Carrot Ranch January 18, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes boots. Whose boots are they, where do they go and what is their significance? Go where the prompt leads.
Every week, without fail, a post and a prompt, along with a beautiful original photograph, are provided by Charli Mills of Carrot Ranch, always with the signature 99-word requirement, no more, no less. Charli claims it’s a brain science thing, that word count restraint, that it is a satisfying challenge because it puts our brains where they like to be- in solvable problem solving mode. It is indeed a fun puzzle that I have come to enjoy working out every week.
I also have enjoyed, with some regularity, the one word prompts from Zoe at Unchartered Recording Life Under the Radar. The constraints here are in sentence count, not words. In these six sentence stories the length and structure of my sentences may be quite different than if I were writing a 99-word flash. I might develop a story a bit more, but not always. Sometimes, but rarely, I have combined and written one piece that filled the bill for both prompts, but I will not do that just for the sake of doing it, not if the result is too forced and contrived.
I only share this because of where the Carrot Ranch prompt led this week.
Boots. I saw the prompt in one of my wakings in the night, didn’t think about it for too long, went back to sleep. Then in the real morning when I had to wake up completely and get myself to work, well, I had the story idea. My 99-word flash would feature two characters from previously written six sentence stories. I wrote the following quite quickly before heading out the door:
“Excuse me boys”, Marge said to the guys, abruptly putting her beer down, “But I see a man”, and headed straight across the floor to where Earnest Biggs sat alone at the corner table, watching the band.The first thing she had noticed was his boots, just like hers, leather logger. The second thing was his hands; she immediately got to imagining how a hand like that on the small of her back would make the small of her back feel less large.Earnest had rarely, in fact never, been asked to dance by a woman before, so he had no way of judging whether it bode foul or fair that she laughed loudly when he, in the sudden standing up for bumbling introductions and stumbling after her to the dance floor, ripped a quite distinctive fart. He reddened, and mumbled, and was dragged on; There was no doubt who would lead that dance. Marge noted that he had two left feet, boots and all, but the first thing was the placement of those hands.
That’s 176 words. Too many and not too well put together, but a promising block of wood to come home to; whittling it down to 99 words would be fun. I even thought that I might try to get it to be 99 words in six sentences and include the word “rip” so that I could hit Zoe’s prompt again, in homage to the character that originated there. Oh, this would be a great puzzle to tackle after work. Except.
Except I realized that if I pared the fast write down to 99 words, I would already have two parts of Charli’s 5-part “T.U.F.F.” process completed. I decided my self-imposed challenge would be to follow the guidelines set forth by Charli in her Carrot Ranch Rodeo event, The Ultimate Flash Fiction challenge. While the hero’s journey in my stories here may be a bit lackluster, (the main character’s greatest crisis that we know of was ripping her pants, and that in an earlier story) there are hints of transformation and return. And anyway, my main focus was to get a feel for the power of subjecting a story idea through contraction and expansion by adhering to the 5 steps; I would turn the initial 5 minute free write into 99 words; then reduce that further to 59 words, then boil it down to only 9 words. These reductions and revisions were then to fuel a 599-word version of the same story.
Here are the next three parts that followed the morning fast write:
Besides his boots, what drew Marge to this man were his hands, large even on his large frame; she felt dainty just imagining being held by them.
“Excuse me boys, I spy a man.” Ignoring their raised eyebrows, Marge went straight to the man whose heavy leather work boots were just like hers. When Marge sat down at his table, Earnest Biggs bumbled awkwardly to his feet then mumbled an introduction then sat back down then stood and stumbled as Marge led him by the hand to the dance floor. The guys, watching, had no doubt who would lead.
First she saw the boots, like hers. Then she noticed his frame, large, like hers. And the hands, so big, even on that frame. Marge felt dainty.
“Excuse me boys, I spy a man.”
Marge approached Earnest Biggs, the first woman who had. She dragged him to the dance floor.
Watching, the guys had no doubt who would lead.
There was no doubt as to who would lead.
The contracting part, reducing the word count, was fun. Thank goodness for copy and paste though. Flash, especially this process, is indeed a puzzle. It was interesting to see how different phrases fit differently in different pieces and to see the micro flash versions become a mere parts bin to build the longer story. For the final 599-word piece I would copy and paste from these first four versions, continuing to revise and rearrange as I built the story. My crises were when I wondered if I really had a story at all. With micro-flash you can leave them hanging, leave it open, so the longer version, the “finished” story, was a stretch. I felt that there were at least two places where I could just end the story, but resolved to see it through to 599 words. That’s where dialogue came into play. I had no great plot, so I got the characters to talk my way out of this predicament, and sure enough by the arrival of the 599th word, they were together, a classic romance ending.
“Excuse me boys”, Marge said to the guys, abruptly putting her beer down, “But I spy a man.” Marge felt something she’d not felt before, at least not as she could remember. Marge was smitten. Ignoring the raised eyebrows of her drinking companions, the guys from the shop, Marge headed straight across the barroom to where Earnest Biggs sat alone at the corner table, watching the band.
The first thing that Marge had noticed was his boots, boots just like hers, leather work boots with scuffed steel toes. The second and more compelling thing that Marge noticed were his hands, large even on his large frame, seeming almost a nuisance to the knobby wrists they hung from, almost a threat to the mug of beer they dwarfed. She immediately got to imagining how a hand like that on the small of her back would make the small of her back feel, well, small. By the time Marge arrived at Earnest Bigg’s table she was all swelled up inside with feeling dainty and delicate and smitten. She sat down across from Earnest.
In his lifetime, Earnest had rarely, no, never, been approached by a woman of any sort for any reason. In a slow series of bumbling, fumbling movements Earnest quickly stood up. Then, mumbling a red-faced introduction, he promptly sat back down. Marge stood up.
“Come on”, she told the big, bewildered man. “Let’s dance.”
Marge grasped one of those big hands, and Earnest Biggs was dragged to the dance floor, stumbling helplessly, much to the amusement of her coworkers, who watched from their perches at the bar. The guys from the shop had no doubt who would lead in this dance.
The guys watched as if viewing a sporting event. Bets were made. They watched and commented as how it wasn’t a pretty thing they watched, that creature with at least three left feet lurching all over the dance floor. It took them a couple innings to realize that their pal Marge was deaf and indifferent to their remarks, that she was not coming back even for her unfinished beer. A bit disoriented without Marge to call for shots, the guys trickled out in twos and threes, missing the overtime inning when they would have seen Earnest Biggs finally finding his balance even if it meant holding on to Marge, his large palms gentle on her hips, on the small of her back, during a slow dance; when they would have seen Marge with bent head resting on Earnest’s chest, smiling down at scuffed work boots going toe to toe; would have seen Earnest beginning to lead, Marge beginning to yield.
Finally, wearing shy smiles, Marge and Earnest went back to the corner table.
“This is new territory for me”, Marge said.
“Oh, not me, I come here a lot to hear the music, that is I used to, this is my first time back since …”
“No, I was speaking metaphorically”, Marge interrupted. “I don’t usually do…”
“Oh, yeah, right… Me either.”
“I like your boots.”
“Thanks, I like yours too.”
“Yeah, they’re comfortable and sturdy.”
“Me too. I mean mine too. My boots.”
“What work do you do in your work boots, Earnest?”
“I’m a mechanic.”
“Got my own little place.”
“Work for yourself?”
“Yeah, by myself. I mean for myself.”
“Yeah, two bays, two lifts.”
“Plenty of business?”
“I could use another man.”
The guys at her old shop told Marge-stories long after she had gone, long after she left to swing her wrenches alongside Earnest Biggs.
What I noticed through this last step of expanding the story was that I appreciated the extra words as a luxury, ever mindful of the lean times of steps 2-4 when I had to economize and choose my words carefully to preserve the story and characterizations. With the extravagance of an extra 500 words I was able to do more, but continued to be thrifty and conservative. The process kept me focused and helped me to find the story. Except.
Except after I did all this, I then decided to tweet the story:
(50 words, 278 characters)
Earnest finally found his balance holding Marge, slow dancing, his large palms gentle on her hips, on the small of her back. Marge with bent head resting on Earnest’s chest, smiled down at scuffed work boots going toe to toe. He had begun to lead and she to yield. #twitterflash
And it was through that (final) reduction process that I got a new line, one that added strength to that scene and provided summary-sense to the whole piece and made the characters more heroic. Twitterflash, like the other forms of reduction, forced a change of focus, and focused another revision.
I write this with an apparent presumption, as if my stories are effective; they may not be, but it is a fact that they are improved, as am I for the metacognition. I hope that the 599 word version shows two humans, big and bumbling ones. What was going to try to be a short and sassy 99 word flash became slower paced than the first Marge story, Ripped, and less humorous, but the longer piece is kinder and more revealing of the characters.
In a shorter flash the prompt word ‘boots’ might serve as a starter, but in the longer piece it was able to be returned to, anchoring the story. The 99 and 59 word flashes showed that those boots and those hands were important to Marge; I was able to present that more fully in the 599-word piece and to use the boots to better advantage to develop their relationship and characters when they went “toe to toe” and when their boots became a talking point for the characters to get them through their awkwardness.
I am glad I subjected myself to Charli’s TUFF process this week; it was a great exercise. I recommend this stretching exercise to any and all writers. It will bring you an insight into your process and provide a perspective on your story or characters that will help you to put them in their best place.
Earnest Biggs first showed up in Big Break and Marge arrived in Ripped, both the result of the Six Sentence Story prompts provided by Zoe at Unchartered Recording Life Under the Radar. They get to know one another better in Trailing.
Here again are the Carrot Ranch links; click for more on the TUFF writing process and the hero’s journey . If you are interested in the weekly 99, find out more at the Flash Fiction page. If you are interested in whittling your writing down to 280 characters or less check out Twitter flash .