A looong time ago, a writer friend admiring a piece of flash fiction I had written somewhere on a blog (don’t you love how well I remember details?) suggested I write a blog post on how I go about writing flash stories.
My first reaction was, “Why, of course!” But then I thought better. Who am I to give instruction on writing flash fiction? Sure, I enjoy it, and some of my pieces aren’t bad. But it’s not like I’m a NYT bestselling writer, or have flash fiction published in literary journals and anthologies. I write stories for my blog, and for Janet Reid writing contests. My flash fiction had made it to the Finalist stage a few times in Janet’s contests, but my only win was for a poem. And that was years ago. If I ever won a Janet Reid writing contest with a piece of flash fiction, then maybe I’d feel as if I had enough credibility to write about my flash fiction writing process.
Yes. This past weekend, Janet ran a contest. I entered. And I won. I didn’t expect to win. I never do. There are always astonishingly talented writers competing, so I feel good if I get an honorary mention. To be picked as a Finalist is like being one of Paul McCartney’s top ten bass players. Not that I am. Or ever would be. But I can imagine. Anyway, Ms. Shark picked my story as a Finalist, but since she couldn’t decide on a winner, she asked her readers to vote. And people actually voted for me! And… well… this happened.
SO, with all that said, here are some thoughts on writing flash fiction. I’ll use my entry in Janet’s contest as an example. The challenge was to write a piece of flash fiction using 100 words or fewer including the words oil, boom, mother, ice, and shower. As with all her contests, the words can be used alone, or intact as part of another word (e.g., nice or boomerang, but not icicle or broomstick). This was my entry:
That’s the finished piece. But how did I get from five odd words to that?
The Rise and Fall of Mr. Tin Foil Hat
The first thing I do is brainstorm the words. What do they make me think of? What are some obvious lines of thought, and what are some not-so-obvious lines of thought? I tend to lean toward the unusual. “Oil” could be good ol’ black gold, or it could be some other kind of oil. Cooking oil, which might fit with “mother.” Or some kind of aromatic oil, suggesting a love scene. There are also plenty of words that use “oil”–coil, boil, toil, soil, foil. Lots of directions to go there. But what about “boom”? That was probably the hardest word of them all because it seems to have limited range. Then the term “baby boomer” sprung to mind. Suddenly a picture formed, so I opened Microsoft Word and started typing something along the lines of:
I got the call after midnight, but I was sure it was just some baby boomer in a foil hat calling from his mother’s basement. He swore the meteor shower was an alien invasion…
In the end the caller was going to be lying on a table in an alien spaceship about to be brainwashed to spy on Earth. Certainly an unusual idea, but it was getting hard to compress into 100 words, and, in the end, it just wasn’t working.
I hit Return a few times (in case I wanted to come back to our foil hat friend) and tried a different direction.
Shower. Mother. A baby shower? Oil could be baby oil. Quick Google search to make sure baby oil is a real thing and I’m not mis-remembering baby shampoo (it’s been 10 years since we had a baby). Sure enough, it is.
But isn’t a baby shower a bit obvious? Not very original. Maybe…
Now, here’s where some old writerly advice kicked in. When writing, think of your target audience. Not so much to dictate what you write, but the tone. If you’re writing YA, think of your high school friends or your teenage kids. What do they talk about? How do they talk? What kinds of things matter to them? For Janet Reid writing contests, my audience is primarily Janet–she usually judges them, after all. I thought about the kinds of entries that had done well before. I know Janet loves original phrases, well-constructed sentences, humor, and something with emotional impact. Something she’ll still be thinking about when she’s reading the 80th entry.
I deleted Mr. Foil Hat. Maybe one of the other entrants could pull that one off in way that has literary appeal and, perhaps, humor. I couldn’t see how. But the baby shower was promising. The subject of motherhood has a lot of potential emotional power, especially when it takes a tragic turn. *Light Bulb Moment!*
The Final Story Takes Shape
I started writing. “She…” NO. No. No. No. Give the protagonist a name. If this story’s going to pack emotional punch, the protagonist has to have a name and not be a mere pronoun. There are billions of “she”s in the world, but not many of them are Jessicas. And I’m sure most people know a Jessica. That makes it personal. The name Jessica was somewhat random. I like the name, and it seemed to fit this grieving mother character.
I know how powerful that newborn smell is to reawaken memories of babies. I was at each of my six kid’s births, and cut the umbilical cord for most of them. I remember holding them, changing their diapers, and letting them suck my fingers. Open a bottle of baby oil and the memories flood in. That’s where my story should start. Jessica picks up the baby oil. A gift set–from her mother. Not only does that use the word “mother” (two down, three to go), but I can just imagine the excitement on Jessica’s Mom’s face as she writes that card. She’s going to be a grandmother. Her baby girl’s going to have a baby of her own. “From one mother to another.” It’s the kind of rhyming thing a parent would do, and I think it conveys that sense of excitement. And if five words can communicate that, for flash fiction, that’s wonderful.
“She flipped open the bottle…” No. Don’t like that. Too clumsy. I want to convey swift action without repeating “bottle” and without using “she” (she’s Jessica, remember?). “A flip of her thumb released the top…” Much better. Also “released” makes it sound as if the newborn scent and the memories it stirs have been trapped inside the bottle, waiting for Jessica to set them free, which is exactly what I’m trying to get across.
Jessica’s memories were not going to be of the baby because I already knew where the story was going. We miscarried our first child, but it happened only a month or so into the pregnancy. That was sad, but it wasn’t as hard as for some couples we know who have lost children much closer to full term. I can only imagine how devastating it is to see your baby on the ultrasound and feel it kick, then to lose that child. This is Jessica’s experience.
If you’ve ever heard a baby’s heartbeat via ultrasound, it does make a kind of booming noise (at least it did 10-20 years ago). That takes care of “boom.” I remember finishing the story wondering what to do with “ice.” I went through all the possible “ice” words I could think of: dice, lice, mice, nice, thrice… device! “Ultrasound device” doesn’t sound too convoluted. It works.
The ultrasound device gives Jessica a picture of the baby and the sound of the baby; she also feels the baby kick–three senses engaged. With a limited word count, this is about as much as I could do to tell the reader (Janet) that this was a real baby, and Jessica was soaking in the experience of being pregnant. The last three sentences of the paragraph get progressively shorter. This was deliberate. I wanted the reader to remember those last two words into the next paragraph.
When we pick up with the second paragraph, Jessica’s wiping her eyes from the memories. Now we get the full scene: the dining room table where all the baby shower (that’s all five words!) gifts are neatly arranged. Diapers, onesies…. what else? Google “baby shower gift.”
Car seat? Too many words. Rattle? Chew toys? Why not just “toys”? Keep it simple, especially when “diapers, onesies, toys” says all we need to say. Detail here is not important. The fact that they’re all carefully arranged on the dining room table is more significant. This is a shrine. We don’t know how long Jessica’s been grieving, but the shower was clearly a while ago. The centerpiece of the shrine consists of the booties. What better symbol to remember the kicks?
That last line was not what I originally wrote. I can’t remember what I put to begin with, but it didn’t feel right. The meter was wrong, and it was just… *bleh*! Then that line came to me: “A reminder of the day the kicking stopped.” I literally typed those words, threw my hands in the air and said, “WOAH!” They were absolutely right. Not only do they reference the booties, but the mention of “kicking” parallels “the kicks” at the end of the previous paragraph. And, most importantly, they deliver the emotional punch that had been building for the last 92 words. I checked the word count according to Word. 100 words on the nose. It may have been over by a few to begin with, but some careful editing took care of that.
So, that’s how I went about writing the story. I know this has been long, but I hope you found it helpful, or at least somewhat interesting.
PS: If you’re interested in reading some of my other stories, I’ve collected all the flash fiction I wrote for this year’s A-to-Z Blogging Challenge into a single pdf. You can get it here, or you can look in the blog archive on the right under April 2014 and find the individual stories. A couple of my favorites are Invisible, Query, and Viola.