I wrote my first flash fiction yesterday, and it was oddly more challenging that I’d expected. There are the standard concerns: will I be able to come up with something for a prompt and have it ready to post within 24 hours; I’m posting in front of strangers, who are reading for the flash, not because they’re looking for me, or ‘my style’ or even ‘subject matter’: will they like it?
Not to mention the fact that this is not what I usually write.
But then, there was one other concern: while my writing style is sparse, I tend to write… a lot. Short stories are problematic. The real challenge for me was to write a short story that was cohesive and well… short. I wondered if I would be able to find a minimum verbosity setting that would allow me to write a 300-500 word fiction and come to a satisfying conclusion. Can I even write something that short?
Lyrics? Sure, Lyrics are easy. Of course a 300-500 word set of lyrics would probably come under the heading of a saga, but there wouldn’t be the concern of going too long.
I looked at the picture around 01:00, and went back to sleep. I looked at it again in the morning and the only line I had was “It’s not a potato.”
As I got ready to head out for the day, another line came “…sitting on the edge or ruin…” I mulled over the image, and the words I had as I went about running my errands for the day and pretty much left them on the back burner to simmer. It wasn’t much to start with, but I have written epic Shadowrun stories that started off with less. The problem was, I didn’t want epic: I wanted small; I needed short.
I was relaxing after dinner when I decided “you challenged yourself to do this: now is the time to do it,” and set to work.
The prompt was a black and white photo, In the background you saw men standing, surveying the damage done by a bomb in England in 1945 (I found this out when I went to send a copy of the photo to my writer’s circle along with the second draft of the story) Everything in about a block’s radius had been reduced to rubble, and you could see the surrounding houses in the distance. There was a large heap of wood and a truck parked closer to the foreground. The focus of the picture was a little boy sitting on a wall holding a stuffed toy close to him.
The first draft was 238 words. I was amazed. I had come in under the minimum. That meant I had room to play with it. After the second draft I was just over 300, and I had chosen more Russian names for the people in the story.
When I found out that the boy was English, I decided to change the names, and then send the draft out to my writing circle for comments. By the time anyone had answered, I had made three revisions, added descriptions and gone over 500 words.
The next draft came in at exactly 500 and so I fought to keep it there. If I added something, I had to delete something else. I started weighing my words. Eliminating the repetition and the little hooks I’d put in that could have tied to a bigger story and ended up with 486 words.
The next proof was where I found the phrase “his son” repeated 3 times in quick succession (as did one of the members of my writing circle). I edited the story, did a final pass and posted it with 3 hours to spare, but I did another thing: I kept a copy of each major revision so I can see how the story developed.
I’ve always thought it was interesting how things evolve. I love watching time lapse photography and videos where you can watch a piece of artwork develop, but its harder with words. You have to read through the same stretch multiple times, trying to find a slight change in wording here, a description there. Sometimes the change is as subtle as one word, and sometimes as startling as the final outcome, but what’s even more interesting is the sheer amount of different stories that can be inspired by one picture.
Some of the stories were hopeful, some sweet, some bittersweet: each a reflection of the writer as well as the image itself.
It’s good to know that even when I’m writing something that isn’t my usual subject matter, I remain: hopeful.
For those of you interested, I have included copy of the picture, and my story below.
It’s not a potato
Stephen looked up from the mangled frame of what had most likely been a bicycle before the bombing. There was so much damage around them that it was hard to know where to start, let alone what, if anything, could be salvaged. Rock dust hung in the air as the trucks came to haul away the debris.
He wiped the sweat from his forehead and let out a slow even breath as he took it all in. Everywhere he looked there were piles of wood, and stone that needed to be sorted. Even now the men of the village gathered, unsure where to begin.
They would rebuild, Stephen was sure of that, but the losses were too many to count. He turned, hearing an angry cry from his son, Ethan and saw him sitting on one of the ruined walls, glaring at his sister, Lily.
“It’s not a potato!” He heard his son declare angrily as he held his stuffed animal close to him. It was one of the few salvageable things they’d found in his wife’s parlour. He was once again thankful she was not there to have seen it, thankful that she had been visiting her sister in the country when the planes had come.
Sitting on the edge of ruin, when everything around him had been destroyed, Ethan clung to the familiar while his sister teased him about it; something she had done since the boy had found the stuffed donkey at the market over a year ago.
Now, with its head and neck missing, Stephen had to admit, the stuffed toy looked even more like a potato than it had before.
Drawn by his children’s argument, Stephen strode over; tears and anger fighting for control. After everything they’d been through the two were fighting over something so trivial. He was ready to yell at the both of them when he saw his beloved Martha reflected in his daughter’s eyes as she impishly teased her little brother.
He saw the love and the tenderness—and realized that his daughter knew exactly what she was doing. With their ‘fight’ his son was focused on his sister rather than the loss of everything else.
He saw himself in the way his son refused to hear anything Lily said about his beloved toy, seeing only what it could be, rather than what was. They were the best of everything he and his wife had, and out of everything they could have lost, the most important endured, and God help him they were fighting over a stuffed animal.
Lovingly he picked up his son and held him close offering his hand to his daughter.
“It is not a potato,” he agreed as he focused on what he had, rather than what they had lost. “And this is not the end.”
He turned to the others and gave a determined nod. “We will rebuild.”