Writing Flash Fiction Helps Editing Skills and Is Flashing Good Fun!

Words should be an intense pleasure, just as leather should be to a shoemaker. If there isn’t that pleasure for a writer, maybe he ought to be a philosopher.    

Evelyn Waugh, The New York Times, November 19, 1950

The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.      

Mark Twain, letter to George Bainton, October 15, 1888

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Flash fiction is defined as fiction that is brief – perhaps only a thousand words,  fifty to  hundred words, or even less than that because we now have Twitter stories where writers only use 140 characters!

This short form of storytelling requires skill and imagination. No time to be wasted on exposition, just delve straight to the ‘flashpoint’ of a story and intrigue the reader. Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style advises, ‘The habitual use of the active voice…makes for forcible writing.’ Flash fiction encourages the use of active voice so that’s another incentive to ‘have a go’ and write some.

Twitter Flash Fiction
Mairi Neil

The boat circled the reef. Ted floated silently, his knife wound leaking blood. Annie waited for the hungry pointer to make her single again.

Sam and Kara snuggled into their sleeping bags. They loved the peacefulness of the Australian Outback. As did the death adder in their tent.

Moonlight glittered on the dirt mound. Helen shivered. The shadowy figure crunched on the bones. How to stop the labrador’s midnight feasts?

There are even six word short stories based on a legend about Ernest Hemingway accepting a bet he could make people cry in a six word story. The classic he’s believed to have produced: For sale: Baby Shoes. Never worn.

Check out efforts by other famous authors: http://www.sixwordstories.net/category/author/famous-authors/

Have fun trying this in different genres. My attempts pretty ordinary:

Bus driver faints. Passengers can’t drive
Urgent coded message; an enigma still.
Sacked today. Started blogging, became famous.
Door opens. Shots fired. Wrong address!
Tall, handsome. Personality of a doorstop.

The spacecraft landed. Her novel reality.

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Writing is exploring and experimentation. I began writing very short fiction in the late 80s early 90s in response to a daily newspaper’s request for 55 word short stories. I concentrated on having a surprise twist at the end or punchline – a bit like a joke. Members of Mordialloc Writers’ Group, including me were thrilled when our stories were published. We won fountain pens, handbags, movie tickets – and the newspaper filled a column on their entertainment page.

Stalking Fear
Mairi Neil
Footsteps echoed. Helen looked around; scurried towards home. Fear flitted across her face. She shivered and gathered her coat closer with trembling fingers. A stumble on the cobblestones and she clutched her handbag against her chest; glanced over her shoulder. Was she still being followed? A scream rent the air. ‘Cut!’ The director, not happy. (55words)

What a Fright
Mairi Neil
Margaret stared at the middle-aged woman. How could she have left the house like that? She shook her head in amazement at the spare tyre around the midriff, the peppered grey hair, creased face, and eyes sagging with dark bags. The beige top and daggy track pants so unflattering. How she hated shopping centre mirrors!  (55words)

Sad Farewell
Mairi Neil
He choked back tears and sniffed as he placed a rose on her fresh grave. He thought of all the years they’d spent together. Poor hardworking Maisie, dead far too soon. He knew her pregnancy was a mistake. What would they do without her? He sobbed as he watched her puppies scrabble at the earth. (55words)

Cruise Away
Mairi Neil
‘It’s certainly been a holiday to remember,’ said Lily.
‘Yes,’ agreed Jack, as he draped an affectionate arm around his wife’s shoulders. ‘Although, a bit too warm for my liking.’
‘And for me,’ whispers Lily, snuggling closer to Jack.
The elderly couple settled themselves into the lifeboat and watched the burning cruise ship slowly sink.

Ward Duty
Mairi Neil
‘The room is jinxed. For days whoever occupies this bed is dead by morning – despite the full life support system.’
‘They are always all right at change of shift each morning, doctor.’
Meanwhile, the new cleaner muttered again about the unnecessarily long chord on the vacuum cleaner when there was a powerpoint by every bed.

Last year I responded to a request for fiction to make a zine and students in my classes took up the challenge to write stories between 100-200 words, or less. We published our zines and distributed them in the community houses, but they also appeared at a special zine fair in Canberra at a workshop devoted to flash fiction.

Nightwatch
Mairi Neil
Figures in black crept across the roof while others edged up the street and positioned themselves in nearby gardens.‘Ready?’ he whispered into the microphone.
‘All in position, Sir,’ came the reply.
‘Go! Go! Go!’ he commanded.
The SWAT team attacked number 16 Bailey Street.The family within killed on sight. Meanwhile, the terrorist cell at number 61 heard the commotion and fled unharmed.

Wrong Number
Mairi Neil
‘What the?’ Linda froze in the doorway; her eyes darting around the room. She twisted and checked the hotel corridor, green eyes returning to stare at the ringing phone by the bedside. She had told no one she’d be here.
Fear crept from her stomach into her throat as the insistent buzz blocked the muted sounds of traffic from the city. She was conscious of chiming as the lift to the tenth floor worked overtime with a tour group. The phone continued to ring.
Probably Reception; they’ve forgotten to tell me something.
She hurried over and snatched up the receiver, ‘hello!’ Her eyes drawn like a magnet to the high-rise opposite –– the glint of something metallic.
She heard the shattering of glass, but didn’t feel the bullet from the assassin’s rifle.

Ritual Farewell
Mairi Neil
I watch the dark silhouette in the moonlight; listen as the heavy breathing transforms the still night air. He paces the backyard before stopping beside the vegetable garden. How clever! The mound of soil quickly grows as he prepares the ground for burial. Each night, the same ritual as next-door’s dog chooses a new spot to bury his bones.

Disaster Strikes
Mairi Neil
The low growl became a loud rumble. The ground shifted. Celia’s shaking matched the floor’s shudder. She lurched and grasped a nearby handrail; her fear mirrored in other people’s eyes. She struggled to stay upright. The terror ended abruptly and she breathed a sigh of relief. Holding her children close she said, ‘Don’t ask me to visit Scienceworks again,’ as she stepped off the earthquake simulator.

Flash fiction may be a rigid word limit, but it also is experimental, cross-genre and may even be obscure like some poetry. This is a great exercise for writers and students of writing. I’ve researched and participated in competitions such as writing on a postcard, one page, or a story to be read in 30 seconds or a minute – even mini-novels for a mobile phone screen. For all things flash fiction check out Flash Fiction World.

Hard Labour
Mairi Neil

She stands on the cliff’s edge buffeted by the southwesterly and drops her hands to her side and sighs. No sign of John’s ship. She rubs her belly just as the baby somersaults. You must be a boy! Mary clings to a scrawny birch tree; pulls her shawl tighter around thin shoulders as waves crash below. Thunderous explosions against jagged rocks. Seagulls squeal and wheel overhead, their beady eyes forever seeking food. A proud gannet immobile on the biggest rock, points its beak seawards as if it too waits for sails to appear.
Mary inhales the sweetness of the heather, tastes salty spray as the wind gusts. A bank of clouds unfurl like a grey blanket and the first drops of rain dampen her skin. The horizon black as the once blue sea bubbles sending molten steel waves roaring towards land. Is John’s ship caught in that maelstrom?
The impatient life she carries heaves again. Tears sting her face. The gannet flies skywards, a black spectre. Sea gulls screech, vultures circling. Mary closes her eyes to ride out the waves of pain, grips her ringless finger and wishes she had listened to her mother.

Revenge is Sweet
Mairi Neil

‘I’m not staying in this dump for a whole week.’
Gina stared at Bob’s flushed face and flinched as he slammed the wardrobe door. ‘I told you last night your tricks don’t work with me.’
She watched her fiancé cram clothes into his holdall. ‘What tricks?’ Her voice remained calm. ‘Pardon me for thinking you’d enjoy being alone with me. No distractions. Just the two of us. Undisturbed.’
Bob snorted and waved his arms at the window. ‘A bloody owl hooting all night, frogs croaking, and a twittering cacophony at dawn. Give me a noisy resort any day.’
‘Well, I’m not leaving the cabin.’
‘Fine – I’ll come back for you in a week.’
And he was gone.
Gina went to the woodpile with her coffee and sat on the tarpaulin covering the Holden’s spare wheel. She soaked up the sun, smiled, and checked her watch. The tyre would be flat when he reached Kangaroo Gully. She’ll prepare his favourite lunch soon. The forty minute walk uphill good sauce for Bob’s appetite.

Colour My World
Mairi Neil

Martin’s tongue protruded between thin lips, a pink dot of concentration. Blue eyes danced from paint palette to easel. Just like his father, Elaine thought, as she watched Martin dab and daub, sweep and slide. The paintbrush looking too big for six-year-old hands. The square of butcher’s paper soon filled with colourful blobs and strokes. ‘Jackson Pollock eat your heart out,’ Elaine whispered and smiled at Martin’s effort for the school art competition. She remembered Tom’s pride at the birth of their son. ‘Hope he has my talent for painting and your way with words.’
Tears gathered. The car accident had robbed her of Tom and left Martin severely disabled. Thank goodness she had discovered this school and new therapies. Martin had spoken his first word yesterday and if he can hold a paintbrush, a pen will follow.

Fear of the Dark
Mairi Neil

A beep like a balloon popping confirms the Mazda has locked. I hurry towards the lift. Is that other footsteps, or the echo of mine? The few yards seem to double.Why are the lights flickering?
The agent boasted the car park’s electronic gates made it ‘as safe as houses’. I hold my breath. Listen. The lights flicker off. I freeze. My chest hurts.
Oil stains on the concrete morph into sinister shapes. What if I trip? Bump into a parked car? I imagine the concrete pillars, plumbing and air-conditioning pipes crisscrossing the ceiling, ‘safe as houses’ he said.
The electric generator crackles, but was that a metallic click as if someone dropped a key? My bladder throbs, legs tremble. A scream gathers in my throat. The lights flicker on. The elevator’s silver doors shine like a beacon.
I stumble on a raised edge of concrete. Hands flail but I avoid falling. Laughing at my clumsiness I reach the lift just as the lights die with a bang. The lift doors refuse to open. I breathe deeply and inhale the acrid smell of cigarette smoke. ‘Who’s there?’ I stutter.

If you give yourself a word limit you have a clear indication of the maximum length of a piece of work and how much detail should go into the piece. Writing to a set word limit is an acquired and valuable skill and who knows where it might lead? Usually, I know how I want the short story to end before I begin – have that punchline or ‘ah ah’ moment in your mind and write to it.

Job Satisfaction
Mairi Neil

Jones hummed and secured the specimen jar into his briefcase. He smoothed the surgical gloves before checking the protective covers on his shoes and picking his way around the murderer’s flat, careful not to leave traces of his visit.
How he loved this job: the precision, planning, collating evidence and risk taking. New technologies made it more challenging and exciting. A random hair on a pillow or in a plughole, a scrape of skin or blood on furniture, a cigarette butt. Any pining for the old police ways of getting a conviction by intimidation compensated by the thrill of planting evidence.

Cultivating the Future
Mairi Neil

Tim checked Wikipedia and tackled James when he arrived home from college. ‘That’s a marijuana plant you’ve got in your room!’
James paled, ‘Is it? I’m looking after it for a friend.’
‘Yeah right! Never thought my son would get into drugs.’
Defiant, James jutted his jaw, ‘it’s legal – for personal use.’
‘One plant can lead to many,’ said Tim, ‘especially one as healthy as yours.’
‘I just want to save money,’ muttered James.
‘You need to make money, son.’
‘What do you mean?’
Tim’s lips twisted wryly, ‘I’ve just been made redundant. Let’s plant an income.’

A Fishy Tale
Mairi Neil

Martin couldn’t believe the judges announcement, that bastard Bill had won the Angler’s prize. Bill strode to the podium to collect the $1000 cheque. Martin seethed. It wasn’t about the money. He looked at his son and saw disappointment etched on the ten-year-old’s face. He had assured the boy their 5kg Bass would win.
The local newspaper insisted everyone gather around the winner for a photograph displaying their catch alongside Bill’s 6kg giant. Salt rubbed into a fresh wound.
On the crowded podium, Pete pulled at Martin’s arm. ‘He’s a cheat Dad.’
‘We don’t have to smile, son,’ Martin whispered to Pete, ‘but we can’t be sore losers.’
‘But Dad… he stole that fish.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Look at the mark on its side.’
Martin peered at the unusual scar on Bill’s fish. Pete was right. It was one of the Bass from the Aquarium. Father and son grinned as they planned how to spend the cheque and Bill was charged with burglary as well as cheating.

Many writing professions like copywriting and marketing demand short succinct attention-grabbing and memorable ‘stories’, but so do other professions. The writing on captions for exhibits in museums and art galleries, brochures for businesses, book reviews, and a variety of academic tasks or small business needs – the fewer words you use to leave an impression on a reader, the better. And this all takes practice. Have some fun!

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, 1865.

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