouldn’t have been so disgusted. In October 2015, the small but vibrant French publishing company Short Édition distributed eight ‘Distributeur d’histoires courtes’ (that’s ‘short story distributors’ to you and I)[1] to be trialled in various public locations. These machines come fully equipped with more than 600 short stories, selected by the 142,000 Short Édition readers from among the 60,000 stories on the Short Édition website[2]. With such a wide readership selecting which stories were to be included in the machine from such a rich pool of stories, it’s safe to say the user will probably get a story worth reading. The user has three categories of story to choose from: a one minute story, a three minute story or a five minute story[1][2][3][4]. What they cannot choose is which genre of story they get[2], which could be almost anything- even poetry[3].

They are proving immensely popular, with over 10,000 stories having been dispensed within the first two weeks of the machines’ release, according to Short Édition’s co-founder, Quentin Pleplé[2]. Hardly surprising, since you only have to look (discreetly) at your fellow commuters on any given day to see that the vast majority of them will have their heads buried in a newspaper, a book or (more often than not these days) a smartphone. Clearly, there is a niche in the market for commuter friendly entertainment.

Let’s be honest. People like us, who know that fiction is better than reality, only read newspapers because we know we should, not because we find them half as enjoyable as a good story.

Reading full sized novels on the bus is all well and good of course, but it also has its downsides. For a start, books are usually too large to carry around in your pocket (especially if you enjoy a hefty tome, as I do). I also find myself getting frustrated if my journey ends when I’m halfway through a chapter (call me fussy, but I find the beginning of a new chapter is a very natural place to pause).

I think we all know that we all spend more time than we should staring at mobile phones and other screens as it is. Besides, there’s nothing worse than being rudely interrupted by some ignoramus who thinks it’s acceptable to try and phone you on your smartphone when you’re trying to read some e-book you downloaded.

And of course, live theatre on the bus is just plain dangerous.

Finally, it seems that the French are revolting.

But it’s not just the commuters who are benefiting from this revolution in story distribution. The authors whose stories are included in the distributeur d’histoires courtes earn a whopping 10% of all rents paid to Short Édition from those who have one of the newfangled machines[1]. To give you some context, it costs €500 per month to rent one of these beauties,[1] which means €50 is going straight into the pockets of the authors every month. That’s about £38 sterling, which is not to be sniffed at.

If you want to try out one of these devices for yourself and don’t live anywhere near Grenoble then I’m afraid it’s fromage à pâte dure at the moment. You can’t get them anywhere else. However with a bit of luck, Short Édition will soon expand[2][4] and… who knows? Maybe soon we’ll be seeing similar devices in every train station in the world!

Vive la révolution!

 


Sources:

1.   P. Bock (22/01/2016), ‘How A City in France Got the World’s First Short-Story Vending Machines’, The New Yorker. Accessed 30/01/2016

2.   A. Flood (13/11/2015), ‘Short Story Vending Machines Press French Commutors’ Buttons’, The Guardian. Accessed 30/01/2016

3.   C. Jobson (19/11/2015), ‘Short Edition: A Short Story Vending Machine that Prints Free Stories On-Demand’, Colossal. Accessed 30/01/2016

4.   J. Shepherd (10/11/2015), ‘Short Story “Vending Machines” to be Installed in Grenoble, France’, The Independent. Accessed 30/01/2016

 

Learning From Rejection

I hadn’t really intended to post another one of my own stories this year. I know you probably don’t come here just to read my rejected competition entries and to be honest, I always intended (and still do intend) for Penstricken to be a blog about fiction as an art-form, rather than a dumping ground for my odds and sods. The reason I have decided to post just one more of my own stories this year is because it’s nearly Christmas and this story does have a bit of a Christmas theme going on in it. However, rather than just giving you the story to read and expecting you to like it, I’m going use this story as an example of how writers can (and should) use their rejected stories to help them develop as writers, by analysing their own work to see how they might improve upon it.

So, without further ado, here is the story I submitted (originally without a title) for the Scottish Book Trust’s fifty word story competition (Dec 2015). Since it did not win, it was an ideal choice as a seasonal story for our study in self-improvement.

Cold Brass
By A. Ferguson

My trumpet’s mouthpiece was as cold as ice, almost painful to play. But the supermarket’s manager had offered us all free mince pies if we stood outside in the snow for an hour and played a few carols.

Easy.

Now if only I could get this thing off my face…


This is a tale about a gluttonous musician who sees an easy opportunity for free mince pies (traditionally eaten in the UK during Christmas time), only to end up with his trumpet stuck to his mouth because of the cold. Anyone who has ever played the trumpet outdoors in winter (like me!) will tell you that the mouthpiece can be excruciatingly cold if the temperature is low enough (though I admit, I don’t know for sure if anyone has ever actually become stuck to their trumpet in this way or not).

The first thing I considered in coming up with this story was the competition instructions. The story had to include the phrase ‘cold as ice’ somewhere in the body of the text and with an upper limit of only fifty words, you can’t afford not to make those three words count. For me, this was the biggest stumbling block to constructing a story I was proud of. I allowed those rules to restrict my imagination, insofar as when I read the instructions, I immediately began trying to imagine physical objects which might be accurately described as being ‘as cold as ice’, with a view to constructing a story around them. Having read the winning entry to this competition (available from the Scottish Book Trust’s website), I noticed that the author of that story took a very different approach, incorporating the phrase ‘cold as ice’ into the dialogue of an altogether more original and imaginative story than the one I produced. The end result was a story with a profound theme running through it, which very likely stood out from what I imagine to have been a crowd of stories dealing with Christmas and winter in general.

In short, a better approach for me might have been to write a good story and make it fit the given instructions, rather than allow the instruction to stifle my imagination.

However, sticking with the plot I’ve got, I think there are still a few things that could be done to improve the basic flow of the narrative. For example, I feel like the second sentence starting where it does creates an uncomfortable pause and would perhaps have worked better if it were joined with the sentence that went before, like so…

My trumpet’s mouthpiece was as cold as ice, almost painful to play, but the supermarket’s manager had offered…

Better? Maybe?

I’m not sure about the parenthesis (‘almost painful to play’). Rather than constructing a sentence which basically says, ‘The mouthpiece was cold and I didn’t like it’, it might do better to do something like this:

My trumpet’s mouthpiece was as cold as ice on my lips but the supermarket’s manager had offered…

Most of us can probably imagine what it feels like to have ice pressing against our lips, even if we’ve never actually experienced it. Perhaps if you’re a writer, you’ll have heard the old axiom about showing, rather than telling. Well, that’s what this is. Now the simile is used to help the reader feel for themselves what it is like to blow a trumpet on a snowy day, rather than to give fairly bland technical descriptions of a cold mouthpiece and a nondescript sensation which is almost-but-not-quite pain. It also brings our word-count down a single word, allowing us to use that word somewhere else! Yay!

Removing superfluous words is always a worthwhile exercise, especially in flash fiction. If it’s not vital, chop it. So, to further improve this sentence, I chopped and swapped a few words and with a bit of shuffling was even able to add words which I feel made the narrative a little clearer:

The trumpet’s mouthpiece was as cold as ice on my lips but the supermarket’s manager had promised the band free mince pies if we stood out in the snow and played a few carols to the shoppers.

The main thing I have removed here is the fact that the band played for an hour. Who cares how long the band played for? That’s really not the point of this story. The point of this story is that a glutton did something that should have been nice and Christmassy for selfish motives and got his just desserts at the end of it. So I chopped that bit out and replaced it with more detail of what he was doing, rather than for how long. I also replaced the words ‘us all’ with ‘the band’, in order to make it clearer exactly who the narrator is talking about.

Incidentally, I’ve still got a word to spare after all this.

I hope this is giving you an idea of what a useful thing it is to analyse and try to improve upon your own work. It can be tempting not to bother doing any of this, especially for flash fiction which you only spent a few days working on and are not likely to ever look at again. But even if you don’t have any further plans for your rejected work, it is still worth doing something like this. Taking a little time to honestly and critically consider things you might have done to improve upon your ideas and your use of language will help you to develop your skills and prevent you from making the same mistakes in any future writing project you embark upon, whether you are an enthusiastic amateur or a well established multi-award winning author.

 

6 Six-Word Stories

Flash fiction doesn’t come much flashier than six words long. I mean, it took me more than six words just to make that single point!

I must confess, the shorter than short short story, shot with a shrink-ray from Shortland is not my forte. In fact, I’ve only ever done it once before today for a competition which I did not win (a recurring motif, I hear you think). So this week I’ve challenged myself to write six six-word stories using Thinkamingo’s Story Dice as stimuli. The Story Dice is an app for Android OS which allows you to roll anything between one to ten dice with various pictures on each face. The idea is that you use these pictures to develop a story. Since I’m only writing six-word stories today, I decided to only use one die per story.

So here goes nothing…

Alea iacta est.

Now let’s see what I can come up with based on that starting from the top left and working my way down to the bottom right. All of the following are my own work:

  1. Oxygen, heat, fuel and marshmallows.
  2. ‘Apparently his lordship opposes finger food!’
  3. ‘Impressive. A long piece of fabric.’
  4. Forsaking arms, we agreed to disagree.*
  5. Found the weapon inside the book.
  6.  Remembered iPhone; wish I’d remembered iToiletRoll!

Gosh, that was harder than I expected it would be! Maybe you should give it a bash yourself! Roll the dice and see what you come up with or just make up a six word story about anything and share in the comments below.


*I confess, I actually wrote this one a few years ago for the aforementioned competition. What can I say? It came to mind immediately when I saw stimulus number 4 and I struggled to think of anything better but what you gonna do?