In 2010, I was amazed and delighted when my flash fiction piece ‘Judgement Day’ won Highly Commended in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition. At the time, entries to the competition consisted of no more than 600 words; and while those words could in theory be written on any topic, the organisers did provide a theme each year to assist the undecided writer.
In 2010, the theme was ‘Science, Technology and Society’. When I heard about it, my heart sank. I knew very little about writing flash fiction, and even less about science and technology! By default, my focus would have to be on the ‘society’ part of that equation. Anyway, I’m not quite sure where the original idea came from, but I ended up writing a piece exploring how the institution of marriage might change in the future as a result of advances in science and technology, and what might remain disturbingly familiar to us today – a kind of futuristic fable.
After the story appeared on the winners list for 2010, it was recorded onto a CD with the other winning stories, and broadcast on radio stations around the world, in various parts of the Commonwealth. I found it enormously exciting to think of a story by a Bangladeshi writer being heard on the airwaves as far afield and in countries as diverse as Jamaica, Australia, India, Nigeria, Canada etc. It meant a lot – both because it was a huge honour to be chosen, and because it validated my aspirations as a writer.
But over time I came to realise that what ‘Judgement Day’ had done for me went well beyond the immediate benefits of achieving recognition in a prestigious competition. Indeed, it taught me a number of lessons that were only properly distilled over some time. Here are a few of those lessons:
The importance of being open
The fact is, at that time this story was only the third piece of flash fiction I had ever written. It was also the first (and might very possibly be the last)science fiction story that I have ever come up with. If I were to choose one piece of writing that represents me best as a writer, I probably wouldn’t choose ‘Judgement Day’. It is too exceptional in too many ways, especially in comparison to the kind of stories that I normally write. Those are mostly written from the perspectives of ordinary men and women, adults and children, and are usually longer stories of 5000 words or more, set in decidedly contemporary surroundings.But I decided to have some fun with the flash fiction challenge and see where the process took me, and that is something that I will always be grateful for. Interestingly enough, ‘Judgement Day’ is also the story of mine that has been most frequently reprinted. In total, well over a dozen times so far, and mostly in the US and the UK – both of which can be challenging markets to crack for an emerging South Asian writer like myself!
Learning by exploring
In 2010, I didn’t know if I wanted to write flash fiction at all. The idea of trying to tell a complete story in so few words seemed counterintuitive to me. And it would be some time before I fully appreciated the implications of Mark Twain’s famous comment: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
The truth is it often takes more time and work to write something short and to do a good job of it, than it does to write something longer (which can more easily absorb a little mediocrity here and there). In the last few years, I have written more flash fiction pieces, and I now believe that it is one of the best ways of learning how to cut out excess prose, and how to make every word count in the process of storytelling.
The value of a writers’ group
Writers’ groups can be a great source of information, support and on occasion, compulsion! The primary reason that I even sent in a submission to the Commonwealth Competition in 2010 was because one of the members of my writers’ group came across the contest, and it was decided that we would use the theme of ‘Science, Technology and Society’ as a 600 word writing exercise. I don’t know what anyone else thought of their chances of winning, but I certainly didn’t rate mine very high. In fact, I struggled so much with the topic and the word count that I came perilously close to dropping out altogether. It was only the good-natured bullying of my peers that forced me into writing something to get them off my back.
The limitations of feedback
After all the stress I had gone through over my submission, when I brought ‘Judgement Day’ in for workshopping, I was dismayed at some of the responses I got. Since I frequently suffer from the Jekyll & Hyde complex mentioned in my last post, I am rarely convinced that I have written something worthwhile. On that occasion, I had actually begun to believe that the piece had some merit; or was, at least, not dreadful.
Several of my group members thought otherwise, and said as much – quite vocally. The good news was that the handful of people who did like it, really liked it. I emerged from the meeting feeling a little battered, and wondering how my own assessment of the piece could have been so far off the mark. As it turned out, on that occasion my internal critic was not alone in thinking that the story had something to offer. It taught me an important lesson about trusting my own judgement. Though only on days when the Jekyll & Hyde factor doesn’t come into play!
Recognising what we owe to those whose work we have read
For a long time after writing ‘Judgement Day’, I was bemused by where the inspiration for this story might have come from. It was only while discussing the story on another occasion – when I mentioned how my appreciation of science fiction was largely limited to Isaac Asimov’s wonderful short story collections ‘I, Robot’ and ‘The Rest of the Robots’ – that I realised that the protagonist in my story shares some characteristics with the brilliant, socially awkward spinster scientist who is Asimov’s Susan Calvin.
Asimov’s short fiction and Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ are among the few futuristic stories that have made any impression on me over the years. I don’t consider ‘Judgement Day’ to be derivative, because any sci-fi influences on my writing are inevitably both distant and subtle. But it’s probably safe to say that while you never know how the stories that you have loved will show up in your own work, if you look carefully you will encounter them on the page one unexpected day, waving cheekily back at you.
You can read ‘Judgement Day’ here
Or, if science fiction is not your thing, you can read my first short story, published in 2005. It was inspired by a newspaper headline that outraged me so much that it compelled me to break through my fear that I couldn’t write fiction. ‘A Small Sacrifice’ can be read here
Also, another flash fiction piece of mine, ‘The Silver Lining’, can be found here