Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Category Archives: flash fiction

How I write 4: the 6-word story

I have recently entered a competition on http://www.readwave.com to emulate Ernest Hemingway’s famous exercise in writing a story in 6 words.  One of the Readwave editors then asked me to become an editor for this format.

The first thing to get clear is that the object of this exercise is to write a fictional narrative – a story.  Many of those I have seen so far on the Readwave website are not stories.   They are not even bad stories: they are philosophical statements, or motivational slogans.  The basic rules of narrative fiction are bound to be squeezed when we are dealing with such an impoverished format, but they are still to be observed as closely as possible.  That is the point.

Of the competition entries which are at least fictional narratives, the next biggest group of failures are the ones which are completely generic.  “There was a man, he lived, and then he died,” – even when condensed into 6 words – will not do.  Pieces in this category tend to be the beginning of a story, or the end of a story, but not a whole story.   Hemingway’s classic: “For sale: baby shoes.  Never worn” leaves a great deal to the reader, as much of modern literature does, but it does not require the reader to re-write the whole story.  The story must engage the reader.  To do that, it needs either details, or a narrative twist, or both – probably both.  The twist in Hemingway’s comes in the last two words.

My approach when I began this exercise was to begin by trying to get as far away from Hemingway’s classic as possible.  Rather than something in the form of a personal ad, I began to think about whether it would be possible to squeeze more subject matter into the story by only using nouns.  This is what I came up with:

Milk. Beer. Whisky. Meths. Milk. Morphine.

As a first attempt, I was quite pleased with this, because it has enough detail to engage the reader, and it has a narrative arc which would be obvious to most readers.  The idea of selecting 6 nouns with a discontinuity between neighbouring words struck me as quite a powerful technique.  This is my next attempt:

Scissors. Stone. Paper.  Machete.  Shears.  Bin-bag.

Entrants to the Readwave competition may notice that you can cheat like mad because the format of the Readwave website gives you a title and a strap-line, neither of which is counted towards the 6 words.  Many of the weaker entries are trying to set the scene or explain the point of the story through the title and the strap-line.  Hemingway’s piece has no title and no strap-line, and so I have left those out of the examples in this article.

The only other one I have posted so far is a variation of the sub-title of my solo performance at the 2013 Ilkley Literature Festival.

Abandoned in woods.  Raised by lawyers.

“Woods” provides (just) enough detail to engage the reader, and the narrative twist is provided by substituting “lawyers” for “wolves”, which also triggers the reader’s cultural view of the legal profession.

One consolation of this format is that, like writing a villanelle, you at least know almost straight away whether you are on the right track.

5 Minute Fiction Christmas competition

I have won 1st prize in the 5 Minute Fiction Christmas competition.  My story will appear on the website on 1 December.



Book review: ‘Letting Go’ by Victoria Watson

Kindle edition:  £1.02, available from Amazon

Print length: 53 pages


‘Letting Go’ is a collection of eight short stories, or, to be more accurate, six short stories and two flash fictions.  The theme of the collection is “change”.  The reviews it has received so far on Amazon are the merest piffle.  Not only do I disagree with just about all of them, I would also say that most of the reviewers don’t get contemporary short fiction.  One of the main strands in the Amazon reviews is that the stories concern subject matter which is too harrowing or depressing.  That is a nonsensical and anachronistic thing to say about a contemporary collection.  I also reject the foolish notion that a story about a harrowing subject is harrowing to read.  A badly-written story about a harrowing subject probably will be harrowing or depressing, but a well-written story can be uplifting regardless of its subject matter – that is what art is all about, you idiots.  

I describe the stories in the order in which they appear in the collection.

Bye, Bye Baby is about a woman who has recently given birth.  The story is narrated by the woman herself.  The narrative voice is consistent and believable but I did not find the main character very likeable.  The narrator’s use of clichés such as ‘gentle giant’ was realistic but was an obstacle to any feelings of empathy I might have had for the character.  There is some good ‘showing, not telling’ in the story, but the ending did not surprise me.  This story showed some flair for writing and I thought that some craft had gone into it, but it did not achieve just that mixture of simplicity and guile which the best kind of short story has.  This next thing might sound trivial, but it also showed what I consider to be one of the collection’s recurring flaws: gross over-use of ellipsis (rows of full stops in the dialogue or narration, which are supposed to indicate that the speaker does not know what to say next).  I hate ellipsis.  I virtually never use it.  Using ellipsis to indicate that a character is perplexed or overwhelmed is like trying to show that a character is bored by writing a boring story. 

Cry Baby is about an alcoholic who is in denial.  The best thing about this story is the way the alcoholic narrator jumps from one problem to another without ever analysing or taking responsibility for any of them.  The ending, again, did not particularly startle me, but it was plausible and was well-supported by a satisfying and well-developed narrative.  This story is worth the cover price on its own.  All I would do to improve it is to take out a few semi-colons. 

I Should Have Seen It Coming is the most complex story in the collection and the one with the most unexpected twists.  It is about a female bank clerk who is made redundant and who tries giving tarot card readings to earn a little money.  There are some successfully-worked and clever ideas in it, but I wondered afterwards if it needed something to wrap it up in.  The one thing that is never dealt with is why the narrator is talking to the reader.  I freely admit that this is something I often deliberately ignore in my own writing, but this is quite a long story and, the longer a story is, the more conspicuous the lack of such a link is apt to become.  

Inside is a story which leaves the reader with a few unanswered questions.  Why was it set in the United States?  There seems to be no reason for this, other than the fact that firearms come into the plot.  The UK may have tighter gun laws than the USA but firearms do still exist here.  Also, the crucial part of the narrative journey – the epiphany – is missing.  The story read to me as an account of real life rather than a work of fiction: to paraphrase Alan Bennett’s History Boys, it was just one fucking thing after another.  

John: Home Tomorrow seems to be about self-deception and is a flash fiction rather than a short story.

Keeping Quiet began in a rambling manner similar to that of Inside, but improved as it went on.  It turned out to be a story about growing old.  It breaks one of the simplest rules of contemporary short fiction, which is that the narrative should cover the shortest possible time-span, preferably no longer than one day.  This story covers two or more generations.  I thought the breaking of the “get in and get out as quickly as possible” rule was done very successfully.  Breaking a convention and still producing a successful story is a sign of a top-class short story writer.  Again, it could be improved by removing all the semi-colons.

Maybe Baby is a flash fiction.  This exemplified two of the collection’s main themes: lack of communication in relationships and childbirth.  

The Waiting Game is a literary shaggy-dog story: a deliberate attempt to subvert the standard model of a short narrative and one which does not work in my opinion.   It also jarred with the rest of the collection.  

My conclusion is that the collection is definitely worth buying, but what Victoria Watson really needs is a top-class editor.  She clearly can create characters and situations.  But what she produces is sometimes unfinished, or missing a vital ingredient, or includes something that doesn’t need to be there.  I recently had my first experience of working with a qualified editor, and it was very chastening.  We went through three of my stories.  Each time, the editor began by asking me to explain what the story is about in my own words.  I now do this, out loud, for every short story I attempt to write.  If I can’t begin by explaining whose story it is, what happens, and why what happens at the end is significant, then I abandon the idea until another day, and move onto something else.

Target acquired

I think me and my step-dad had gone to Leeds to buy a Christmas present for my mum.   We were walking down the street near this really big building which had hardly any windows.  We heard deafening sirens and saw police cars and police vans lined up on both sides of the road.  There were no ambulances or fire engines: just police.   I couldn’t understand why the sirens were on, because the cars and vans weren’t even moving.  They were outside the building, near a thing that looked like a sentry box, and this enormous metal gate opened.  I didn’t see anybody touching it and so it must have been remote-controlled.   I’ve got a remote-controlled car and a remote-controlled boat which I play with at my dad’s house.

“What are all those police cars doing?” I asked my step-dad.

“They are escorting somebody to court.  It must be an important criminal.  Look at those armed guards.”  My step-dad was right.  Around the huge gate was a group of men in black uniforms who had machine guns.  I think they were Uzis.  Uzis are really cool: I’ve used ‘em in Call of Duty.  They’re miles better than shotguns.   The men were standing in two lines.   They were holding their guns, ready to fire.  I was going to shout, “Target acquired!” just to see what would happen, but my step-dad gets annoyed when I do things like that.  One of the men told us to stop.  My step-dad held my hand to stop me from moving around.

“Why are they escorting some-one?”

“For a trial.”

“What’s a tryle?”

“It means that somebody has been accused of a crime, and then they try to work out what happened, and show evidence to prove that the person they think did the crime actually did do it.”

Two women got out of a white police van with black windows.  There were some policemen with them who were women as well.  They had really short hair and truncheons and handcuffs and stab-vests on (like I have in Call of Duty) but you could tell they were women.

“Who are those women?” I asked my step-dad.  I didn’t mean the police-women: I meant the other two.

“They look like witnesses,” he said.    The women looked really scared.  They were looking all around them like people in my class do when Mrs Ward gets really angry.

“Jehovah’s Witnesses?”

“No,” said my step-dad (he was laughing his head off).  “Just witnesses.  That means that they know something or saw something that might help to prove that the person who has been accused of the crime is guilty.”

“Is that bad?”

“Some-one might try to stop them from giving evidence,” said my step-dad, “But the police are there to protect them.”

I don’t know why my step-dad said,  “Stop them from giving evidence” when he meant, “Kill them”.  They went inside the building.  I felt sorry for them.  Some-one might have shot them with a sniper rifle.  I’ve used one of those on Call of Duty.  It’s really easy to hit things with them.

Playing for Time

Our party consisted of myself, my friends Duncan and ‘Dusty’ Paul (both fellow students at the University of Liverpool) and a recent acquaintance whom we had met through left-wing splinter groups.  His name was Geoff and he was small, nervous and of mixed Irish and Lebanese origin.  We were walking near the junction of Croxteth Road and Lodge Lane in Liverpool.  The time was about one o’clock in the morning.  Earlier that night, we had attended a political meeting in the centre of the city.  Duncan happened to be wheeling his bicycle.

Our animated, left-wing conversation was interrupted by the arrival of a passing Scouser with very dilated pupils who mistakenly took the fact that Duncan was walking beside, rather than riding, his bicycle as an indication that some mishap had befallen.  When we had explained to the man’s satisfaction that no injury had occurred, and the bicycle was in full working order and, furthermore, that Duncan could get back on it at any moment of his choosing and constitute no danger either to himself or other road-users, he then taxed us on the subject of our conversation, the gist of which had been to do with a campaign to oppose the closure of a local hospital.  The man vigorously agreed that this was a worthy cause and said that he was a Marxist.

‘Because you have to have a fochun ‘ypothesis of economics,’ he vehemently assured us.

Geoff then engaged the man in lively conversation for a further fifteen minutes, and I for one was chilled to the bone and thoroughly bored by the time we were able to set off again as a group.

Only when we got several hundred yards away, well out of earshot of the man, did we discover from Geoff that all the time he had been convinced that the man was almost certainly armed and was about to attack us.  As he had talked to the stranger, he had felt that he was desperately trying to delay the moment of an inevitable death.


I decided to risk telling the first joke I had ever learnt, at the age of five, to my step-son, who was ten, and sitting at a table in an American-style restaurant at the time of my decision.   The joke as I remembered it went as follows.

This woman bought a new house, and she wanted a name for it, but she could not think of one.  And so she went out with the idea of calling the house after whatever phrase she heard first.  She heard some-one say “hairy bum” and so she called the house “Hairy Bum”.  Next, she gave birth to a son, and she had no idea what to call him.  And so she went out again with the same idea as before.  She heard some-one say “Willy” and so she called the son “Willy”.  Some time later, Willy got lost.  The woman searched everywhere but could not find him.  She went to the police station to report him as missing.  She said to the desk sergeant, “I have looked all over my Hairy Bum, but I can’t find my Willy.”

My step-son began to laugh at the first mention of the words “hairy bum”, and laughed more and more as the joke went on until, by the idiotically puerile punch-line, he was helpless and unable to speak.  This reaction somewhat surpassed my expectations.

When he had recovered himself, he asked a series of questions which indicated that his appreciation of the joke was very different from mine, and from what mine had been, even at the age of five.  He wanted to know what the woman had done next and, even more earnestly, he asked whether the little boy was all right in the end.  


My friend, Andrew, asked me when we were both fifteen if I  would be a witness to the wedding, a secret from his parents, of his sister and  her Algerian boyfriend.  He brushed aside  my objection that fifteen was too young to be a legal witness, and further  assured me that no formal dress would be required on the day.  ‘You can cover yourself in shit,’ he  said.  The couple having already been  joined in an Islamic wedding, we arrived at the registry office at the latest  possible moment, our lateness resulting from a long wait for the delivery of a  cheap suit for Abdel, the groom.  The  registrar and assistant registrar were nice, efficient people, but they  insisted that Andrew translate the words of the ceremony, line-by-line, from  English into French for Abdel’s benefit, and that it had to be Andrew, not his more educated sister, who did this.  My  hatred of French lessons at school was such that I could hardly express my  relief that they did not pick me for this task.  After we had left the 450-seat auditorium, we went to a local shopping-centre for a cup of coffee, which in those days still felt to Andrew and me like a very grown-up thing to do.

I was wrong about the outcome: I thought that the divorce would take two  years, but in fact they stayed together for the commendably long period of four  years.

Prompt: pregnant falconer

Mabel Braithwaite had been told at school that she was “educationally sub-normal”, in the days before it became more fashionable to say “borderline learning-difficulties”.  Her teachers had taken every opportunity to tell her that she would never amount to anything, and that she would “get into trouble” if she was not careful.  Mabel had never had the foggiest idea what “get into trouble” meant, unless it was something to do with leaving gates open, or being cheeky.  She grew up mostly in the company of herself, her pets, and the livestock on her parents’ farm.  She always did her best to avoid getting “into trouble”.

Mabel was twenty years old by the time she began to venture away from the farm on her own.  When she visited the Horbury Annual Show for the first time, it was the most exciting thing she had ever seen.  She bought some candy-floss.  She watched Punch and Judy (and thought what a good job it was that her mother and father were not there).  She watched a man with three beautiful birds of prey give a display in the main enclosure.  It was captivating: the sheen of their feathers, their cruel beaks and talons, their disdainful eyes, and the speed of their attack when they went for the lure as it whizzed round above the man’s head.  The man had said that a falcon can dive at three hundred miles per hour – faster than a racing car and much more graceful.

After the show, Mabel asked the man if she could learn about birds of prey.  The man’s name was Stuart.  He was nice.  Stuart invited Mabel to come and visit him, so that he could teach her about falconry.  Stuart said he would pick her up in his Land Rover.  Mabel was worried the first time that her mother and father met Stuart, but they seemed to like him.  Mabel started going to Stuart’s house often.  She learnt a lot.

After a few weeks, Mabel began to wonder why she felt sick so often.

Marlowe comes to Leeds

Chapeltown is a lonely place for a single man on a Tuesday night, especially in November when the weather isn’t exactly conducive to a carnival mood.  I strode into ‘Cantor’s Fish Bar’ with as near to an appearance of coolness as I could manage, which wasn’t much because the splinter of Chinese shrapnel I took in my left buttock while serving in Korea had suddenly woken up and started on a little jaunt.  Thanks, Mao.

A story from the bookmaker

My father, a retired lecturer fifty-eight years my senior and a devotee of horse racing, returned one day from his morning visit to the bookmaker with a strange story, which had been related to him by Mr Ali, the father of a school-friend of mine, and a man whose personal devotion to the Islamic faith did not exclude frequenting betting shops.  Mr Ali, whose religiosity seemed to be increasing at that time, had recently placed a bet – a dual forecast, to be precise – on two horses, namely God’s Chance and Carpenter’s Boy, having done so under a conviction that the Almighty had revealed His Will by means of the race card.  Obediently, he placed the bet, but it failed, albeit narrowly.  God’s Chance did indeed come first.  Carpenter’s Boy, however, turned out to be less than miraculous and only came third, but the result contained yet another revelation.  The horse which came second and hence ruined the dual forecast was called Lady of Leisure – which Mr Ali knew for certain – after the event –    represented Mary Magdalen.