May 21: Flash Fiction Challenge

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

May 21, 2014

Carrot Ranch Flash FictionSurprise! Have you ever been taken aback by something unexpected? Surprises can be two sides of a coin; they can attack or reveal a lucky moment. An HR manager I once worked with used to advise our management team, “that surprises are for birthdays.”

What she meant was that employees need consistent and frequent feedback, good or bad. No one wants to get an annual review only to find out that his or her performance is under par. Surprise–you’re not getting a raise!

Her analogy that surprises were for birthdays always reminded me to be open and direct with my staff. Clarity is important when you supervise or lead others. Yet, writers can use the element of surprise to control many aspects of the story from building tension (like a twist) to revealing characterization.

A writer can control the emotional response to a story through surprise. It can take a story in a new direction, create terror or jubilation. So many possibilities for surprises. And while the word itself tells so much, we know that as writers we show, not tell. So today’s prompt will reveal a surprise without using the word.

The reason I have surprises on my mind is that this new challenge falls on my birthday. That’s a pleasant surprise. When I set out to host a weekly flash fiction challenge every Wednesday, I didn’t think about my birthday falling on a prompt day. Thus, a jubilant occasion for me as I love celebrating birthdays.

While some people may see birthdays as annual aging, I see them as milestones. I use the day (or the month even) to reflect on what direction my life is going. As you know, life gives us all sorts of surprises, but I also believe in being diligent and deliberate.

Authors are not born. No matter how many or how few birthdays a person has had, writing a book or novel takes time, perseverance, learning, failing and succeeding. Even the most successful authors walked down the same road I do; the one that begins on page one of book one.

So how do we keep track of our journey? How do we know if our process is working? How do we reach a birthday and direct our navigation to arrive at the Land of Published?

One idea is to track the journey–record the ideas, drafts and polished pearls–in a portfolio. I’ve thought about having a creative writing portfolio before, but it was Norah Colvin’s blog post, “Writing to order–done in a flash!” that rekindled the idea. She writes about educating children through portfolio assessments (rather than scored single tests) but broaches the subject of writer’s portfolios:

“I would think most professional writers have a portfolio consisting of work at various stages: some as ideas jotted on slips of paper, some in planning stages, others in draft form, others completed and waiting for the next step, and others in publication.

A portfolio allows a writer to work on different pieces at different times and at different rates. Rarely is it imperative for a piece to be completed in an hour or two. (Unless you’re a journalist I suppose.) You can dip in, leave to rest, go back, redraft, edit, start again, and not be required to churn something out for a reader, let alone assessment, more or less on the spot.”

And–surprise!–I realized that I have no such portfolio. I have all mentioned pieces, but not organized in a way to offer me reflection and direction. And, as we “flash” together each week, we are accumulating great portfolio pieces.

As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a wide variety of places to submit shorts. Each flash I write–that you write–has a future whether it’s an idea for your next horror novel, a kernel of a short story for a contest, or a series of creative writing that might attract an agent or publisher.

So my birthday gift to me (and to you who follow along this blog or challenge) is to devise a portfolio assessment spreadsheet. I’m thinking about how to organize ideas, drafts, flash responses, potential places to publish, submissions, contests and goals. In my former career I was the Queen of Strategy. I’ve created plenty of spreadsheets to help clients organize marketing, public relations, planning and events. I can do one for writing portfolios!

I know that there are archive options online, too, but I’m talking about a deeper document that does what Norah’s vision for educating children accomplishes–to master “process writing” that will get us closer to our publishing goals. I’ll also review portfolio sites which are great for housing our polished or published pearls. If you have one in mind, let me know. I’ll have a spreadsheet for us by June 9.

Onto the prompt! Last week I was pressed for time and submitted my own flash separately. While I received more feedback on the individual piece, it also made the prompt harder to interpret without an example. So I will be sure to include mine here.

May 21, 2014 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that shows surprise without using the word. A surprise can be fun or flawed; positive or negative. Respond by noon (PST) Tuesday, May 27 to be included in the compilation. Last week resulted in a wide variety of genres and perspectives; it will be exciting to see where surprises takes us. My example is based on my ongoing exploration of western history and family lore.

Naming an Enemy by Charli Mills

Girlish blond curls tumbled over his hunched shoulders as he mucked stalls for each small, muscled horse belonging to Pony Express. Cobb barely glanced at the youth. Dandy, he thought, continuing his conversation with the station manager. Sarah lingered at the barn doorway, sunshine illuminating her chestnut hair bound with the green ribbon Cobb bought her in St. Louis. It matched flecks in her golden eyes. The boy paused, gawking at the beauty that belonged to Cobb. He hankered to punch the prissy smiling prettily at Sarah. Instead, he gave the boy a nickname they’d all regret. “Hey, Duckbill…”


Rules of Play:

  1. New Flash Fiction challenge issued at Carrot Ranch each Wednesday by noon (PST).
  2. Response is to be 99 words. Exactly. No more. No less.
  3. Response is to include the challenge prompt of the week.
  4. Post your response on your blog before the following Tuesday by noon (PST) and share your link in the comments section of the challenge that you are responding to.
  5. If you don’t have a blog or you don’t want to post your flash fiction response on your blog, you may post your response in the comments of the current challenge post.
  6. Keep it is business-rated if you do post it here, meaning don’t post anything directly on my blog that you wouldn’t want your boss to read.
  7. Create community among writers: read and comment as your time permits, keeping it fun-spirited.
  8. Each Tuesday I will post a compilation of the responses for readers.
  9. You can also follow on Carrot Ranch Communications by “liking” the Facebook page.
  10. First-time comments are filtered by Word Press and not posted immediately. I’ll find it (it goes to my email) and make sure it gets posted! After you have commented once, the filter will recognize you for future commenting. Sorry for that inconvenience, but I do get frequent and strange SPAM comments, thus I filter.


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  1. Sarah Brentyn

    Happy Birthday, Charli! 🙂 *iii* <- some sort of virtual cake…

    • Charli Mills

      Yum! Virtual cake! After a fun afternoon with my daughter she dropped me off and I realized I had no cake…time for an extended birthday…no way I’m missing cake!

  2. Diane

    First off, happy birthday! I’m with you on celebrating (not dreading) one’s birthday. As for using surprises in writing, I deeply respect writers who can give a reader that jolt when pieces fall together in a way they didn’t expect. But for it to be effective (for me, as the reader), the writer needs to have sprinkled clues along the way, so after I get the jolt, the next thought is “of course, why didn’t I see that coming!” If the writer throws it in for shock value without grounding it in something (the “showing” along the way) I might still be surprised but then I feel insulted. With enough practice, my writing journey will hopefully develop me into a writer that does the former, not the latter. PS: Interesting idea about tracking the writing journey in a portfolio You’ve given me something to ponder.

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks! And what a great point to make from the reader perspective. I’ve had the experience writing, wondering what my characters are up to and coming to a revelation that surprises even me (the writer). But when I go back, I see my characters were leading me. As editor, I then go back and make sure I have believable characters, working arcs and, as you say, surprises that are grounded in the plot. Thanks for your insights! And yes, I’m hoping my June 9 draft can be something other writers can offer feedback on and we can come up with a process portfolio that helps us create, track and publish.

    • Charli Mills

      No pressure, Irene but that would be a great birthday gift! 🙂 Thanks!

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        The brain cells have been twisting and turning all day and have come up with some germs of ideas. Hopefully I’ll be able to give you that gift. Cheers Irene 🙂

      • Charli Mills

        A great gift, Irene! Thank you!

    • Charli Mills

      It was, thank you! You bring up an interesting aspect of surprise–it isn’t always loud and jolting. In fact, I wondered the same about mine–how surprising, really, is it to give someone an unflattering nickname? But you’ve crafted a piece that weaves several threads of surprise–that it was to be a treat, that the daughters hoped to share in the element of surprise and the unexpected surprise of Mum’s negative reaction. It’s what makes flash interesting–the tip of the iceberg makes us want to know what happened before; what happens next. Glad you found inspiration!

    • Charli Mills

      That’s a classic, Ruchira! Your flash brings up the human reaction to a deflected spotlight on “our day.”

    • Charli Mills

      Great flashing, Geoff! You have a knack for humor and if I had been sitting on the Iron Throne I might have impaled myself laughing so hard! By the way–do you read GRRM’s books or follow the HBO series? I’m a die-hard book fan (or is it die-easy?). He and Robert Jordan (more so Jordan) are crazy-adept at creating so many characters. Of course, GRRM likes to kill off his…

      • TanGental

        thank you Charli; your enthusiasm for this mad craft are an inspiration. I hope the birthday was a splendid affair – maybe as my dad used to have it the best birthdays are ‘remembered through a cloud’. As for GoT, I’m a watcher I’m afraid. Have you seen this btw. Maybe Norah, as a teacher, would approve?

      • Charli Mills

        I’m so glad to have others crafting madly, too! It’s been a terrific birthday! What a wicked punishment to reveal GoT spoilers to students as punishment. Creative! If you ever get the chance, read the books. GRRM will blow you away with his story-crafting and characterizations. The series is fun, but the books are brilliant.

    • Norah

      In reply to your GoT link, I am not a watcher but have heard some about it. This disciplinary action is an innovative approach but I wonder why the teacher didn’t consider an improvement to the lessons first?

      • Charli Mills

        Good point, Norah! If you ever get into GoT–read the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin.

      • Norah

        I’ll add it to my never diminishing list! 🙂 Thanks for the tip.

  3. Charli Mills

    I’m traveling Saturday, winding through the mountain valleys cut by the Clark Fork River. I’ll return to your wonderful flash writing once I reach Elmira Pond.

  4. Norah

    Hi Charli, I hope you enjoyed your birthday day, and continue to enjoy the birthday week. May the celebrations continue I always say. Milk it for what you can get (and I don’t necessarily mean ‘things’). Each birthday means we have been fortunate to live a little longer and experience a little more of what life has to offer; always to be appreciated, not everyone’s bundle is the same. I appreciate your sharing of and linking to my post. You are very generous with your comments. I look forward to the portfolio spreadsheet you devise. I have attempted to create something for my own writing to help me keep on track but it fails in its role! In the ‘old’ pencil and paper days it was easy to bundle all the drafts together in a file. Now each digital version over-writes the former and earlier drafts are lost, some for the better, some maybe not. My response to your surprising prompt can be found here: You may scroll to the end of the post to find it. I enjoyed your piece. I’m wondering about the reason for the nickname, and the surprise in it. As you say, it raises lots of questions.

    • Charli Mills

      What a fantastic, thought-provoking post. Lots of good discussions going on over at your blog, Norah! Brilliant, the way you tied your flash into you ongoing subject of education for children. Each one of us brings to writing our interests, passions and experiences. I would hope that teachers bring that to the classroom as well. Oh, you bet I’m milking the birthday extension–I stared at the mountains yesterday thinking how blessed I am to be alive, to see this beauty. And then my husband bought me a cake…such good things!

      I’m glad you question the nickname and why it’s a surprise because it’s buried in American western lore and mythology. In the “old west” many characters came to life in dime-store novels based on real people. But their exploits were mostly fictionalized. However, today, many people accept the fiction as history. One such character was “Wild” Bill Hikock. He was a glamorized gun-slinger who was shot in the back at Deadwood while gambling. History remembers him as a beautiful man with golden curls, fancy clothes and a heroic demeanor. One of his first stories was a lie–he murdered a man and then spread the tale that the man was harboring a gang to steal and supply horses to the building Confederate Army in the South. Truth is, Bill Hikock was a hired hand for the Pony Express and the man he shot owned the station and was angry that Pony Express had not paid rent in a year. This all happened in the frontier of Nebraska Territory. The man who owned the property was Cobb McCandless and he is known to history as the leader of the MccCandless gang. He had a beautiful mistress named Sara Schull and other people claim that Bill Hikock had a crush on her. Some say that is why he shot Cobb. History gave Bill the nickname “Wild” because he supposedly went wild and shot the McCandless Gang. But before he died, Cobb teased Bill about his upper lip and nicknamed him “Duckbill” which infuriated the younger man who was vain about his looks. Therefore in my story, I’m reflecting on how Bill would have felt being called such a name in front of the woman he was sweet on. But hard to convey in 99 words! Really, what I’m using these flash exercises for is to explore the story potential about Cobb and Sarah. Thanks for letting me ramble on about it! (You see why I need the constraint!)

  5. rllafg

    Phil Anthropy by Larry LaForge

    He’s known only as Phil. The scraggly old-timer has occupied the same busy street corner every day for the past 12 years. His music, if you can call it that, has been heard by tens of thousands.

    But this morning Phil is not there. Neither are his squeaky violin and tattered money bucket.

    Phil is home counting.

    Yesterday’s haul far exceeded the usual $30. He wasn’t paying attention when someone slipped the thick envelope into his bucket.

    But don’t worry. He’ll be back this afternoon.

    He’s heading first to the soup kitchen to drop $10,000 in the donation box.


    (Charli – This is my 99-word response to the surprise challenge. The 100-word version is posted on my Flash Fiction Magazine site:
    Thanks for another great prompt!)

    • Charli Mills

      And thanks for another great story! That surprise ending explains the title and made me read it a second time just because it’s such a cool story! It’s also a great twist on the idea of “pay it forward.”

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks, Larry! It was one of those extended birthdays…the best kind!

  6. Paula Moyer

    Birthing the Story

    By Paula Moyer

    Jean devoted herself to her writing contest entry – poured over every word, every comma, submitted it to her instructor for feedback. Then sent it off.

    Then life itself happened – literally. Her pregnancy completed. She gave birth to a big baby boy. She flew down to Texas for her brother’s wedding. The baby grew. She thought about little else.

    “Brringg!” the phone announced itself one day.

    “Ms. Jones?”

    “This is she.”

    “This is the Harbor.”


    She knew the contest’s rules – bad news came in the mail, good news by phone.

    “We have good news. You’re one of the winners!”

    • Charli Mills

      That tug between parenting and writing is the subtle surprise. The story returns to the beginning with the big surprise, but now we wonder–has the writer changed? Great flash, Paula!

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks! And it has been…still have cake. What a great flash fiction for Memorial Day. A wife’s greatest surprise is to see her soldier return, whole and alive. I used to help a friend who did acupuncture for soldiers at a fort and they always talked about worrying more about their loved ones left behind than they worried for their own safety.

  7. Lisa Reiter

    Happy Birthday to you! I’m eating plenty of cake in joint celebration – mine’s 31st!

  8. Charli Mills

    Yikes! That a wheel barrow could epitomize such fear and mystery came as a surprise along with the ending. I think that is the quality of using an object that is not stereotypical to a genre (for example, had you used the cry of a “black cat” we would have known to expect something foul…but not a wheel barrow). Great flash!


  1. It’s no surprise! | Norah Colvin - […] In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that shows surprise without using the word.  […]
  2. The Wheel barrow : May 21st Flash Fiction Challenge | Reflections and Nightmares- Irene A Waters (writer and memoirist) - […] […]

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