I have recently discovered the joy, excitement and frustration of flash fiction. Having come of the back of the long and exhausting process of writing a novella it is refreshing and gratifying to turn my hand to something spontaneous and fun, like lighting a sparkler at a party. Turns out, I’m actually quite terrible at it but somehow that doesn’t bother me. Something I learned from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic is to let myself enjoy that act of writing, regardless of the outcome.
I read a writing prompt about six months ago that simply said “snow not snow”. It was a concept that niggled at me, instantly conjuring images of a pastoral scene: a secluded valley painted white, two trees black and leafless in the distance and a young girl coming down for breakfast to find that the world had changed forever. Yet, as connected as I felt to this story—and as I said, it materialised almost immediately in my mind, vivid, tangible and complete—I struggled to it bring to life on the page. Perhaps this is because it felt more like a screenplay than a short story or a novel, something that was meant to be seen rather than read. So I gave up on it. I put it aside and dismissed it, comforting myself with the thought that it was a story that, in reality, had been written many times before (I mean, we’ve all known stories of children surviving, from Tomorrow When the War Began and the Book’s of Ember, to The Lord of the Flies). But still it niggled. I dreamt about it.
Eventually I sat down and read David’s Gaffney’s six rules for flash fiction, and wondered: could flash fiction exorcise this story from my thoughts? So I made a cup of tea (always a must), set a timer for twenty minutes and poured that story onto the page. I forced it to be done in only a few hundred words:
Snow not snow
The steak sizzled in the pan, forced to change its molecular structure under the power of the flickering blue ring. It smelt wrong, through Alex knew how to drain and dress a carcass. No matter, no one would know. Dad sat stiff and blue behind the milking shed, staring at something far away, forever trying to solve the puzzle. Alex sliced the lump of flesh, formerly Milly. It would do. It would have to.
“I’m going into town. We need to find help. I’ll take Daniel with me.”
“Shouldn’t I come too? Shouldn’t we stay together?”
“You need to stay here. In case your father comes back.”
“What if he doesn’t?”
“What if you don’t?”
Her mother cupped Alex’s face, “I will.”
Thump. The mallet fell. The gun cabinet was stubbornly locked. Thump, it fell again. Alex wasn’t strong enough. Tissue bruised, skin split. The cow groaned but did not fall. She had to end this. Thump. Swing. Thump. Swing. Sickening. Eventually it was done, though Alex wasn’t hungry anymore.
A gust of wind lifted the fine white dust eddying into the air. It tested the window as if trying to find a way inside through microscopic pores. Alex flinched, as though the sudden onslaught had touched her rather than the glass. Then it stopped and she was alone again.
Alex ate the last of Milly, chewing slow and round—in homage? The meat sate like mud in her stomach. The radio crackled but no voices came.
And just like that, it was gone. It was enough. What I had been struggling with was the need to write this story and the conflicting sense that there was so little about it that I wanted to write. I merely wanted to touch it, to inhabit it for the briefest moment and then let it go.
I’m hoping to explore the pleasures of flash fiction more in the future. If you are interested in doing a little writing training, a few minutes a day even, here are some links to writing prompts that will get you started:
100 Flash Fiction Prompts from eadeverell.com
50 Flash Fiction Prompts from thejohnfox.com
Wacky Writing Prompts from flashfictionmagazine.com
One of my favourite bloggers Chuck Wendig puts out a flash fiction challenge and encourages his readers to post links to their efforts and it is well worth a look at terribleminds.com
Or just google “flash fiction prompts”.