Fiction in a flash

A few months ago I submitted a piece of flash fiction that I’d written to a competition run by Fish Publishing, in Ireland. I’d heard about the competition through Writers Victoria, which regularly advises its members of opportunities, competitions and courses.

For some reason the little ad about the competition grabbed my attention, even though I’d never written any flash fiction before. It’s a format that intrigues me: how can you tell a meaningful story in a couple of paragraphs?

I have to confess that I haven’t read much flash fiction. I’m a fan of a number of writers on Twitter who write fiction in the space of a tweet (yes, stories in 160 characters or less!), but I’m not familiar with any writers of flash fiction and not even sure where I’d find their work.

In any case, the competition must have been in the back of my mind when a phrase popped into my head: “he looked into her eyes”. It was just a phrase but I immediately wondered if I could turn it into something more. I sat down to write and before I knew it I’d written a story. As I wrote I was conscious that I was trying to capture a character and a relationship, an entire life together in fact, in less than a page. I guess this is the challenge of flash fiction: to write something brief but complete in 300 words or less.

I showed the piece to a friend who gave me some constructive criticism, some of which I took on board, some of which I didn’t – all of which was useful. I submitted my story to Fish Publishing and waited.

Two days ago they wrote to say that my little story – He Looked Into Her Eyes – had made the longlist. If you’re not familiar with the concept, first the competition judges narrow down the submissions to a longlist, then a shortlist, then the runners up and the winners. There were 1250 submissions of flash fiction and 278 made the longlist. I was thrilled to be on it.

I’m definitely interested in exploring the flash format further and seeing what else I can do with it. I’m also really looking forward to reading the Fish Anthology 2014 when it comes out to see what other people did with their 300 words.

Meanwhile, I thought I’d share my story with you.

He Looked Into Her Eyes

He looked into her eyes, squeezed her hand, thought of all the times he’d held her hand, held her in his arms, cupped her breasts, held her to him, the feeling of her bare skin on his, the way they’d explored each other hungrily at first – then tenderly, the times they’d made love, fought, laughed together, sat quietly together, disciplined the children together, played cards with friends, went camping, broke down on the 39 degree public holiday in the middle of nowhere with nothing open around them and no mobile phones to call for assistance – and how she’d laughed, the different ways she laughed, the different ways she cried, the way her voice got higher when she got excited or angry, the way she narrowed her eyes at him when he made excuses for not taking out the rubbish or mowing the lawn, how she’d reacted when he told her she snored – disbelieving at first and then laughing heartily, how they’d playfully teased each other as their bodies began to change, how they’d talked about growing old together when they first met, the day they first met, the day he met her parents, the day she met his mother, the first day he left her alone with the twins and how desperately she’d handed them over to him when he’d walked in the door, the times he’d leaned on her for support and how grateful he’d felt that he had her strength to rely on –

He thought of all of these things as he leaned over her, tenderly brushed the hair out of her face, wiped away the lone tear that had fallen from his cheek onto hers, kissed her passionately and then – only then – nodded to the doctor, who switched off the machine.

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Better late than never (or, Why some people are always late)

illustration of the White Rabbit from Disney's Alice in Wonderland

It’s no secret that I’m not a morning person. I once advised a colleague’s assistant never to book morning meetings with me. “So nothing before 9:30?” she asked. “Better make it 10:30 just to be safe,” I responded. She thought I was kidding. I wasn’t.

I’m also very often running late. Not to everything, but to a lot of things. Most people who know me have learnt to expect that I’ll be late and sometimes even rely on it.

I once read that people who are late value their own time more than other people’s. I was mortified that people might think that of me because the truth is I’ve run late for things all my life. I was known as a dawdler before I was five years old. My family joked that I was born on a “slow planet” where everyone did everything slowly. I’m sure it’s genetic. I don’t know who I got the gene from but there has to be at least one ancestor back there who was also notoriously late to things.

I’ve learnt through observation that the brain of the late-comer is wired very differently to the on-timer. Add not being a morning person to the mix and you have a lethal combination which will kill your chances of being on time to anything, especially if it’s in the first half of the day.

Here are my key findings:

Late-comers are incredibly inept at time management – but only in regards to how long it will take to get somewhere. I’m great at managing my time at work, but absolutely crap at working out when to leave the house in order to be somewhere on time. If it takes half an hour to drive into the city, for example, I’ll leave with exactly half an hour to go. I nearly always forget to add 5-10 minutes to find a parking spot, and another five minutes to walk from there to the meeting spot. Oh and even if I adjust my driving time to account for traffic, I’ll nearly always get it wrong and not leave enough time.

We late-comers also understand time very differently. For on-time folk, there’s early, on time and late. Pretty simple, really. For the late-comers, there are myriad shades of grey, especially where ‘late’ is concerned.

For example, for those of us who elect to start work around 9:30 (notice I said “around” and not “by”), when the majority of people are at work by 9:00, there’s a huge difference between arriving at work at 9:55 as opposed to 10:05, the former being nowhere near as ‘bad’ as the latter. But to the on-time crowd, there is absolutely no difference whatsoever. To them you’re just late. Again. In fact, they consider your 9:30 start time as late, so really, you’re kidding yourself if you think they appreciate the fact you got in before 10:00am.

Oh and late-comers also think that if we arrive somewhere two minutes ahead of schedule – or even one minute, for that matter – that constitutes being ‘early’. But on-time folk consider anything less than 15 minutes ahead of schedule to be ‘on time’. You can’t win with these people.

Notwithstanding the above, late-comers do not understand the concept of being early. It just doesn’t make any sense to us. If you have to be somewhere at a certain time, why on earth would you get there any earlier than you had to? What would that achieve?

Many years ago my family had a standard get-together for lunch at my parents’ place at 1:00pm on a Saturday. It would take me half an hour to drive there. One Saturday it was 12:20 and I found myself with ten minutes to spare before I had to leave for lunch so I decided to replace a lightbulb in my kitchen. As I removed the glass light-fitting it slipped from my fingers and smashed onto the tiles, flinging glass splinters everywhere. By the time I had cleaned it up I was running about 30 minutes late.

The point is, when I told the story to my family they asked me, “Why did you have to find something to do at 12:20? Why couldn’t you just leave early?”

I swear to you the thought never occurred to me. My brain just doesn’t function like that.

Late-comers actually believe that the universe sabotages their chances of being on-time. Or to put it another way, we’re not great at taking responsibility for our lateness. You see, we’re constantly thwarted by events outside our control. The train was late and the next one was cancelled, the driver in front of me did 20 under the speed limit, I got a call I had to take just before leaving the house. You get the picture.

I once temped with a woman named Ann, who on finding out my star-sign said to me, “Oh my – aren’t you dramatic?! And you’re always late – but you’ve always got a thousand excuses because it’s never your fault – oh noooooooo….” As she rolled her eyes, I laughed so hard that I literally fell off my chair and onto the floor.

On-timers really don’t have much time for our excuses. The whole time we’re explaining about the unexpected roadworks (or whatever) they’re thinking, Yes but I managed to get here on time. Why couldn’t you??

Not only do on-time folk resent our excuses, they resent us for not being punished for our perpetual lateness. Surely it can’t be fair, they reason, that they make an effort to be on time while the late-comers just waltz in having kept others waiting and yet still get away with it?

Of course, late-comers are punished. Society runs to the beat of the on-timer’s drum. We’re all measured by that standard and those of us who don’t make the grade are judged accordingly.

It’s for this reason I’m using what I’ve learnt to improve myself. I’m working on my time management ineptitude, and taking responsibility for my lateness. You see it’s never too late to learn something new: in fact, better late than never.