Not one to mince words, short story scribe Raymond Carver had this advice for budding authors: "Get in, get out. Don't linger. Go on."
Carver's decree is even more pertinent when it comes to writing flash fiction--short stories ranging from six to 1,000 words. And with a 101-word cap, Boise Weekly's annual Fiction 101 is one of the flashiest out there.
For our 10th annual contest, local lit luminaries Mitch Wieland, Alan Heathcock, Laura Delaney, Rick Ardinger and Michael Faison thumbed through 131 submissions. This year's winners and judge's picks, which you can get acquainted with on Page 11, will all read their prose at a special event this First Thursday at 7 p.m. at Rediscovered Bookshop.
According to Heathcock--author of the short story collection Volt, which was recently selected as a GQ magazine Best Book of 2011--a great short story should be just as arresting as a longer novel.
"The craft elements that make a 101-word story successful is the same stuff that makes a 20-page story successful," said Heathcock.
And while every good story needs a few basic plot elements--setting, characters, conflict--it also needs something intangible that brings the tale to life.
"The story has to somehow transcend words, that is, I have to forget that I'm actually reading something and be brought into an empathetic experience that is not mine," said Heathcock.
For this year's first-place winner, Sarah Masterson, the key to breathing life into a character is to place them in a fantastical setting, but zero in on the very miniscule, human details.
"I like to create something really big--just like an image--and then focus on these really small features and elements or either people or the scenery or whatever it might be," said Masterson. "Some of my favorite writers write that way. ... They make these really unbelievable situations seem really human."
Masterson's winning story, Big, centers on the first date between a woman in a pink party dress and the strongest man in the world.
"It was kind of dreamy and mysterious, this couple being together," remembered Heathcock. "But more than anything, it brought me into this dream in a way that I also absolutely believed it--it felt real to me, authentic."
Masterson, who recently moved back to Boise from San Francisco, decided to enter Fiction 101 after attending a reading by Heathcock, Wieland and Tony Doerr at Rediscovered Bookshop in November.
"It was actually one of the biggest inspirations I've had in a long time--not only how great Boise writers are, but the amount of people that were in that space, the questions that were asked. ... I was inspired and I decided to go home and write something," said Masterson.
But winnowing her story down to 101 words was much trickier than she had thought.
"It felt like working on a song or a poem where, if I took out one word or wanted to change one image, the whole cadence of the piece would just completely change--sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse."
Luke Felt, this year's second-place winner, echoed those sentiments:
"Writing at 101 words is a big challenge; it's also really helpful because it teaches you how to trim the fat off of a story and narrow it down to just the core parts. ... I think it's amazing that a story that's only 101 words can have such a substantial emotional impact," said Felt.
Felt, a mortgage company bookkeeper and Boise State English major, won first place in 2010 for his story The Swells. A few years back, Felt formed a Fiction 101 critique group with two of this year's other finalists--third-place winner Jennifer Sanders Peterson and honorable mention author Greg Likins.
"We try to get together a month or so before the contest and workshop our stories and pass around general ideas and that kind of thing," said Felt.
Felt's piece, A Fog, portrays a family's awkward dinner during a mayfly infestation.
"I'm from a small town in Eastern Idaho called St. Anthony, and this actually happens there. Annually, these bugs called mayflies breed in the town and they stay there for a few days and they literally cover everything," said Felt. "The way that a darkness falls on a town in that way and then disappears so quickly was really a powerful image. ... It's indicative of grief or having some kind of a terrible experience come over your family and then disappear."
Likins, a library employee who won third place in 2006 for Life With You Ain't Worth the Money, enters Fiction 101 every year to stay connected with the local writing community.
"It's kind of a calling card into the local writing community," said Likins. "I've never been part of an MFA program, but at the time when I moved here when I first started entering the contest, I didn't know anyone in the writing community, that was really the only forum that I saw. ... But in the years since, a lot has happened in Boise, it's really built up into a much better artistic community and a lot more opportunities for writers."
Heathcock couldn't agree more.
"I've been interviewed several times about what's been happening in Idaho," he said. "What makes me happy is that the rest of the country is starting to notice what we've known for several years now."