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.