Archive | June 2014

Flash Points: John Mark Miller

FlashPoints3

Welcome to Flash Points, a totally un-terrifying feature in which a fabulous story from the most recent round of Flash! Friday gets surgicalized. In other words, we stare at it long and hard to see which of us blinks first.

Prompt: Nuclear winter recon

Word limit:  140 – 160 words

Today’s chosen flash piece:  We Wereby John Mark Miller

Captain’s Log: 3065 AD

The Intrepid IX arrived on the planetoid called Pluto three months ago. Only eight survived the 32-year space voyage, and upon arriving we discovered that just as we feared, the sun has gone supernova. Nobody on Earth could survive such broiling heat.

We wear thermal suits and weighted boots to protect us from the extreme cold (375 degrees below zero) and the weak gravitational pull. We thought the suits would also protect us from space radiation. Then our hair started falling out.

I advised my crew to hold on – that others would come. They maintained hope. And one by one, I watched them die.

Now I’m alone. I write this now so there might be some evidence of humanity. What shall I say of us? We lived boldly and loved well, but in the end, the universe grew weary of us.

Oxygen…failing…world ……cold………

unyielding……but we………

were……………….

What works

I’m going to kick off today’s post by reminding you of (or introducing you to) an uncomfortable unforgettable character, Ramon from that sure-to-be (any day now) film classicThe ProposalThe movie primarily takes place in a town so small, a single person – in this case, the dauntless Ramonserves as the town’s caterer, minister, mobile phone rep, and entertainer. Please don’t stop reading, but the best flash fiction, including today’s story, reminds me a lot of Ramon: it does a lot of totally different things all at once.

A journal entry from the last survivor isn’t, in itself, an original concept (you can find via Project Gutenberg or Wikimedia Commons similar entries from various explorers; such good reading). That said, the entry presented by “We Were” is done well. Rather than making us work hard to determine the story’s context (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; most readers aren’t afraid of a little work), John Mark tells us right off:

Captain’s Log: 3065 AD

Before a full sentence is completed, we already recognize the format: it’s a journal entry, written by a future commander of some sort. I love how these four words already establish the time, character, and nature of the story. Four words, the story’s not even truly begun yet, and we already know so much. Talk about multitasking! Yep. That’s got Ramon all over it.

The story itself moves along at a fair clip, its first paragraph devoted to background. Normally I’m in the camp that says exposition belongs later – start with conflict, please – but flash fiction is all about bending rules of structure and technique for the end result. And because its pacing is good, tight, concise, informative and, perhaps most significantly, conveys recent history, we keep reading.

Then check out what our clever author does at the beginning of the second paragraph, just four sentences in:

We wear thermal suits and weighted boots

Do you see what he did there? So small, it’s easy to miss: a tense shift from past to present. Like I waxed on with Sarah Cain’s story last week, it’s crucial to use every weapon in the arsenal to push the story forward, adding tension, conflict, stress, troubletroubletrouble. An element as small as a grammatical shift can pull that off all by its lonesome.

Mind you, it’s not a permanent shift; John Mark pulls us back in time again, though just briefly, to tell more of the past three months’ horrors:

Then our hair started falling out.

I advised my crew to hold on – that others would come. They maintained hope. And one by one, I watched them die.

Now I’m alone. 

Shift. Back to the present we go, and the present is not a good one.

Don’t forget, though, that this week is all about Ramon. Check out all the tension created by the story’s middle, its heart:

We wear thermal suits and weighted boots to protect us from the extreme cold (375 degrees below zero) and the weak gravitational pull. We thought the suits would also protect us from space radiation. Then our hair started falling out.

I advised my crew to hold on – that others would come. They maintained hope. And one by one, I watched them die.

LOVE this crafty work. Look again in slo-mo:

thermal suits / extreme cold

weighted boots / weak gravitational pull

suits [to] protect us / our hair started falling out

crew / one by one

maintained hope / watched them die

Here John Mark isn’t just telling a tired old story, handing us flat facts or events. These central paragraphs provide a serious list of angry opposites, establishing further the crushing tension between what is hoped for and what is. Since the story’s strong plot is already rather stressful on its own (do the remaining survivors make it??), this sneaky structure makes it a double whammy. Yay, Ramon!

Two more elements to cover, and I’ll leave you be. First is the story’s wonderful, ironic frame. One of my favorite literary features in writing of any length or genre is that sweet satisfaction of an ending that echoes the beginning. It’s a lovely touch, so subtle and light here:

The Intrepid IX arrived

then

unyielding……but we………

were……………….

The parallel of “Intrepid” and “unyielding… but we… were….” is both heart-wrenching and compelling, as a hero’s death ought to be. 

And now: the best for last, of course. Flash fiction with staying power – again, like many other types of writing – almost always has something to say beyond the plot. Something new, or interesting, or universal, maybe. We are the same, it might say. You are not alone. There is more to life than this.

In “We Were,” John Mark boldly tackles an incredibly enormous question: What does it mean to be human? This is a discussion reserved for philosophers and PhDs, surely; one that cannot be addressed fully in thousands of annotated pages. So in a 150-word story? Impossible. Ridiculous. Arrogant!

We lived boldly and loved well, but in the end, the universe grew weary of us.

{{Nor does this line does offer its answer in isolation. Remember: Intrepid. Unyielding.}} 

What grabs me about this attempt, though, isn’t the conclusion itself, as compelling an idea as a heroic humanity is. It’s how the very effort to summarize all of humanity in a single sentence mirrors the effort of flash fiction writers to cram an entire world, a complete plot, a complex, realistic character, into the tiniest possible space.

For me, then, this story is reminiscent of a concrete poem (the poem about birds is shaped like a bird). Or maybe onomatopoeia (the word sounds like what it is, like buzz). Or like Norman Rockwell’s glorious triple self-portrait, painting himself painting himself painting himself…

Even as the captain condenses humanity into a sentence, John Mark is condensing a plot, character, and, while he’s at it, all of humanity into 150 words. The captain is doing the very thing the writer is. It’s enough to make one’s head spin. What gorgeous complexity and double entendre-type structuring.

(Ramon, you should know, is also a really great spinner.)

Thank you, John Mark, for this bold, compelling, wonderfully designed and executed piece.

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Flash! Friday Vol 2 – 29: WINNERS!

LOVE all the directions you took our wacky nuclear guy this week. Who knew so many stories lurked in that odd mask? (You did, obv.) Couple of reminders before moving on to results: 

  • FLASH POINTS is back with a vengeance on Mondays, where one of your stories will be lovingly chopped to bits and analyzed up, down, and sideways. 
  • Our new judge panel starts this week, yeeeeeehaw, kicking off with dapper Craig Anderson (aka @TodaysChapter)! Can’t wait for them to strut their fine judgy stuff!
  • DOG DAYS of SUMMER special contest w CASH PRIZES kicks off Tuesday, July 8. Ohhhh I’m giddy. Don’t prod me too hard or I may spill the secrets every which way.

♦♦♦♦♦

Judge Jess West says: Well folks, it’s all I can do to write this with a steady hand and dry eyes. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from you all these last few weeks, or how well I’ve come to know you through your writing. Each of you has touched my heart in some way: some as like-minded friends, others as sources of inspiration, and a few as teachers who have played a part in the writer I’m becoming. I have a heavy heart as I write this, but you know what? That’s silly. The end of my judging only means the beginning of rejoining you all as a writer. Though I will miss lurking behind the scenes – I think the confines of the dragon cave have gotten to me, I’ve become quite good at lurking, and even enjoy it – I can’t wait to get back in on the action.

So, I’ve dried my tears, and done a little happy dance, and now I’m ready to humbly offer you my thoughts on this week’s entries.

Cheers,

Jess

Oh, and Bart… I’m coming for you, buddy.

♦♦♦♦♦

SPECIAL, SPECIAL MENTION

Margaret Locke, “The Days Are Long, but The Years Are Short.” Let me begin by saying I was *very sorry* to have to disqualify this story, but after counting it every which way I could, and even calling in for reinforcements, “The Days are Long” came up 2 words – 2 measly words I tell you! – over the limit. But it deserves a place in the list nonetheless because before I’d checked the word counts, “The Days Are Long” had made it into the short list, specifically for its unique take on the prompt that weaves a bit of reality into fiction.

SPECIAL MENTIONS

John Mark Miller, “We Were.” Terrifying, but very real possibility of the extinction of the human race.

Amy Wood, “Rough But Poetic Justice.” Aptly titled, poetic justice indeed.

Craig Anderson, “Resolution.” What a twist!

Hannah Heath, “The Accident.” Another great twist, totally didn’t see that coming.

Karl A Russell, “If You Were the Only Girl in the World.” Down to the last, and this war still rages on.

Brett Milam, “Gunny.” Elicits a great deal of emotion, specifically of the “I want to kill that antagonist so hard” variety.

Taryn Noelle Kloeden, “We All Fall Down.” Great build up of tension by creatively using the “clicks” to heighten suspense.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Rasha, “Ever After.” This is another one that formed a lump in my throat. The characters are well formed, and the circumstances are clear. This story makes good use of the photo prompt as a reference to a memory, an event, that leads to the highly emotional decision, and heart-wrenching consequences.

JM6, “The Important Thing.” By the end of the story I got the distinct impression that Julie was in a bad way and it was somehow the reporter’s fault. There’s a lot of world behind this story; it’s one of those that I could easily see expanded, and would definitely like to read.

THIRD RUNNER UP

Carin Marais, “Shells.” This one really stuck with me, especially because of the “I wanted to, but didn’t” that repeatedly translated to “I wanted to comfort you, but I didn’t want you to lose hope.” “Shells” really tugged at my heartstrings. My favorite part was, “Only broken shells remained. Shells of cities, shells of people, shells of souls, shells of prayers…” Great imagery with emotional connection all in one powerful punch. 

SECOND RUNNER UP

Bart Van Goethem, “I Am Invincible.” What I loved the most about this one was that the author took a cliche, “If looks could kill…” and turned it into a delightful spin on the dragon’s bidding, perfectly demonstrating the opposite of Patience. When I went back and looked at the name, I wasn’t surprised to find out who it was. Next week, when I rejoin the fray, I’m coming for you, Bart! Your consistent clever wit is a technique I hope to learn, a talent I hope to emulate. Can we get this guy a Medal for Consistent Excellence?

FIRST RUNNER UP

Carlos Orozco, “Close Enough.” What impressed me the most about this piece is the sheer volume of personality, not just of one character, but two. On top of that, the dragon’s bidding was put to excellent use by delineating these very different personalities with dual use of patience, both as it is and its adverse twin. One of these characters patiently awaits the inevitable, the other does not. Though there were no marks of distinction within the dialogue such as ‘he said’, there was no doubt in my mind which character was speaking. That is dialogue and characterization done right. Carlos made the best use of the prompts this week, in my opinion, to draw a concise dividing line between two characters. Well done!

And now: what a joy, after such a very long time, to crown Flash! Friday

DRAGON WINNER

MAGGIE DUNCAN!!!

for

“Mindfulness”

Typically, I struggle for hours at the end of a round of judging to pick just one winner, but this week Maggie outdid herself. From the very first read through, I got chills with this one. I still get chills reading it. That’s what gives a piece real staying power. I can’t quote the words, or give you a name of the narrator, but I can tell you exactly how it made me feel. The first paragraph tells us what’s going on, and places a great deal of weight on the narrators actions. The second paragraph sets us up, giving us hope. I found myself breathing shallowly, crossing my fingers, hoping not only would the narrator have good news to share, but that he/she would feel the pride of being the one to deliver that news. And at the end of that paragraph, I was certain of a happy ending. Maggie whisked me off my feet, brought me to the heights of hope, and tossed me off the side of the cliff. I was devastated at this twist. Aside from the emotional impact, the world building is exemplary, there’s no doubt where we are and what’s going on. Though the people behind the airlock are safe, and will celebrate their own happy endings, our poor Checker will not share in their joy. That is truly tragic. Maggie, you’ve broken my heart, but I gotta give it to you, this was some damn fine writing. Very well done!

Congratulations, Maggie! Your imperial supreme winner’s badge awaits you below. Here is your crowning achievement-ed, updated winner’s page and your winning tale on the winners’ wall. Stand by so I can interview you for this week’s #SixtySeconds feature. And here is your winning story:

Mindfulness

Procedure here is all important. The temptation is to throw on the anti-radiation suit and get to the surface to sample the soil and air. Checkers must don their protective gear with slow, calm deliberation. A single, unseen hole or tear is a death sentence.

The samples over the past two years have crept steadily toward optimum. Every Checker wants to be the bearer of the good news, and it fell to me. I checked and re-checked the readings, but I could reach only one conclusion: In a few months we could return to the surface.

Back inside, I remove my mask, hoping my smile will herald the news, but I see the technician back up, hand over her mouth. My lip just below my nose itches, and I rub it. My fingers come away bloody. The technician closes the airlock.

I’m alone on the surface, awaiting the inevitable with slow, calm deliberation.

Procedure here is all important.

 

FFwinner-Web

 

 

Flash! Friday–Vol 2 – 29

WELCOME to the final Friday of the 2nd quarter of Year Two. Hasn’t it been a doozy!? Our newest judge panel kicks off next week aaaaaaaaaand…. I am now at liberty to announce the coming of a bonus contest, the Dog Days of Summer, complete with CASH prizes (thanks to our sponsors! y’all are AMAZING). Dog Days will kick off July 8. It’s going to stay open so much longer and allow so many more words, some of you might actually faint. More details next week.

 ♦♦♦♦♦

But first: on the deep, dark, depressing side, we are forced, FORCED, I tell you, to say goodbye to our final 2nd quarter judge, Jess West. Dear Jess! You were part of the FF family long before you stepped up as judge, but now your name will live on in draconian infamy. (Er, you’re ok with that, right?) How good it’ll be to read your stories here again. But BUSINESS FIRST: if you’re a newcomer and don’t know Jess’ preferences, pop over to her judge page to learn how she chooses her winning entries. 

 ♦♦♦♦♦

Awards Ceremony: Results will post Sunday. Noteworthy #SixtySeconds interviews with the previous week’s winner post Wednesdays.  I (Rebekah) post my own unbalanced writings sometimes on Tuesdays or Thursdays “just for fun.”   

Now let’s get to it!

Word limit150 word story (10-word leeway) based on the photo prompt.

HowPost your story here in the comments. Include your word count (140 – 160 words, exclusive of title) and Twitter handle if you’ve got one. If you’re new, don’t forget to check the contest guidelines.

Deadline11:59pm ET tonight (check the world clock if you need to; Flash! Friday is on Washington, DC time)

Winners: will post Sunday

Prize: The Flash! Friday e-dragon e-badge for your blog/wall, your own winner’s page here at FF, a 60-second interview next Wednesday, and your name flame-written on the Dragon Wall of Fame for posterity. 

***Today’s Dragon’s Bidding (required element to incorporate somewhere in your story; does not need to be the exact word(s) unless instructed to do so, e.g. “include the words “nuclear thermodynamics'”):

patience

***Today’s Prompt:

Nuclear Winter Recon. CC photo by Paul Hocksenar.

Nuclear Winter Recon. CC photo by Paul Hocksenar.