Wednesday, 30 January 2013

written flash fiction

I have a confession to make: for the last four years I’ve been asking my short story students at City to write stories of exactly 100 words (“drabbles”) as an exercise, yet I rarely write flash fiction (under 1000 words) myself. I’ve published nearly 40 short stories since starting to write prose fiction, and only four have been 1000 words or less. And given that the next Liars' League is a flash fiction special, I've been reading an awful lot of flash recently (60 stories, to be precise).

A youthful and toothsome Drabble
I am, as anyone who’s read some of the other blog posts on here (average length 1000-2000 words) will know, naturally prolix. Brevity doesn’t come easily to me. If I’m going to sit down and write something, I usually want to spend a good few hours on it: I want to explore the setting, the character and the narrative arc at my leisure. I want, in short, to write without limits – especially word limits. I’m sure some of you know what I mean. Putting a bunch of words on a page has never been a problem for me – but the right words (and only the right words) in the right order, now that’s the challenge …

So last year, when I was asked to teach a Flash Fiction workshop at a university open day, I knew had to get some practice in – reading and writing it. Luckily I had to hand Sawn Off Tales by David Gaffney and Tania Hershman’s collection The White Road (both are especially noted as authors of shorter fiction).

I also found Gaffney’s excellent Guardian article on the subject, checked out Sarah Salway’s writing prompts, and set myself to apply some rigid discipline and write short. It’s harder than it looks, but I ended up with 10 new pieces to inflict on the publishing world, and it didn’t take me ten weeks to write them. I can see how this flash fiction thing got popular …

Flash fiction shares some of the qualities of poetry (especially prose poetry) in that it can be impressionistic, dreamlike and allusive, and does not necessarily have a fully developed narrative arc as a longer story might – which is why it’s truly impressive when writers can get a plot into their flash. Many, however, work beautifully as vignettes, moments of realisation, or even jokes (see below).

In the class I handed out a series of random objects to inspire people’s pieces, and wrote one myself, Here’s mine (a drabble of exactly 100 words):

(inspired by a postcard of the Grand Canyon)

It's on YouTube. Starts out just sky; pale clouds, birds wheeling, somewhere high. No voices, just wind, sunshine. Panning shows scrubgrass, brown cliffs, a river wriggling through the ravine below. The camera looms over the edge, looks down, starts focusing in. Cliffsides fall away, slow, then faster. Steady, smooth, an endless zoom, and just as you're thinking, shit, how long is this lens? you understand. Someone must've dropped the camera.

Except it would be spinning uncontrollably, and it's steady all the way down. That's why you don't realise he’s still holding it – until it's just too late to turn away.


Some of other stories from the workshop are below: Paul Sherreard – who works for literature promotion organisation Spread the Word which engaged me to teach the class – liked the exercise so much he wrote four …

The Lift
a drabble (inspired by a toy car)
One hand gripping the steering wheel, I push vinegary chips into my mouth with the other. The storm is deafening – it’s a filthy dark night in the countryside.

Luke, in the passenger seat, has finished his chips, and tosses the balled up chip paper onto the back seat of my car. I finish mine too, toss the paper back, rain lashes down. You can’t see anything out of the car. We draw the conversation out as long as we can, sheltering, planning futures. Luke and I have similar aspirations.

Not least – both of us wish I could drive.

The New Car
55 words (inspired by a toy car)

Shiny, not a scratch on it, the calamity happened on its first day of use – the driver, unable to find it after lunch.

“But I’d parked it so carefully!” he wails – inconsolable for the rest of the holiday.
Perhaps it’s still there, down a rabbit hole, on the Welsh hillside where families are picnicking still.

The YouTube Sensation
55 words (inspired by a cat hand puppet)
Maru means circle in Japanese, and he’s certainly a round cat. In spite of his size, Maru has a spectacular skill. He can jump into any box from any practically any distance. He practices when his owner is at work. But what Maru practices hardest of all is looking like he doesn’t understand why it’s funny.

The Stepfather
55 words (inspired by a lipstick)
At the company dinner and dance, he looks off to one side when the Couples’ Photo is being taken. It’s like he can’t look himself in the eye. Does he see my face in the lens of the camera? He knows what he is capable of.

But at least we can laugh together these days.

Art student Mary Taylor wrote the two below: the first was inspired by a little souvenir book of handmade paper; I don’t know what inspired the second one but it’s interesting that both have a twist based on identity. She’s also published some more since then over on her blog:

The Day before the Wedding
Mary Taylor

-          Wooo, I took the first page, and what a nice page it is!
-          I wish you all the best for your future dude. Although I’ll be there as a drinking buddy throughout! Fred.
-          John, I know we havnt had the best classroom raport, but as I said to you at prom, I have every faith that the army will be the making of you. good luck, Mr.Watson
-          Knickers! We’ve shared some memories. I promise never to let you live down ski trip ’08, bring on the best man speech.
-          Not going to lie, you were never good at maths, but tell your mum I said hi.
-          John, I love you and always will. Sorry. Jen.
*skipped page*
-          Knickers, see you on the other side! Class ’09

John puts the book back in his bag. He sometimes wondered what Jen was apologising for. But he doesn’t care. He is very happy with Fred.

The Grandmother
Mary Taylor

*singing* Happy birthday to you!
Mum brings a huge cake through from the kitchen.
It looks amazing.
Tom’s eyes light up, full from the fabulous spread of cocktail sausages and mini–quiche, but ravenous for mother’s triple-decker chocolate fudge cake.
So am I.
I scan the table for a mark.
Tom? no, he won’t help, neither will Laura.
And then I see her, Grandma!
Too frail to consume more than a quarter of any portion provided, too polite to complain.
I sit next to her and give her ‘those eyes’.
She looks down, pats my head and whispers,
‘Yes boy, you can have mine.’


Fast forward: last month I was lucky enough to have an especially keen short story class who liked writing drabbles, so I passed on info about the Times 50 word short story competition and promised that if they wrote one, I’d publish it on my blog, whatever the Times folk thought.

Sadly none of us, including me, placed, but we had fun writing them (well, I did anyway) and I spent Christmas Eve tweeting them in sections to my followers … and as winter is the traditional time for ghost stories, I hereby present our chilling tales below:


The Ghost in the Mirror by Katy Darby (this is the one I entered)

He'd always been there, staring behind the boy’s eyes out of the mirror. He seemed impossibly old: 80, 100 even. As the boy grew, he realised the mirror-man was younger than he’d thought. 60? 50?

One day when he looked, the man was gone. Only his own face stared back.

Why are people afraid of ghosts? by Terece Muir

“Don’t be afraid,” he said.
I stood perfectly still.
“People fear the things they can’t explain,” he said. 
He took a step closer. I did not blink.
“For a ghost, you look remarkably well,” I said.
He blinked.
He replied, “You don’t understand. Below your dress, you have no feet.”

Regeneration by Michael Carey (edits by Katy Darby)

They showed him the dreams of the globe awaiting him; a vast swathe of sparkling expectation. The dead man nodded. ‘I’ll do it.’
In the glade his team waited, shimmering brown, panting.
‘No red-nosed one?’
‘That’s a myth.’
The ghost, solid now, adjusted his belt and smiled.
‘Ho. Ho. Ho.’

The Thing on the Doorstep – Katy Darby (just for fun, inspired by HP Lovecraft)

Unspeakable, chthonic, hideously oozing, the Thing heaved its gruesome carcass to the doorstep whence it had been summoned. It smote thrice upon the portal; only a dead echo answered.

After aeons of waiting, it slithered away, leaving a scrawled, blood-red missive. “Unfortunately we were unable to deliver your package today ...”


  1. Check out - they are looking for drabble length pieces inspired by photos of shoreditch doors. There's even one of mine lurking in there somewhere!