There is a branch of fiction writing that is getting more and more popular: Flash Fiction. These are complete stories written to a predetermined length. This length can be quite short (6 words) or quite long (600 words), but most Flash Fiction is 100 words – exactly, no more, no less (well, sometimes less).
Lately I’ve been exploring the challenges of writing a complete story to such a short length. I’ve submitted a few to contests, and even submitted one for professional publication (but I can’t show that one here).
I grew up in Canada with the firm belief that borders were sacrosanct. You couldn?t treat them lightly. Then I moved to Africa? Namibia, specifically. My teaching post was about 10 kilometres south of the Angolan border.
The first friday that I was there, I got taken out drinking by my co-workers. We went to a shebeen (bar) in the middle of a forest, about halfway between our school and the Angolan border. There we met up with a larger group, including one very friendly giant of a man (I?ve lost his name now, sorry). On his arm was a scar from a recent cut of some kind, a very long and thin cut, as if from a knife.
He offered to smuggle me into the country to see where his friend had been killed by Angolan police
He told me that he stole cars for a living and that he could get one for me if I wanted.
Then he started on a long story about how his friend had died recently, just across the border. He offered to smuggle me into the country to see where his friend had been killed by Angolan police — right then. The border between Angola and Namibia isn’t open at night, and even if it was, my passport was safely locked away somewhere else.
He wasn’t going to listen to my objections, telling me that he would smuggle me across the border and not to worry. At the time this challenged my sense of propriety on a number of levels. You can?t just walk across a border. Also, he was pretty drunk – they all were. I was desperately holding on to sobriety so that I could drive us all home, if i could figure out where that was.
I guess I objected enough, as eventually he got bored of the topic and moved on. Later, I did get us all home, but not without some ?fun? as the passengers kept grabbing the stick shift, trying to change gears on me.
A few months later I learned just how insecure the border between those two countries actually is. There?s a river called Kunene that runs through Angola and into Namibia at a scenic waterfall called Ruacana. The river then takes a sharp right and becomes the boarder between the two countries.
You walk through a hole in a small fence, and voila, you?re in another country.
The base of the waterfall, the Namibia side of the border, is infested with crocodiles. At the top of the falls there are some nice swimming holes. This is the Angola side. You walk through a hole in a small fence, and voila, you?re in another country. They even put a nice marker there for you to see. We all took our pictures at the marker, mine is above.
I think we went there four or five times in my two years in Namibia, not once worrying about entering Angola without our passports or permission. Further west, it?s not uncommon for people to wander across the border, as families often live divided by it. There may or may not be a police officer sitting at a table under a tree. If there is, you?re expected to check in, otherwise, carry on.
Near the end of my time in Namibia, i did some white water rafting on the lower Kunene River (crocs don?t live near rapids). Our hosts thought it?d be a cool experience for us to have lunch on the Angolan side. We were all ?phfft, been there.? They were disappointed.
Oddly enough, even though I was still hung up on borders when I arrived in Namibia, I?d crossed into a country ?illegally? once before. I walked into North Korea. It?s not hard to do, and relatively safe, as long as you do it properly. Panmunjom is a small, deserted town on the border between what is now North and South Korea. During the Korean War, it was the location of a number of talks that lead to the signing of a ceasefire agreement (but not a peace treaty, it must be noted).
The building where these talks were held was arranged so that half of it is in each country. The main negotiating room is likewise set up, with small flags on the table demarcating the border between these two less-than-friendly nations. I?ve been in that room, and I?ve walked around that table, putting me in North Korea for perhaps a grand total of two minutes.
Later in my travels around southern Africa, I spent some time in Zimbabwe, visiting the beautiful Victoria Falls. Like the Kunene river, the falls starts in one country (Zambia) and ends in another (Zimbabwe). It also then becomes the border between the two. In this case, the river has cut a deep gorge and crossing it means walking a large bridge. So we did. At the other side, there?s a very typical guard hut and gate, but no guard.
So we walked in?
? About 20 metres before a guard opened the door of an outhouse, shouting at us to get back to the gate and wait for him. So we walked back, and kept walking across the bridge back to the Zim side.
The funny thing is, while considering writing this, I remembered that years ago I?d seen a tv show called TV Nation, and in it, Michael Moore had demonstrated just how insecure the Canada/USA border was by having a hockey team roller blade across the border. I?d forgotten about that until just now. Fortunately YouTube remembers it, and you can watch the clip below.
Whether you love him or hate him, John Scalzi is incredibly influential and is probably the highest-paid science fiction writer today. in 2015, Scalzi signed a ten-year, 13 book, $3.4 million deal with Tor publishing.
Me? I?m an unpublished writer. At this point in my career, I like to refer to myself as a semi-pro writer. I?ve sold a few small stories, but nothing big enough to a SFWA qualifying market, so I?m not in the pro leagues, and even beyond that, am certainly far from making a living from my writing.
Part of my learning process is to deconstruct successful novels to see what I can learn from them. It makes sense to look at John Scalzi?s first book, Old Man?s War.
The plot is pretty simple: Man joins army, goes through basic training, fights a few battles and gets promoted. There are some twists on this premise: the man is 75 years old when he enlists; his essence is transferred into a younger, modified clone of himself; and along the way he meets a clone of his dead wife. They kind of fall in love.
Now, as a writer trying to learn the craft, I?ve found that there are ?universal rules? to story writing, but I had a hard time applying them to this story. Everyone agrees that a story needs an ?inciting incident,? an event that propels the story and character forward, and that incident must happen early in the story. While revising my current work in progress (or WiP), I?ve been trimming chapters form the front of the story because that incident occurred in chapter 7 – far too late.
But Old Man?s War doesn?t actually have a problem. Not here anyway. Later, there?s the kill-or-be-killed of combat, but that?s much later.
That same website says that ?Stories are about solving problems,? but again, Old Man?s War isn?t. There is a need for soldiers to fight a war, but it?s a war that doesn?t impact Earth, where the recruits are from. It only impacts the colonies, which are secretive, exclusionary, and treat Earth with some contempt. It?s NOT the protagonist?s war!
Again, Narrative First claims that stories are about ?The two central objective characters, Protagonist and Antagonist, battle it out until approximately one-quarter of a way into a story? But Old Man?s War has no Antagonist. It has a series of aliens that offer some not insurmountable threat to humanity, but never gravely. And each case, we are introduced to them as they engage in combat – there is no real overarching threat.
2. IT?S ALL ABOUT THE GOAL The events and turning points in your story must all grow out of your hero?s desire. Without an outer motivation for your protagonist ? a clear, visible objective your hero is desperate to achieve ? your story can?t move forward.? But in this story, the hero doesn?t really have a goal. Not at first. He?s just old, bored and ready for a change.
That same site claims this as it?s 7th point: ?Whatever outer motivation drives your hero, she shouldn?t begin pursuing that goal immediately. She must get acclimated to her new situation, must figure out what?s going on or where she fits in, until what has been a fairly broad or undefined desire comes into focus.? This actually defines the first two thirds of old Man?s War. The first part (called Part I) is before bootcamp. Part II is bootcamp. Part III is combat, but not a lot of it. There is a grand battle of sorts, and there are some high stakes (steal a piece of equipment from an enemy). But it seems too easy to have any real tension.
So what can I, an aspiring novelist in the same genre, learn from this first book by the current Stephen King of said genre?
That?s hard to say. I liked the story, but I felt that the book was a bit flat in the telling. It broke a lot of the rules of storytelling without offering a spectacular payoff for that transgression. Scalzi can write character amazingly well, something that I strive for, and so reading him definitely has that as a positive (I knew that already. I loved Red Shirts) but in this case, I didn?t think he told a great story. Yet, it got published, became famous and launched his career. It left me wondering what the publisher saw in the story that I didn?t.
I wondered if I was alone in my feelings. I found a bunch of reviews on GoodReads that echoed my thoughts. I thought this one said it particularly well. So what did I miss? WHat didn’t I learn from this story that I should have? Because now I’m questioning removing thre chapters from my WiP to get to an inciting incident quicker at the expense of my characters.