Tag Archive | Nick Johns

Flash Points: KristenAFC

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Welcome to Flash Points. Every (ish) Monday we stick one of the previous Friday’s entries under a sparklyscope and tear it to pieces (in a good way). What makes writing “good”? Specifically, what makes great flash? Let the discussion begin!

Prompt: Dust storm

Word limit:  340 – 360 words

Today’s chosen flash piece:  Facing the Smokeby KristenAFC

The landfill is burning. The smoke is visible from everywhere; the beaches, the highways, even way out here in the country. The landfill is a monster; the talk radio callers love to rant about it. Seagulls dive at the garbage heap, fighting for treasures in its belly. The odor of methane gas rides the wind; sometimes, we smell it in the little farm town where we moved to get away from the dirt of the city. It twists over the backs of Jersey cows, runs its fingers through the sheep’s fleece, flows up the nostrils of the Border Collie and swirls around the running feet of the chickens in my neighbors’ yard.

Today, the landfill burns.

I am watching the smoke advance toward the edge of our property while Samuel tells me he is leaving me.

“It is for the best,” he says.
I nod. The dark plumes swell and spread above the trees and houses.
“We haven’t been happy.”
They look ravenous, like they can’t help swallowing us.
“We?” I scratch my head. How funny how ‘you’ can talk of ‘we’ with such authority. There was so much between the lines of those vows.
“But don’t worry,” Samuel assures me. “The house – it’s yours. I wouldn’t do that to you.”
“Do what, exactly?” I ask. The puffs are closer still. I smell the smoke. Can’t he smell it? He stretches both arms, palms out toward me in a “stop” gesture, as if I am about to become hysterical and he’s trying to quell it. Hysterics were never my thing. Suck it up. Face it. Keep calm.
“Look, Annie,” he says, his hands still out straight and flipped up like fins. “There is no need to pretend.”
“I wasn’t aware I’d been pretending.” My voice is soft.

I keep my eyes on the advancing smoke, so I don’t see him fill up the car with the boxes I hadn’t noticed. He is behind me, rummaging, sliding crates, slamming doors, turning the ignition, backing out, driving away.

I stand and hold my breath. Facing the smoke head on, as it inches ever-closer.

What works

I loved so many of the stories this week, such as Charles Short‘s The One, with its deftly punctuated twist, and Nick Johns‘ dialogue-sculpted tale with a hilarious, comeuppance-type twist, and more.  If you haven’t had a chance yet, skim through to read these and other masterfully spun pieces for yourself and leave a comment!

From among these, it’s Kristen’s artfully woven tale of looming disaster I wanted to talk about this week. There is so much going on in this tiny story! The inside-out structure grabbed me right off the bat. We have the twin catastrophes–the burning landfill and the crumbling marriage–told in an almost chiastic or DNA-strand form, with the introduction of the landfill first, followed by an introduction of the husband’s leaving his wife. Then both stories are twisted together and developed in tragic parallel, with the second disaster concluded first, and the first disaster concluded last. This is some powerful structuring, and it works to great effect here. 

The story-within-a-story of Samuel leaving Annie is told in a horrifically straightforward tone, with a significant part occurring on a third, unseen level. Any of you who’ve read Flash Points for any length of time know that I’m crazy about subtext, especially in dialogue: the delicate, almost surgically precise layering of what we see going on on top of what’s really going on. This sort of thing can be hard to pull off well, but Kristen does it in a way that’s both magnificent and chilling. Look again at the narrator’s description of Samuel’s leaving:

“It is for the best,” he says.
I nod. The dark plumes swell and spread above the trees and houses.
“We haven’t been happy.”
They look ravenous, like they can’t help swallowing us.

The dialogue is simple, factual, without maudlin drama. But it’s echoed by descriptions of the coming danger, fire, smoke plumes, death. The narrator tells us without telling us how she really feels about Samuel’s announcement. It’s marvelous. And look at the next part too:

“We?” I scratch my head. How funny how ‘you’ can talk of ‘we’ with such authority. There was so much between the lines of those vows.
“But don’t worry,” Samuel assures me. “The house – it’s yours. I wouldn’t do that to you.”
“Do what, exactly?” I ask. The puffs are closer still. I smell the smoke. Can’t he smell it?

Here Kristen gives us a hint of what Annie is thinking, but still her description is unemotional and objective. In fact, it gets worse as we realize Samuel is caught up in his own activity and is completely oblivious to the pending physical danger. That double meaning with his paralleled oblivion of the state of his marriage…. ohhh it makes me all giddy inside. love how Kristen did that! 

Next up: Annie’s character development. Annie tells us outright how she sees herself:

Hysterics were never my thing. Suck it up. Face it. Keep calm.

But literature has taught us to suspect the narrator; just because Annie sees herself this way does not mean she is any more right in her conclusions than Samuel. In fact, in some ways Annie is shown to be quite passive. She stands and watches the firesmoke approach. She endures without protest as Samuel packs his car–in fact, perhaps in some form of denial, she refuses to watch him do so, looking instead at the billowing smoke.  This refusal to watch would seem to counter her claims of being a person who faces things. Except:

I keep my eyes on the advancing smoke, so I don’t see him fill up the car with the boxes I hadn’t noticed.

She tells us about the boxes, that she hadn’t noticed them before, that she isn’t watching what he does with them now; but we recognize this as a lie. If she hadn’t noticed them, if she weren’t watching him, she could not have told us about them. It’s a clever bit of misdirection from this anguished narrator, and we don’t buy it. She is not as objective, untouched, as she’d like us to believe. Break my heart, Kristen!

I’ll stop here, though this is hardly a comprehensive look at Facing the Smoke (I didn’t discuss the conclusion, or Samuel’s character–don’t get me started!). I’d like to give y’all a chance to chime in. What other layers and textures do you see here? What else makes this story so devastating? Spill!

Your turn!

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Flash! Friday # 40 — WINNERS!

Oh, I was giddy, yes, I was, to see what you all would do with the bridge and its passenger. Echoes of Terabithia, I thought, or perhaps Lothlorien, or Kwai. And you, clever writers, did all those things, but as ever, you also seized the prompt by its corners and reimagined beyond it. Worlds of wonder, you created. And worlds of horror and tragedy and courage and resilience. Yes! It was without question another week of phenomenal writing. Thank you so much for coming out and for supporting each other. It’s like having a massive family reunion (complete with the freaky but lovable uncle) each Friday, and I can’t imagine a week without y’all! Thank you! 

It’s too late for me to manage a Flash Points this week (sorry!), but remember you can always take a gander at the other flash contests going on around the flash world here. Always something going on, so get writing!

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Judge Anthony Marchese says, This week’s prompt was amazingly versatile, with the bridge serving as a passage to fantastic places.  It was the start to one journey or the end of another. It became a thing of legend or a stage for epic conflict. I cross bridges every day, but I don’t think I’ll be able to look at them the same way again. I certainly won’t be taking them for granted.

 And now for your results!! Comments by Anthony & the Flash! Friday team (because the Flash! Friday team loved these bridgy stories too much to resist chiming in).

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HONORABLE MENTIONS

Marie McKay, Untitled. Loved this reality-show type surveillance of eerie sounds affecting children across the globe.

Jake Kuyser, “Liathara of Woodley.” Creative story starring a selfless character who becomes a dragon’s apprentice–great take

Nick Johns, “A Walk on the Wild Side.” A horrifying post-apocalyptic world featuring a strong-hearted girl who will do anything to get her siblings through it. That’s the kind of sister you want.

SECOND RUNNER UP

Steph B, “372 Planks.” The descriptions really brought this story to life for me. Told in the simple and innocent voice of a child, the story’s underlying tone of mystery and horror were only accentuated by the child’s perfectly detailed colors and numbers. And what an ending!

FIRST RUNNER UP

Brian J. Hunt,Bridge Over the River Lethe.” Many people responded to this story, me among them. The mythology behind this intimate portrayal of a mother and son’s last moments was beautifully and artfully executed. I wish we could all throw cancer off a bridge like his mother did.

And the Flash! Friday first time participant and 

 DRAGON WINNER IS….

AMY WOOD!

for “The Wanderer”  

While most stories focused on the girl, this story swapped lenses and instead brought to life the mysterious, architecturally wondrous world of bridges. Expressed in a story reading as personally and wistfully as a journal entry, this piece perfectly encapsulates bridges’ essence. Bridges, we’re reminded, aren’t confined to serving as means to an end: they can also be the end. They enchant, fire the imagination, and even sweep near danger while still keeping the wanderer safe. Amy’s story, like the bridges she describes, poetically spans both mountains and chasms and enables us all to feel, if only for a moment, we too are flying. What a beautiful and memorable story. Great job.

Congratulations, Amy! Here are your Winner’s Page, a glorious dragon eBadge (below), and your winning Tale. Please contact me asap (here) with your email address so I can interview you for Wednesday’s Sixty Seconds feature.

The Wanderer

I was always an inquisitive child. If there was a path beneath my feet, I wondered where it led. Many’s the time I worried my mother, wandering off to ‘just see around the next bend’. If I happened across a stream, I splashed into it, eager to see what lay beneath its surface. Roads held the same fascination for me: where did they go? Being in the car at night, snug and safe in my seat with my parents in the front, was like heaven. The signs flew past, each one taking me closer to somewhere and further away from somewhere else, sheer magic.

But best of all, I remember, was bridges. If my wandering feet led me to a bridge, I had to step onto it. They were enchanted pathways, yellow brick roads to the unknown. Even if could see exactly what lay before me on the other side or if I’d trodden the same path a hundred times, it was still exciting.

I loved the slight pounding of my heart as I crossed over a raging river. My eyes couldn’t move fast enough to watch the cars if it spanned a busy road. Steep rocky gorges, peaceful mountain streams– they all passed beneath my feet and I felt like I was flying.

Legend says that trolls liked to live beneath bridges. I know that’s not true because I looked, every time. I’d hold on to the guard rails and hang as far over as I dared, making sure nothing unnatural lurked there.

Bridges still hold a peculiar fascination for me. I love nothing more than to stand on one and just stare into the sky. I’m older and supposedly wiser now but I still feel that maybe, if I really try hard, up on a bridge, I can reach the clouds.

FFWinnerBadgeSmall

Flash Points: Nick Johns

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Welcome to Flash Points. Every Monday we stick one of the previous Friday’s entries under a sparklyscope (soon everyone will be using this term) and talk about it right in front of its face, dragon style. What makes writing “good”? Specifically, what makes great flash? What about this particular piece really works? Let the discussion begin!

Prompt: black & white movie scene

Word limit: 200-300

Today’s chosen flash piece:  It’s Behind You, by Nick Johns

“You’ll never guess what I’ve found, my dear, featured in the society pages of the London Gazette. Right here, you see ‘The Honorable and Mrs Aloisius Sebastain-Flyte,’ blah blah, ‘fresh from his notable successes in the city…’ notable successes eh? blah blah, ‘…recently embarked upon the adventure of a lifetime,’ blah blah, ‘…wonder of the age …technology’s greatest achievement…’ Cynthia? Why are you just sitting like some slack-jawed shop girl at a picture show? Come on, Old Girl. I said you might be a little queasy, can happen to anyone. Not got your sea legs. I know! How about a teensy glass of fizz, eh? Just the thing if you’re not feeling quite the ticket.”

“B b b…”

“What? Oh! I see! It’s a game, is it? By Jove, I’ve got it – “I Spy”! How splendid. You shouldn’t really give any clues in the classical form of the game that Nanny taught us but, I’m game. Where’s that fizz…? I know! Bottle. Is it Bottle?”

“Bl bl bl…”

“Fine. Fine. Can’t expect to get it first time I suppose. Now let me see… Blanket?

“Blo blo blo…”

“Are you sure you’re not changing as we go along, you little minx?… Blouse!

“Bloo bloo bloo…”

“Oh really, there are a limited number of articles in any cabin, even one as spacious as this one… Bloom! That’s the blighter isn’t it? Bet you thought that I’d dismiss them as flowers. ‘F’ you see…? Bloom!”

“N.. N.. No. Bloo.. bloo.. bloo..”

“Yes, yes, we’ve had that already. Why are you sitting there gibbering like an imbecile, staring out of the porthole… I say, it’s not something outside the room, is it? That would be jolly poor form… close to cheating in fact. Well? Spit it out.”

“B B Bloody Big Iceberg!”

What works:

Right off the bat I will point out this story does something a story should never do: it breaks the rules by winking and nodding and kicking at the reader’s heels directly. It assumes the reader will, in its final line, make a connection outside the story and guffaw.  If the reader doesn’t know about Titanic, this story wouldn’t carry the punch it does. Rule-breaking in writing is a risky venture which normally ought to be avoided at all costs (in fact I often rail about this myself). Unless, of course, the writer can pull the risky venture off, which Nick totally does.

Another thing I like about this story is how the plot and voice are developed essentially in monologue. The protagonist natters on about this and that, idiotically assuming the gasping girl is seasick and wanting to play a parlor game as a distraction. His voice and gentle mocking of his companion are engaging and funny, even if he comes off as rather dense himself. His character is colorful and clear, and he’s fun to read. Monologue is difficult to pull off and maintain the reader’s interest, but several of the Flash! Friday entries managed it this week (Fraser McFraze is another who did a wonderful job of it–look for his hilarious tale here).

The blubbering companion gets the best line at the end, yes, but we laugh not at her but because we’ve gotten to know the protagonist and delight to see a verbal comeuppance. The story’s twist is wonderfully funny as a result, both because of the girl’s personal revenge for being mocked (if indeed she noticed) but also because of its powerfully unexpected unveiling of the characters’ impending doom.

Your turn:

Do you agree? What else in Nick’s story works? If you were going to write a single voice scene, how might you have approached it?