Oct/Nov 2004  •   Spotlight

Raw and Bloody: The Boot Camp / Google Flash Fiction Exercise

by Alex Keegan

The writing group known as Boot Camp gets its name from the relentless honesty its members subject each other to, but also because it demands a minimum of a new short story every fortnight.

At any one time Boot Camp has a fair proportion of beginning writers, and they will write many of the standard stories we expect from beginners: "the first time," teen-angst, marriages failing, abuse, the funeral, ghost stories, the dead-hitch-hiker, even those twist-enders where the narrator is an animal or an alien.

Most of us as writers went through that phase, one we like to pretend never happened. We begin by trying to write what we imagine is wanted, but it takes a certain number of failed stories to "burn off" this waste. That's why Ray Bradbury says we need to write a million words, mostly crap, before we become writers.

Like any place where writers start and improve, Boot Camp is familiar with the fairly typical movement from me-too mundane work, through to self-expression, and then on, from the very best, to genuinely original work. This is why we insist on a minimum of one story every other week. The more we write, the faster we improve.

But Boot Camp doesn't stop there. Ideally I want to see MORE than one story a week. Boot Campers are encouraged to try to produce mid-session stories, and each day we issue morning prompts and evening "Flash Prompts."

A word of explanation here. Flash Fiction is usually meant to refer to stories under 1,000 words, in some cases under 500. Boot Camp flashes are often this length, but the term also refers specifically to fast WRITING.

Most days, typically at 8PM, a few prompts are posted. The members have 75 minutes to respond to the prompt and produce a new story scanned for typos and errors. Because of the time limit, our flashes often fit the "under 1,000 words" brief, but the point here is not the story-length but the time-pressure to produce.

Beginning writers vary as individuals, but as a group they tend to be fairly predictable. Under the scoring system I employ, the earliest stories may score badly, under 70, then they soon settle into the '70s, then the '80s, and occasionally they break into the high 90s (these are first drafts and rewrites can usually improve by ten points or so).

So, sure enough, the beginners post 65, 75, 82 and so on, steadily improving, but then I noticed something. Whatever the current level of an individual, the daily flashes were scoring often 20 points higher, occasionally breaking 100, even 110. Why could authors with a fortnight to create manage only 75, but when NOT given time, they could produce work of a much higher standard? The fortnightly work was obvious, clichéd, stereotypical, mundane. The flashes were often surprising, exciting, and vivid! What were we discovering?

In Boot Camp and on the face-to-face courses I also teach, I stress the idea of reaching the unconscious, of "letting go," of "unplotting," of "writing drunk," of being right-brained, loose, poetic, artistic, and "uncaring," as opposed to thinking too much, plotting, planning, placing, and ultimately writing left-brained, conscious, "obvious" writing. It seems that the pressure of producing to a time limit prevented students from thinking too much. Having to "go for it... NOW!" seemed to throw off the shackles of "doing it right" and led to better, more interesting work.

I often use flash prompts to drive my own writing, especially if I'm feeling low or blocked. One trick I employ to "break the mould" is to Google random letters or numbers. Let the web take you where it will. What "clicks" with you is something your unconscious is hungry for (as Dorothea Brande once wrote).

One example was an evening when I typed in the word MUD and was taken on a fantastic journey through MUDs, MOOs, software programming and shanty-towns. I had stumbled into something inside ME, and from it I got a very good story (horribly rough) which I sent to Tom at Eclectica with an email talking about a "found metaphor," in the sense that people talk about a "found poem."

I think Tom is still trying to recover from the madness of that story. I, on the other hand, was thrilled that I could ACCESS that madness. Of course art is madness shaped, and the story wasn't, but our ensuing discussion led me to explain the Boot Camp flash process to Tom.

I could take a small group of writers, I said, and in one week give them "hopeless" prompts and just 75 minutes thinking and writing time, and they would all produce stories good enough to submit.

The prompts were not easy. They were sometimes "impossible" like "Google the number 345" (My story "Fucking Tragic," Donna McDougal's enigmatic "Troop 345, More or Less").

Another "hopeless task" was to take the letters YBJAXEF and google any three. Fleur Chapman got her story from "JAB." From another random squiggle of letters came Penny Aldred's story. Here's what she said:

I googled P-E-N ("forgetting" that this made a word). Poison pen came up as a site. I didn't look at it, as I suddenly got the idea of someone, a woman, alone, writing poison pen letters. And the pen itself, a fat fountain pen, was clear in my mind, so started writing about the pen.

"Banana" took Cedric Popa to Bucharest. It took me to the Japanese writer Yoshimoto Banana and a tiny excerpt from one of his stories, about cooking. Suddenly I thought of a man who knows he's lost his girlfriend but is cooking for her, one last time ("Asparagus").

Zoe Lea says (the prompt was google RNG):

I found a site relating to a catalogue. RNG was the code for a projection screen. It was shown in all its finery and it got me thinking about who would be ordering one of these huge things and what kind of job they'd be in. The rest just came out working to the tight deadline we had. I didn't get time to think about it.

Another prompt was "Google 3 letters from the word pigeon," but a few writers ended up writing stories driven by the whole word.

Zoe King:

The prompt was "pigeon," and as I recall, we were asked to Google on the word, or on any three letters. However, I'd been awake in the early hours of the previous night reading Damon Runyon stories, and it struck me that he might well have included a character called The Pigeon. I had a strong sense of what physical characteristics such a Runyonesque character might encompass, but of course in a flash, it's difficult to put such things across. In the event, I went for a character type„not too bright, easily swayed, etc etc, and the story was born.

The vagaries of the human mind got "Killing Work" out of the pigeon prompt. Here is Elizabeth Roy's explanation:

I wrote "Killing Work" from the "pigeon" prompt„take any three letters from the word "pigeon" and use them to do a search on Google. I used "OIE" and found the World News Network site, os21.worldnews.com/. On that site I found two articles. One from the Los Angeles Times, "Enemy Contact. Kill 'em, Kill 'em," by Charles Duhigg, a Times staff writer, was about the trauma faced by soldiers in combat, past and present, and what the army has, is, and has not done about it. It was published Sunday, July 18, 2004. The other, from the Dallas Morning News of Dallas, Texas, "More workers find stress is part of job description," by Katherine Yung, also published Sunday, July 18, 2004. The parallels between the two struck me, particularly after I intercut the two articles. "Killing Work" arose from the interplay of those parallels.

In all we had 53 stories, and I sent 25 to Eclectica, who took the ones you see here. I believe another ten will place elsewhere.

In 2004 Boot Camp Flashes have placed at East of the Web, (two on the front page right now) Defenestration, BlueMag, Southern Ocean Review, Quiet Feather, Anti-Muse, Long Story Short, Rose & Thorn, 3AM Magazine, Tattoo Highway, Another Realm, Birmingham Words, Canopic Jar, Plum Biscuit, and other webzines, and in print at Wild Strawberries, Ink-Pot, Aesthetica, Peninsular, QWF, Cadenza, and have so far this year placed half a dozen times in competition finals as well as winning once and taking a runner-up place.

When I typed in "345," it took me to read about a Greek called Aeschylus and the coolest accidental death in history. Somehow that morphed into the pain I sometimes feel about the once-rape of my country. We all as writers have undiscovered material inside us, some of it raw, deep and bloody. Usually it's suppressed by our sense of what we ought to be thinking and writing. For myself and the other Boot Camper's whose works you're about to read, a simple exercise with Google and a time limit helped to remove that constraint.