Words for the Wounded: Commendation and Post Mortem
My flash-fiction, “Tony’s Phone”, reached the shortlist for the Words for the Wounded competition and was commended by the judges. That’s not quite getting published but I’m still pretty chuffed. I still haven’t decided whether it counts as a point on my rejections score board or not!*
A mea culpa at this point is that I don’t like flash fiction. Flash fiction is extremely brief storytelling; in this case 500 words. To me flash fiction has always felt like lazy man’s poetry. It’s like finishing the aperitif and then being brought the bill. The better it is, the more disappointed and hungry you are afterwards.
So what on earth was I doing writing the stuff? Well, first of all Words for the Wounded raises money for injured service personnel, which is a pretty good cause and one I feel personally attached to for obvious reasons. The staff all run the contest for free and they seem like pretty nice, enthusiastic people, which is always the sort of thing that makes you want to take part.
Secondly, I thought it would be a pretty good exercise. I wanted to see if I could manage a coherent beginning, middle and end with identifiable characters before I ran out of words. It was also a chance to experiment a little stylistically. Besides, often when I don’t like something it’s because I haven’t thought about it enough or I’m not doing it right.
So, as the story is done and the competition is over, I thought I’d share the story here and then talk a little bit about what I’ve learned and what I’d do differently if I had it over.
This is the story as sent to the competition:
Tony’s on his phone all the time; his girlfriend who still loves him, his Mam, his Uncle Bill, even some guilty industrialist promising him a job after (whatever “after” means). The best the rest of us get is long silences, then us explaining again how no, the doctors aren’t wrong, and no, Julie probably won’t change her mind, and no, it isn’t going to get better.
So when Danny comes up with his plan I’m all for it. ‘Course I do feel a bit guilty, given the way I bawled out the physio this morning, but how many different ways do you have to tell a man you won’t get up and you can’t walk and you’re never going to walk, and you’re just done, fixed, stuffed, and bloody sticking in bed? Anyway, screw it. What he don’t see won’t hurt him.
Twenty minutes later and I’m sat in my ‘chair on lookout while Tony’s in the heads. These days having a piss takes us all a bit longer, but Tony comes out early and then Danny just panics and shouts “leg it!”, and I’m about to say “very f’ing funny you c’nt” when he chucks me Tony’s phone like it’s a rugby ball. Tony’s a big lad for RAF so we run for it (hah hah).
Nothing like being chased to wake you up. My forearms burn but it feels good, hospital beds streaking past and Tony shouting “give me my F’ing phone!”, and I’m looking back to say something clever when Danny (clumsy f’er) crashes into poor old Captain Willard. I swerve, smack, straight into the reception door, but I’ve got some momentum, and I’m getting tipped out anyway, so up I hop and sort of wobble on my stupid bracer things through into reception. It f’ing hurts, and I’m sweating buckets, but the window is just there so I give it a push and pop the phone out. Job done.
I look up, and of course reception is full of staff and we’re about to get a bloody good telling-off, once we’ve stopped laughing, but everyone is just staring and even Tony’s stopped shouting. So I look proper and see it’s ten yards back to where I crashed the chair. Ten yards I’ve just walked.
Tony’s phone lies on the grass outside. Outside seems closer than it did before.
I think the story achieved my key objectives. It is a fully story, in which a conflict is resolved and a character develops. Writing it as if you are hearing the main character telling the story was good fun, and a chance to try out a style I don’t normally use.
So what was wrong with it?
The internal monologue – I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s wrong; the idea was to try and write something as if it was being spoken, and I spent a lot of time reading it out aloud until I felt I’d got it right. But I do think that it gets pretty dense at times and could do with being broken up into smaller paragraphs. I just really liked the idea of him talking faster and faster as the wheelchair speeds up. Didn’t quite work here, I feel; I needed to start him slower. Instead the story rushes through at one pace and it is easy to miss things.
“Danny’s Plan” – Too many characters is a real issue in short stories (and longer stories as well) – the more characters there are the more time the reader needs to figure out who everyone is. Introducing this other character, Danny, takes agency away from Tony and uses up space.
Why is he in there? Because this whole story starts from a memory of racing wheelchairs against a guy at Headley Court and getting told off by the staff. The first draft of this story was about 2000 words long and that should have been a warning that I needed to change the part of the plot I was focusing on.
“Twenty Minutes Later” – This unnecessary jump breaks the flow of the story. If you’ve only got 500 words, I think you probably need everything to be happening in one scene – the twenty minutes later bit, which is only there to serve the idea that Danny has explained the plan and then later they’ve done it, breaks the story into two scenes and is confusing.
“Outside seems closer than before.” – I really dithered over this line. In the end it should have been cut.
Mobility and inaccessibility are pretty key issues when you’re using a wheelchair. I remember spending 30 bloody minutes trying to find a way up onto a pavement on a university campus because there were no ramps – the three inch curb may as well have been a brick wall.
I wanted this story to be about overcoming these boundaries, but I was worried that the line about the phone being just outside was not enough to reflect the sudden change in the main characters perspective. Saying “outside seems closer than before” was a way of double checking the reader understood.
But in doing so I’ve shifted from showing to telling, and it patronises the reader. What I should have done is worked in something right at the beginning about how he couldn’t even get himself around the gardens, or something like that, then had a single line of him looking out.
Not Writing for my Audience – I read the previous winners from the competition the year before to get an idea for the sort of thing the judges like. Unsurprisingly, giving it is a combined flash fiction and poetry competition, the stuff that wins seems to be pretty lyrical with a view to expressing powerful sentiment.
Having seen what they liked, however, I then wrote something else. This story is not particularly lyrical or sentimental (apart from the horrible last line, and then in a bad way). I focussed more on character authenticity and plot, when I needed to write a story that gave the ideas and language more time to breathe.
My memories of being injured are mostly bad hospital smells and deeply unimpressed pretty nurses and a constantly growing sense of shame. It’s not something I feel particularly poetic about. I’m going to need to be a better writer before I can say anything poetic about it.
I think I got caught up in writing for myself rather than writing for my reader. I had a very particular story I wanted to tell and a way I wanted to tell it, which is fine, but if your reader wants to go and watch a screening of Three Colours Blue it’s no good showing them Star Wars. Or, in my case, Escape from LA Part 2 – the straight to video edition.
It was a pleasure to take part in this competition, the winners are well worth a read and I’m grateful to Words for the Wounded for creating this opportunity and their continuing good work.
Perhaps the most encouraging things I have taken away is that it feels like this process of reflecting on and studying my writing is improving my work.
I hope you enjoyed reading the story, and the shared process of critiquing it was interesting.
*Probably an article for another time, but I give myself a point every time a short story gets rejected and stick it on top of my work plan notes.