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Flash! Past: Image Ronin

§ WHAT MAKES A STORY GOOD? As they say, ask a dozen readers and you’ll get a dozen answers. That’s as it should be, because stories resonate differently for each of us. The haunting poem speaking to you now and the clever satire speaking to me, may each take second place to the fledgling writer’s imperfect but heartfelt etude next week which clobbers us both. There’s a place in our heart-libraries for all of these voices; it’s what makes the worlds of reading and writing so diversely beautiful.

At the same time (yes, same time! voice and authenticity work in perfect tension with the more objective measures) it would be silly to pretend there aren’t powerful weapons writers can learn to wield, or literature professors would be out of a job. As one whose dragonpast includes heaps of word judgery, I’m delighted to re-share with you this Fire&Ice season a clawful of my FF flash favorites along with a few comments on why they caught my dragoneye. First up: join us for a leap back in time with Flashdog Image Ronin.


 

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This original Flash Points posted June 9, 2014

Welcome to Flash Points. Today’s post resurrects an old (ish) romp in which a story from the previous week’s competition is devoured for its deliciousness, bite by bite. In other words, we look at it up close and personal to help us in our pursuit of what makes great flash. Hungry? Let’s eat!

Prompt: Bell Tower

Word limit:  140 – 160 words

Today’s chosen flash piece:  The Messengerby Image Ronin

From the bell tower Arcane watched orange flowers bloom in the twilight. One after the other, a constellation of beacons spluttered into life, sending their plight to the capital.

There was nothing else he could do. Arcane slumped down by the bell, whose rough rope had flayed the skin from his hands. He had tolled The Sentinel till his shoulders had ached, her solemn declaration almost overwhelming the screams and sounds of battle that emanated from the village.

Tolled till orange flowers bloomed.

The sound of wood giving way to force stirred Arcane back to reality. The invaders had gained entry. Soon they would ascend the worn stone steps to find the young scholar.

Shoulders complaining, Arcane took up his axe and buckler. He had hoped the invaders would have moved on, or that the Capital’s knights would arrive in time.

But such thoughts were that of a child.

Now he had to die as a man.

What works

It’s fun seeing how a photo often sends writers’ minds on similar treks. An ancient bell tower and a theme of “fire” brought a flurry of tales of warning and destruction. A few writers’ entries stood out as fresh and unique: Brett Milam, of course, and his (winning) metaphorical interpretation;  Tamara Shoemaker and William Goss and their poetic spins; and Maggie Duncan for a futuristic twist. When approaching a writing prompt, rejecting that first idea that pops into your head can be a helpful way to make sure your story will stand out from the others. Look beyond the obvious, the superficial, and dare to take a story in a totally different direction.

Image Ronin‘s The Messenger follows suit with the majority who wrote of the onslaught of war and an individual’s dramatic actions at the bell tower. In the case of this story, then, it is not the concept but the execution that sets it apart. Let me tell you a few things I love about this piece.

The story is written tightly and cleanly. The 150-word threshold at FF is roomier than one might think, but it does not allow for the tiniest bit of excess. No extra thats, no wasted movements, no character’s idle thoughts. Every sentence, every word, needs to push the story forward, which it does beautifully in this story. That’s some fantastic editing! Nothing could be cut from “The Messenger” without losing an important element. It is also grammatically clean and typo-free.

Many flash fiction writers’ first drafts are hundreds of words long, and then they hack at the story to meet the word count (like Cinderella’s stepsisters and the glass slipper!!). This is, of course, a perfectly valid approach; no writer can tell another the “right” way to pen a tale. The problem, however, is you need the right amount of story for the allotted space. In my own writing, sometimes it helps to worry less about cutting away words and first think a bit more about cutting down the underlying plot. Notice how much “The Messenger” doesn’t tell us. There’s zero backstory. We don’t know the country, the politics, the names of the invaders, whether the protagonist has a family. But in this piece those things are extraneous. The story Image is telling us, after all, isn’t of a village’s lost battle; it’s the very specific, very tiny arc of a single moment: a character’s shift from childhood to maturity.

In a similar vein, it’s easy to think of flash fiction top-down, i.e. sawing off the blubber. It can sometimes be more helpful to think bottom-up. In other words, instead of focusing on the extra words, look at the primary words. Some of the most powerful flash fiction is accomplished by words with multiple jobs. Look at some of the tools Image uses in his story:

Interesting, evocative verbs

Arcane slumped down by the bell.

beacons spluttered into life

Intentional structure (here, repeated phrases which echo the sounding of the bell)

Arcane watched orange flowers bloom

He had tolled The Sentinel

Tolled till orange flowers bloomed

Strong sensory language

Arcane watched orange flowers bloom 

rough rope had flayed the skin from his hands

overwhelming the screams and sounds of battle

The sound of wood giving way

Shoulders complaining 

Subtle little trick

Note the MC’s name, Arcane, which means Understood by few; mysterious; secret. How perfect!

And finally, “The Messenger” has something to say. It isn’t “just” a story. In this respect, its theme of defiance in the face of despair is reminiscent of many other stories this week, including the winner’s. What makes that heroic theme unique here is the defiance is only superficially against the invaders. The greater defiance is against his own exhaustion and pain, his inexperience, the immature temptation to put himself first. Man vs. self, as they say. That’s a heck of a textured battle for 150 words, and that layering of depth launches this story to another level altogether.

Wonderfully done.

Your turn! How do you approach a prompt? What tools do you use in your own flash writing which have proven the most effective?

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!

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?