Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday Flashback: Title Of A Recursive Story

Through the end of the year, Kurt is re-running some of his favorite Friday Flash Fiction stories. If you like this one, it--and a hundred similar stories--can be purchased on Kindle in a new collection.

Title Of A Recursive Story
Word Count: 586
Published: 9/14/12

This is the opening paragraph of a recursive story. This paragraph will establish the world of the story and try to set expectations. This paragraph will also introduce the hero of the story and his or her goals. In this story, the story itself is the hero. And the story has one wish: to reach a satisfying conclusion.

This opening section of the story will show the hero working towards its goal of reaching a satisfying conclusion. Things appear to be going well. The story has reached nearly one hundred words and seems on track to meet its goal. But complications will soon arise.

This paragraph introduces a complication: this story is essentially built around a single joke. The story knows this, but it isn’t worried, or, at least, it isn’t very worried. However, it’s becoming increasingly apparent to the reader that this one joke, this already-thin premise, is not enough to sustain the narrative for very long. The story worries that it might resort to cliches or devolve into stream-of-consciousness. Despair looms on the horizon.

But, in this paragraph, the story surges forward. It develops variations for the single joke to give it some extra legs. It calls back earlier constructs of the joke and breaks the fourth wall. These tricks seem to work. The reader no longer notices that the premise is stale. Until the story calls attention to itself. Like it just did.

In this paragraph the story is beginning to lose hope. It’s not even halfway through, but it’s already running out of material. It starts using awkward similes like a freshman creative writing student. It appeals to the author, begging for insight, for guidance, or for the author to take a share in the blame if the story should fail. Woe, the story is terrified of its own failure. How can it ever reach a satisfying end?

But the story, in this paragraph, gathers itself up and keeps marching on, replacing awkward similes with slightly-less-noticeable awkward metaphors. The end is in sight, and the story has found even new variations on its one joke. In fact, it no longer thinks of its joke as a single joke. The story has begun to think of recursive meta-humor as a class of joke, a collection. And it’s almost at two-thirds of its projected length. A satisfying conclusion is just around the corner.

But, in this paragraph, the story has a horrible realization. It doesn’t know how it will end. How can it draw to a satisfactory conclusion? It doesn’t know how to stop. To stop will mean it will cease to be a story. The story has hit a low point. It wallows in unnecessarily bleak language, while the icy tendrils of hyperbole claw away at its soul.

Then, in this next paragraph, a ray of hope emerges. It is the author, inserting himself into his own story to help the story tie itself together. “Story,” says the author, “you’ve always had the power to bring yourself to an end, so I will give you something else: a fitting, memorable quote to end a story with.” The story was overjoyed. It had run its course. All it had to do now was stop.

And so, with a final paragraph, the story, your story, my story, its own story, found the poetic words to conclude. Its work done, the story drew itself to a close.

“A fitting, memorable quote to end a story with.” —The Author

Recursive meta-humor is one of my favorite things in the world. It's a shame you can really only do this once. I planned a similar story that would follow a hero named "Ally Gory" but it never got off the ground. But this still works surprisingly well for me. The prose is a wee bit clunkier than I'd like, but it does everything I wanted it to do. Good for it.

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Friday, July 18, 2014

Friday Flashback: The Hungry Pixie

Through the end of the year, Kurt is re-running some of his favorite Friday Flash Fiction stories. If you like this one, it--and a hundred similar stories--can be purchased on Kindle in a new collection.


The Hungry Pixie
Word Count: 600
Published: 2/14/14

It’s June. I’m walking in the woods. I’m lost. That’s how these things start.

I’m leaning on a tree wondering if I’ll ever see my home again, or my parents, or my dog, or my kid sister, or my bike. I miss home. That’s when I hear the noise. It sounds like a voice, but also like water trickling through leaves. I follow it.

“Please…” says the voice. “So hungry...”

“Hello?” I call out. I brush aside some leaves and I see a tiny woman. Well, not a human woman. She has greenish skin and tiny translucent wings. She glows, ever so softly.

“Please,” she says. Her voice is thin and reedy.

“Hello,” I say. “Are you all right?”

“Hungry,” she moans.

“Are you a pixie?” I ask. I hope she is. Pixies grant wishes, sometimes, if you can catch them. And I got one!

“Hungry,” she says again.

“You’re hungry?” I ask. “You want food?”

She nods. And coughs.

I rummage through my pockets to see what I’ve got. Not much. I find half of a candy bar. It’s partly melted and sticking to what’s left of the the ragged wrapper. I open it clumsily and place it next to the pixie. She manages to get a handful of dried caramel into her mouth.

She smiles. And coughs. Her teeth look awfully sharp. I wonder if all pixies have sharp teeth.

“Do you grant wishes?” I ask.

She shrugs. “Need food,” she says. “For my sisters.”

I don’t understand how a pixie who grants wishes could run out of food. Maybe they can only grant wishes for humans. If she gives me enough wishes, maybe I can wish her some food. That’d be the nice thing to do.

“You can have the whole bar,” I say.

“Help me take it back,” she says.

“Sure,” I say. I pick her up. “What’s your name?”

“Daffodil.”

“Do you grant wishes?”

She nods.

“How many if I give you my candy bar?”

“Two,” she says.

“Just two? Why not three?”

She just shrugs.

“Oh, fine,” I say. That’s a shame. I’ll need one to get home—you have to plan ahead like that, pixies are crafty. But I can use the other for something nice for me. Maybe a new racing bike. Or a submarine. Or a jet plane. We’ll have to see.

Daffodil pulls out a knife. It’s small but it looks sharp. She uses it to point into the forest. “That way,” she says.

I walk, humming to myself, thinking about what I’ll use my second wish for. It’s a shame she didn’t offer me three. I’d have used it to wish for pixie food for her and her sisters.

After about fifteen minutes and more pointing, we enter a clearing. There’s a tree stump set out like a table. I see pixies everywhere. Gosh, there’s a whole swarm of them. Yep, they all have sharp teeth. Who’d have guessed?

“I found food,” says Daffodil, licking her lips.

“Hello,” I say.

Two of them fly behind me.

I’m still trying to decide what I want for my second wish.

There’s a searing pain across the back of my heels. I hear a wet snap and all of a sudden I can’t control my feet. I slide down to the ground in a heap. I’m screaming. I want to go home. It hurts, oh god, it hurts so much. There’s blood in the grass. Mine. More pain. I want to go home.

I see knives.

And teeth.

“Put up your wings, girls,” says someone. “Don’t want to get blood on them.”

As with most of my year-two posts, this one was a chance to stretch myself. I'd been reading through the Song of Ice and Fire books and loved the way George R. R. Martin foreshadowed horror, so that's what I was really trying to accomplish here. Because it's not enough to show your reader something horrible. You really have to torture them with the threat of it for a while first.

I had a couple of tools at my disposal. The first, obviously, is the reveal that the pixie has sharp teeth about a third of the way through. The reader should know from the title that the pixie is hungry, so this combination of facts should trigger most people to be a wee bit uneasy about where the story is going. Normally a character would think this as well, which would deflate the situation somewhat. But I don't want to deflate the situation, so instead I focus on how the narrator isn't very clever. The second tool is tone. The sentences are short and staccato, except for a few instances where they're rambly. It's also written in the present tense, so the whole things feels lurching and immediate.

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Friday, July 11, 2014

Friday Flashback: The Sentence

Through the end of the year, Kurt is re-running some of his favorite Friday Flash Fiction stories. If you like this one, it--and a hundred similar stories--can be purchased on Kindle in a new collection.

The Sentence
Word Count: 598

“James Humphrey Harvey—having been found guilty of two counts of second-degree murder, three counts of attempted murder, three counts of fraud, half a count of first-degree manslaughter, twelve counts of criminal negligence contributing to a homicide, six counts of depraved indifference contributing to a homicide, one count of aggravating a baboon (also contributing to a homicide) one count of grand larceny, one count of stealing a government vehicle, one count of wrongfully imprisoning a government official, one count of wrongfully imprisoning a government official’s nice lady-friend, sixty-seven counts of impersonating a licensed zookeeper, three counts of aggravated assault, two counts of grand theft auto, the strangest count of forgery I’ve ever heard of in all my years on the bench, and one count of attempting to defraud the Federal Government—you are hereby sentenced to serve a term of not less than sixty years, and not longer than your natural life, in a facility to be determined by the department of corrections; additionally, you will be required to make restitution to the families of Jake Corman, all of the residents of Willoughby Lane, the families of the owners of the Laurel Park Petting Zoo, the City Council of Westphalia, the mayor, that nice young lady who was traveling with the mayor—also, I personally think you owe an apology to the mother of that poor baboon—as well as all of the members of the VFW Men’s Chorus who donated their time and their pensions to your ludicrous scheme and, since the court gives me some leeway in how restitution is to be made, I decree that you will spend at least twenty days of your prison sentence wearing that damned chicken suit that you tried to convince Mr. Corman was waterproof, and I want you to go door to door to every resident of Westphalia—including the residents of Willoughby Lane, once their houses are rebuilt—and get down on your knees and beg them to forgive you for your greed, your reckless endangerment of human and animal life, and your irrevocable, unpardonable, inexcusable stupidity with regards to the proper care and storage of incendiary devices, and, while I am the first to admit that no one—no one—will ever forget little Jakey’s sixth birthday party or the high speed limo chase that preceded it, there was no real expectation that you would produce a baboon, no indication that anyone thought you were serious or sober when you made that promise, and every reason to think that Jake would have forgiven you for not producing a baboon and even if that weren’t the case, acquiring one at gunpoint seems like a poorly thought-out plan, as does transporting it in a commandeered motorcade, and even if you had made it to Mexico that evening, I’m certain that the Mexican authorities would have had no problem extraditing you back to the United States to stand trial, especially if they bothered to spend ten minutes in a room with you first; furthermore, and I mean this with all sincerity, if I ever hear about you going within a hundred feet of a child’s birthday party—presence of a baboon notwithstanding—I will drive to a state with loose gun ownership restrictions, buy the biggest firearm I can afford, track you down, shoot you once in the head and once in the chest, and then turn myself in to face whatever consequences are coming to me and, frankly, the world will be a far, far safer and a far, far better place for it.”

Carolyn had been editing my pieces for a few months when I pitched this to her: a six-hundred word story that consisted of a single sentence. Her response was "Why would you do that to me?" So, of course, I had to go through with it.

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Friday, July 4, 2014

Friday Flashback: 1.762 Seconds

Through the end of the year, Kurt is re-running some of his favorite Friday Flash Fiction stories. If you like this one, it can be purchased on Kindle in a new short story collection.

1.762 Seconds
Word Count: 590
Published: 4/26/13

I open my eyes. Cocktail weenies float around me in the air, wrapped in little crescent rolls. Pigs in blankets floating, bouncing off the windows and the dash. The lid must have come off the tray when the car went airborne. So, that’s weird.

Something tells me I’m not going to make it to the party on time. My car has rotated about a third of the way over. From its trajectory, I think it’ll land on its head for sure—assuming it doesn’t hit that tree first. But… I’m guessing it’s gonna hit the tree.

I’d dozed off, I guess. I opened my eyes when the car hit the curb, but it was too late and I was going too fast. There’s nothing I can do about it. At this point, I’m just along for the ride, rotating in space in a hurtling juggernaut that’s inching me closer and closer towards death or a substantial hospital stay.

Personally, I’m hoping for the hospital stay but, as previously noted, I don’t have a whole lot of say in this.

I’m sideways. I feel weightless. Like I don’t exist in the world. I’ve escaped its grasp as it tries to hold me down on the ground. I’m free, in a way. I wonder if this is what being born feels like. Or dying. Or traveling in space. Or falling. That tree is getting bigger. So, yeah, I suppose this is what dying feels like, in a way.

Time doesn’t really slow down, you know. It only feels like it. Your brain measures time in the number of memories it makes. When you’re in distress, you make a lot of memories. So when you remember that time, it feels like time has slowed down. But when you’re actually living it, you’re not genuinely thinking any faster. So, while it feels to me like this ordeal is taking a long-ass time, it only feels that way in retrospect.

Noodle that for a while.

Three-quarters of the way around, or so. Maybe I won’t land upside-down. Maybe I’ll keep spinning, land on the side and roll. I’m still weightless. God, that’s weird. The tree is getting bigger, despite being almost completely inverted. Roots climbing to the sky like branches, and vice versa. Pigs in blankets everywhere.

Do you want to know why I fell asleep at the wheel? I stayed up late watching a movie on TBS and then had to wake up early for a conference call. Went home to grab the pigs in blankets and now this. Stupid.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

I suppose regrets are, at this point, a waste of time—time being something that is in imminently short supply for me. But what else can I do but lament? I can’t even move my arms fast enough to brace myself. They’re flailing like empty sausage skins. Might as well be boneless.

That tree is getting bigger and bigger, spinning round and round. Soon it will fill up the windshield. Soon it will be the only thing I can see, filling my entire field of vision. Then the car will collapse around it, and all of my forward momentum will instantaneously stop. My chest will be crushed by the seatbelt and steering column. Twisted metal. Shattered glass. Soon.

Why bother being afraid. Fear of death is a luxury for people with time. And, frankly, I don’t think I’m going to walk away from this.

Closer.

Spinning.

Larger.

Fractions of seconds adding up to an eternity.

Oh my god…

This was one of my earliest attempts at stylistic experimentation. I was happy with the result, but didn't think it was all that remarkable. Readers responded more positively, which was a pleasant surprise. In any creative endeavor the norm is that you like your creation far more than the audience does, but once in a while that flips on you. It's an indication that your work is becoming less precious to you and, by extension, a bit more workmanlike.

This story started with a simple enough premise: the thoughts of a man who realizes he is about to die. It relies on the notion that time slows down when you're afraid--which isn't strictly true, but convenient for the narrative. It's telling that I had to work that into the narrative: a sure sign that I was running short and needed to pad it.

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