What is a short-short story?

Short-short stories are often described sketches, vignettes, or anecdotes. Or flash fiction, micro fiction, but whatever the name, they’re done with skill and deliberateness.

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Writer’s Craft: What is exactly is a Short-Short Story?

The name short-short story may be relatively new, but its forms are as old as parable, fable, and myth, wrote Robert Shaphard in 1986.

Yes, in 1986! I had no idea. I’ve only really become aware of the form in the last few months, perhaps I read some before but without labelling it as such? I don’t know. However, I’ve been on the search.

Sudden Fiction, American Short-Short Stories is a collection of work all under 1500 words, published in the mid-eighties, with such notables as Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver. I’ve been reading as much flash fiction and short stories recently because that’s what I’m turning to as I write. I wanted to find out more, find the history, learn the craft, and then probably ignore much of it knowing me. Still, it’s good to know what works, what has lasted. I’d not known the rich history though and this collection also had three short sections at the back where the authors talked about the form, what does it need to hold together, what is the best category to use, the naming of form and the craft as they saw it then.

How do we define and do we need to? Yes, we’re writers, we’re programmed that way, to write it out to make sense of the experience. Hence this short essay.

Sudden Fiction, American Short-Short Stories has so many stories that are touching, inventive, suggestive. A week’s worth of reading if you’re like me and have to take on short story at a time, read with it, put it down, and let it rest.

At the end of the collection are three sections where the authors were asked to write about the craft, tradition, and yes, how to name this form. The discourse between the writers was just as interesting and their characters came out even in those responses.

Short-short stories are often described sketches, vignettes, or anecdotes. Or flash fiction, micro fiction, but whatever the name, they’re done with skill and deliberateness, a stripping away of anything unnecessary. There’s economy, wit, a turn at the end that is often funny, shocking, touching, or unexpected. Each one gives a sense of place, mood, scene and atmosphere in under three pages. I’d say they’re often less narrative and more evocative. They give us, the readers, a slice or quality of life, a moment of discovery, or a flash of illumination. They are complete and when you finish, the last line stains and lingers. That is the beauty of the form. The compact completeness that lingers.

There’s nothing like reading quality stories that inspire and this collection did. There are over sixty-five pieces, and only thirteen are by women writers. Shame. I’ll say nothing else here on that topic.

When critics and authors explain the interest in short-shorts these days (2018) they often claim it’s a result of the Internet, short attention spans, an influx of information. Exactly the same was said thrity years ago, even longer as some of the pieces in this Sudden Fiction came from the sixties. Perhaps then it’s just that there’s something so satisfying to dive into a world for only a few pages, if that, and be touched and surprised?

Whether I call them vignettes, prose poems, sketches, parables, fables, flash or short-shorts, these condensed concise tales of moment or incident live in a no man’s land that appeals to me. I’m enjoying playing with moments, memories, imagination, words and forms. This then is the start of a new body of work for me. I’m having fun. I’ll let you know how it goes. So far so good, I have over fifty of the buggers. I’m on a roll.

Here then is one my latest shorts:

First Date

She folds up her long legs into the front seat of the old Toyota truck, window rolled down, one silky arm draped out touching the trees as we drive down narrow rocky back roads mid morning and her other hand holds a tall mug of creamy coffee, clasping it carefully with feline fingers that trace the curves, and I drive with eyes averted, focused on the dangers ahead, the rocks unseen, the flash of animals in the woods, and the sun creeps into the valley as we head up and up, deeper and deeper into the unknown New Mexico wilds with only a vague sense of direction, the truck trundles onwards unflinching and reliable with the steady churning of gears slower and slower and the world gets rockier and my hands clench with determination not to wander too far off course and we’re barely moving but covering so much ground as we catch up and laugh out loud and tease and I drive, ignoring the hand on my lap, and squinting in the bright light, and then our mountain track opens up to a meadow of sunflowers as tall as this woman beside me and she turns to me and says, Stop, and I did and I still don’t regret a thing.

Flash Fiction: Your Downstairs Neighbour doesn’t like you

Your Downstairs Neighbour doesn’t like you. Why? Can you hear the stereo? Mine? No, because I can hear your bloody Gameboy. Games, boy. Over and over that damn theme song, it’s not really song is it though? A loop of bass and rhythm but without any rhythm eh? Do you want to be an american idiot? Caught up in the daily routine of work to pay rent to play your games at night? And get pizza delivered? Every fucking night? So when you die, or about to die because you’re unhappy and unhealthy and yes, I’m judging you and I’m okay with that, but when you’re up there with that god of yours are you going to say, man I reached level five, can you believe it, I mean, oh god, it was great the lights blinked twice and then that was it, you got me, was that it? I’d wanted to get to the next level and the pizza, the big one with pepperoni was on its way and who’s going to pay for it? What a waste, oh god, what a waste. And god says, yes, it was. And then me, that neighbour downstairs who listens to your creaking chair and the repeated theme track for that bloody Gameboy will eat your pizza even though I don’t like pepperoni but the dogs do and this music on my stereo breaks my heart so maybe it’s a good thing to get pissed off with you and your bloody Gameboy, games, boy. It breaks my heart.

 

(An excerpt from the collection of prose, poems, and portraits, Clean up on Aisle 23.)

Twitter @Princeharry5566

Twitter. Today. Dear Princeharry5566. Got your message. I can answer you now. It’s already been a couple of hours, I’m sorry. Princeharry5566, thanks for following me, I’m right flattered. Princeharry5566, not many young men notice women my age, you were raised right. I’m flattered of course, who wouldn’t be, what with a real live prince? I got the message you sent asking me where I’m from; maybe you looked at profile and saw I’m English too? We’ve not met, yet, but I remember getting plastered when your mum and dad got hitched, it was scrumpy cider and we were in the Mendip hills, and us girls got a bit messy. We spent the afternoon on a horse ride until 3pm and then cleaned up and sat in front of the telly with our cider and snacks, waving our silly little flags, but we’d drunk all that cider and then those flags did naughty things and the telly went on the blink and that was that. Did we miss much after four when it was tea time, you wouldn’t know really but maybe your mum said something? It was quite the day and so much has happened since then and you’re tweeting to me about your wife and you. I read your profile and your posts but you do need to edit. Your profile is in first person and third. Like it’s copied and pasted? Well, nice chatting. To think. Princeharry5566. And me.

Flash Fiction: A Few Things You Wish You’d Said

A few of the things you wish you’d said and done in that bathroom

 

It’s been a good night, a fun night, you’ve been drinking with your friends at a diner in Tennessee, Friday night in the next county over. You need the bathroom. A public bathroom. Not your favourite place to visit, even in the city, and well, you’re here in the middle of bumfuck nowhere, a Baptist enclave of reluctant drinkers, or at least – unpracticed drinkers. You go to the women’s, do your business, flush, and then stand at the sink to wash your hands. The door opens behind you, closes, opens, closes. You look up into the mirror, a woman stands there, stepping back to check the sign on the door. She looks you up and down, the jeans, boots, sweatshirt, and short brown hair. Think Amelia Earhart, slender, scruffy, and a woman in your own right, that’s you. This woman in polyester and hairspray takes you in slowly, her eyebrows raising up as she notices you staring back. She closes the door behind her. What are you, she asks? Why, you reply, what are you? She steps closer, taking a big inbreath, a sigh of impatience, but you smile, friendly and polite as usual and turn off the faucet. You reach for a towel from beside her, and she flinches. No, what are you? She persists, and points her lacquered nails in your vague direction, not too hard to do in this tiny linoleum lined bathroom with only one stall. Are you a man or a woman, I can’t tell, she says with a snarl and snark, too close, too mean in the eyes, all fire and righteous religion, I can’t tell, she insists, am I in the wrong bathroom? You laugh, how would I know unless you show me, and you look her up and down, saucy and slow, a firey anger building in your gut as you take in the pink blouse, puckered lips, and blue eye shadow, the hennaed hair and mouthful of her toxic perfume. She spits, are you a man? You counter with, well, what are you, a drag queen? She squares up to you, her heaving chest to your flat one, stands too close, spitting and spouting, cursing like a backwoods heathen, calling you the devil’s work, as pure evil, a pervert, a disgusting specimen, you you you, you should be killed looking like you do, you should die, what are you, what are you, what are you? She yells at you, GET OUT! GET OUT! but you say, I’ll show you mine if you show me yours, and she swallows, as you slowly, with hands on your belt, unbuckle, unzip, and drop your pants.

Fiction: The Arc of the Plot

As Julianna Baggott said in class:

  1. Breathe in.
  2. Hold it.
  3. Hold it.
  4. Just a little longer.
  5. Release.

Funny, yes? But oh my, so true. I look at the stories and sketches I’m writing these days and they each have that basic arc. It’s such a simple lesson. One worth sharing.

 

This #5

From an ongoing series of sketches called THIS:

DSC_0548

#5

Coasts beckon. She follows, willingly, with books and notepad in hand. Jennifer goes from retreat to retreat, persuading the owners to offer her a place to finish this life-changing novel, the one we’ve all been waiting for. The second in her short career. That first one though. Who would’ve thought it? That Jen could be so talented? Articulate? Organized? That our sweet shy Jen could actually finish something?
This is more like it. This is the third retreat. She has four more lined up. All on coasts, the next one is in Hawaii. She’ll have to borrow the money to get the flight, but she’s not worried. That’s what Go Fund Me is for, right? To pay the way for the ones in need. And Jennifer tells herself that she needs this, as she pulls out the scissors and lops off another three inches from her long brown, long boring hair.
Turning forty isn’t agreeing with her. Her stomach suddenly bloated. Nothing to do with all the beer she’s tried at the various microbreweries. She notices a few stray hairs under her chin and grabs a razor, a dull one but who cares? No one looks at her anyway. Not now. Jennifer avoids the table with the laptop, notebook, smartphone and pens and picks up her camera instead and scrolls through the photos of the last retreat, of Michael. A big teddy bear of a man, soft spoken, a writer like herself, he’d paid attention, unfazed by her birthday blues. He might even have taken advantage of that strong IPA and the loosey-goosey chatterbox that she became for a night. He’d had green eyes, scruffy hair, and baggy jeans to hide his own beer belly. The selfies they’d taken in the morning though, just before his flight to Florida, they’d made Jennifer smile. For a brief moment, she forgot where she was, why she was here, and where she was going next. And the great novel? Nope, nowhere to be found in this congealing soup of sadness. She picked up the scissors again. Nostalgia gets her every time. Cut the damn hair.

 

 

Living The Dream: 16

As part of the ongoing Sunday installments of the novel. You can find the other chapters on here, posted each Sunday morning. Thanks! 

DECEMBER: ONWARDS

Money was flying out faster than I’d hoped or expected what with those nights in motels, a week in Albuquerque, eating out. I worked on my budget while sitting outside on the porch. Angie was at school, one last project that she’s working on in the library. Jonnie was expected to show up later today. Nelson relaxed, fully at home on his blanket, soaking up the sun. I made a decision, a small one, but it was time to move on.

 

“I’m heading south in the morning,” I told them over dinner.

We’d made pizza together, chatting and listening to a local radio station. Their home was toasty and welcoming. I didn’t really want to leave but my restlessness kicked in, and kicked me out. Nothing too comfortable for me, not yet. The ongoing distractions of exploring a new city on foot had revitalized me yet kept me from my purpose: Deciding what was next. What to do about Mark. And the others.

“You’re more than welcome to stay,” Angie offered. “It’s so easy to have you and Nelson around, no trouble at all. In fact, you could stay here for the holidays on your own if you like. I’m going back home for a couple of weeks and it’d be good to know the place wasn’t empty.” She drank some water and offered Nelson a taste of ham from her pizza. “Well, think about it, no pressure.”
“Where are you thinking of going to? Not north I hope. More snow is expected this week, and they say it’s going to be a warm and wet winter.”
“Whatever that means.” I jokingly finished for him. “I don’t know but I like the idea of going across to Arizona, see Jerome and Sedona and that area. It’s probably only a day or two’s drive for us, we stop every hour or so. Anyway, I’d like to keep exploring, camping, daydreaming…”
“ – and deciding?”
“Yes, there is that. I miss the bus as well.”
“But you’re not ready to go back yet?”
Jonnie passed me a glass of wine and we all followed him onto the porch, our nightly routine. “I can understand that. Have you heard from Mark?”
I sipped the malbec and leaned back in an armchair. “Yep, he’s in L.A. having a blast, he said. He even got to play bass for some band one night. They’d had a car accident on the way to the gig and, well, he was in the right place at the right time. It’s a dream come true for him, so I can’t blame him, not really.”

Jonnie brought out the rest of the pizza and picked at a slice as we chatted away companionably. Nelson yawned. Angie petted his head, playing with the long soft ears.

“Well, you have to stay in touch with us, okay? I’ll miss you both. You’re always welcome back. And if you move back to Oliver, we want to come visit, right?”

“Right, I’ll let you know where I end up, we end up, that is. To new beginnings.” I raised my glass to them both with a smile.

“To new friends.”

“To pizza!”

Glasses clinked and Nelson sat up, hoping for food, that’s my happy boy.

 

 

 

 

SEPTEMBER: SHOW ME THE WAY

 

 

“What the hell? You’re joking right?”

Five DEA agents surrounded Mark. They demanded that he hand over his plants. Mark stood there in his shorts and boots, bare-chested and indignant. A couple of black SUVs blocked our Subaru in the driveway. Helicopters, four of them hovered overhead, passing back and forth as they had all morning. I stood on the porch, holding onto Frida who wouldn’t stop barking and growling when anyone came close.

“Your ID please, sir.” An officer stood in all-black clothes and dark sunglasses and he had a gun. He held out his hand to for the license.

Mark laughed, “Where do you think that might be? I’m practically naked here.” he turned and started walking over to me, when the officer stopped him forcefully.
“No sir, you can wait with me and your wife can fetch both your IDs.” He nodded in my direction.

“Girlfriend,” muttered Mark. He put his hands in his pockets and pulled out a cigarette and lit it. “They’re tomatoes,” he muttered under his breath once again.

Two officers followed me to my car and I pulled out our wallets and handed over the documents. One stood next to me silently and the other read them before handing them to his partner. Mark asked why they’d come to harass us.

“We were told your wife –“

“Girlfriend.”

“- had been talking about her pot plants at the coffee shop.”
“Her potted plants.” Mark said, and he looked over at our home. The patio was covered in hanging plants of all kinds. Mint. Toms. Lettuce. Onions. Creeping vines. Geraniums. Wildflowers. You name it, I’d planted it.

The man with my ID passed it back and headed for his boss without a word to me. He had a potbelly big enough to hold a drink if he’d leaned back just another inch or two. I tried not to think about it. I coughed under my breath.
“It’s who we thought.”
Mark smoked in silence. Frida whined. I shook. I wish I had my boots on, I felt vulnerable in flip-flops.

“I’m Detective Anders. Would you take us to your pot plants please Mark.”

The man had cropped gray hair and a belt full of his important toys and symbols. And a gun. He lifted his sunglasses briefly to make meaningful eye contact with Mark, who set off in the direction of the bus. I joined him on the porch. I quickly grabbed my boots and sat down. Mark stood next to our pots.

The officer didn’t move. “Well?”

Mark pointed out two tomato plants at the front door. “That’s all we have.”
The officer didn’t smile one bit but reiterated his request. The take-me-to-your-leader kind of an order. “We spotted some twenty pot plants near by and your home is the closest. I suggest, sir, that you comply with my requests. Take me to your plants.”
Mark sighed in exasperation. “We don’t have any. I don’t even know what you’re talking about, as if we’d grow pot plants on our property. That makes no sense. Neither of us smokes anything but this stuff.” He pulled out the cigarettes from his back pocket and held them out.

Another SUV showed up and drove past the other vehicles across my front yard. He pulled up next to us.

“Is there a problem here, Anders?”
“No sir, we were just taking them to the site. Would you like to come with us?”
“Not at all, I’m staying in the air conditioning. Speed it up though. We have another sighting a mile away.” He closed the window and backed out. Tire tracks everywhere. I’d have to rake this later.

“Come along. You can let your dog loose, Ma’am. My officers aren’t afraid of a little runt like that.”

He strode off without a glance at Frida snapping around his boots. I grabbed my hat and caught up with Mark. We followed them down the arroyo on the right, through the hundred-foot bed of coal dust, and past the burnt-out pinion, the result of a lightening strike was my guess. The midday sun wore me out but I kept up with everyone, all ten or us. Although I hated to admit it, taking that hike was easier than digging in fence posts for the chicken run. I spotted some orange paintbrush-like wildflowers on the southern slope. The ridge took us up and over into a neighboring meadow of cacti and silvery stunted shrubs. We walked over the scrubby grasses, along the riverbed and past trees dead and dying. The entourage stopped next to a clump of junipers. Mark and I looked around us.

“Where are we?” he whispered.

“Please, sir, if you have something to say, say it to the group.”
Were we in high school again? Mark said nothing. I coughed. He snickered. Frida found something and ran off. I heard her digging furiously.

“Stop that dog. She’s tampering with evidence.” They ran after her and someone pulled her out from under a tree by her tail. The poor girl yelped and raced over to Mark, jumping into his arms. She buried her head in his armpit.

“What had you found, girl?” he talked softly to her. She looked up briefly, saw Anders walking over, and whimpered.

“This way please, Ma’am, Sir.”
We looked at each other and followed him into a clearing. A bunch of tall bulky and bright green pot plants lay on the dirt. Pulled out by the roots. Each one was at least four or five feet tall, I’d guess, thick and furry.

“Wow. Those are huge.”
The agents watched us closely. I stepped up to poke one with my foot. “Are there more?”
“Why?”
“I’ve never seen anything like this.” I practically laughed in fascination. I bent down and picked at one. It stank. I picked off a piece and put it to my nose before someone yanked me back.

“That’s enough. Where are the rest?”
“Huh?” I stood up and brushed myself off. “You tell me. You brought us here. This isn’t even our land.”
“Nope, never been out here before, have we Jen? I like it. Is this on our property?” He asked Anders who had a bundle of Xeroxed maps in his hand. Mark went to look and unthinkingly took the top copy. It was of a map of our forty acres and both properties on either side. The road cut through ours in a pretty diagonal, across the two arroyos.

“Isn’t that us?” He held it out to me and I looked over his shoulder, or rather under his shoulder. My finger followed the road, the paths we usually took and found our campsite and the bus, somewhere in the middle. We’d placed it well, apparently. I nodded and handed it back to him. Mark passed it to Anders.

“That’s our place, right? Here’s the road, the bus, our gardens and the boundary where we walk the dog. See?” Mark in his innocence started to walk back the way we’d come.
Two of the officers blocked his path. They kept their hands on their hips.

“Unfortunately, sir, that might be true, but you two live right next to this large collection of illegal plants. We don’t believe you, to be blunt. Now, where are the rest? Someone who grows this many usually has at least another ten or more hidden nearby.”
“Couldn’t your helicopters see any?” I piped up.
Anders stared at me. “No, they didn’t.”
I shrugged and sat in the shade on a huge rock the size of a VW Beetle. Frida tried to join me but she kept slipping off the rocks. She sat at Mark’s feet instead. Anders watched us both carefully.

“Show us the path you use to bring the water out here,” he asked after a while.

“No, you show me.” Mark was getting braver and braver as time went on. I was quite proud of him. “Because there isn’t one and you know it. You know that this isn’t our doing. We’re too effing naïve, aren’t we? Oh, and to add to the equation, we haven’t lived here long enough. You might want to check your records before you try to pin anything on us. I only moved to Oliver, what, two months ago at most.”
Anders looked between Mark and I. He looked down at his paperwork.

“Is that right?”
We both bobbed our heads in agreement. He started to sweat.

“Damn. Who owns this bit? I’m going to get in such deep trouble for messing this up.”

His officers hung back, slowly melting into the trees around us. Frida headed for the freshly dog holes and stuck her face back in them, sighing loudly. I almost felt sorry for Anders. I came to look at the map he held. I recognized the driveway he pointed out as being the nearest. I said nothing.

He folded up his papers and looked around for his men. They’d gone back without him.

“How do we get back from here?”

He turned in a circle, desperately looking for someone to lead the way back. The clearing stood empty but for five dying plants and the rear end of a digging dog.

“We follow the little runt,” said my boyfriend with a sweet smile. “Frida, let’s go home.”

 

“Another pint, Jenny?”
“Hell yeah.”

We stood at the bar surrounded by locals, Dieselhead Danny being one of them. He’d been telling everyone about watching us with the cops and how suddenly they’d all just left, driven off, no charges, and no further searches. Or finds.

“They didn’t get the others,” he announced proudly. He kept buying us drinks. The tavern was pretty empty but it was a Wednesday afternoon. The tourists took over town on the weekends. After we’d found out that little detail, we had adjusted our drinking times suitably, still trying to fit in. Anyway, Danny kept slapping Mark on the back, thanking him for not mentioning the water hauling or anything like that.

“Oh, right, I’d forgotten about that. I just hated the way he called my dog a runt. He pissed me off.” Mark leaned against the stool I was sitting in and gave me a quick kiss on the ear. That third beer was doing wonders for his mood.

We’d got back to the bus with Anders in tow and had made ourselves a cold drink. All three of us sat on the deck and watched as Frida found a rawhide and fell asleep with it under her front paws. One SUV waited for him as he finished his lemonade and apologized in a roundabout way. Finally we were alone again. I got up and raked out the tire tracks. Mark took a sponge bath. Frida napped.

Half an hour later we drove to the tavern, under the watchful eyes of two helicopters. Mark gave them the finger. Frida panted. For once, I drove.

 

Danny wandered outside for a smoke and Mark joined him. I sat there alone for a while, I was glad the day was over. The bartender came over and handed me a pint of cold water.

“You’re looking a little rosy,” he said politely.

I snorted. “I know. It seems to be my New Mexico color, I’m okay, just a little flushed after this morning.”
He laughed out loud and grinned with me, and had no teeth missing. The job must pay better than most.

“Yeah, I heard. That was a close call, you realize that, don’t you?”
“Yes, that’s why I’m here. I need to forget how close a call. Does that happen a lot around here? It was crazy. Do you think the cops even know whose stuff it was? Is?”
“Probably, but I’d forget all about that if you can. At least now, you’ve made a friend for life with Danny. He’ll look out for you for as long as you live near by. He’s as loyal as a puppy if he likes you.”
Once a year apparently the cops come around, hoping to find fields of green. Instead they bust two or three people for having a handful of pot plants. After seeing the five ‘copters and twenty or so ground personnel, SUVs, even a couple of all terrain vehicles, I have to wonder how much that all cost?

As usual, Mark interrupted my deep thoughts.

“There’s a BBQ out on Alaska road on the weekend, and we’ve been invited. Want to go?”
“Sure. Whose?”
Mark grinned. “I don’t remember but here’s the address for us. Dusk onwards, and he said bring beer, instruments, and dogs, not bad eh? Frida’s first party.”
More importantly – it was going to be our first party in Oliver. We’d finally arrived.