As previously discussed, writing is hard, but I feel a responsibility as an editor to keep myself at the sharp end of it, my own skills to better empathise with and advise my clients.
I picked out an evocative image to inspire me (those big bullies up there), and three key words I’d have to find a way to use: Compound, Phase, and Caustic.
I’ve set no maximum word limit but my intention is always to keep things as tight as possible. What’s emerged this month is a tense urban slice of action I call Shush.
I’ll give you the story first, and then go on to talk a little bit about my creative process and some of the choices that I made along the way.
The pain of the piercing seared the boy’s septum and stabbed up behind his eyes, bringing tears of exultation. He’d been saving up for months, busking at corners, doing odd jobs for the oldies (whatever turned a penny or two), then stuffing his coins away safe. He never really thought he’d get here. The chances of stashing so much without some sly-boy spotting and slotting it all were thin as dreams, but it pleased his bitter soul to try, and it gave him something else to think about in the compound at night, counting blessings in the breaths between sobs.
His stammer made any introduction tricky, but the boy’s name was Sherman— Sherman Schiff. Weber’s gang called him Shush in mockery. Well, he could answer to one word just as easily as any other. That’s all a name was after all: wind rattling in a voice box. The long needle was removed and the precious brass ring slipped swiftly through in its place, adjusted with some delicacy. The woman murmured her instructions for aftercare, infection, pain management and the like, but he paid her little heed. His head was too full of the new future he saw stretching out before him. She stepped back, head bobbing from side to side then, satisfied, she presented him with a mirror. He snarled in practise. Perfekt.
He drew a few covert looks from passers-by as he wove through town, making the most of his freedom, and every glance made him grin. His posture, ever-apologetic in stoop and step, straightened as he walked; his shoulders pulled back; his chest expanded with confidence, and for the first time in his life he started seeking eye-contact. Disapproval was returned by some people, shock by others. One fellow displayed actual fear. Over what? A brass ring? He gave it a loving stroke with his forefinger. It was… transformative.
He should have returned with the groceries by now, of course. Mutti Mechtilde would be fuming. It was an abuse of her trust. She would doubtless send her hunde out to drag him back soon. Let them try. He was feeling bullish today. Savage in liberation. There was a little coin left, and the sun was shining brightly. He dared to envisage iced cream and a long journey hidden away on a cargo train.
A word was spat out some distance back. His swagger faltered then he turned a corner and ran. Others had sought singularity before him, and every single one had been drained, dragged back to blithe conformity. A mere phase (Mutti assured the herd), nothing more. Sherman swung his head at the sound of pursuit, caught Weber’s unholy grin as he pounded the pavement behind. A crack of pain struck Sherman’s shin and his world tumbled over the thrice-damned bicycle stand. He lay gaping up into the blue skies, birds wheeling on high while his dreams of freedom faded. Weber drove a foot into Sherman’s ribs as his two lieutenants caught up, looming into view on either side: Klaus with his wall-eyed stare and greasy quiff, Frederich whose eyes always burned with caustic glee.
To them this was all just a game, a grand hunt for which they expected fine cuts and sisterly gratitude. They were too dull to recognise their own prison or the disdain the three turncoats were held in. For Sherman, this may as well be death. The kicking came in from all sides now and might have snapped ribs, pierced lungs if not for his startling bellow. The eruption came from deep inside and all but tore Sherman’s throat, such was its intensity. He had always been a quiet boy, the meekest of mendicants, but not now, not anymore. The brutes peered down at him and for the first time spied his nose ring. Frederich pointed and laughed. Weber squinted, then poked at it, tearing the scab free.
‘Was ist das, Shush?’ Weber sneered. ‘Bist du jetzt ein Stier? Ist der kleine Bulle wütend?’
Sherman’s arm snapped up, his fingers clamped around Weber’s throat and with a strength neither one could quite believe, pulled himself up by it. Then he slammed the scumpire back against the wall, pushing him up till he tottered on his toes. Shouts of outrage sounded all around, but the world beyond them faded to insignificance. All that remained was Sherman Schiff, Gerhardt Weber and the crackling inches of air between.
‘Wie heiβe ich?’ he bellowed, pink spittle spattering. ‘Wie heiβe ich?!’
Weber’s struggles weakened. The blows on Sherman’s back felt like puffs of air. He squeezed harder, heard a crack, and the insolent wind rattled away into silence.
So clearly I didn’t take the image literally this time, though I did use a bit of bovine language to tie things together.
The main thing that grabbed me about the picture was its twin vibes of intimidation and defiance. Almost punk, in their bullish nature (ahem) which led me on to the nose ring and a sense that my protagonist might be looking to break out of a system. It was a beginning anyway, and allowed me to use the word Compound in a culty context. I like it when the Key words have multiple meanings. It lends a certain flexibility. Other possibilities included talking in terms of chemicals, multi-faceted eyes, or difficulties made worse by circumstances.
Anyway, the first paragraph flew out, including that odd little turns of phrase: ‘without some sly-boy spotting and slotting it’ which I felt added it a kind of Clockwork Orange sensibility. It was not a story of the here and now, but some alternate dystopian present. At this point I was fully going for a bizarro tale, having the main character be a literal cow punk, but the words flowed in a different direction.
By the time I wrote ‘the breaths between screams’ (later changed to ‘sobs’) I envisaged a character with whom we were led to sympathise with, but who turned out to be a murderer, systematically killing those who had abused him. I imagined that the nose ring represented an unveiling for him, stepping up from being a hidden threat to an overt one, announcing to the world that he was no longer a person to be fucked with (hence the snarl in the mirror). The latter part of that concept stayed with me in terms of his psychology, but I shied away from making him an active evil. Why? Well, the more I unspoiled his sense of repression, the more I *identified with him.
That was a line I did not want to cross glibly, though I knew how the story would end the moment I wrote the words ‘wind rattling in a voicebox.’
The Germanic aspect came from something rather banal. When I first selected and saved the cow image I had to give it a name. I’d already caught the bullying vibe from it and I decided the beefy fuckers were Nazis. None of that is in the story of course, but ‘cow Nazis’ was the stop-gap title of the story until I figured out what it was actually about. The names and lines of Deutsche dialogue are a remnant of that mental short-hand, nothing more.
In terms of plot, the rest unspoiled quite naturally with the chase, the beating, and the killing. The writing of it was less easy than it sounds, and the reason for that was that the tone kept going askew. I think I was still caught up in questions of whether Sherman expected to return to the compound to face his tormentors or if he was planning on making his escape permanent. I veered into thoughts of trying to explain why he would be hanging around long enough to get his nose pierced before escaping, or clarifying that he was in an intermediate place – close enough for the dogs to catch him but far enough away that he felt safe to change his image. Suffice it to say, I junked it. Had it been a longer piece, I’d have gone into it more but this is Flash Fiction. It needs to be self-contained and punchy.
We’re not seeking perfection here, just evocative writing and an ever-increasing grasp of the craft. I hope you find these interesting and illuminating, and I would love to see your own pieces, perhaps hear a bit about your process too if you’re inclined.
*(Most evident in the change of posture and the challenging eye-contact, which you may recognise from The bewilderboy.
My next Flash Fiction challenge will be out on 24th May. I already have the 3 key words, thanks to Peter Coleborn. They are Mercian, Rain God and Laughter. The image I’ll use is below. I hope you’ll join me.
If you’d like to look back at my earlier Flash Fiction challenges – and perhaps have a go yourself – you can find them all here.
A Little Bit of Flash remains one of my favourite episodes of Scrolls, the podcast I used to run with some dearly beloved friends.
In addition to my written editing services, I also offer Performed Reading and Audio Editing. Drop me a line if you’d like to discuss your project