Tag Archive | John Mark Miller

Flash! Friday Vol 2 – 35: WINNERS!

So glad to see you! Thank you for another round of colorful tales–and what fun to have a ton of newbies jump in this week. O brave, brave newbies! (though now that you’ve competed once, you’re no longer newbies but family. Which will bring either deep comfort or soul-rending terror.)

A special serving of thanks for first-time judge Margaret Locke who, despite being charged with the herculean task of choosing a winner, pooh-poohed the impossibility and did it anyway (with flair!). Since I suspect she has a lot to say (your own fault, for writing so brilliantly), I shall now hand the mic over to dear ML:


Judge Margaret Locke says: May I confess how nervous I was to serve as judge this week? It’s one thing to read your marvelous stories week after week from the comfort of my little writing cave, but quite another to be responsible for picking a winner. I live in awe of Our Lady Dragoness and all of the other judges, who’ve made this look so easy. Because, well, it ain’t.

You delighted, astounded, and moved me this week with your varied takes on the admittedly fabulous prompt. We had numerous tales of less-than-loving brides wreaking murderous havoc on their grooms, if not also the people around them. At some points I felt as if I had stumbled into a Game of Thrones-esque Red Wedding. There were stories focusing on the cute little white dog (which I admit I overlooked upon first glance), on the enormous book at the center of the image, on the people surrounding the central figures. Some chose to take a more literal gander at the prompt, writing of queens and kings and royal marriages; others opted for modern interpretations.

What pulled me in most, I’ve discovered, were well-written, well-constructed stories with exquisite turns of phrase, often subtle (or not so subtle) double meanings, and clever plays on words. I’m a sucker for beautiful language and simple sentences that pack an emotional punch. So many times I read something and thought, “Dang, I wish I’d written that!”

You are good, people. You make this job hard. But that’s what keeps me coming back, whether as participant, comment-maker (is that a word?), or now judge; because I know that in your hands, 150 words have the power to knock me to my knees, and make me plead with you for more, more, more!



13-year-old Ian Phillips, “A Job to Do.” This story lent a fun James Bond feel (although with a suitably medieval-sounding Geoffrey as our spy hero) to this week’s prompt. Well done!

Judge Phil Coltrane, “King Me.” From its hilarious apt title and punny word play with the checkers game later referenced in the story, Phil’s story had me giggling from the get-go. Canis Latina, Texas Hold ‘Em, eleven husbands (I’m assuming perhaps all those dudes over on the left of the picture?)…I really didn’t want this comical gem to end.

Title/wordplay: Eliza Archer, “Cave Canem.” This piece had several comedic elements that caught my eye, from the opening line, to Monsieur T (“I pity the fool!” is all I could think of, over and over), but I particularly enjoyed the use of the common expression, “Every dog will have his day,” employed in a more literal sense

Title: Maggie Duncan, “Thorn Among the Roses.” A wonderful title, a play-on-words with a historically accurate twist.

Title/Unexpected take on prompt: Brett Milam, “Cold Feet.” People gave me violent weddings, but nothing so much as this. The play on words in the title is excellent.

Great line: SJ O’Hart, “The Secret Keeper.” This story tugged at my heart, the very believable image of an unwilling queen-to-be begging for release, for rescue from her obligations and fate. But it was the utterance of the line, “Too late,” with its layered meanings, that took my breath away.

Beautiful phrase: Mark King, “Plastic.” “This cathedral of apprehension.” Oh, the feeling this phrase invoked. All of us have been there, filled with fear, but the image of that fear, that apprehension as a cathedral, both majestic and terrifying, really hooked me. 

Twist: Image Ronin, “The Bride to Be.” This wasn’t the only same-sex marriage entry this week, all of which were a fun surprise, but I loved the lines, “At the ceremony she had stood beside her true love, heart fluttering,” which of course we assume to mean her bridegroom. Then we get, “She had never looked so beautiful, her dress accentuating every curve,” because at first we think it’s describing Isabella, only to, at the end, learn Isabella was describing Beatrix.

Closing line: Marie McKay, “Vows.” The whole story was poignant and sad, but the contrast in the final line, “I might have been made a mother in this marriage, but, I vow, I won’t be a bride,” made for an excellent closing.


Dieter Rogiers, “What is Wedlock Forced But Hell.” I suspected the title was Shakespearean, so I googled it, and to my delight, indeed it is from Henry VI – so appropriate for the picture. I simply love the use of the book here – it’s such a centerpiece in the image, clearly something important enough to document its exchange, that it’s natural to wonder what was in it. To see it as not a religious text such as the Bible, as might have been expected, but as a sex manual, a Kama Sutra, perhaps, made me giggle. The description of the king, a royal personage here rendered simply as “flabby and filthy and naked,” further flips expectations on their head, and the contrast of the “fairy tale wedding” with its “inevitable aftermath” is wonderful. As is that last line, which made me truly laugh out loud.

FCFL Railway, “Unexpected Toolhead Contact.” The power in this piece lays in its taking one set of lingo – that referring to weddings – and applying it in a completely unexpected way, to that of creating machinery. The line “Tomorrow, the piece was to be married to the right half in a ceremony attended by corporate groomsmen, their dark suits accessorized by hard hats and safety glasses,” as well as the accompanying phrase “The metal bride lay like a stabbed corpse” painted such rich visual images, so striking in their contrasts. Who thinks to described hard-hat wearing metal manufacturers as groomsmen? And yet it works. The final line completes the wedding theme in a satisfyingly comical way.

James Whitman, “Queen of the Castle.” This story deserves mentioning for the powerful emotions it evokes. The opening paragraph so perfectly encapsulates a happy childhood moment, an innocent blending of toys and fun, that evolves into something so much darker by the second paragraph. The matter-of-fact manner in which the dad’s response is described heightens, for me, the horror of it.

Tamara Shoemaker, “Promise Me.” I really enjoyed the language in this one – the familiar wedding vows contrast nicely with the story elements that follow. Particular phrases of note included “printing my flesh,” “blacken my hearth,” (which I first read as heart – so nice echo there in the use of hearth), and “stone-white hands,” which to me was a great embodiment of her innermost feelings reflected in a small physical detail.


David Shakes, “Dieu et Mon Droit.” The title immediately caught my attention, and using the motto of the British monarchy fits so well. The medieval imagery enriches this piece – the illuminated manuscript, the parchment, the ‘princesse tres excellente,’ the folio, the chansons de geste – all wonderful descriptors of this specific period in time. The visual image of a teardrop ruining such a wondrous book was quite arresting, as was the symbolism of the tear – fabulously referred to as a “droplet of reality” – blurring all that had been so clear on the page. The line “there’s no romance to come” echoes poignantly the reality of political marriages, and its allusion to the form of story of the time, the “romance”, again builds nicely upon the other medieval descriptors laced through the story.


John Mark Miller, “Hidden Warning.” What a great first line – it immediately makes us want to know more. Who’s speaking? To whom are they speaking? Within that one sentence of dialogue are suggestions of deception right from the start, making us want to know the whats and the whys, as well as the who.

The series of questions Margaret asks herself quickly and succinctly lays out an impressive tapestry of backstory in just three sentences. Although many stories played on the idea of the Queen as deceptor, this version with its time-travel component stood out for its originality.

The language throughout feels crisp and clean – almost effortless (although I know it’s not). It flows in pleasing rhythm, not encumbered by too many adjectives or adverbs, or awkward phrasings. I particularly enjoyed the character-revealing contrasts of the priest: “stooped in a reverent bow,” but “his eyes had narrowed into hateful little slits,” as well as his spitting “Long live the queen,” normally a respectful phrase, but here rendered the opposite.

The title reflects both his warning to her, and hers to him, and ties the story together well. The ending is strong, her threatening phrase echoing the priest’s opening one. I love the inference that she will execute him –  expertly communicated without spelling it out.

And now: appearing for her first time at the top, it’s Flash! Friday




“Little Peg Tudor”

The title of this piece caught me at once, with its modernizing of a royal name in a way that feels at once familiar and forbidden. Then to have laced that nickname throughout the story, with its now double-meaning, was spectacular.

The author made use of a number of great phrases: the wonderfully descriptive “sparrow-sharp shoulders,” the emotive “won by the mothers of sons,” the starkly contrasting “she brings power, he brings blood.” 

The line “She knows, though, there will be blood of her own to shed – in the bed, in the birthing chair, in the generations of her progeny,” along with the phrase “they are won by the mothers of sons,” underscored for me the power and trials of women in this period (and others). 

The construction of the piece, moving from smallest and most immediate (“wedding robe,” “in the bed,”) to middle and personal (“marriage,” “the birthing chair”), to largest and most influential (“crown,” “generations of her progeny”) works so well, emphasizing each point while connecting them. Even the opening and closing sentences blend expertly with each other. At first the cloth is heavy – by the end, as she realizes all of her responsibilities, the cloth seems the lightest of her burdens.

Congratulations, Rachael, on your well-deserved win. I so enjoyed every bit of your spectacular story.


Congratulations, Rachael! We’re so glad you’ve started sharing your talents here with the FF community–what fun having you! Below is the winner’s badge for your wall. Here also are your winner’s page and your winning tale on the winners’ wall. Please contact me here ASAP so I can interview you for this week’s #SixtySeconds interview. And here is your winning story:

Little Peg Tudor

A Peg to hang a wedding robe upon, so heavy on her sparrow-sharp shoulders she thinks her knees might buckle. She runs a finger across the brocade, stroking the slippery silk thread where it stands proud of the nubbled backing cloth.

A Peg to hang a marriage on. She brings power, he brings blood. She knows, though, there will be blood of her own to shed – in the bed, in the birthing chair, in the generations of her progeny. Only she will not think of them as progeny, they will be her children, soft in her arms, bound to her heart, her own.

A Peg to hang a crown on, to keep it from the Pretender’s head. Her priest tells her crowns are in the gift of God. She knows they are won by the mothers of sons. She drops her shoulders, stretches her neck and finds comfort, now, in the weight of the cloth on her back.





Flash Points: Full Circle


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: John Mark Miller


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………


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


unyielding……but we………


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.