For many writers, November is a chance to participate in National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo.
I’m Gary Leeming, and it’s a challenge I’ve enjoyed, and completed, in the past, but in recent years I’ve struggled to make it past the first few days. Work, family, getting a bad cold; these are all things that can put you behind of that dreaded word count.
So, when fellow Manchester Speculative Fiction writer Chris Ovenden suggested a flash fiction challenge, I thought it might be worth a try. I might give up after five days, but at least I’d have five stories to show for it.
Now, we’re thirty days through the affectionately named No More Than A Thousand Word ‘vember (or NoMoThaThWov) and we have made it. We have been sharing our stories with each other on the group Discord server, offering encouragement and sympathy as we inched our way through the days. Increasingly, it would feel like all my ideas were gone, but, sitting down in front of the computer, something would always happen. It might only be fifty words (in one case, six words) but it was always something.
Halfway through, Chris interviewed me so we could share our experience so far. Now it’s my turn to interview Chris, to share what we have done, anything we have learned, and as a cheaper alternative to professional therapy.
Following the interview about the experience of writing thirty stories in as many days, Chris has shared one of his new flash fiction pieces that was written as a part of this challenge.
And We’re Done!
GL: I guess we’ll start with the big question: How does it feel to be done?
CDO: Good! Though, I’m also a little sad that it’s over. It was a really fun challenge, but it was difficult to fit it around work and life at times. Often I would find myself with OneNote open on my phone at 11:45pm, wondering what I was going to write. So there is a certain amount of relief that the pressure is off. But, I did always write something and, by and large, I made myself laugh in the process. So I’m going to miss having a short story completed at the end of each day to share with family and friends.
GL: I know you normally write flash fiction, but were you not tempted to try writing a novel instead?
CDO: No way! Perhaps because my job means I have very limited free time, I really enjoy reading and writing short pieces. I basically want a story I can consume in one or two bites. My worry with a novel is that I’ll get bogged down in whether certain plot points do or don’t work or how they’ll resolve. And if I’ve committed to writing a novel, I’d end up being hard on myself if I lost my way and gave up. Flash is so freeing in that sense: If you have one bad day or one bad story – who cares? You move onto the next one and start afresh.
GL: Have you done anything like this before?
CDO: When I was at university as a postgraduate student, I tried to write a mini-saga per day for a year. That ended up being a mini-saga every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I then started trying to illustrate them as well (as you can tell, I was very engaged in my studies!). I can’t remember how far I got through the year, but I definitely didn’t make it all the way. You can find them at https://vonbandersnatch.wordpress.com/
GL: It may be my lack of experience, but a lot of my flash fiction isn’t really flash, it’s more like a sketch of a larger story. What do you think makes a good flash fiction story?
CDO: To me, good flash fiction opens with a bang, closes with a punch, and leaves you with a lasting thought. It should definitely feel like a complete story, though. In fact, I think the best flash stories you come away feeling like you don’t need to hear any more. Whether or not we realize it, I think we all recognize a good flash story because we tell them about our own lives all the time. e.g.:
‘I thought I recognized my friend at the Post Office, so I sneaked up behind him and smacked his bum. Turns out it wasn’t him! I had to wait in line with him for fifteen minutes because the person at the till was arguing about whether their package was a “large parcel”. He let me go in front of him, though, which was nice.’
The difference with writing flash is that you get to dream up the situation. You also get to give your character an arc and some sort of closure (which real life rarely provides!).
GL: For both of us, it’s been an opportunity to experiment with different styles and genres. What have you enjoyed doing that you didn’t expect to write?
CDO: Before this challenge, I aimed for about the thousand-word mark with my flash fiction. Perhaps because of a lack of time and sleep, a lot of the pieces I wrote this month have been in the 100-300 word range. They’ve turned out to be the ones I’ve enjoyed the most. They’re certainly the ones that made me laugh the most, writing them.
GL: What has been the hardest thing about completing the challenge?
CDO: There were a few times where I had an idea for a story but couldn’t get it onto the page. In then end, I just forced my way through and out the other side and ended up with something. That was tough, because I usually edit pieces as I go, but it was a good learning experience to just push through on those occasions. I now know I can do that when I feel stuck. Also, even though some of those stories didn’t end up working out as well as I’d have liked, it made me realise the idea didn’t work, or gave me some thoughts about how to go back and make it work better. So, whatever happened I feel like I got some closure on the ideas.
GL: What do you plan to do next with the stories you have written?
CDO: I’ll aim to tidy them up and send off to a few online magazines. Otherwise, they may become a virtual stocking filler this Christmas.
GL: Would you do it again?
CDO: Absolutely! My plan for next year is to keep all the stories in the very short range and try to make an anthology at the end. (Hopefully some MSF members will join me!)
GL: What advice would you give to someone wanting to do this challenge?
CDO: Don’t stress about ideas, they will come to you. Don’t worry about each story not being perfect, that isn’t the point. Enjoy writing every day, even if the stories aren’t always amazing. Read your stories aloud to your family and friends. We are in this to be story-tellers, so make sure you tell your stories!
GL: And that’s it. Two writers, thirty days and sixty stories. Well done, Chris, it’s been a great experience.
CDO: Thanks, Gary! It’s been a pleasure!
Please read on for one of Chris’ flash stories from this NoMoThaThWov. And if it inspires you to try your own hand at writing some flash fiction, or if your tastes run a little longer, contact us to join in the group.
Flash Fiction Story: Clever Girl
LINDA FROM ACCOUNTING has a pet velociraptor called Mrs Peppermint.
‘I don’t tell guys about her until we’ve been on a few dates,’ she says as she opens her front door. ‘Otherwise they just ask me out so they can meet her, and that is not good for my self-esteem.’ She snorts a little when she laughs. There’s a flapping noise from down the hall and a clatter like a lamp falling over.
I guess Linda doesn’t know that Tom and I are friends. He’d told me about meeting Mrs Peppermint after he hooked up with Linda at the Christmas party. I was thirteen when Jurassic Park came out, so naturally I had to see her for myself.
We go through into the kitchen and a dark shape darts behind the breakfast bar. I feel my stomach lurch. I knew it wasn’t going to be as big as the dinosaurs in the movie, but I didn’t expect it to be this big, either.
Linda drops her bag and coat.
‘Peppy. Peppy. Come here, baby.’
There’s a scrabbling on the tiles behind the breakfast bar, then Mrs Peppermint leaps onto the counter. She resembles a giant chicken, the size and weight of a border collie but with the presence of a Doberman. Her body is covered in earthy brown feathers, save for an iridescent throat and crest with bright blue tips. A long tail with a fork at its end sways behind her. She puffs up her plumage and honks.
‘Hello, baby.’ Linda leans forward and nuzzles Mrs Peppermint.
The dinosaur flicks her head to one side and watches me with one amber eye. ‘Do you want to pet her?’ Linda asks. ‘She doesn’t bite.’
I find that very hard to believe, but I can’t really refuse. I reach out and scratch the back of Mrs Peppermint’s head. Her feather’s bristle and I tense, expecting a snap of jaws. But then she softens. Her feathers flatten against her body and she bobs her head up and down like a parrot. Linda snorts again. It’s actually kind of endearing.
We settle down on the sofa with a bottle of wine and Linda tells me about how she adopted Mrs Peppermint. As it gets later, she invites me to stay for dinner, and I accept. I even let Mrs Peppermint curl up in my lap whilst Linda cooks. When Linda goes to set the table, I ask her if she needs any help.
‘Would you mind finishing off the pasta?’ she calls back. ‘It just needs the egg going in.’
I go to the linguine bubbling on the hob in its creamy white sauce. A large blue egg sits under a lamp in a wicker basket next to the wine rack. A duck egg, I guess. Fancy. I crack it on the edge of the pan.
There’s a high-pitched screech behind me and something slams into my upper back. Mrs Peppermint clings to my shoulder, her talons slicing through my cardigan, feathered arms flapping against the sides of my head.
Linda rushes back in and wrestles the dinosaur off me. When she sees the egg, she screeches too.
‘I think you’d better go,’ she yells.
I nod and hurry out the door.
I’ve not been able to look at a Carbonara since.