This is the only contest of the 2018 Second Annual Flash Fiction Rodeo at Carrot Ranch that I entered, but it was a great time, just like the first rodeo.
The first weekly contest was themed around dialogue and all the different ways to use it, not only through what people say, but perhaps what they don’t say. How they dodge questions, interrupt each other, make assumptions, and the picture they paint. The point of the contest, of course, was to tell a story in 99 words (no more, no less) using dialogue only. The second point was to use the photo prompt as a jumping-off place.
Judging blind is a wonderful thing, and in this case it highlighted a good dialogue writer, who took both first and second places. I got an honorable mention which thrilled me, being in the company of such talented writers. The winners are here; check them out!
MAN TO MAN
“You seem like a wise old thing. May I ask a question?”
“Well, I don’t know from wise, but I’m old enough. Ask away.”
“It’s just you’re the first I’ve come across where I feel comfortable asking. You look like you’ve seen a thing or two.”
“Or three, sure.”
“Don’t tell anyone, but I’m having woman trouble. We don’t move through life at the same pace.”
“Can’t she slow down? Can’t you speed up? Compromise?”
“We’ve tried. Nothing works.”
“Then maybe it’s time to move on.”
“I live in a giant terrarium! How far am I going to get?”
TUFF – The Ultimate Flash Fiction – is a brilliant way to write. Whether it’s an entire story, a chapter, or a scene, it expands upon the strict formats I typically follow, either the 99 word challenges held weekly at Carrot Ranch, or the Six Sentence Stories blog hop hosted by Ivy at Uncharted each week.
This final contest in the Flash Fiction Rodeo consisted of five submissions total. The first was raw writing, timed writing for five minutes, total unedited draft. The second was distillation of that draft to the standard 99 words. The third challenge was to pare that down further, to 59 words. Fourth was essentially a blurb, a recap in nine words. Then we were free to stretch our legs and fill the story out in 599 words.
It was amazing. I am well used to the 99-word challenge, participating most weeks. This constraint (and that of the Six Sentence Stories) requires me to really practice the craft, learn to be concise where I can so I can get wordy when I really need to, to paint the lushest picture I can with as few brushstrokes as possible. The next part, 59 words, was hard. An entire story arc in 59 words? But I did it. Nine words wasn’t hard at all. Then back up to 599 words, Paring things down, I’m used to; expanding things out, not so much. 599 words took some work. I loved every syllable of it.
And it wasn’t just the five different submissions, oh no. Part of the challenge was to follow the archetypal hero’s story. Charli explains the hero’s journey and elixir of transformation:
The call: the opening scene in which the hero is called out of the ordinary world.
The test: the story develops conflict through tests, challenges, temptations, allies and enemies.
The cave: the story leads to a crisis, the hero’s darkest hour in the abyss of ordeal.
The transformation: survival transforms the hero who begins the journey home.
The return: the hero returns to the ordinary world with the elixir of knowing one’s own transformation.
Throughout the Flash Fiction Rodeo I’d tried to expand my horizons, to stretch myself beyond my homeless heroine, Jane Doe, and the people she shares her world with. But with the TUFF contest, Jane was irresistible. What an opportunity to flesh out her entire story arc, even I don’t intend to publish it in its entirety! So Jane is back, thinly disguised as Marlie. I have never personally experienced homelessness but it loomed in the windshield of my life not too long ago, and it terrified me. It is an epidemic in this country that breaks my heart. I donate toward ending homelessness when I can. (Nickelsville, appearing in the 599-word finished product, is a real place, a tent city named in karma-esque fashion after a heartless Seattle mayor who made life even harder for the homeless than it already was.)
I didn’t win this one either, and I don’t care. I had a ball just being there, for this final contest and the other six I entered. The winners were fantastic — you can read them here, including the prizewinning “The Sun Shines on the Half-Moon Cafe” by Liz Husebye Hartman.
TUFF Five-Minute Free-Write (No laughing! It’s hard to expose the initial writing process. Yes, I know I started with “Once upon a time.” At least it wasn’t “It was a dark and stormy night.”)
Once upon a time, there was a woman who was a talented paralegal. She worked for an attorney in a small town, for more than 15 years. But times got hard, and she was laid off from her job. She’d seen it coming, and had been looking for something new for more than a year, with her boss’ blessing. But nothing new had come her way in that time, and she had no replacement job waiting when the ax finally fell.
Casting her net wider, she soon got an offer for a position in another state. Expand her horizons, move up to the Big City, a new environment, a liberal community rich in the arts…what could be more wonderful? She happily spent money to relocate two states away, happy knowing family was a short flight away, happy for new opportunities.
The job was horrid. Miserable. She’d landed in a viper’s nest of emotional abuse and bullying, working for what she surmised was a true narcissist. After two months, she made an appointment with a job recruiter in her new city. After another month, she’d had no success. Fired. Far from home. Alone.
And the spiral downward began.
She applied for job after job, with no success. She was able to do temp work from time to time, but that wasn’t enough to keep her in rent money. She was evicted from her apartment, escaping with only a few possessions and the beat up old truck she’d intended to replace with her glittering new job.
TUFF 99-Word Challenge
“You don’t know what it’s like,” the man snarls. Fetid breath, brown teeth. “All your stupid paperwork, all smug, with your nice house to go to, your fancy clothes. But you’re clueless.”
Marlie recoils as if slapped. “You have no idea what I know,” she snaps back. “I used to make six figures a year. From there to unemployed, to suicide attempt, to the streets, until I finally got this job. And I’m grateful.” Deep breath. You’re not supposed to be mean to the clients. “I’m sorry, okay? Now let’s finish these forms, get you a place to live.”
TUFF 59-Word Challenge
Janine sips coffee. “I don’t get it. You used to have it all. Luxury apartment, Benz…now you’re in that sweathole, surrounded by deadbeats all day.”
Marlie cradles her own cup. “Ten years, I couldn’t get something at my old level. But I make a difference now. I get by.” She sips. “Sometimes you don’t make hay; you make do.”
TUFF 9-Word Challenge
Psych. I can’t find where I saved what I wrote for the 9-word part. Let’s say it was “I get knocked down, but I get up again,” with a nod to Chumbawumba.
TUFF 599-Word Challenge
“We’ve got the facts and figures for you, ladies and gentlemen, but I’ve also got the personal experience.”
Marlie pauses, takes a deep breath and a sip of water, plunges ahead before she can lose her nerve. She’s never excelled at public speaking.
“Seven years ago, I was in the same position our clients are, the same position homeless people are in all over this country. Businesses were downsizing everywhere, people being laid off. They lost their homes, their retirements, everything, through no fault of their own. I’m one of them.
“I relocated across the country when I couldn’t find something at home. And then I lost the job here. And then I lost another. I lived off my savings, and I didn’t worry. I was confident in my skills and my experience. The mantra in America is that if you’re willing to work hard, you can have anything, be anything, isn’t it? But it’s not true.”
Another breath, another sip.
“Over the next ten years, I submitted half a million resumes and applications. I’ve worked with countless different recruiters. I’ve been awarded a few temporary contract positions, but nothing went permanent like they’d promised. The long-term contracts were canceled before they ran to the end. It only took a couple of times before I learned to live frugally even though I was making six figures, because I had no guarantees. None. Why didn’t anyone want me? Why couldn’t I get anyone to hire me permanently?” Marlie shrugs. “I still don’t know.
“I hit a real down four years ago, when I’d run completely out of money again, been turned down for another sure thing yet again, and I attempted suicide. This wasn’t a ‘cry for help.’ Four hundred pills—I meant it. But I wasn’t as secretive as I thought, because a friend figured it out from across the country, called the police. I was found and saved.” She laughs, short and dry. “I couldn’t figure out saved for what, though. Things only got worse from there.”
Marlie pauses again, looks around at the legislative committee, seated with their water bottles and laptops, paying attention, unbelievably enough, to what she’s saying. Her eyes light on her boss, who nods encouragingly.
“While I was in the hospital and rehab, I was evicted from my apartment. No job, no rent. My things were put into storage and I eventually lost all of them. A friend took me in for a little while but then she moved out of town and I was left with nowhere again. And that’s when I ended up on the streets.”
“I didn’t stop trying, though. I got a very little money leftover from Pell grants by going back to school. I sold homeless-benefit newspapers. I squatted in an empty house, until I moved to a tent in Nickelsville.”
More water, more air. Almost done. “Through all of this I kept applying, kept interviewing. Finally I landed this more or less permanent job, general office help at the homeless exchange. I earn a fifth of what I used to. I can’t even afford a whole apartment, but that’s okay, because I can’t furnish it, either.” Laughter. “I take the bus everywhere and I rent a single room from a nice family in Koreatown.
“It’s all okay. Sometimes you don’t make hay. You make do. I’m making do, and I’m making a difference to people who really need it, not just lining corporate America’s pockets. If the committee will approve our proposal, these funds can give real, solid help to people like me all over the state…”
A huge thank-you to Charli Mills, blogger extraordinaire at Carrot Ranch Literary Community and lead buckaroo of the Congress of Rough Writers. I had a blast.
Sherri Matthews led the Rodeo’s Contest #7, Murderous Musings, inspired by true crime stories, intrigued by the “why” behind it all. I am fond of true crime as well. I do believe that the right tumbling of dominoes could lead any of us to dastardly deeds and the workings of the mind and heart behind such things are fascinating to me. Contrary to what it’s easy to believe, most killers are not serial killers or mass murderers, dangerous to no one but their single victim, brewed up by a set of circumstances that are just so. According to both NPR and a Scripps Howard News Service review of FBI records, approximately one-third of murders in America go unsolved. I’ve often considered how easy it would be to get away with murder if I did it right, and I’m not even the smartest cookie on the sheet. One of my NaNoWriMo novel drafts was about exactly that. As much as most killings are one-time crimes of drunkenness or passion, it’s easy to ponder how many could be carefully planned, meticulously carried out, and successfully covered up.
This contest was simpler than some of the previous ones: “Write a flash fiction in 109 words, no more, no less and weave a murderous vibe through an every-day setting, either in thought or deed.”
Reading back over my own entry, I didn’t do much weaving, didn’t turn up quite enough heat. And that’s okay. Perhaps the main reason I write flash fiction, and participate in flash fiction linkups and blog hops, is to practice my own wordsmithing and to watch how others do it–watch and learn. Other writers let their murderous musings run free and took their characters far enough, and they were fantastic. I think I would do very well not to cross some of these characters, or their creators!
I am now of a mind to reread Arsenic and Old Lace.
“Why would I know where he is? We’ve been divorced fifteen years. That was a happy day, being rid of that abusive piece of –”
“I’m just following up, Mrs. Burg. I’ve got two clients he owes child support to. He’s disappeared.”
“It’s Ms., and it’s Smith. I dumped his name when I left the state to get away from him. Try asking your clients.”
I’m asking you. Any ideas?”
Macie’s shrug can almost be heard over the phone. “There’s old abandoned mine shafts all over the place down there. And if he’s in one, I hope one of those exes had the pleasure of putting him there.”
Contest #6 was the most challenging for me, the Bucking Bull Go-Round, embodying the Professional Bull Riders concept of what makes a good, high-scoring bucking bull ride:
“A contest of strength, balance, endurance, and effort between the world’s best bull riders and the world’s best bucking bulls. A rider must ride for 8 seconds with one hand in the bull rope and one in the air in order to earn a score. The clock starts when the bull’s shoulder or hip breaks the plane of the gate. It stops when the rider’s hand comes out of the rope – voluntarily or not.”
Without real bulls (thank all the gods there are!) the challenge shifted to writing. In real bull-riding, a rider’s arm may not touch himself, the bull, or the ground before the 8 seconds are up. For this challenge, no touching meant sticking to fiction; entries must be entirely fictional, with no first person narration. In real bull riding, the bull is scored for its difficulty to ride, including body rolls, bucking, and changes in direction; in this contest, the prompt words and the writer’s use of them to shift and change direction within the story while remaining in control were scored. Finally, style was judged, perhaps the most difficult. As lead buckaroo of this contest, D. Avery wrote: “Style is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Style is when the rider has mastered the moves of the bull and now is showing moves of her own. Style is when the whole ride looks easy and smooth.”
Stories are to be 107 words in long in eight sentences.
Stories are to include the two words drawn as your prompt (you may change the order of the words and they do not need to be adjacent).
Write a fictional story that involves facing a challenge or fear.
Stories are to be fiction only; no personal narrative, memoir, or non-fiction of any persuasion. Spur on a story!
Go where the prompts lead, or buck, or twist. Hang on to your hat!
Entrants put their names in for a bucking bull and were each given the name of an actual bull on the PBR circuit; I drew Sleeping Deacon. That’s where it got tough for me. How on earth to include both the words “sleeping” and “deacon” in one story about staring down fear? Why couldn’t I have got an easier bull, like Panic Attack or Prime Time? But then, it wouldn’t be a challenge. You take what’s hard, and you run with it the best you can.
“What do you mean, you’re not coming to church? It’s the Deacon, back in town, gonna light everyone’s fire.”
Alicia sets her mug down with a snap and snugs her bathrobe tighter. “That’s the issue. All I hear is damnation, eternal burning, we’re all sinners and always will be, and it follows me even when I’m sleeping, visions of never being good enough and burning forever, and that’s supposed to be comforting?”
“See, your problem is–”
“My problem is solved. I decided there’s no God, and now there’s no hellfire, no eternal damnation, and no early-morning preacher shouting at me, so I get to sleep late.”
Nope, didn’t win. But that’s okay. It was a real challenge, and damned if it wasn’t fun. The winners were wonderful, and you can read them here.
Still catching up with the Flash Fiction Rodeo over at Carrot Ranch – a series of eight different flash fiction events. Contest #4 was Scars.
Writer and event buckaroo Irene Waters gave the guidelines: “The topic – Scars – was inspired by a quote by Stephen King – whose book on writing should be read, I believe, by all aspiring writers. He wrote ‘Writers remember everything … especially the hurts. Strip a writer to the buff, point to the scars, and he’ll tell you the story of each small one. From the big ones you get novels. A little talent is a nice thing to have if you want to be a writer, but the only real requirement is the ability to remember the story of every scar.’ Entries were to show a remembered scar using any genre the writer chose in 198 words.”
I myself have come to believe this is true. As I write about Jane Doe and the cast of characters that make up the world she lives in, I draw on personal experience. I don’t limit it to that, though, because that would be a boring monologue about my own life, but it’s fun to take a small incident and blow it up, make it into a major event, personality trait, or obsession for various characters. It’s fun, and it’s cathartic, and sometimes good for a little revenge. You know what they say about writers – be nice to them, or they’ll put you in a book. It’s true that writing, or any art, heals.
When the winners were posted over on Carrot Ranch, I was thrilled to receive an honorable mention. The winners were fantastic, and the winner of this contest, D. Wallace Peach for “Galatea,” also took the All-Around Best of Show prize. You can read them here.
She hadn’t ended up homeless on purpose. Who does? A simple layoff, when the bubble burst in the two-thousand-oughts. She hadn’t been worried–at first. But it stretched, stuck. Unemployed or underemployed or temporarily employed for the next seven years. Her fault? Really? She’d tallied it one year: half a million applications and resume submissions. Thousands of call-backs, hundreds of referrals, dozens of interviews. But nothing permanent, nothing at her earning level, or simply nothing. A temporary job won’t get you an apartment. She’d felt cursed, marked, by the time she finally landed her present position three years ago.
And after three years, she’s still trying to unpack it. If her login fails on her company’s time card website, her heart pounds. A downward trend in the business for a month leads to sleepless nights about the company going under. FedEx loses her package with $24,000 worth of billable documents, and she’s convinced she’ll be blamed and fired. The slightest hiccup looms in nightmares as a security guard standing over her while she clears out her desk, then showing her the door to the street. Once you’ve landed on the street, you never forget how easy it was.
I won! I won! I couldn’t believe it, really. I don’t know how many entries there were, but I was thrilled to get the email announcing I’d won. This was my entry for the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Rodeo Contest #3 (I didn’t enter #2; its rules included that it had to be funny, and I’m generally best at humor when I’m being snarky, which didn’t feel right for a contest). I’m still amazed. The best part of the prize was a small collection of rocks from Lake Superior. I believe I’ve mentioned before that I love rocks. These will now be my special Writing Rocks.
The rules for this contest were to include a septolet as a magic spell, total word count 200-300. The Septolet is a poem consisting of seven lines containing fourteen words with a break in between the two parts. Both parts deal with the same thought and create a picture.
Jane pauses in the vestibule by the elevator outside the law firm doors. Beyond the window the sky looms gray over twenty-five stories of air filled with drizzle.
Another interview over. For better or worse.
No. For better, this time.
She examines the cuffs of her blouse, new-to-her from the thrift store, not frayed, nicely white. Her slacks bag a bit; she’s lost weight. She hopes nobody looked closely at her shoes. She showered right before coming here, in the college locker room after her fitness class, the shower being the only thing a college fitness class could possibly be useful for. Her core aches pleasantly. Her hair is clean and tidy; her makeup easily understated. Leftover Pell grant money and ten hours a week work-study don’t exactly take a girl to Sephora.
Her good-luck portfolio, holding paper copies of her résumé and her passport – a nice touch, along with her slender purse. This is not the look of a woman living in a tent. She hopes.
Homeless for not much longer, if she pulled this off. It felt like it went well, but then, it always feels like it went well. Every time for the last five years, it’s felt like it went well.
She composes her mind, focusing as she pulls a small cloth bag from her purse, and from that a generous pinch of chamomile buds. “I attract you, prosperity,” she whispers, sprinkling it in the soil of the potted polyscias outside the firm’s door. Into the dirt she tucks an aventurine crystal: “For good luck.” She closes her eyes and chants quietly, with force:
You need me.
“So mote it be,” she whispers, and calls the elevator.
I’m still thrilled and amazed that my entry actually won, especially after I read the other entries liked by the judges. They are wonderful, and you can read them here. Pure magic.
I mentioned a while back that I’d been writing, just not publishing, because I was entering a lot of events at the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Rodeo and judging was to be blind. Judging is in for Contest #1, led by Rough Writer Norah Colvin: When I grow up. Cast yourself back to six years of age, knowing what you do of life in the present; what would you want to be when you grow up and how would you go about achieving that goal? Tell us in 100 words, no more no less. It can be real or imaginary, serious or light-hearted. Extra points for comparing it to your childhood choice, if you remember it.
I wrote this piece over a month ago, but just last week, Dream Girl and I had a conversation. I was talking about all I want out of life, saying all I need is enough to meet our needs, and maybe a little extra for a treat once in a while, like a trip home or a road trip somewhere else once in a while, but what I want on a daily basis are health; a job that I like, that I’m good at, and that pays enough for us to live on; and good book and peace and quiet to read it in. She replied that I’ve really scaled back on the “all I want,” and she’s right. She can remember me saying I wanted to go back to school, I wanted to travel the world, I wanted a big house with a wraparound porch smack in the middle of wooded ten acres…oh, well. You get older, and things become less attainable. The odds of my fortunes changing so I can afford any of those things are slim and none. That’s just how it is. I’m all right with it.
WHEN I GROW UP
“I had a dream last night, Mommy.”
“It was me, only old like you. Talking to me.”
“I told me that I’m going to want to be something when I grow up. And I’m going to tell everybody, and they’ll say no. They’ll say get a job like in an office, so I can reti–reti–something. And insurance. Like that man was selling the other day?”
“Maybe. And old-me said I’m not ‘posed to listen to that. I’m supposed to do what I want. Because I’ll be happier.”
“You’re smarter than grownups?”
“That’s what old-me told me-me.”
I didn’t exactly incorporate what I wanted to be when I grew up. From when I was young, I wanted to entertain as others entertained me. I’d hear a song I liked and I wanted to sing it; I’d want to be able to act like so-and-so did in that movie I loved; I wanted to write something like Harriet the Spy or A Wrinkle in Time. Any masterful performance could inspire me. After I discovered the joy of making music, that morphed into a desire to be a session musician. My hero was sax man Bobby Keys, known mostly for his work with the Rolling Stones but who did so much more; I wanted to be just like him only without the heroin. (And if you like a rollicking autobiography, check his out: Every Night’s a Saturday Night. RIP, Bobby.) I let myself be talked out of it, though, by my blue-collar, practical, and absolutely well-meaning father, who advised me to let such foolishness be the stuff of dreams and secure my future with a “job I could retire from.” I still regret listening to him on that one.
My entry didn’t win, and that’s okay. I had fun just the same. It’s one thing to let your writing see the light of day; it’s a little bit harder to enter it where it will actually be judged on its merits. I’m glad I entered. The winning entries are wonderful; you can read them here.