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Flash Points: Chris Milam

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Welcome to Flash Points. Every so often (or every not-so-often, it turns out) we grab a story, live and wriggling, out of the latest batch of gorgeous flash and fillet it. Which seems particularly appropriate for today’s chosen story — that’s also this week’s winner — by superwriter Chris Milam. Loathe as I am to admit it, “Penelope” proves that some writers can pull off a great story despite a (rather embarrassing, in point of fact) dragon omission. 

Prompt: The Great Gatsby

Word limit:   100 – 150 words

Today’s chosen flash piece:  Penelope Callaghanby Chris Milam

The man was prowling the docks for a juice joint when he saw her. Hair as red as a freshly gutted tuna. A face that could’ve launched the ship she arrived on, the Mauretania.

“Jimmy Banks. You’re a choice bit of calico. You gotta name?”

“Penelope.”

“A pleasure. You need a gig? I can get you work making dresses. Yes?”

“No. I didn’t come here to be a seamstress.”

“I dabble in muck sometimes. You game?”

“Why not. Show me your dark America.”

He schooled her. “Take advantage of your looks. Get close. Flirt with your mouth. Pop some buttons on your blouse. When he’s hooked, ram steel into his heart. Don’t hesitate. Know your onions. Make some cash.”

Years and dozens of punctured ventricles later, Penelope would think of Jimmy Banks. The rum-fisted uppercuts. The savage bouquet of cheap cologne. The way his chest opened up, like a filleted sturgeon.

What works

Let’s kick off with dragon captain Nancy Chenier‘s comments, which beautifully pinpoint several of the elements I’ll highlight myself afterward.

So much tasty in this piece. The language is as sharp as a filet knife. The fish-gut imagery that sandwiches this piece—a reference to the mob-controlled Fulton Fish Market, perhaps?—is perfect. Penelope is a brilliant character, first through Jimmy’s eyes, through the dialogue, to the last paragraph which shifts deftly to her POV (a shift that also manages to move us ahead in time as well, without a page break). The reference to the Mauretania signals a crucial element that Jimmy (who makes the allusion) misses: it was the fastest liner of its day. We know she’s new to the New World, but she’s savvy enough to take on “dark America”.  The dialogue between them crackles: her bluntness vs. his slang-heavy banter, and what wonderful slang it is too. I can imagine Jimmy having a habit of hustling new arrivals, but she turns out to be his match, established in the dialogue, confirmed in the end. Not knowing the allusions doesn’t diminish the enjoyment of this piece at all (which makes them the best kind of allusions). The last paragraph packs so much into it without getting bogged down. One tiny scintillating phrase (“rum-fisted uppercuts”) drums up enough antipathy for Jimmy that his demise in the next line seems inevitable and satisfying.

The reason I couldn’t resist spending a little more time on this story is Chris has masterfully showcased perhaps my favorite literary tool, literary multitasking.  

Background first: in flash fiction the past year or two, we’ve seen a growing emphasis on scene or vignette, as opposed to story. Plot arcs (narrative, active journeys from one event to another) are being abandoned in favor of the still-life form: gorgeous, yes; powerful, absolutely — but frozen in time and space. Let me clarify right up front that my argument is less a criticism of that approach, which can still accomplish much in its own way; this is rather a defense of story as the stronger of the two approaches.

“Penelope” is 150 words. Let’s break it down into its base elements:

Characters: Penelope, Jimmy
Setting: docks, 1920s America (seamlessly established via dialect)
Plot: A hussler/gangster trains an apparently naïve new immigrant with fatal results
Conflict: man vs man
Themes: Innocence, vengeance, doublecrossing

Now let’s look at the narrative. Where do the characters begin, and where do they end?

Jimmy: Hussling on the docks –> trained Penelope in his muck work –> dead
Penelope: Newly arrived in the US –> abused, learned an assassin’s skills –> free

There is movement in this story. We are given an opening dialogue to establish the two characters, and then in brilliant telescoping we are hastily dragged from that first encounter through the story’s middle then to its violent end. The characters start in one place, both physically and character-wise; they both wind up somewhere totally different. They both change: and in tandem the reader’s understanding of the characters changes.

The characters’ narrative arcs, particularly that of Penelope, do their job smoothly: we are with the characters at the beginning; we walk with them through the painful middle; we react and retrospect with Penelope as she views her painful past. Setting aside all the other elements for a moment, and the multitasking we’re about to delve into, here is what such a narrative arc achieves in the reader: the reader is moved from interest to sympathy to satisfaction. 

Did you see that sleight of hand?? Look again in slo-mo: The movement of the story causes movement in the reader. And this is where I contend the timeless format of story can engage and stir the reader in the fastest, deepest, most efficiently textured way.

So, clearly Chris has packed a lot in this story. We’ve got all the story elements, we’ve got clear development of two characters, we’ve got an emotional connection, and we have a firm plot that moves from intro to conclusion. But there’s one more angle I want to touch on before signing off: the multitasking I alluded to at the outset.

Let’s Sherlock it. 

How is Jimmy’s character established? Look at the words: prowling, juice joint, freshly gutted tuna, choice bit of calico, take advantage of your looks, make some cash. Through his actions and dialogue, he’s firmly established in his seedy character. No overt description necessary. This is a fantastic example of show, don’t tell.

How is Penelope’s character established? Her name: the most famous Penelope is Odysseus’ wife, who faithfully sewed by day out of submission to her forceful, would-be suitors but slyly undid the work by night. Chris’ Penelope rejects sewing, but her name alone throws back to that classic character’s devious intelligence, a parallel which is  emphasized by the reference to Helen of Troy. Further, Chris’ Penelope arrives on the Mauretania (fast, famous, luxury ship), and look at her statements: I didn’t come here to be a seamstress (she has ambition); Why not; show me your dark America (she has done her research; she is in control of her decision; she knows exactly what sort of person Jimmy is).

Now look specifically at the contrast/tension established between the two:

Jimmy: prowls, speaks in slang, focuses on money, sees Penelope’s hair as “gutted tuna”
Penelope: her sentences are pointed, direct, economical; where Jimmy speaks of getting work, Penelope speaks of a career; sees Jimmy’s death as a “filleted sturgeon.”

Their actions and word choices develop their characters and create immediate opposing tension. Not just straight dialogue, not telescoping to cheat the word count: these choices add texture, conflict, even irony. (My favorite line might be, He schooled her; we already know her to be intelligent and decisive, and it turns out later that Penelope was not, ultimately, the one being schooled.)

All right, how long is this thing now? Is anybody still awake? Maybe I should stop, though goodness knows I could talk for a lot longer about the story’s various elements and how busy they are and how madly crazy happy I am when words do that. But y’all can see for yourselves just how much can be teased out of that grim final paragraph: we can easily guess what Penelope’s life was like, at least for a time, with Jimmy.

And you already noticed how the opening startling, unexpectedly violent image of red hair/gutted tuna with the emotionless, precise filleted surgeon at the end make perfect, grotesque bookends.

Together we reach the end in horrified satisfaction and look back, surprised to see how far we’ve come.

Now that’s a story.

Your turn!

Do you agree? Disagree? Did this story grab you — and in what way? What elements/word choices do you especially love? Just how amazing a writer is Chris Milam? What are your favorite tricks/devices to use in flash? What devices do you see other flash writers using that make you drool? Spill!

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Flash Points: Full Circle

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Welcome to Flash Points, a totally non-intimidating feature highlighting a writer who, at the most recent Flash! Friday, committed awesomeness. Said writer is then praised and generally Made Much Of.

Prompt: River door

Word limit:  140 – 160 words

Today’s chosen flash piece:  Assorted; see below

Let’s chat!

Today instead of highlighting a lot of elements from a single story, I thought I’d take a single element and showcase the writers who executed it beautifully. And what better place to start than with the opening/closing lines

Some writers approach a tale by plotting it all out first — yes, even a flash piece — while others jump in and follow the story where it goes. Regardless of a writer’s approach, however, the story itself needs to be thoughtfully constructed. The reader follows the story because the writer compels her to do so, carefully leading her from paragraph to paragraph. Nothing in a story should be throwaway or accidental, especially in a flash piece: every plot point, every word of dialogue, must serve a purpose. 

For me one of the most effective story structures is the frame (sometimes called circle), where the story’s closing echoes or touches back to its beginning in some way. Doing so brings a great sense of satisfaction: the original question has been answered, the story finished, the writer’s promise fulfilled. Let’s take a look at some who do this beautifully! Please find here their first line // last line. 

Freedom. The word washed through his head. // He smiled. The water was warm.

— Swimming Against the Tide, Pam J Plumb. The water moves; now he does.

She knew the words of the song well, almost as well as she knew the feel of the shackles around her ankles and wrists. // She couldn’t swim…. it was her key to freedom.

— Wade in the Water, by Joidianne4eva. Imprisonment balanced by freedom.

Little Sara smiled and hugged her arms to her chest as fast flowing water hurried freely across her toes. // Papa said Mama had passed to the other side, but it didn’t matter to little Sara that the floodgate was dirty, cracked and falling apart, it was still a gate, pearly or not, and when Mama was ready to come back, it was here…and she’d be waiting.

— The Other Side, by Lisa Shambrook. We learn what little Sara is waiting for. 

“All this over tea?” said the Queen as her newly self-freed servants pushed her along. // And she buoyed down the river like a steeping tea bag in a kettle. “Well I wasn’t expecting that,” said another servant.

— Steeping the Queen, by Rasha Tayaket. Precise reversal of power.

Sarah longed for freedom. // “I’ll run north and then I’ll truly be free!” And she was.

— Going Free, by Crystal Alden. Sarah’s wish is granted.

“God will deliver us,” Mama murmured, a salty tear streaking down her bruised cheek. // Deliverance had come swiftly, and we were free already.

— Forgotten Gate, by John Mark Miller. The hope of deliverance fulfilled.

The hooded man thawked his mallet against the gong, a single note rippling over the crowd. // Death looped around my neck, I met the gaze of every curious onlooker, ready to keep time myself.

— The Noose Metronome, by Kat Lewis. Echoed musical theme.

It was the first thing I saw when I arrived. A portal into darkness. // It was the last thing I saw when I left. A portal back into a vibrant world.

— Daylight, by Betsy Streeter. Perfect (almost chiastic) opposition.

Each of these stories begins and ends differently. Some use dialogue, others action, others contemplation. Each of them, however, raises a question which is then answered at the end. No gaps here! And “complete” doesn’t mean “happy” — it merely means the writer has done what he said he would. (If only such a thing could be said of more of us, eh??)

Great job, everybody!

Your turn:

How do you approach a story (do you outline or jump right in)? Do you consider the first line when writing the last? Which of this week’s Flash! Friday stories do you feel accomplished the frame especially well?

Flash Points: Sinéad O’Hart

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Welcome to Flash Points, a totally un-terrifying (one hopes) feature in which a remarkable, noteworthy story from the most recent round of Flash! Friday is marked and noted. In other words, we nibble at it, bit by bit, to savor each glorious nuance. YUM!

Prompt: Gymnasts

Word limit:  140 – 160 words

Today’s chosen flash piece:  China in Your Handby Sinéad O’Hart

We were like one body – that’s what Mr Hardy said. Tumble, girls! Now, spin! That’s it! I’d do whatever it took to hear his ‘perfect!’, to dismount with my feet exactly right, to see the wide grin on Elizabeth’s face which, I knew, mirrored mine.

Four hours a day, six days a week. More when Regionals drew near.

‘You girls are closer than sisters,’ our teacher smiled. ‘No doubt we’ll see you on the winners’ podium in years to come, eh?’ I wanted it more than anything; I dreamed in gold. My mind was stuffed full of stretches and leaps, tucks and pikes.

Then Liz started falling. We let it slide for a while – distractions, or lack of focus. But when our rankings began dropping, Mr H took her aside. Her eyes found mine as he told her, but I blinked and looked away.

As she grabbed her stuff and left, I felt thick-fingered, like I’d dropped something precious.

What works

So many fantastic stories this week — there always are, of course — choosing one to blabber on about for a minute or two seriously tortured my poor little pea brain. What about David Shakes’ gripping last line:

The truth is, despite this wheelchair I’ve never felt more free… except when I was falling.

And you’ve got to love Rasha’s calculated numerical structure (didn’t you want to rise to your feet, cheering, at the end??), Todd Strader’s heart-panging parallel tales, and oh my, Lucia Gray’s wrenching story of pain and lostness. These balanced, naturally, by the guffaw-inducing tales by A J Walker:

‘That’s my girl,’ he shouted, writhing.

Annabelle looked down. ‘That’s not my dad.’

or Natalie Bowers:

I’d always prided myself on me observational skills – you don’t stay a pirate captain long unless you keep a weather eye on your shipmates – so when my landing was … softer than expected, I was somewhat vexed, both with myself and, son, with the woman who later became your mother.

In the end, however, this week it was Sinéad’s China that haunted me most. If you’ve read Flash Points for any length of time, you’ll know I love layers in a story, tension beneath the surface, the power of words that aren’t said. Such a feat requires writing two stories, one on the screen, and one… not. And this is precisely what China does. From hints, from the narrator’s comments, from subtle grammatical twists, we discover an entire world of story exists beyond what’s seen. Plunge with me for a moment into my mania, won’t you?

A story’s first line plays a crucial role, of course. It must set the stage, establish the tone, introduce the world to come. Sinéad does all three to perfection:

We were like one body – that’s what Mr Hardy said.

Effective first lines serve as bait, hooking the reader deeper into the story. Like this first line, they should prompt questions, in this caseWho is like one body? How can more than one person/entity act like one body (we’ve heard about twin souls, eg, but what does “one body” look like?)? Who is Mr. Hardy? 

Flash fiction allows no time for lingering, and Sinéad whisks the pace along accordingly. In the short first paragraph we learn the “we” consists of the narrator and a girl named Elizabeth, the setting (drawn by specific vocabulary: tumble, spin, dismount) is gymnastics, and Mr. Hardy, by implication, is the girls’ coach. Nice, right? A sweet, ordinary, non-noteworthy day of practice, isn’t it? 

No. In that same introductory paragraph, hinted at so quietly, the first stirrings of tension (that oh-so-critical story element!):

I’d do whatever it took to hear his ‘perfect!’

Someone willing to do “whatever it [takes]” can’t escape our notice. It’s a question on the brink of devouring all of us at one time or another: how far are we willing to go to get what we want? The question isn’t answered right away, nor is it immediately implied something else will need to be sacrificed. But it’s tension you can sink your teeth into, and the pace is fast, so we keep reading.

The second paragraph continues building tension in fragmented staccato, telling us just how grueling the girls’ schedule is:

Four hours a day, six days a week. More when Regionals drew near.

“Regionals” introduces the idea of competition, and for the first time, so lightly, so quietly, a crack appears in the mirror. It’s a crack that carries over into the split third paragraph. Look at the perfect division there:

‘You girls are closer than sisters,’ our teacher smiled. ‘No doubt we’ll see you on the winners’ podium in years to come, eh?’ // I wanted it more than anything; I dreamed in gold. My mind was stuffed full of stretches and leaps, tucks and pikes.

While the coach continues (for now) to view the girls as “one body,” a team, the narrator has already begun disentangling herself. Structurally, this split occurs at the exact midpoint of the story. In a novel such a point might be the crisis vaulting (haha, sorry) the protagonist to the plot’s awful climax. It’s true here as well on a micro level. Look at the very next sentence:

Then Liz started falling.

Our narrator has already separated herself from her partner, a division magnified by the other girl’s lagging performance. But the following sentence is the one I found most chilling.

We let it slide for a while.

Do you see that? It’s a sleight-of-hand worthy of David Blaine. Look at it again in slo-mo: 

We were like one body

We let it slide for a while

The composition of “we” has changed: narrator/partner to narrator/coach. The latter two now look at the new outsider in pitying condescension. Liz has lost more than gymnastics rankings; she is losing her mirror. It’s terrible, agonizing, like not being able to tear your eyes away from a car wreck. The breaking of the bond is then confirmed physically.

Her eyes found mine as he told her, but I blinked and looked away.

All that’s left now is the dismount.

As she grabbed her stuff and left, I felt thick-fingered, like I’d dropped something precious.

I love this sentence. It’s poignant, yes, and wrenching. But structurally it’s magnificent, because it concludes not the superficial story (the ending of a gymnastics partnership) but the sub-story, a girl’s choosing of ambition over friendship. The conclusion answers the question asked at the story’s beginning: for the sake of her goals, she is willing (and does) sacrifice the best part of herself. And – tragically – it appears she has moved on far enough that she can’t quite pinpoint what she’s given up:

something precious

It’s the age-old sirens’ song, the give-up-your-soul negotiation with ol’ hooves ‘n’ horns, the sibilant temptation in Eden. And it’s especially troubling because no concern is given to the ousted gymnast. Why is Liz falling? Is there an underlying physical cause – a tumor? emotional distress? abuse at home? The narrator doesn’t tell us. Of course she doesn’t, because this isn’t, in the end, a story of two friends. It’s the story of a human’s giving up her soul.

It’s magnificent structuring and writing, this story-within-a-story.  So beautifully done, Sinéad. Thank you!