Night of the Living Dead Flash Pieces - 20 June 2009
There's a quiet literary revolution going down that has all the hallmarks of spreading like a post apocalyptic zombie holocaust on the Australian written landscape. In fact it's already made major inroads onto various net sites with the forces of the Government and the Media trying to deny anything is happening! We can forgive the media because lets face facts here, the commercial news agencies in this country now apparently get their breaking news off YouTube and Facebook. When you become aware of the holocaust the darn thing crops up everywhere, more writers seem to have been bitten by it each day, and even more disturbingly fans are succumbing to the creeping virus in ever increasing numbers. There's no stopping it folks; get in the provisions, board up the doors and windows, and go for the head shot! We're under siege by "flash fiction" and it's seemingly unstoppable march to prominence on the web, increasingly on the magazine ranks, and by heck even amongst the stacks of libraries and the shelves of self respecting book retailers. Before anyone accuses me of being a literary luddite I would add I've already been bitten by the flash plague and am starting to show the symptoms. I'm putting the blame squarely at the feet of that bloody Western Australian Shane Jiraiya Cummings and his poisoned chalice enticingly, for those of us travelling the dark genre, called Shards. If this article intrigues you then go grab a copy of Mr Cummings book friends and neighbours, you can thank me later. The book is available online from Brimstone Press click here
Aside: Please note this article is by no means a definitive or all encompassing study of flash fiction. It will barely stir the surface of an already substantial body of work. I have restricted discussion to the horror genre Down Under, as that's what this site is about, go forth and seek out more scholarly sites if after that something extra for your 101 English paper. Please note I am using "story" and "piece" pretty much interchangeably here.
Lets face facts here folks, we're all members of Ben's group of survivors and we are holed up in an old isolated farmhouse, boarding up the windows and doors while flash pieces shamble around outside trying to get in, trying to sink their teeth into us. But what is flash, can we understand it, and is it stoppable?
I have always gained more satisfaction from completing stories than I have from writing them, so flash fiction gave me the quick and dirty thrill of completing many more stories than I otherwise would have completed. It was also an apprenticeship in learning to write well. Why waste 100,000 words of complete crap on your first-and-unlikely-to-be-published novel when you can hone your ability on a batch of short stories that will progressively (hopefully!) get better? I also write flash because of the challenge. Writing a self-contained story in less than 1000 words (often much less) is a genuine challenge that goes well beyond simple word conservation. The biggest compliment I can get for my flash fiction is for readers and reviewers to say the story felt much grander than it actually was. Great flash fiction has the ability to suggest entire plots and backstories through suggestion alone. The story should project beyond the words and resonate with the reader. This is my goal when writing flash fiction. - Shane Jiraiya Cummings (2009)
To fully understand the new short form let's focus on a couple of pieces and see if we can deduce any rules form them. I've chosen one of my own compositions, unnamed and written from a barely remembered dream at 3am one morning, and a far superior piece The Year the Zombies Came For Christmas by actual professional writer Peter Ball.
The Police auction had been going for sometime, and I was starting to wonder if my bum would ever wake up again. Still a bargain is apparently a bargain and I was waiting to see if anything interesting would come up. Next item, "Butcher's knife, near new" intoned the auctioneer. The scars on my chest recognised the knife, I had used it before. - Unnamed, Jeff Ritchie
The above is a piece of flash fiction. It's not particular good but then I'm not claiming to be a writer over here I simply play with some words from time to time, but it is flash fiction of a sort. Note the total word count is under seventy, a real good flash writer would reduce that by a further dozen or so words at least. About the only thing remarkably about the piece is it's a brevity and in the world of flash fiction it is a finished story.
So what do we know about this flash thing? What defines a flash piece and why is it of any relevance to the reading public? Down Under a flash story is generally considered to be a piece of writing under a 1,000 words in length that conforms in some way to the basic story telling requirements. For U.S readers, no I'm not going to get into an overly analytical frame of mind like your writers and reviewers do and discuss how many devils can dance on the head of a pin. Yes I know you guys have dozens of names for short fiction, but end of day there is only one that matters regardless of spin. Down Under we like to keep it simple, under a thousand words and Bob's your uncle. So forget about the semantics and other garbage being hoisted on the net by self important pseudo intellectuals, the holy number is a 1,000. Grab a piece of chalk and write on the blackboard "Rule 1, a flash fiction piece must be under a 1,000 words long". Don't worry we have plenty of time, those boards over the doors and windows look pretty sturdy and are holding well kids, so put the first rule at the top of the board there's more coming at you.
I'm going to actually use an excellent piece of flash writing to illustrate the craft and yes the art of flash fiction, Peter Ball's The Year the Zombies Came For Christmas. Let's break Mr Ball's story down and see how it works pretty much like longer worded stories yet demonstrates some additional flash rules and guidelines.
It was Katie that remembered the puppy, trapped in its cardboard box without any air-holes. The fact that we'd forgotten to punch any in came to her at 2 am… - The Year the Zombies Came For Christmas, Peter Ball
The author starts his story, and remember we know it's probably Christmas eve via the title, with a firm hand setting the scene and possible conflict. A puppy is in a cardboard box, clearly with no exit strategy, and remarkably the adults have forgotten to punch any air-holes into the box. Interestingly the mistake is noted at 2am. The second rule of flash fiction can be stated as "nothing is wasted, if a word can be cut out, the author must ruthless expunge that word to make his/her piece as short as possible". Ball just hits us between the eyes with an opening barrage that wastes no time in setting up the core conflict. In a more traditional piece of writing this sentence may have come in some form or other toward the middle of the story. Third rule of flash fiction kids, "drop the reader in the middle of the story and let him/her sink or swim". Note however in keeping with story telling conventions we already have our point of conflict outlined. Students of the short story and indeed the novel will be quick to point out that dropping a reader into the middle of a story is considered good form and one method of gaining that all important initial interest. I'm not advocating flash fiction is deviating wildly from traditional norms, I'm stating the new short fiction will use those norms when appropriate to the actual plot, and will jettison those norms if they hinder the story telling processing. Flash fiction, at least when voyaging through the dark waters of horror, is the story told around the camp fire at midnight, in essence the tale of the hook in a different guise. Take a couple of minutes to add our new rules to the board while I check on what's going down outside.
"It's cardboard," I said. "It's not like the damn thing will suffocate. We'll make sure Steve opens it early, before any of the other presents." - The Year the Zombies Came For Christmas, Peter Ball
We quickly find out that no action is going to be taken to relieve the dog's probable, at this stage, suffering and that we are in first person narrative form of story telling. Ball handles that development without missing a step. Also there is a hint that our protagonist, I'm assuming it's the father, is completely unaware of the non-porous nature of a cardboard box strong enough to contain a puppy. Besides Steve is going to open it early "before any of the other presents", clearly as far as our narrator is concerned everything is as good as gold. But Ball isn't going to leave it there and gives enough to indicate there's a good reason our narrator is willing to leave well enough alone in the next paragraph.
… but the puppy was downstairs and Steve was a notoriously light sleeper. Another trip to adjust the presents, past the creaking floorboards in the hall, was likely to wake him. - The Year the Zombies Came For Christmas, Peter Ball
Our unnamed character isn't going to check on the entombed puppy due to his son being a "light sleeper" and the floorboards in the hall making like they belong in a haunted house. Ball is cleverly providing motivation for his main character and more importantly moving towards making him a more sympathetic character. Okay the dude might not be the sharpest tool in the shed when it comes to basic biology, but by heck he's doing the best he can for his kids.
We didn't want that, not when we were holding onto his tenuous belief in Santa Claus by the skin of our teeth. - The Year the Zombies Came For Christmas, Peter Ball
See anyone can justify their actions, the parents are keeping their kid's innocence intact for as long as they can. Which is kind of ironic really when you think about it, what with the whole zombie thing about to descend. A sly piece of writing by the Author that had me grinning from ear to ear. Almost gives you the warm and fuzzies until the next paragraph nails the conflict's outcome leaving no room for doubt.
So we left it; a puppy in a box that was carefully wrapped in a blanket to muffle stray barks and covered with purple wrapping paper. - The Year the Zombies Came For Christmas, Peter Ball
The Author leaves the reader in no doubt that the puppy is a pretty rooted unit. Without spending time describing the "pet sematery" being developed under the Christmas tree Ball allows the readers imagination to fill in the blanks, take note of the piece's title, and no doubt to form their own mental pictures of where we are headed. It's not going to be pretty was my immediate thought but the Author doesn't have the wordage to go there. Fourth rule of flash fiction friends and neighbours, build the framework to lock up and let the reader add the fittings and finishing. Stephen King once wrote about having to eventually show the monster, flash fiction in the right hands is giving that statement a two fingered salute. Whereas King is hampered by his short story structure into at some stage throwing his monster center stage, and thus risking reader relief over it only being a forty foot shark or whatever, could have been much worse our dark passenger tell us, flash fiction writers can say to hell with that and let the reader imagine just what might be behind that creaking door that is opening slowly at midnight in the old spooky house. As more than one commentator has remarked our own imaginations are our own worse enemy when it comes to horror, most readers can envisage something a hell of a lot worse than what they read on the page. A good flash fiction writer will toss some ideas at his/her reader's imagination and simply say "check this out".
One of the strengths of the new form, and arguable one of the major reasons its taking a firm hold in the dark woods of horror, is that it's quite happy not to pull the shroud off the corpse, to drive up to the old rundown house in the middle of nowhere without going inside, to grasp the handle of the old creaking door at midnight and not open it. The Author whisperers to the reader the corpse twitched, that house we just drove to was the scene of a massacre and no one was ever caught, behind the creaking door is something so horrible that I can't describe it. Naturally the reader, and folks most serious horror fans I know have vivid imaginations, will provide the shock scene themselves without much prodding. The Author has set them up, the Reader will allow their imagination to deliver the knock out blow. If you are thinking "doesn't this allow the writer to have their cake and eat it as well", then no this actually allows the writer to respect their audience. The flash fiction exponent provides the lumber that you use to construct your own gallows to hang a few sleepless nights on.
Sometimes, when I remember that last Christmas Eve, I feel a pang of sympathy for the puppy's lonely death. - The Year the Zombies Came For Christmas, Peter Ball
Ball like any master of the flash fiction form has the ability to drop a wealth of meaning via a simply line, a string of words, an overall mood in his writing. Here "that last Christmas Eve" speaks volumes about the outcome of a "puppy's lonely death". Clearly for the narrator it was his last Christmas Eve, remember the zombies came for the festivities and the food, but was it mankind's last Christmas Eve? Ball isn't saying but I figure we have just fortified a mall here folks. What happened to the Narrator's family and what went down Christmas morning are suddenly top of our lists of things we have to know. Since this is flash fiction the Author leaves the reader to decide for themselves what probably went down after the narrative finishes. Here I don't think Ball is leaving the reader with the idea that things ended up all wine and roses post Christmas morning with the possibility of Julie Andrews appearing in The Sound of Music on the television in the afternoon. The hills will definitely be full of the sounds of something but I'm hedging my bets that it wont be music. Excuse me while I help park some trucks in front of those plate glass windows, the holocaust looks like spreading.
This should of course present us with a fifth rule of flash fiction, a piece will leave the reader to determine what happened post story. But naturally making hard and fast rules about flash fiction is about as elusive as pinpointing the cause of a zombie outbreak in a Romero movie. While Ball has his narrator talking from some future time and remembering a final Christmas eve, authors such as Shane Jiraiya Cummings have pieces finishing with a whole world of possibilities opening up in the future, and just to add some spice to things Chuck McKenzie actually has a flash piece called Howler that inverts it all and has the reader thinking about what went down prior to the story, that has been left off the actual page. Maybe our fifth rule should be that a piece of flash fiction makes the reader think beyond the words on the page and formulate their own longer work based on the references, inferences, and general mood of the piece.
Flash fiction? I love it. It allows readers to get short tastes of writers, but as a writer, I find it allows me to practice, experiment and explore themes without investing as much time as you would on a novel or even a short story. And now there's more and more markets for them it seems. - Benjamin Solah (2009)
Naturally there are different approaches to how a flash fiction piece should leave the reader. Ball's piece is a person looking back in time to a remembered Christmas eve that proved to be the last he experienced. Shane Jiraiya Cummings with Memoirs of a Teenage Antichrist takes the approach of leaving the reader to work out for themselves if his narrator is what the narrator believes himself to be as the story stops tantalisingly close to reveiling all, "Midnight approaches. I can feel it. The crows are gathering". And Chuck McKenzie leaves you to join the dots after the fact with the excellent Howler, "Lycanthropy's a bitch, ain't it?". To sum up here there's no hard and fast rule in regards focus and story structure, what ever works for the author and reader seems to be the catch cry.
Before leaving Ball's The Year the Zombies Came For Christmas, it should be pointed out that the piece is a hell of a lot stronger as a whole than the parts we have dissected and examine on the operating table of this article. As with all good flash fiction it's meant to be read in it's entirety, in a single sitting, and with total concentration. The bright side of the knife there of course is that you can re-read the piece to your heart's content and perhaps take a whole lot more from it than I have here. For example Ball does give his narrator more motive for the puppy wrapping mayhem than I have mention here, yes the character does end up sympathetic. The piece can be read in it's entirety right here. Please note ScaryMinds sought the Author's permission to reproduce parts of the story for this article, always worth asking before borrowing folks.
Richard Harland described flash fiction as being "the distinctive form of our internet age" in his introduction to Shards, and I agree. Flash fiction is certainly perfectly suited to online publication, as Angela Challis and I found out through the success of Shadowed Realms. With the brevity of Facebook, Twitter, and most blog communication, flash fiction should be right at home on the web. In fact, new Twitter flash fiction zines (with stories of 140 characters or less) are popping up all the time, which I think is a great thing - I'm all for experimenting with the story form. But what strikes me is a resistance by many to read fiction online. Perhaps the allure of the book is still too strong? The conundrum in this situation is that many of the same people who say they can't read fiction online routinely read thousands of words online on blogs, websites, message boards, and emails. It doesn't make sense to me. - Shane Jiraiya Cummings (2009)
Having tried, in a pretty undergraduate fashion, to break down one of the better examples of flash fiction as currently being practised Down Under we can turn our attention to it's place in the literary landscape. Is flash fiction a valid form of literature? I could understand large scale attacks coming from some sectors of the University Intelligentsia, after all your typical English Lit department seems more interest in moribund genres preferably with nothing new being published within them than a vibrant modern publishing market continually pushing the boundaries of our understanding of what makes a story. There's an invested interest in keeping with the old and slightly tired than investing in the new dynamic. More words in papers and books have been written on Jane Austen for example than the Author ever produced in her career. This isn't restricted to literature circles by the way, in 1989 Kim Newman published an update to his excellent view of the horror genre Nightmare Movies in which ironically he attacks both the people holding up the old classics as being the pinnacle of the genre while also lambasting some of the modern movies of the time of his publication without thought to what might be viewed as a "classic" of the genre twenty years later. Sorry Kim A Nightmare on Elm Street is now viewed as a classic in many circles, it redefined what the genre could do. Horror is a living breathing thing, to try and rope and brand it is to lose the power the dark genre at it's best can call into play both on the written page and on the screen. There's a reason a lot of modern horror movies are not doing so well at the box office and are being roundly slammed by the fanbase. Hollywood having decided they know how the genre ticks are on the tigers back with a conveyor belt mentality that doesn't recognise you can not bottle blue lighting. You really have to wonder how many metaphors you can mix up in a single statement folks. Flash fiction offers one of our better hopes for getting a whole new generation reading the dark genre. It's short, it's snappy, and you really have to give a nod of approval to the way it's dressed. For a modern generation brought up on faceback, myspace, twitter, or whatever the latest internet craze is, this could be our last best hope of making fiction meaningful outside a Hollywood blockbuster. And if anyone thinks that's not the case check the number of books by the excruciatingly woeful Stephenie Meyer the movie adaptation of Twilight pushed through the cash register as opposed to say that latest horror novel written by one of our excellent local Authors. Grown men are reduced to tears, ladies are fainting and needing salts, and the dancing dogs are competing with female preachers in the streets of our major cities. I blame the education sytem and since it's flavour of the month swine flu.
Flash fiction is the latest juvenile delinquent to hang out at the literary milk bar thumbing it's nose at the conventions and perceived wisdom of the closed workshop that is academic literature departments. The new form simply refuses to fit into the slot that has been set aside for the short story form and is pushing aside the old fuddy duddies as it saunters up to the counter, no doubt to get a pack of unfiltered cigarettes.
Is flash fiction an art form? Stephen King argued in Danse Macabre that one definition of art is that it gives the viewer more than they have to put into it. Clearly this applies to flash, and I'm pretty happy to sign off on that one. The new form requires the reader to fill in the blanks, decide for themselves what the future might hold for the piece's characters, and in some cases to work out how we got to where we are within the story. Flash fiction may be short but it's not intended to be an easy read folks.
I'd heartily recommend any writer, especially a new writer, to write some flash fiction and hopefully have it published in reputable markets. I see way too many flabby short stories and novels, but cutting your teeth on flash fiction will give a writer a great grounding in word conservation, and consequently, in telling better stories. The same principles that apply to flash fiction should apply to longer works. My advice: as a writer, be hard on yourself and aim high with your sales. As a consequence of this, you will sell your earlier work less frequently, but you will work with a more professional tier of editors who may assist in further sharpening your work. Flash fiction, in this context, is like the first baby steps. Get it right and apply the same writing and editing skills, and you will soon be writing great stories at longer lengths and be working with a better calibre of editors. - Shane Jiraiya Cummings (2009)
Through the course of this article I have skimmed the surface of flash fiction in a pretty per functionary fashion. I don't have the room to expand on a few ideas briefly touched or introduce a few additional thoughts, but hopefully it's given the reader at least a sneaking interest in checking out flash fiction. The new form of short literature really is in it's infancy, where it grows from here will depend on the writers and publishers and their approach to the outbreak. Down Under we are in very good hands with a number of writers rising to the challenge and matching the very best the form has to offer. In coming months I'll revisit flash with a look at who's publishing Down Under and what they are looking for in new pieces. If you are very unlucky you'll even get some more of my own stuff, now there's something that needs a bullet to the brain.
Would love to hang around chatting some more but I have a helicopter to catch and still need to stock up on a few supplies and some ammunition. The barricades are in place but how much longer will mainstream audiences be able to hide behind them as the flash fiction plague continues to spread. To quote an REM song, "it's the end of the world as we know it, and I'm feeling fine".
I would like to thank a number of Authors for allowing excerpts from their fiction to be reproduced in the article or who took time out of their hectic
schedules to provide some well needed quotes.