One of my goals this year was to hone my writing skills. Essays and articles are easiest for me to write, and I've done quite a few of them so far this year. Fiction, however, is a genre that I've never really delved into and I flounder easily, not able to build up my imaginative muscles. I decided I need to change that.
My writing friend Katrina Powell was in my area helping her sister as baby maid. I asked her to join me at a coffee shop to write flash fiction with me. If I was going to actually make myself write fiction, I'd need accountability.
Flash fiction is a short story, usually under 1000 words. It takes skill to write a compelling story only two pages long, but I wasn't as concerned about perfection as I was about just making myself do it. This post will outline our experience as we went through the exercises outlined in "A Guide to Writing Flash Fiction", an article by Sheri Yutzy in the Daughters of Promise, Issue 33 magazine. Sheri is a blogger and author at sheriyutzy.com.
Katrina and I met at a coffee shop in Lima and grabbed some drinks. The first exercise told us to chose a moment. What will actually happen in our story? The exercise instructed us to brainstorm quickly, every idea that comes to our head, no matter how foolish. Were we trying to provoke deep thoughts, make our audience laugh, or create suspense? Then we were to decide which idea intrigues us the most. For both of us, coming up with moments deemed a bit difficult. Here's the ideas we came up with:
A gardener at the white house saves the president's wife.
An Hasidic Jewish woman meets an Amish cancer victim at a wig shop.
A regenerative farmer gets run off at a farmer's market
A Mennonite girl gets stranded downtown.
A truck driver's pet skunk disappears.
A factory worker leads a colorful life. This person is a poet, owns a library, and coaches drug addicts.
Family members squabble about vaccinations; a little daughter speaks profound truth (right outside our window, the health department was administering Covid vaccinations). :-)
A village burning by a Roman army brings two brothers together.
Smuggler's at a border crossing have their lives changed forever.
A mouse trying to find a new home finds a friend instead.
A girl cleaning for an older couple finds a strange picture.
A budding archaeologist disappears.
A sailor's past is found out by his shipmates when he saves the ship.
The next exercise is to choose a main character. This actually kind of happens alongside brainstorming the story moment. It's difficult to narrow down a moment that would actually be effective in a short story. As Katrina and I thought about our characters for the story line we picked, our minds started spinning. We were to write a few paragraphs describing the surroundings and personalities in our story.
I chose the story-line having to do with the factory worker that helped drug addicts. (Don't ask me why!) My characterization rollicked around in my undisciplined fashion. I thought of the Nestle factory in Indiana near us. A quick google search said that Nestle's headquarters are in Switzerland. I was hooked. My person was going to be an old lady that was rich enough to own a chalet and have a housekeeper. Her name was Zara and she was going to work in the bottled water department for Nestle, in Zurich. She was a native Swiss person, but with little beauty. Her strong points were that she was physically fit, had proper self control and good manners, a bit brusque, and intuitive. My drug addict, Morgan, was from America, age seventeen.
Katrina says she likes to agonize over her stories, but I think she has clearly defined lines in her mind and has an incredible imagination. She chose the story line including the two brothers reuniting. Here are her strong characters:
Dubnorix; thoughful, mild-tempered-though dangerous when angered. Passionate about his people, son of the chief, twin of Magurix, average size, agile, long caramel hair, weathered tan, green eyes, full beard, ghoulish warrior, early twenties.
Magurix; impulsive, easily swayed, self centered, captured by soldiers at a young age, received his freedom, became a soldier, muscular, clean shaven, chocolate hair close cropped.
The third exercise was to choose a setting. In short stories, every word counts. You can't waste time describing setting. However, setting aides in moving the plot along. It informs the reader of so many details. To save words, we were supposed to have our characters interacting with setting from the beginning. Descriptions of our settings need to come through dialog, or in short paragraphs in between important moments.
We were supposed to think about our moment and our main character and how the two would interact. What setting would bring the most poignancy to the scene? We were supposed to fill half a page with places and choose the one that propels the story toward the most powerful moment with the main character.
I waffled and wavered. I couldn't picture my story. My story line changed a few times. I ended up focusing on Zara's method of helping Morgan overcome a vaping addiction, my story was over 1000 words, my plot weak-trying to cover too much ground. I felt invigorated with the exercises, but despaired over my inability.
Here is a paragraph from Katrina's brainstorming to wet your appetite for her final piece.
Dubnorix cringed as heavy crunch, crunch, crunching grew closer. He pressed the cloth tight against his throbbing face. The caramel hair matted in his wound irritated him. He tried to convince the earth to swallow him. He had nowhere to go. The flames consumed his village, Wayngnordis. A line of soldiers cut off his escape. The usually lush landscape had grown incredibly sparse. If the soldiers were Gouls they would have found him by now.
The leaves fluttered softly all through the forest. Like us, Dubnorix realized, our village died and fell, and winter is returning, but spring never will.
Katrina and I went home challenged. I know I learned a lot from the exercise. As a teacher, I find it so good to put myself into my student's shoes and feel how they feel. I will probably end up changing my story for the tenth time before I share it with you all, but I keep reminding myself that perfection is never the goal.
I hope to post additional blogs with our finished stories. Keep your eye out for them.
Thanks to Katrina for going with me and being willing to share her work.
I'd definitely encourage you to go out with a friend and try writing flash fiction together. You might surprise yourself! -Jennifer Yoder