Writing Short: Flash Fiction in 140 Characters

One of the hashtags I keep open in my Tweetdeck is #25wordstory, which was first introduced to me by Brian Fay, and I try to contribute now and then. The small stories, confined by 140 characters, are interesting to write. While some believe the stories have to be 25 words, exact, I am more of the mind that it has to fit inside a tweet.

With flash fiction like this, you need to leave gaps for the reader. You can only hint at the larger story. They are interesting to write, and intriguing to read.

In the past week or so, I have written a handful for the hashtag and in the interest of curating, I ported the stories out of Twitter and into Pablo in order to marry the words with images. Then, the stories all got pulled into Animoto for a video collage hosted on YouTube. (Note: I am trying to make clear my paths of composition these days.)

Writing these very short, short stories reminds me of a presentation I once did for an NCTE Ignite session called Writing, in Short.

Peace (expand it),
Kevin

A Single Word Can Change a Story (Perhaps)

Short Fiction Ornament String

Yesterday, I wrote this flash fiction story on Twitter with the #25wordstory hashtag. You know … write a story in 25 words (give or take a word here and there, that’s my interpretation). My aim was to infer another story, behind the ornament being put away, and also, to shorten each sentence to make the story more and more compact by the end.

I let that story sit and then realized, if I added the word “cried” at the end, as a last single-word sentence, it would change the emotion of the story. While before it wasn’t clear why she was putting the ornament away, now with that one word, you have a better idea (albeit, still not completely clear. Is she crying over remembering? Over loss? Sadness? Maybe happiness?)

And what, I wondered, would happen to that story — still so very short — if I changed that last word to something else. Another emotion. What if I made it “laughed” or “smiled”? Would the whole tenor of the story shift? I think so.  I used “laugh.” But now I wonder, after reading it with some distance, if “smile” would not have been better.

It’s interesting what you can do in the small confines of a Twitter story. A single word is a powerful anchor of emotion.

Peace (in the tiny),
Kevin

Getting A Story Gift on the Back of a Postcard

Kelly's 25wordstory postcard
I love this idea that my friend, Kelly, had about taking the idea of the #25wordstory format from Twitter and moving it into a postcard project. She offered to send anyone who asked a 25 word story on the back of a postcard from her vacation spot, and I eagerly took her up on the offer. A few days later, this fantastic story arrived in my mailbox. Just as 25 word stories are a perfect fit for Twitter, so too is it a perfect fit for the back of a postcard.

Way to go, Snail Mail!

Peace (in the story),
Kevin

 

Quickfiction: Sounds

I wrote this quickfiction piece after realizing that I might never buy another CD again.

Sounds
Listen to the story
Remember when it was vinyl and the bookcases were so weighted down that they bent to the left? You worried so much about what would happen to the cats if it fell and crushed them. Music had that kind of weight back then. You could sit on the ground, legs crossed, for hours as you listened, explored and read through each word of the liner notes. The revolution changed that as you carted your albums off to the landfill or tag sales or to friends who still had room and interest, and bid farewell in dramatic silence. Then, the sounds were captured on little shiny discs. The new bookcase, however, was the same as the old — bent and crooked with sounds. It might have been some woodworking error, yet here you were again, with the weight of music on your mind. You had long given up even reading liner notes during the revolution, losing touch with the stories behind the songs. The names too small to even read now. When the bookcase fell to gravity, you moved all of that plastic to boxes in the basement and shoved the round discs into an over-sized folder, optimistically hoping some random nature might take over. It never did and all you had now was disappointment. Music, yes, but also disappointment. Now it’s all on this box in the palm of your hand. You’ve realized something. You may have bought your last disc. Ever. You hold the last plastic box in your hand. Green Day. 21st Century Breakdown. Yes. That seems about right as you open the top to the recycling bin and toss the box in. Forever.

Peace (in music),
Kevin

Quickfiction: Ghostly Playmates

I was working on a few new Quickfiction pieces this week. Here is one, inspired by a post over PostSecrets blog where a woman said that when she hears her children playing with imaginary friends, she thinks it is the fetus she aborted long ago.

Playmates
Listen to the story
This cigarette tastes ugly. I draw another breath and struggle against the tide of air again. In the distance, I can hear him, playing. His five year old head is off in his imagination. This house looks strange, as if someone else is living here other than me, and him, and all of those ghosts from his imagination. I am sure they are here to haunt me, not him, but got caught up in the excitement as kids do. Even ghost children can’t resist the possibility of play. Another drag. Another shot of ugly. Is this how I punish myself these days? It used to be cutting. Then drinking. Tattoos up and down my arms. Now tar in my lungs. There they go again — playing pirates now, avenging stolen treasures. I can only hear my son’ voice and then empty silence where their voices lay scattered to the wind. Boys? Girls? One of each? How could I not even know what they were before they were gone? And why are they haunting me, us, now that we found some semblance of happiness? He’ll never know the truth about these imaginary playmates. But I know. I know. I draw another breath and choke on the sadness of siblings who only linger in the air. I crush the end on the ground beneath my shoe and begin to forget all over again.

Peace (in the story),

Kevin

Rubberbands: A quickfiction piece

It’s been some time since I have written any of my quickfiction, but I was inspired for this short piece by a magazine article I was reading about a child prodigy violinist who used to sit in his room, with rubber bands, making his clothes dresser into a musical instrument.

If you are interested is more of my quickfiction, you can see my site over at Hypertextopia. The collection of stories there is called Inside Kaleidoscope Dreams.


Rubberbands
(listen to the podcast)

You scan the floor for rubber bands. Underneath the rug. Inside the kitchen drawer. Behind the cushions of the couch. Anywhere you think they might be, you look. Of course, you have learned to be careful. Your mom will take them away, again, and shout at you, again. “Rubber bands? Rubber bands?” Her voice will echo through your head for the rest of the day, crowding out the melody. Someday, when you are older, you will have your own place and your own guitar and you won’t need rubber bands. You will sink into that freedom and know it to be paradise. For now, it is all about the rubber bands. You count them in your hand — onetwothreefourfive. Not quite enough, but enough for now. You close the door to your bedroom and push the chair against the door. The drawer of your clothes chest open reluctantly, as if it needing some oil, and one by one, you extend the rubber bands across the surface of the open spaces, fixing it so that you can adjust the length of the rubber bands as you need by moving the drawer in and out, out and in. One band becomes smaller, lower pitched, while another become longer, higher. It is a full eight minutes of adjustments, getting it all just right in your head until you can close your eyes and begin to play. The melody dances, first through your fingers, then along the vibrating hum of the rubber bands, and finally filling the room with light only you can see. You know it won’t last and it doesn’t. Either your mother will pound on the door, or your brother will shout some obscenity at you from the hallway or the dog will start barking at someone in the street and all will be broken. Today, you are shattered by a string, the snap of the rubber like a shot in the night, startling you with a surprising ferocity. The silence at first is odd and then, almost comforting, until you hear your mother yell: “All right, who took the damn rubber band from this deck of cards?”

Peace (in fictionalized worlds),
Kevin

Inside Kaleidoscope Dreams: A hypertextual collection

Since November, I have been working on Quickfiction stories and sharing them out here at the blog. It has been a really enjoyable writing experience for me and interesting experience, too. But I have been struck about what to do with the stories after they have been posted on the blog. I considered self-publishing via LULU, and then thought about creating a website.

Recently, though, I have been fooling around with Hypertextopia and it occurred to me that the platform might make sense for gathering all of the short fiction stories together under one roof, so to speak.

The result is something I am calling Inside Kaleidoscope Dreams — which is a collection of the stories gathered together under themes and also by narrative device. I have included audio readings of the stories, plus some photographs for illustrations. And I also wrote up a short author reflection about the project.

Head to Inside Kaleidoscope Dreams

(Note: The illustration above shows the concept map that I created, with links to various stories. It shows the connections of stories in a visual way. The readable version, however, is brought together in a more cohesive structure.)

I am interested to get feedback from people about the use of this hypertextual platform. Does it make the reading of the stories more interesting? Or just confusing? Do you have any suggestions for improving the design of the book?

Later, I will share out some of the nifty things that you can do with your writing in Hypertextopia, including re-arranging words, ideas and stories.

Peace (in linklinklinklinked text),
Kevin

Quickfiction: chapter 5

This is a continuation of my forays into Quickfiction writing. I am also completing an entire collection of my quick stories over at Hypertextopia and I hope to share that project and reflection out tomorrow. It has been another interesting adventure, to be sure.

Here are the latest stories (click on the little arrow to hear the podcast of the stories):

Ghost

It was on his walk to work one morning that Jack noticed the white ghost bike propped up against the tree. A long thin chain held it against the aging Elm that looked bent from the weight of its mission. As if it might just topple right over. A rusty padlock dangled from one kink in the chain. Jack was sure the bike had not been there the previous morning. Sometime in the night, someone had placed the bike here. It spooked the hell out of Jack, this ghost bike. It was Tiff all over again. A little placard was attached to the handlebars. This was not just a bike, he realized. This was a memorial. He didn’t dare get any closer. Fear kept him back, although he was aching to know what the little sign said. Would it be a memory of some stranger he did not know, nor ever would. A tribute, perhaps? Or would it be another reminder of the past life he had tried so desperately to leave behind so many years ago. Tiff, and her bike, and how he had followed her everywhere, falling in love so many times over as he watched her legs in motion. Everything back then seemed to be in motion. He could still see Tiff, in the white athletic suit that she always wore on outings, as if riding a cloud in the midst of civilization.She was pristine perfection. Back then, he would follow her anywhere. Even to the end of the world. Or so he thought, but when the time came to stand at the brink, he had hesitated, and she had disappeared from sight. Tiff had never glanced back, never even acknowledged that he had stopped. She just kept right on pedaling. Then, she was gone. To think of this now brought on the pain all over again. Jack shuffled past the white ghost of his past and, again, he tried to not to remember.

Smog

It’s true. I went to Big Sur for answers. I had gone to Lowell, too, and felt lost among the brick facades of the old mills that had become nothing more than monuments to the past. Everything seemed abandoned and set to rust. I even sat on the edge of the river that snaked through the worn-out downtown, listening for the prose that had long since been extinguished by time. I wanted to hear echoes. All I heard was silence. So it was on to Big Sur. My car complained the entire time, the muffler spoiling any sense of silence and contemplation I might have otherwise had or wanted. There was no Dean to keep me company. No bottles of booze littered on the seats. No scroll of endless white paper on which to scribble my dreams. My America was not Their America. My America was shopping malls, neon lights, and long stretches of conformity. Route 66 had become just a long stretch of traffic lights. You could not gain momentum or traction anymore. Still, Big Sur beckoned and I answered. It became yet another false promise, however, and in the forests and isolation of the California coast, I found little of anything of value. Nothing other than my own preconceptions of him in this place, writing with abandon. I, on the other hand, am always too careful. Too precise. Instead of gaining illumination, I left Big Sur with a deep-seated impression that my own writing days were over. So it felt strangely comfortable to finally leave Jack behind and descend into the smog of Los Angeles and begin my life anew.

ER

The wait is endless. Yet you can’t help but notice that the stream of people continues unabated, hour upon hour upon hour. Is there this much suffering, you wonder? You shift in your seat. The movement does little to ease either your pain or your boredom. Your head still hurts. Next to you, the man in the brown jacket nurses a finger, wrapping and unwrapping a bloody bandage. From time to time, he, too, shifts and bumps into you. This makes you uncomfortable — like the crowded feeling of the middle seat on an airplane — yet there are no other seats to move to. If you get up, you know you will lose the seat. All eyes covet the row of chairs. People are sitting on floors, leaning against walls, pacing the floor. The nurse just stares straight ahead. She seems to have perfected the art of never focusing on anyone. Her glassy, sleepy eyes just move forward in time. You feel another jolt to your temples. The force of it almost knocks you out of your seat. Your fingers clench the armrests to hold on. They all thought it was nothing. They all laughed. You can tell. You remember the accusatory looks they gave you, questioning your intentions. If only that were the case. You know the truth: your brain is in a state of severe disfunction. The little girl, in her mother’s lap, moans again. You watch the mother pull the girl’s head closer to her chest and she whispers some soothing words into the little girl’s ear. You wish that were you, that the words were for you. You wish someone would hold you and absorb the pain. All eyes look up as a doctor enters through the double doors. He beckons for the little girl and her mother. Brown jacket man swears under his breath and re-adjusts the bandage again. Another jolt hits your head. Stronger this time. The world that was once nothing but light is now darkening, and still you wait.

Elevator

He knew the time would come when he would die in an elevator. How many closes calls had there been? Too many to count. The most dramatic had been the time when he and his sister had gotten stuck in-between floors in their aunt’s low-rise. He had not meant to leave his toy truck in the gap. And he had been horrified to watch how the fireman, after dragging both of them up through the emergency exit in the ceiling, had presented their father with the mangled red fire truck and suggested that elevators did not make good play zones for children. There was the false alarm, too, in the office building and the scrambled rush to cram into the elevator to get to safety. He knew that had been dumb — no one rides an elevator in a fire — and it was that very stupidity that scared him. He did not trust himself to make the right decision in these situations and it was only a matter of time that the end would come in a vertical death machine. His sister had feared escalators. But at least on a moving stair, you can jump. You can’t jump to freedom from an elevator. He read books that reassured him that elevators were safer than cars. That engineers designed them to use counterweights. That it was rare than anyone might die in an elevator, as long as they stayed calm and were smart about it. That, of course, was what worried him. Panic made him stupid. And so, when the job he had dreamed about for years finally came his way, he was disappointed to learn that he would have to travel 45 floors up and down every day, in a so-called “smart elevator,” and after a nail-biting trip up to the interview and a harrowing trip back down, he decided he could not handle this. This tension was too much. The time might come when an elevator ended his life, but he would be damned if he would be a willing accomplice to the crime. His world was flat and level and he intended it to stay that way.

Peace (in stories),
Kevin

Slice of Life, Chapter 30

(This is part of the Slice of Life Project)

Today, my slice focuses in on my writing.

Since November, when I was inspired while traveling home on a train from the annual meeting of the National Writing Project with a laptop open on my lap, I have been periodically writing some quickfiction stories (also known as flashfiction in some circles). I love the genre because it all about what you don’t write and what you don’t tell, and there is the challenge of developing a character in as little of time and space as can possibly be. I’m sure there are rules to the genre that I am dutifully and openly ignoring.

Some stories in my series have been stronger than others, and I mostly write them during freewriting moments in my classroom. An idea sparks the writing, and as my students write, so do I. I have not shared these with my students, however. Someday, I intend to go back and do some editing and revision and then see what remains. For the most part, these are rough quickfiction stories. But I like them a lot. (You can view the rest of the quickfiction here) I also realized that quickfiction lends itself to podcasting and so I have included the reading of my stories, too.

Here, then, are the four latest stories:

Winner
It seemed an odd place to leave an egg. Out here, in the middle of nowhere. How many people had come this way, I could not tell. There was not path, not even the wayward trails left behind by animals. The river was far enough away that it would attract more people than this little alcove of pine trees. The sunlight was filtered out almost completely. I had expected nothing but solitude and yet, there, hidden among the stones at the base of the largest pine tree, was a colored plastic egg. Purple with pink stripes. The discovery had stopped me dead in my tracks. Now, I inched forward, my eyes scanning the world for some signs of something. A voyeur with a video camera. perhaps? A child at play? Nope. Nothing. I kicked at the plastic item gingerly with my boot, as if expecting the egg to explode. It moved, shifted and then did a wiggling roll off the rocks and stopped near my foot. I reached down and picked it up. The egg was not empty. I shook it. Something was inside. Again, I looked around to see if I were being played for the fool. No. I was alone. The egg twisted slowly in my hands, and the halves released their grip. Inside was a plastic baggie. My first thought was that I had uncovered a drug run of some sort. A cache of cocaine or pot. Walking away would be the wisest thing to do. Yet, I had come this far and could not resist my curiosity. The bag opened up and a note dropped to the ground. I bent down and saw the thin outline of faded handwriting. I unfolded the paper and read: “Congratulations! You are a winner!” and that was it. Nothing about what I won or why I was winning or what to do to claim my prize. I carefully put the paper into the bag, and then the bag into the egg, and then twisted the egg closed. Holding the object in my fist, I scrambled east for about a quarter of a mile, deeper in the woods than ever before, and there, I found a hollow tree. I left the egg there and made my way home, a winner.

Headless
The head came off as soon as the body slammed down the bottom of the stairs. The head rolled against the wall, careened across the floor and settled into the dust beneath the couch. Sam came barreling down the stairs, unaware that the head was gone. He picked up the GI Joe that was sprawled in an unhuman-like position near the last step — one leg this way and the other leg, that way, and the arms behind the back — and he ran his fingers along the neck. No head. Sam glanced around, making sure his grandmother was nowhere near. GI Joe had been a gift, just 15 minutes ago, and now, the head was gone. He didn’t want to deal with her anger. Again, he rolled his fingers over the nub where the head had been. Then Sam got down on his hands and knees to look for the missing appendage. He found other lost treasures — a moldy jelly bean, a paper clip, an old credit card. But no head. He could feel tears starting to well up inside him, and it made him embarrassed that he would be so sad over a doll. He heard a sound. Sam looked around. The sound seemed to be coming from underneath the couch. It sounded like a head, rolling. Sam got a bit scared. Ghosts and spirits scared him. He knew they were real. Maybe the ghost of GI Joe was mad at him. Maybe the head was coming back to life. He heard his grandmother in the kitchen. He had to move fast. Sam slowly approached the couch. The sound got louder. He got more frightened. Footsteps. His grandmother. Sam lifted up the fabric covering of the couch and the head of GI Joe came rolling out at him. He jumped back. His grandmother called his name, spurring him to reach out and take the head in his hands. In an instant, he had popped the head of GI Joe back onto the nub of the neck. His grandmother came into the room but ignored Sam completely. Instead, she was scolding her cat, Scout, who had emerged from the other end of the couch in a catnip-inspired panic and was tearing his claws into the side of the cushion. Sam looked at GI Joe right in the eye and smiled.

Blood
Blood on your hands is an odd sensation. The color strikes you first — the coating of red drippings. Your first instinct is to avoid the splatter but it is unavoidable. Ask any police detective with a DNA kit. Blood goes where blood wants to go. Kimball stared at his hands with these thoughts in his head, frozen by the sight. It occurred to him that this had happened before, in some freeze-frame memory from the past — his brother, perhaps, and the hunting knife accident. The bone coming up through the finger. Then, as now, things unfolded quick even as time slowed to a crawl. The blood kept dripping. Now, too, he could smell it. Iron or some metals. Something in the blood that seemed not quite right. Kimball felt the blade drop to the ground. His mind was turning black but he heard her voice cutting through the fog. “My god, Kimball, what ….” before everything faded to dark.

Performance
If they had asked her, she would have declined. She would not have willingly accepted this mantle nor this well-lit space on the stage — doused in floodlights and a thousand eyes on her every move — if she had had a choice. She opened her mouth to speak. Nothing emerged but her silence, and this silence glued her to her spot. The conductor raised his arms, baton dancing in his fingers. All around her, instruments moved, shifted, ready for the moment of life. She, however, remained still. If they had asked her, she would not be here. She could see the outline of her father and aunt, seated a few rows back. She felt caught in a net. The conductor moved and a musical explosion erupted around her. She noticed the violin now on her shoulder. The bow was balanced perfectly in her fingers. The conductor’s eyes now shifted to her. If they had asked her, she would not be at this place at this time. He nodded. So she played, imagining all of her notes like broken bones scattered on the stage. The violence of her sound was the only sweet revenge she could think of. For, of course, they had not ever asked her, nor would they ever.

Peace (in shorter stories),
Kevin

Quickfiction: chapter 4

I was able to write and podcast two more pieces for my ongoing Quickfiction Project during a Pink Eye Sick Day on Tuesday. One story is inspired by a student from years past and the other, by my own experience as a teenager.

Bridge
Listen to story
You wish you had been honest. Instead, there they wait. On the other side of the river, urging you on. Between you and them is this log, a slippery bridge over a raging gorge that barrels down from the mountains to the town below. If you had been honest, and owned up to your fears of heights and crossing these logs, you would not have all five of them staring at you, cursing at you to get moving before the sun goes down. If you had been honest, you would not be frozen here. Immobile. Honesty was never your strong suit, anyway. You think of this as you inch your left foot forward. There is green moss on this tree and the bark is crumbling. This tree has been here for a long time. It has witnessed much in this world and it cares not one whit about your fear. It is only there. Last night’s rains make the bridge even more treacherous. The path seems slick. They’re talking to themselves. One shakes a head and begins moving on. The others look back at you, wave their hands and then, in disgust, follow the path into the darkening woods. You remain, now alone, on the other side of the gap, wondering how this will end. Will you retreat? Or move forward? Your right foot crosses your left. You are leaving the solid world behind but the fear races through you. You can’t do this. You can do this. Voices compete in your head in a battle against the sound of the rushing water. Don’t look down. Whatever you do, don’t look down. They are now long gone. The woods are silent. It’s your decision — move on or go back. Forward or retreat. At long last, your inability to be true to yourself is at hand and you realize that you are not ready. No one ever is.

Test
Listen to story

She had no doubt that she knew the answer to every single question on the sheet in front of her. It had always been this way. The trick had been how to hide it so that others would not know. She glanced down, her eyes following the questions and the answers dancing in front of her mind. 24. A equals 56. Square root. Isosceles Triangle. It would be so simple just to fill in the ovals with the answers and just be done with this nonsense. Yet, she didn’t. She couldn’t. She remembered third grade, when she never even opened the test and instead, she had illustrated a picture of her kitten by using the bubbles as dots that could be connected. It was a very beautiful rendition of Scuttle but the results landed her in the Resource Room for the entire fourth grade. She learned to tune them out. Her teachers. The other students. Her parents. Why? they would ask.Why are you here? they would wonder. Tuning them out made everything so much easier. She was feeling worn out by the game, though, and the question of why had begun to creep into her dreams at night. Why, indeed. And why not? The answer sheet crinkled in her hands. The pencil felt cold. Her mind raced on, finding solutions as if it were not part of her entity at all. As if she were separate from her mind. One-million-twenty-five. Radius of a circle. Flip the diagram and slide it right. Parallel lines. She laughed at the thought of what they would all think if she did this test the way they wanted. If she followed the rules. They would be stunned. No doubt, they would imagine that it was somehow a mistake. Some error of the computer system. They would not suspect a thing. She thought of her cat, all curled up at home in the warmth of her bed, and she started to write.

Peace (in stories),
Kevin

PS — I just posted a piece on data collection over at Ben’s blog collective (he is still looking for writers — how about you?) called Teacheng.Us.