Tag Archives: Short Stories

Flash Fiction February FAQ

1. So what’s this all about then, eh?

Exactly what is says on the tin. February is coming up and I’ve thought for a while it would be interesting to write a new flash fiction story every day for an entire month. But then I figured, why should I have all the fun? (Well, besides the obvious fact that I’m completely awesome I mean.) So I’m inviting you along for the ride.

2. Okay, but what exactly is flash fiction?

Flash fiction is a form of short story with the specific limitation that the story must be told in less than one thousand words.

3. Sounds like fun! So what are the rules?

Well, rules sounds a bit harsh. Lets call them guidelines. The general idea is that you write one story for every day of the month.

You don’t have to write a story on every day of the month. You can skip a day and write two stories the next day. You can hammer out twenty-nine stories in a row on one glorious unhampered day of writing if that’s your style.

4. What happens if I fail?

Nothing. Well, maybe not nothing. I mean it’s possible you won’t be able to live with yourself as a human being, forever haunted by the knowledge you couldn’t do it, and that with your dying breath you will be filled with one singular burning regret: that you didn’t finish Flash Fiction February. But probably…nothing.

This is about challenging yourself. If you fail the challenge you have only yourself to answer to.

5. Why February?

Because I’m fundamentally lazy and February has fewer days than the rest of the months in the year.

6. Come on, admit it, you’re just into the alliteration aren’t you?

Okay fine, you caught me. But can you blame me? Does Flash Fiction October really have the same ring to it? No. No it does not.

7. Is there a minimum story length?

Nope. If you want to tell a story in a hundred words or in three sentences or by painting pictograms of your own design that is totally okay. I reiterate, this is a personal challenge. No prizes for completion, no penalties for failure. You set your own standards. No one is going to hunt you down and scream at you for doing it wrong. Probably.

8. What do I do with my stories when I’ve written them?

Again, this is all up to you. If you want you can post them to your blog as you write you can do that. Or you can them or keep them all to yourself. Personally I plan to post maybe one per week (assuming I have at least one per week that’s any good), because much more than that would overload my blog feed and I don’t want to turn away readers. But that’s just me.

9. This sounds like fun! How can I help?

By spreading the joy. If you blog, a short post explaining the concept of Flash Fiction February would spread the word far beyond the limited reach I can achieve as a single voice. Also, if you post updates on your progress or want to talk about the project on twitter use the #flashfictionfebruary hashtag.

Beyond that, just have fun: expand your horizons, fiddle with genre, push the limits of fiction without fear. Because if it doesn’t work out today, you can start all over again tommorow.

Good luck. And happy writing.

Grey Area

[It’s Flash Fiction time again! This weeks challenge from Chuck Wendig was to write a story based on one of these, 60 Unusable Stock Photos. I chose this one:

I’ve always found laundromats to be super creepy so I decided to go with that.

Enjoy! Or, you know, be revulsed in horror. Either one works equally well.]

Carrie eyed the laundry piled high in the hamper with a kind of sinking dread, as if the mass of clothes might come to life and swallow her up like a big blob. But in truth it wasn’t the clothes she was afraid of.

“Won’t you go with me?” she asked.

Harold looked up from the book he’d been reading. “What’s the matter?”

“It’s just…the laundry.”

“It’s not gonna get done any faster if I go along,” Harold pointed out. “Besides, laundry is your chore. I do the dishes. Remember?”

“I remember.”

“Anyway, I was going to try and get some reading done while you were gone.”

“Okay,” Carrie said, and she tried to smile, but it didn’t feel right. Harold wasn’t looking at her anyway.

Once upon a time she could have told him. She knew he still loved her. But ever since he’d lost his job and had to go to work at the local gas station things had been…different.

And now she couldn’t tell him that the last time she had gone to the laundromat she had seen things…but it had been a dream. Hadn’t it? The tumbling of the clothes, the stale warmth of the air, the muffled thrum of the machines, had all conspired together to lull her into something like sleep.

But not sleep…because her eyes were open. She thought she had seen the grey things emerge from the open mouth of one of the washing machines. Wispy, insubstantial things like puffs of smoke. But not smoke. Because smoke did not have eyes, eyes like holes in air.

And they had gathered around the old man sitting across from her. And something had happened then…but when she woke up she couldn’t quite remember, and the grey things were gone, and the man…the man was fine.

Just a dream.

She was going to down to do the laundry by herself, and it would be fine. She didn’t need Harold there to protect her. She didn’t need Harold…

But she did. She didn’t want to be alone.

She pulled up outside the laundromat and carried in the heavy baskets of musty smelling clothes. The air inside felt heavy and humid. And though she was alone in the place there was a sound…a sound she couldn’t quite place, a steady hum that seemed to fill her to her bones.

She fed the clothes into the washer and started the load. She watched as the water sloshed and swirled her clothes like a wet kaleidoscope. So strange and wonderful. So…peaceful.

The sound of a siren going by outside snapped her out of the daze she was drifting into.

She kicked herself for coming unprepared. She should have brought a book, some music to listen to. Anything to help her forget what she had seen the last time. But she hadn’t brought those things. Because bringing them would be a tacit admission that the grey things might be real. And she couldn’t think that. Not if she wanted to keep her sanity.

She thought of calling Harold, just to talk to him for a few minutes. But he would be reading now. He would be irritated by the interruption.

She didn’t want to be a bother.

So she sat, and watched and waited. Time in the laundromat seemed to be a thing of its own, a great sludgy mass that moved hardly at all, and once you were sucked into it there was no escape.

Carrie watched the wash tumble for what seemed like hours. And though she fought it with all her strength she felt herself being pulled down into that grey place where reality seemed like a thin covering for something far more terrible. She tried to wake herself up, tried to move, to yell, anything to pull herself out of the trap her mind had fallen into.

Nothing worked. She sat there with her eyes staring into the strange grey light of the laundromat, screaming inside. But there was no one to hear.

And then the washing machine wasn’t a washing machine any more, but a black gaping mouth that seemed to open wider and wider without really changing size. And out of that mouth, floated the grey things, hints of shadows with eyes of pure darkness.

They swarmed around Carrie and she could feel their presence, cold and dark and wet like her grandmother’s basement, and she wanted to run, run run, run away as fast as her feet would carry her, back to Harold, back to safety.

But she was paralyzed, rooted to the spot.

One of the grey things came down and looked into her eyes, and Carrie saw through those horrible black slits for the first time, and she knew without understanding that the world behind them was far from empty. It was full of frightful things, things beyond and human imagining, trapped in a world of pain and darkness. And all of them wanted to get out.

Carrie felt a horrible coldness stab through her gut and she saw the grey thing reaching into her stomach with an arm that wasn’t an arm at all. And suddenly she remembered the other part of her dream, the part she had blocked from her mind, and the terror she felt surpassed everything she had felt so far. In her mind she thrashed and struggled and screamed, but her body refused to respond.

Then she felt a tugging tearing ripping sensation and there was pain, so much pain, and suddenly she was outside of herself, a ghostly apparition looking down at her limp body.

The grey things swarmed around her pulling her toward the dark mouth of the washing machine, but she saw that one of them had stayed behind, pouring itself into her open mouth.

And the last thing Carrie saw before she was swallowed up in the forever-black were the eyes that had once belonged to her filling up with darkness.

The Benefits of Brevity

If you follow the Twitterverse, you may know that recently there was a brouhaha over the decision of Twitter client, Tweetdeck, to include native access to so-called “long” tweets. It was exactly the kind of kerfuffle that inspires people to trot out words like “brouhaha” and “kerfuffle,” which is to say, it’s probably not really all that important in the broader scheme of things.

But as a writer, the discussion was more to me than just a fruitless debate about the “essence” of Twitter. It inspired me to start thinking about brevity in general.

For those of you who may not know, Twitter is a chat client that lets you post whatever you want to say as long as you can say it within 144 characters. That means that every letter, every punctuation mark, even every space, matters.

Having that kind of limitation forces you to focus on your writing. You’ll be sitting there looking at a tweet that’s just ten characters over the limit, and you’re thinking to yourself, “Which of these words can I cut out without damaging the overall meaning of the tweet?” And if you’re like me and you refuse to use abbreviations like “ur” for “your,” the challenge becomes even greater.

For some people apparently this limitation is a nuisance, but for me it’s like having a daily reminder to carve out the fat in my writing everywhere. And believe you me, there’s plenty of fat. It’s easy enough to throw words out onto an empty page, and to a point that’s okay. But now I’m in the process of editing, and I’m seeing that I’ve included words, sentences, even entire paragraphs that add absolutely nothing to my story.

Maybe you’re not a tweeter. Maybe you have no desire to become a tweeter. That’s fine and okay. But I believe that it’s a valuable exercise for all writers to participate in some form of limited composition. For instance flash fiction, which is fiction in less than a thousand words, is a great way to learn to limit yourself to the bare essentials of what is needed to tell the story.

It seems to go against the grain of the writer’s “free spirit” we all have within is, but in truth working within restrictions is a fantastic way to stir up our creativity. Because if you were faced with the challenge, “Tell a story about a robot” your mind could go in a million different directions, think of thousands of different scenarios. But what if the challenge became, “Tell a story about a robot in 100 words”, or, “Tell a story about a robot in 144 characters”? (Yes, It does have to be a story about a robot. There will be no argument on this point.) Now you’re forced to look at the problem in a completely different way. Those limitations help to focus the lens of your mind.

This isn’t to say that all stories need to be short. Plenty of stories need a lot of space to tell, and that’s fine. But even in writing those stories you should be cautious not to throw in piles and piles of words, just because you can.

No matter what king of writing you do, always ask yourself, “Is this really necessary to the story I’m trying to tell?” If it’s not, cut it out. It may hurt a little now, but in the long run it will make your writing far more focussed and powerful.

Bizzaro Book Review: Discount Noir

When I first saw Discount Noir on the digital shelves over at Amazon, I knew I had to buy it. The premise of a book filled with flash fiction about Wal-Mart Megamart seemed too perfect to pass up, especially since I’ve been employed at Wal-Mart for the past six years. What I didn’t anticipate was the difficulty of composing a coherent overview of an anthology collection featuring works from more than forty different authors.

The first problem is the fact that there are so many varieties of style and quality in this book. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that any of the stories were truly bad, but some of them were simply boring. And others seemed fine enough as I was reading them, but quickly slipped out of my mind when I moved to the next story.

Which brings me to the second problem with this anthology: all the stories are flash fiction, specifically works of 800 words or less. Flash fiction is a wonderful fiction form, one that I’ve dabbled in myself from time to time, but putting forty-plus flash fiction stories all in a row like Discount Noir does presents a rather unique problem: because all the stories have a similar length, reading through them one after another starts to feel rhythmic and methodical. It becomes far too easy to move on to the next story without really taking in the full scope of the previous one, which means that even moments of true brilliance are easily lost in the noise.

Finally and possibly most important to me personally is the lack of experience many of the writers seemed to have with Wal-Mart Megamart. One story that really stuck out for me involved a guy trying to hold up the gun counter and getting blown away by the guys who worked there. I happen to work at the gun counter myself, and let me tell you, there are a number of reasons why that scenario could never ever happen. I understand that not everyone writing these stories has my level of personal experience, but I contend that it’s perfectly possible to write a good story without going so far beyond the bounds of your knowledge.

So far I’ve been critical, but the truth is this anthology really isn’t a bad read. As I mentioned before, there weren’t any real stinkers, and I found at least a few stories that moved me in strange and interesting ways.

Probably my favourite story in the anthology, “A Fish Called Lazarus,” makes beautiful metaphorical use of a bird trapped inside the confines of a big store. Another story of note, “Skylar Hobbs and the Rollback Bandit,” is a hilarious mash-up to the tune of Sherlock Holmes meets Wal-Mart. Other memorable stories include “Friday Night with the Tijuana Wolfman”, “What Was Heavy?” and “Black Friday.”

The final verdict? Meh. The collection was enjoyable enough, and from time to time, gems of true brilliance stood out from the pack, but overall I wasn’t thrilled. I didn’t feel like my money was wasted, but I think the sticker price of $4.50 could maybe use a Rollback. If you really like flash fiction this collection is worth a look. Otherwise you might do better to take your business elsewhere. Megamart may not be the store for you.

Dealing With the Doldrums

On the day before yesterday, I had a horrible, horrible day. Actually that isn’t quite true. The day itself was fine. The weather was nice, nothing major had gone wrong with my life, no unforeseen problems forced me to change course from what I had planned. And yet, in spite it all, I was in the doldrums.

You’ve experienced it too: that funk that just won’t let you go no matter what you do, that swamp of  depression that  just keeps pulling you down into its muck and mire no matter how you try to fight it, that shadow that lingers in the back of your mind, darkening a perfectly sunny day.

I can’t tell you how to stop it. Believe me, I would if I could. But I can give this little piece of encouragement. Yesterday, after fighting off the blackness inside for the entire day. All day long I struggled to get through the most basic tasks, and when I went to work I forced myself to smile at the customers while the minutes crawled by. Finally, just as the day was done and I was getting ready to go home from work, an idea came to me.  It was a story, perfect, simple and fully formed.

I looked up at the heavens and said, “Hey, couldn’t you have given me that little nugget a few hours sooner?  I really could have used it back there.”

I’m not going to tell you that every black day is going to bring you a great story idea, but I will tell you that you can push through it believing that there’s something better on the other side. It may not make you feel any better now, but there is hope around the corner. Don’t give up.


For further advice on dealing with the hard times I highly recommend Mike Duran’s latest blog post about the importance of the wilderness times in our lives.

Also, if you’re interested, I’ll be posting the story I was inspired to write in tomorrow’s blog. It’s a short tale of cruel fate called “A Many-Fingered Demon.”

A Dirge for Brevity

It ain’t like it used to be guys and gals.  And thank God for it.  Because what used to be sucked. Cell phones, the internet, cars, air conditioning.  Go back a hundred years and you’re not going to find any of that stuff readily available.  So let me be the first to say that I’m glad and thankful to live when I live.  I honestly can’t think of a better time or a better place in all of history.

However, as a writer, there is a tiny part of me that pines for the days of fifty years ago, when it was still possible to spot that dying and elusive beast known as the short story in its natural habitat.  And these days ain’t like those days at all.  I recently read a bit Stephen King did about the short story not really being dead, and how there were plenty of authors still writing and selling them, but what he really meant was that he was still writing and selling them, which he can do, because, you know, he’s Stephen King.

Not that I have anything against him for it.  I love the short story form.  I write short stories as often as I can, and for the most part I’ve enjoyed every second of it.

But the short story is dead.  Don’t believe me?  Then consider this: science fiction writer Robert Silverberg got his start writing short fiction at a rate of a million words a year.  And he sold it.  I doubt even Stephen King could find a market for that much short fiction today.  Back in the day, almost every magazine on the rack had short stories published in it.  I heard an interview once with Kurt Vonnegut where he talked about selling short stories to Cosmopolitan for crying out loud.  I can only imagine what kind of story it would have been, but it must have been better the crap they foist off on people these days.

About the only place you can find the short story form these days is bundled together in an anthology and even those are becoming more and more scarce.  Aside from Stephen King, the last single author short story anthology that I remember seeing and buying was T. C. Boyle’s The Human Fly and Other Stories, and that was off of a remaindered rack years ago.

But you know what?  I still write the things.  I harbor no illusions that I’m going to get one of them published anywhere, but I do it…well because I want to.  I love short stories.  I love writing them.  I love reading them.  Why?  Because I remember how powerfully I was affected by those stories back in high school.  Stories, like “Mimsy Were the Borogoves,” and “Microcosmic God,” and “Grownups,” and a whole host of others impacted me in a way that no long fiction book ever has.

I don’t know what has happened to the short story.  Given the short attention span of our culture, I should think the form would have flourished.  But it hasn’t.

Instead it’s crumpled off in some dark forgotten corner of the library stacks bleeding out its last.  May it rest in peace.