12+ The Australian Writers' Centre's brief for October 2021's Furious Fiction writing challenge was to set the short story in a COURT, include a character who measures something, and the words BALLOON, ROCK and UMBRELLA.
So recalling Ernest Hemingway's advice to write one true sentence, I wrote, "The policewoman at the front of the Court is trying to catch my eye."
In 1984, in my early twenties, I quit a job in acrimonious circumstances. Unsurprisingly, I didn't get a "Goodbye and Good Luck" card. But six months later, I received a summons to appear in Court for an unpaid parking fine for my old company car.
Cross-checking the dates, I confirmed someone else at the company drove the pool car on the day of the parking fine. But I had to attend Court because I was nominated as the driver on an earlier overdue notice. (Sent to my old company and not forwarded to me.)
My then-girlfriend's father was a lawyer, and he advised me to plead guilty and pay the fine and costs. "But I'm innocent," I'd responded indignantly. And that's how, for the first time in my life (and the only time to date!), I ended up having my day in Court.
Four True Sentences
The Court was crowded, and before the judge appeared, there was a lot of chatter. I looked around, absorbing the scene, attempting to relax, and rehearsing my defence. And then I realised a young policewoman at the front of the Court was trying to catch my eye. And thirty-plus years later, this provided my Hemingway-inspired first true sentence for October's Furious Fiction: "The policewoman at the front of the Court is trying to catch my eye."
In addition to trying to catch my eye, the policewoman was mouthing something, and for a foolish blokey moment, I wondered if she was flirting with me. This led to the second true sentence of my short story. Because, like the 1970s band Skyhooks, "I have a thing for women in uniform". (Or had, as a younger man!)
Of course, the policewoman was not flirting with me. She was mouthing "Guilty or not guilty" to prioritise cases. And this became my story's third true sentence, as in Court, I'd "shook my head vigorously" and mouthed back, "Not guilty."
Although I'm now much older and, hopefully, less foolish and blokey, I have a bad habit that's become more pronounced over the years. Walking past a local Court, I pass "judgement" on the people milling about outside, as I did in 1984. And this was my fourth and final true sentence, with the protagonist of my story "measuring up" the cases sitting beside him in Court — "a beefy bloke in a too-tight suit" and "a dolled-up woman" — as "guilty as charged".
I had a setting in Court, a character "measuring" something, and four true sentences filling out several scenes. However, I still needed a plot, a denouement and a place for the words BALLOON, ROCK and UMBRELLA.
My Writing Routine
Furious Fiction is run on the first weekend of the month, with the brief emailed at 5 pm on Friday. And writers have 55 hours to write and submit their 500-word short story by the midnight deadline on Sunday.
Since my first Furious Fiction in April 2020, I've settled on a routine of outlining a story from the brief on Friday evening and writing the first draft on Saturday. And this leaves Sunday free to proofread and edit the final version, sometimes up to the last minute, as I did in September 2020, when I submitted my story at one minute to midnight!
Once again, my writing routine worked for October's Furious Fiction. And by Sunday morning, I had a first draft that met the brief and combined true sentences and half-truths with pure imagination. For instance, my protagonist's wife was once a nurse — a tie-in with his uniform fetish — whereas my wife's never been a nurse. But I dated a nurse before my marriage, making that part of the story a half-truth.
"It's done when it's done."
"A short story will undergo hundreds of edits. It's done when it's done. I know it when I see it."
By late Sunday afternoon, I'd followed Saunders' lead and gone over and over my Furious Fiction story. Perhaps not "hundreds" of times, but it felt like it. And finally, I had a short story that ticked the boxes for the brief and sent a shiver up my spine when I read the last sentence, which is how I know when it's done.
But part of my Furious Fiction routine is to delay submitting stories until I've had a final pre-bedtime read on Sunday. So for several hours, I had the joy of having a short story in my head and on the screen that no one else knew. And I tweeted how this reminded me of something I'd heard Tim Finn of Split Enz fame say about the intimate relationship between the songwriter and a new song:
"The magic of songwriting is how until you perform it for someone else, it's an intimate relationship between you and the song." Adding that, although I was paraphrasing Finn's quote, it's how I felt about my latest Furious Fiction short story.
Holding off on submitting my story until late Sunday also allowed me a final edit. At this stage, I was sitting on 499 words. But I decided that one line, "And I realise, the more who plead 'not guilty', the longer I'll be stuck in Court", read better as "... the longer I could be stuck in Court".
So now it was the perfect length, too, 500 words! I took a deep breath, crossed my fingers and clicked Submit.
Other True Sentences
October 2021's Furious Fiction was not the first time I've drawn on true sentences and events from my life for a short story. For instance, I set The Al-Rabie Hotel (from November 2020) at the Al-Rabie Hotel in Damascus, Syria — it opened with a "true" photo of me sitting in the hotel foyer taken while backpacking in Syria in 1995. And I based Signs of the Second Coming (in March 2021) on a school teacher who greeted our class with a beaming face on mornings after overnight disasters elsewhere in the world because he believed they heralded the Second Coming.
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But I still doffed my cap to Hemingway for his advice to write one true sentence for my short story. And thanks to four true sentences, a few half-truths and my writer's imagination, I'd enjoyed another productive weekend of Furious Fiction writing.
As for my 1984 Court appearance, I pleaded my case to the judge, and he dismissed the fine, commenting, "I suppose you won't be working for that company again?" Another Hemingway-esque true sentence that may come in handy one day!
© 2021 Robert Fairhead
As often happens, my short story, titled Judgement, didn't win or get short or long-listed for Furious Fiction. But later in October 2021, I shared it on Tall And True, and in March 2022, I narrated the story as Episode 48 of my Tall And True Short Reads storytelling podcast.
You might also like to listen to my narration of Writing True Sentences (Episode 74) on Tall And True Short Reads.
Robert is a writer and editor at Tall And True and blogs on his eponymous website, RobertFairhead.com. He also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads storytelling podcast, featuring his short stories, blog posts and other writing from Tall And True.
Robert's book reviews and other writing have appeared in print and online media. In 2020, he published his début collection of short stories, Both Sides of the Story. In 2021, Robert published his first twelve short stories for the Furious Fiction writing competition, Twelve Furious Months, and in 2022, his second collection of Furious Fictions, Twelve More Furious Months. And in 2023, he published an anthology of his microfiction, Tall And True Microfiction.
Besides writing, Robert's favourite pastimes include reading, watching Aussie Rules football with his son and walking his dog.
He has also enjoyed a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.