The Challenge Beyond Craft: Slot-Filling (Part II)

In Part I, I discussed the challenge of content, of filling each “slot” with something, and the overwhelming uncertainty associated with what that something should be, especially since there isn’t necessarily a go-to guidebook for such problem. I also introduced this issue through an example of a flash I was writing myself, about a couple—Mary and Ralph—cleaning up their yard after Hurricane Sandy. The question for me that arises about this “slot-filling” aspect of writing is this: To where can a writer go for guidance?

One area I mentioned is critical cultural studies, and that field of study might lead me, in my example story, to begin with Mary chain-sawing the trees and Ralph dragging the limbs to a pile. That might be a way to mix-up gender roles in an interesting way—and thus bring a more contemporary, engaged authority to the story.

[My daughter often faults me for the assumption I make, in story after story, that a character is assumed to be white unless otherwise noted. So that too is something to consider, and might be part of the names I choose. Who have Eve & Adam morphed into by the end of the world? Did I get their names right? What assumptions have I made about their race, identities, class, and the like? I look up famous Jersey names and Zoe Saldana comes up as #1. A name that starts with a “Z!” The end of the alphabet. Interesting. That of course doesn’t address the problem my daughter has brought up—and that is something I am continually working to figure out.]

Also, the chain saw itself brings with it a danger, as our good friends at Wikipedia describe: “A common accident arises from kickback, when a chain tooth at the tip of the guide bar catches on wood without cutting through it. This throws the bar (with its moving chain) in an upward arc toward the operator which can cause serious injury or even death.” A kickback is also a small party, an illicit payment, a vigorous response. Might the hurricane itself be a kind of kickback from the earth?

This kind of language play—for me—also comes from the world of critical studies, of that idea of slippage, where the sign slides toward and away from various objects and interpretations. That kind of slippage might help a writer with the filling of slots, as in playing with the various meanings of kickback.

The image of a man & woman surrounded by trees makes me think of Eden—and the idea of climate change leads me to thoughts about the end of the world. Might Mary and Ralph be a kind of last Eve & Adam? If so, might there be a way to introduce a fruit tree (surely not apple) into the story. A quick Internet search leads me to “sour cherries” as one of the best types for Southern New Jersey. That “slot-filling” idea of Eden came from my past reading, from all the other texts I’ve encountered.

I now see a damaged cherry tree, and a couple deciding about what should be done about it. Should they try to save it? Is it too far gone? Should they put it out of its misery? Is it worth trying to save when another storm has been forecast?

Craft, of course, is always present. Craft tells me to begin in action, perhaps like this.

The tooth of the chain saw caught on the fallen birch trunk, kicked back toward Zoe, almost catching her across her chin. Anthony was too busy cursing the hurricane and dragging another limb to the growing pile to notice.

“This cherry tree has had it,” Anthony called out to her. “Make that next on your hit list.”

Zoe turned off the chainsaw. “I’m say we fight for that one, Anthony. We planted that one. You remember?”

Anthony kicked at the pile, as if those limbs could still feel something.

Hopefully, there is evidence of craft in this example, of the things other writers and texts have taught me about “making” a short fiction piece. But I also hope there’s evidence of interesting choices being made about content—about what to put in slot after slot. I hope those choices reflect an awareness of the historical time period, of cultural and critical studies, of contemporary and older texts, of language’s slippage, and the like. As a reader, editor, and publisher, these are the kinds of stories that fully engage my attention, and it is this kind of “slot-filling” skill that oftentimes takes a story to that next level (whatever that is). As a writer, I feel this process takes my writing beyond that sole desire to express my authentic self to others, leading me to choices that connect to the world beyond myself.


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Randall Brown

About Randall Brown

Randall Brown is the author of the award-winning collection Mad to Live, his essay on (very) short fiction appears in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, and he appears in the Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction. He blogs regularly at FlashFiction.Net and has been published widely, both online and in print. He is also the founder and managing editor of Matter Press and its Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. He received his MFA from Vermont College and teaches at the MFA in Creative Program at Rosemont College.