Flash In Five

This month our Flash In Five comes from micro and flash fiction writer James Montgomery

Boys In Boxes (2023) (click title to read)

Idea: Satisfyingly, the idea for this flash started with the very final line: ‘our real lives are waiting, new and ours and unboxed’. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with that line for quite a while, but I knew there was something there, particularly in the use of the word ‘unboxed’. It intrigued me. Originally, I’d thought of doing some kind of story about dolls (?!) but – even before putting fingers to keyboard – I knew it lacked any kind of emotional resonance, at least for me. I hadn’t found the heart of the story. So, I left it alone for a while. A lot of my flashes start in this way; a phrase or collection of words that come to me when I’m doing anything but writing, which keeps me curious.

Development: One evening, I came across an article about those who had died from AIDS in New York in the late 1980s. Unclaimed bodies were sent to Hart Island to be buried in anonymity in a mass grave. The stigma and lifestyle associated with AIDS during this time meant many who died were estranged from their families. Furthermore, private burials were difficult to arrange, as many funeral directors refused to handle AIDS corpses or charged much higher fees. As a gay man, this broke me. Also, I couldn’t imagine how challenging it must have been coming to terms with your sexuality against this backdrop – although, having grown up in the 90s, I certainly experienced its aftereffects. The fact that so many victims were buried in mass graves, without even a coffin – or ‘box’… You can see how my brain started to join the dots together.

Editing: The decision to use first-person plural was fairly instant, as well as the title. I also quickly knew I wanted to use boxes as a repeating motif, to capture pivotal moments during the lives of these boys as they grow up and approach adulthood. I struggled with the first line to begin with, wanting to make the point that so many of these men were buried without even the dignity of a coffin, but it was a challenge to quickly orientate the reader and do all the things good flash should, plus include this kind of detail for the reader without any kind of context. There were also a couple of instances where I was trying to shoehorn the ‘box’ element in a tad too much. In an earlier form, that final sentence began, ‘We free our favourite cassette from its box’, but someone in my writing group pointed out that I needed to trust the reader more; they would recognise this motif even without it being explicitly stated. Also, it meant that the final ‘unboxed’ felt more earned when it arrived. My friend Sherry Morris provided excellent, thoughtful feedback, and my writing group Flash Corral helped further refine it.

Looking back, there were two editing tips that really helped me, which I can recommend. First of all – and we’ve all heard this one repeatedly – but I read it out loud again and again and again, which helped get the rhythm just right. Secondly, and this is a little more unusual, but I became obsessed with a certain pop song around the time when I was writing this story. I would have the song playing on repeat in the background while I worked on it. I’m not going to reveal which song it was, but the track has a yearnful quality to it, which absolutely complemented the tone of this piece. It also helped me find the voice and feel of this story when coming back to working on it. This may be a technique other writers find useful when editing?

Submitting: I’d submitted to the quarterly Reflex Fiction competition a couple of times and never had any joy. Then Reflex announced its winter 2022 round would be the final one, and I knew I needed to have this story ready to submit. Over time, I’ve learned that having a hard and fast deadline is the best motivator for getting anything finished.

Reflections: I feel there’s so much you can learn from just drafting a single story. With this one, I feel like I learned a lot about the power of a motif, the impact sound and rhythm can have, and how infusing sentences with double-meaning can do so much heavy-lifting. I’m still pleased with lines like, ‘as everyday as pouring the last remains of dust from a cereal box’, and what that implies in the context of the story, and these boys smoking a cigarette with ‘Tommy or Rico or Scott’, breathing in ‘how it smoulders – the hit, the rush…’ These kinds of dual layers make a story so much richer. It’s a special story for me and, as it stands, it’s probably the flash I’m most proud of.


James Montgomery lives in Stafford, England. He writes flash fiction and micro fiction. To date, his stories have appeared in Reflex Fiction,Gone Lawn, Maudlin House and elsewhere. He is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee. In 2021, he won the Best Micro Fiction Prize at the Retreat West Awards for ‘The Only Way I Can Make Sense of the Word ‘Recovery’ is to Smash it into Pieces’. He is a member of the Betas & Bludgers and Flash Corral writing groups.

Outside of writing, James works full-time for a leading and award-winning B2B marketing consultancy, directing energy, technology and engineering brands on their content marketing strategies. He has a CIM Diploma in Professional Marketing from the Oxford College of Marketing, an MA degree in Journalism from Staffordshire University, and a First Class BA degree in English Literature from Lancaster University.


Meet The Writer – Debbi Voisey

Today on our blog we have a Q & A with writer Debbi Voisey, who is a contributor to our final competition anthology, Swan Song and a member of the Retreat West team!

Can you tell us a little about your story in the Swan Song anthology?

I am fond of stories that are narrowed down to one location and that play out in real time, and I liked the idea of a disparate group of people being in this hospital waiting room, slowly revealing themselves and different, often surprising, ways they got to be there. Circumstances in life are rarely as they seem, and this story throws up some shocks and, I hope, challenges perception.

What draws you to entering writing contests?

The money! No, seriously, I do enjoy the buzz around contests, and it’s a great way of honing your skills and improving. Nothing like a deadline to get the creative wheels turning.

Can you share some of your favourite writing influences with us?

My tastes and loves are not classical like a lot of writers. The novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” by Stephen King was a major influence on me as a writer. That story stayed with me long after I read it and the ending was sublime. I have always admired and envied Stephen King’s talent for creating fathoms-deep characters you care about and that you have to know what happens to at all costs.

Where can we find out more about you and your writing?

I have a website at http://debbivoisey.co.uk where you can find details of all my work, my creative writing workshops, and mentoring. I also tweet a little bit @DublinWriter


BUY SWAN SONG HERE

Meet The Writer – Finnian Burnett

Today on our blog we have a Q & A with writer Finnian Burnett, who is a contributor to our final competition anthology, Swan Song

Can you tell us a little about your story in the Swan Song anthology?

I actually wrote this story in a Retreat West workshop. It sort of fell out in five minutes and I loved it but I felt it needed some work. I took it to Matt Kendrick’s Writing Beyond the Lightbulb class and he gave me some excellent feedback. I loved the final version and I knew I wanted to send it somewhere I care about. Since it started with RW, it made sense to send it there first.

What draws you to entering writing contests?

I like to do a very few contests during a year – mainly ones that publish longlists and shortlists in anthologies. There’s such a thrill in celebrating with other people, sharing the joy and sometimes commiseration that comes with contest announcements.

Can you share some of your favourite writing influences with us?

I thrive in writing workshops. Something about writing in a group spurs my creativity and some of my best stories have come while listening to the click of other people’s keyboards. Beyond that, I read a ton of short fiction. Two of my favorite short story writers are Neil Gaiman and N.K. Jemison. Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress is probably the greatest example of masterful POV in the first three stories in that collection.

Where can we find out more about you and your writing?

http://finnburnett.com



Reflections On National Writing Day 2023

It’s Gaynor here. I’ve been thinking a lot about writing and community recently. It’s Wednesday which – on twitter – used to be our regular #RetweetWest day, where we ask people to share any writing successes. Sometimes people share a publication, or a competition listing, and sometimes people would make little jokes like ‘well I opened my notebook and stared at it!’ or similar. I still run #RetweetWest day at the end of the month (although I’ve been that busy I may have forgotten last month 👀) but lately I’ve been thinking about this idea of shouting about ‘success.’

When I started writing, success – on any level – didn’t even cross my mind. Quick version of my life from say 2012 to 2017: I did a bit of writing, developed generalised anxiety disorder, stopped writing, had a baby, developed post-natal depression, started writing again. It’s so easy to write it like that, but of course it was one of the most difficult times in my life.

In late 2017, I remember looking at my toddler daughter and saying out loud ‘what can I do to make you proud of me?’ Having PND had made me feel like a failure (it shouldn’t have, but shame is a tricky beast to tame) and I just wanted to feel good at something. I had also very much lost myself in sleepless nights and A and E visits and endless washing, and all of the things that frequently come with having a small child. I didn’t know who I was. But maybe I could be a writer?

I think I enrolled in every writing course I could find from 2017 to 2018! Some suited me more than others, but what fundamentally pulled me to certain groups or teachers was … they were nice. No snobbery, no gatekeeping, no judgement. I’m a nice person anyway (honest) but I carried that ethos forward with me once I felt in a position to offer writing workshops, or feedback or support. I found a kindred spirit in Amanda and felt immediately at home at Retreat West, even more so once we started up our lovely community.

So yes, I do think it’s important to shout about those quantifiable successes, but I want to shout about so much more too. Well done to everyone who writes just because they want to, because it gives them pleasure, because it makes them feel something. Well done if you write every day or once a month or in any snippet of time you can find. Well done if you’re writing something just for you, or your family, or to find your way back to yourself.

I’m finding it increasingly hard not to compare my writing career with others at the moment so I need to stop and remember why I started it, and why I still do it. Success is very nice of course, but it’s the cherry on the cake, an idiom which – according to the definition I just hastily googled – means  something that makes something that is already good even better, or perfect ❤️


Website: www.jonzeywriter.com


Flash In Five

It’s Gaynor again, giving you a little insight into how one of my flash fiction stories came to be.

So Far Over The Rainbow The Rainbow Is A Fucking Dot (2020)

Content warning: infertility

Idea: I was intentionally writing for the (sadly now closed) Reflex contest and I thought a ‘breathless paragraph’ flash would suit the short word count. This is a type of flash I first heard about in a Kathy Fish workshop and it roughly means writing something with a big emotional impact in a really urgent way. There’s punctuation in my piece so I don’t know if it’s a true breathless paragraph example but, rules schmules. At one point I intended this flash to be part of my novella-in-flash, so if you’ve read it, this is Carys much further on in the second part of the book, but in the end it just didn’t fit. Every chapter in my NiF is either about sheep or eggs, so this stood out too much.

Development: I decided to focus on colour, clearly! And I didn’t think much beyond that. The end of 2019 was a pretty rough year personally and I think some of the frustration and anger I was holding inside boiled over into this piece, but in themes that weren’t particularly relevant to me. I often do this, hide something real inside a fictional story so that I’ve got it off my chest but it’s completely disguised in other issues. I didn’t do much story development, I find I never do with a breathless flash – it’s as if the story that tumbles out is the story that was meant to tumble out.

Editing:  I had plenty of colour in my original draft, but I had also given myself extra work by specifically using the word ‘rainbow’ in my title, so I thought I’d better go through and ensure the rainbow colours were in there. I don’t know if anyone even noticed to be honest! But as a flash writer you learn to take extra care with the specifics. I also recognise now that it’s a strong example of my ‘go full mushroom’ theory of flash. I wanted a story about colours so I needed to saturate it with colours. If you’re writing a flash about mushrooms, for example, go full mushroom, have mushroom imagery in every single sentence, I think flash is a form that can take it.

Submitting: Although I had my eye on Reflex for the story itself, I did have a wobble about the title. I remember asking some writer pals what they thought about swearing in a title and got mixed feedback. So then I thought, f**k it! And it stayed in. I was gobsmacked to be awarded second prize in the Reflex comp, after entering so many of their contests.

Reflections: I am much more critical of myself ethically now, but I feel okay about writing a story about infertility. Although I have a child now, it took a long time for that to happen, so I do feel the bitterness and anger isn’t just presumption – it reflects the truth of my experience. I know the narrator isn’t real (as I literally made them up) but part of me hopes they left that terrible husband and now have a lovely family somewhere else, far over the rainbow.


Gaynor Jones is the recipient of a 2020 Northern Writer’s Award from New Writing North for her short story collection, Girls Who Get Taken, and an ACE DYCP grant for her current project, The Wild Ones

She has won first prize in several short fiction competitions, including the Bath Flash Fiction Prize and the Mairtín Crawford Short Story Award, and has placed or been listed in others including the Bridport Prize and Aesthetica.

She loves stories that feature wayward teens, middle-aged women who’ve had enough, and the darker sides of suburban life. She is represented by Laura Williams at Greene & Heaton.

Website: www.jonzeywriter.com



Flash in Five

It’s Gaynor again, giving you a little insight into how one of my flash fiction stories came to be.

girl & pangolin (2020)

Idea: I used to write a LOT of animal-based flash fiction. I think I had a photo of a pangolin on my phone from a cute meme, and then I learned a little more about them and how they are endangered. I started thinking of a world where such animals had begun to flourish again, because the humans that had pretty much destroyed them had almost died out. So, a post-apocalyptic pangolin-based flash was my starting point (as you do).

Development: In 2020, my flash stories tended to follow a very easy formula: weird stuff written in simple ways. So this piece started as a 500 word piece told in that familiar way. I don’t have the early drafts but I know the opening will have been something like, “Life is better now there’s no adults, only us children and the animals. Why? Who knows why any of it happened, you might as well ask why the sun fell down, or why the ants still climb up onto the pangolin’s tongue.” Which I suppose is quite an interesting opening, but …

Editing:  I was BORED of myself, and of my writing style. I sent an early version to my small writing group and they all thought it was great, but this flash didn’t make me feel anything other than tedium. I thought, well, if humans have nearly died out, maybe language has died out with them, and then I completely stripped the language right back. One person had thought I was trying to aim for for a contemporary dialect, which I absolutely wasn’t, so I stripped it back even further until I felt my intention came through.

Submitting: I had my eye on Splonk as I admire the work of so many of the editors. I was absolutely delighted when I got my acceptance, and the note that came with it said my story was “flashy perfection” which made me grin from ear to ear.

Reflections: I really like this piece because it reflects a time I decided to shake things up. It can be easy to stick to a ‘formula’ when things are going well, but then creativity can become stagnant. I think the starkness of it could be off-putting and maybe there’s not as much emotional depth as I might like, but I’m happy I got to tell a whole circular story in so few words. I also adore the custom artwork created by Janice Leagra.


Gaynor Jones is the recipient of a 2020 Northern Writer’s Award from New Writing North for her short story collection, Girls Who Get Taken, and an ACE DYCP grant for her current project, The Wild Ones

She has won first prize in several short fiction competitions, including the Bath Flash Fiction Prize and the Mairtín Crawford Short Story Award, and has placed or been listed in others including the Bridport Prize and Aesthetica.

She loves stories that feature wayward teens, middle-aged women who’ve had enough, and the darker sides of suburban life. She is represented by Laura Williams at Greene & Heaton.

Website: www.jonzeywriter.com