The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Setting Fires

By Antonios Maltezos

I wrote another flash the other day. Actually, it was supposed to be a short story. I’d imagined it topping off at around 2500 words. The idea slow cooked for a couple days in my head -- a good sign, since most ideas simply whip by like a face in a crowd. So I had this story worked out, the opening scene, a fat middle, and the ending, which I typed at the bottom of the page so I wouldn’t forget it.

... setting his hair on fire.

If everything was good to go, then why did my short story end up as a flash? What happened to the other two thousand words? I even had the first sentence, the opener.

We pushed our things out the front door, onto the porch, down the steps.

Stoked, I began to write, completely ignoring my handicap, that I’m a flash fiction writer.

I don’t remember exactly how I got the idea for this piece, but that doesn’t really matter. If it’s a good enough idea, it’ll stick, it’ll write itself. But it starts with an idea, never as a desire to write a piece of flash rather than a short story.

Here’s what I think happened:

I had to figure out where I was going to jump into this story. I needed an opener. I asked myself what makes the people in my story interesting to me? If I met them in the grocery store, would I single them out from all the other people doing their shopping? Probably not. They aren’t extra-ordinary people, after all. My characters never are. But they can find themselves in extra-ordinary circumstances.

We pushed our things out the door, onto the porch, down the steps. The unbreakables we flung, their first teddies, my wife’s slippers, a fist-full of the peppermint pillows we’d have to pick out of the grass, candy for the car ride, for the kids, an umbrella in case it rained. I could see us running through a downpour just as my wife showered me with the contracts and guarantees from the second floor, the fireproof box at the top of our closet, forcing me into the air reaching madly because they were important papers, perfectly safe in the box where they had been.

So now that I’ve got the “slowing down to stare at the accident” thing going, I can test these folks. Not all at once, of course. I’ve got to pick my victim. In this case, it’s the dad. Obviously, his house is burning, and obviously I’m going to tap into my own fears and worries as a father and a husband. Poor guy, I haven’t given him much of a chance to succeed. First rule to protecting your family is to keep them close by. Right? This guy’s wife is up on the second floor, tossing their valuables out the window, and his kids are somewhere else, doing their own thing.

The kids were frantic running through the house, around the pockmarked coffee table, cave drawings gouged out, smiling, determined to save as much of their stuff as possible, so much junk, things they’d stopped playing with long ago, Barbie dolls, little green soldiers, the poster board I helped decorate for the presentation on The American Indians, the bits and pieces of their whole lives, all the stuff that was impossible to throw away.

Notice what’s happening? The shit has already hit the fan in a big way. And then we have that last line I’ve already typed at the bottom of the page.

… setting his hair on fire.

Well, the piece is written, and yes… it’s a flash. And I’m just realizing something. I was fooling myself thinking I could get a bona fide short story out of this idea. There was no chance of that. Look at the opener. The house is already on fire!

And here’s something else I just realized. When you get so close to the action, you don’t even have to name your characters. You don’t give a moments thought as to whether they have brown hair, or blonde, if they’re tall or short, who their parents were, what their small town looked like. The reader will see the characters as they want, as they think they should look, saving your words by seeing themselves in your character’s situation, maybe.

That’s probably what happened. I started at the wrong place.

8 Comments:

Blogger Tricia Dower said...

I love the insight you've given me here into flash writing, Tony. I don't write flash. I'm not good at it. I always end up with an almost novella length story. Interesting to think about why.

Thu Oct 26, 01:49:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Patricia said...

it's difficult to write flash Tony, and you're very good at it, you are, keep writing. great post..xo

Thu Oct 26, 04:55:00 PM EDT  
Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

This is the explanation I've been seeking. You're fortunate that you are consistent and that you know yourself, your writing ability so well - right inside the action, where I'm so often afraid to go...

Thu Oct 26, 11:27:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was a helpful article. I share your philosophy regarding characterizations - physical descriptors are empty, actions define them. And how to decide between flash and short story - thanks for this.

Diane Smith

Fri Oct 27, 03:00:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Hannah Holborn said...

Long, short, whatever, I want to read this story. Terrific article!

Sat Oct 28, 11:54:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

Thanks guys. You know, I wouldn't dare try and give a definition of flash. There's too much experimenting going on by a lot of good writers. It is fun to share my own experiences, though. Thanks.

Sun Oct 29, 09:03:00 AM EST  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Great post. I think I share Tony's affliction in terms of being only a flash writer.

Sun Oct 29, 03:35:00 PM EST  
Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

Steve, don't feel bad about writing flash. I don't. I certainly wouldn't call it an affliction, or say that I'm ONLY a flash writer. Thing is, I'm not sure it's possible to just dabble in flash, and then move on -- been there done that, type of thing. It's a bit more complicated than that, for me, anyway. Not sure I'll ever stop writing flash, simply because it allows me to test myself as a writer. But I did call it a handicap. Guess I should have said it was my drug of choice at the moment.

Mon Oct 30, 09:00:00 AM EST  

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