Discovering Hermit Crabs – Flash Fiction Workshop -16 February 2022

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents *

Storm Dudley might’ve been battering our windows, rattling our letterboxes and tossing bins around our gardens – apart from in Maybole where Carey reported all was quiet (maybe Dudley used the new bypass?) – but he didn’t prevent an enthusiastic bunch of AWCers logging on to Zoom for a Flash Fiction Workshop delivered by Nigel.

The workshop consisted of two writing exercises plus a recap of advice from Karen Jones (speaker from previous session), interspersed with readings of Kirsty, Matt and Thomas’s successful, prize-winning and published pieces.

Looking at the stories first. We heard Kirsty’s A Lesson on Conditionals (shortlisted for The Edinburgh Award for Flash Fiction 2022) – a powerful story, cleverly told in the form of a teacher giving a grammar lesson – an excellent example of a hermit crab. Shhh…I’d no idea what a hermit crab was – and if you don’t either, don’t worry – all will be revealed later. Kirsty’s second piece Ugly Truth took a different angle on the fairy-tale Cinderella.

Matt’s The Ragged Frenchman – an atmospheric monologue describing the horror of Napoleon’s army retreating from Moscow – gave us goosebumps. His second story Tagged (published in Soft Cartel magazine) is from the point of view of a disinterested new father directly after the birth of his child. Matt developed this story from a writing exercise when he first wrote a story about a wonderful personal experience then rewrote it, reversing positive emotions to negative.

Shortlisted in 2021 for the Smoke Long Micro competition, Thomas’s – And the Vultures Will Come took a dark subject matter and introduced a novel way to deal with a deceased body. Thomas’s title choice led well into the story. We liked the impact of the last line and how it left the reader thinking.  His second piece, The Execution of Emperor Maximillian, was inspired both by a writing exercise “Challenging the Dominance of Realism” and an Edward Manet painting of the same name. Based on a true historical event, the story’s narrator is something which would not normally be able to express itself – a wall.

Nigel then read the second placed entry from this year’s Bath Flash Fiction competition – The Mothers by Jo Gatford a breathless ramble of words, it only has three pieces of punctuation including the final full stop.

These very different examples of flash stories all flowed beautifully, Nigel pointed out. No words jarred or were superfluous, fulfilling one point from Karen Jones’ flash fiction advice – learn the art of compression – make every word work and earn its keep – cut out redundant words.

More tips:

Choose a strong title. Remember titles don’t count in flash fiction word counts – so your title can be a valuable lead into your story and do a lot of work towards setting up your character or setting or time period.

Have a strong opening – grab your reader’s attention. First lines could introduce a question or tell the reader about the character or set the style and tone of the piece.

Equally, have a strong last line. Avoid clichéd endings and punchlines. Twist endings are presently unfashionable. Your ending should leave readers thinking.

Our first writing exercise focused on story openings. ‘Five minutes writing to create an intriguing flash fiction title and a gripping first sentence,’ Nigel said. Cue brain fog.

I wrote absolutely nothing. In fact, I scribbled ‘Nothing, Nada, Nowt’ on my pad several times. Sometimes that’s just the way it is! But, hurrah, other members turned up trumps. Carrie’s mysterious The Wolfgirl Howled introduced a sinister tone and an interesting character. Jean’s One Too Many had us puzzling over a birth. Thomas’s Sports Day at the Asylum painted a quirky scene with a ‘catatonic bike’.

Next, Nigel explained some different types of flash fictions including breathless paragraphs and hermit crabs.

So, what is a hermit crab story?  It’s story that finds its “home” in the form of another type of writing. For example, flash fiction in the form of:

Lists – Instructions – Recipes – School Reports – Wanted Ads – Obituaries – Shopping Lists- Cryptic Crossword Clues – Board Game Rules.  Use your own imagination!

And this led to Nigel’s second exercise – select a hermit crab “shell” then draft the first few sentences. Pens scratched across pads for another five minutes, before volunteers were requested to feedback. Fortunately, after my earlier disaster, I ‘sort of’ redeemed myself, offering a ropey tale of mariticide in the form of a to-do-list. Turning to her trusty Radio Times for inspiration, Jeanette used a sequence of TV show titles, to tell her ‘aspirational home’ story. Carrie’s tale was in nursery rhyme form and based on ‘Half a Pound of Tuppenny Rice’, while Maggie B composed Hamtown Council’s Building Report on the straw house belonging to one wee pig called Percy Little.  All very clever and imaginative.

So, where can we send flash fiction stories? Thomas suggested various competitions – there’s Bath Flash Fiction, Bridport, Reflex, Fish and, of course, Scottish Arts Trust, Edinburgh Award for FF. Or, for publication, try Reflex, Gutter, Extra Teeth and New Writing Scotland to name but a few.  And why not get involved in National Flash Fiction Day on 18th June?

At bang on 9.30pm our meeting drew to a close – thank you Nigel and Thomas for an informative night.

Considering the horrendous weather conditions, it was amazing everyone’s internet connections remained stable and no-one was cut off mid-sentence by Dudley. A week on we’ve already experienced Eunice and Franklin. So, can I just put out a request to Gladys and Herman? Ask them nicely to stay clear of Ayrshire (and Sanquhar) for Wednesday March 3rd? And please, let us travel relaxed and unruffled to our first Mercure meeting of 2022.

*Opening from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford – described as “the literary posterchild for bad story starters”

Linda Brown



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