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Writing True Sentences

  12+   The brief for October 2021's Furious Fiction was to set the short story in a COURT, include a character who measures something, and the words BALLOON, ROCK and UMBRELLA. 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, when I was 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 at 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. However, 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.)

A friend'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. Thirty-plus years later, this was my October Furious Fiction's Hemingway inspired first true sentence.

The policewoman was mouthing something and, for a foolish blokey moment, I wondered if she was flirting with me. And this led to the second true sentence for my 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 now middle-aged and, hopefully, less foolish and blokey, I have a bad habit that's become more pronounced over the years. If I walk past a 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 didn't have a story or a denouement. Or a place for the words BALLOON, ROCK and UMBRELLA.

My Writing Routine

The Australian Writers' Centre runs Furious Fiction on the first weekend of the month. The brief is emailed at 5 pm on Friday. And writers have 55-hours to write and submit a 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!

Once again, my writing routine worked for October's Furious Fiction. And by Sunday morning, I had a draft with true sentences, half-truths, and 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. I dated a nurse before my marriage, so that part of the story was a half-truth.

"It's done when it's done."

Of his writing, Booker Prize winner George Saunders observed to Tom Vander Ark in an interview for Getting Smart (February 2018):

"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 satisfied the brief and sent a shiver up my spine, which is how I know when it's done.

But part of my Furious Fiction routine is to delay submitting stories until after a final 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 say about the intimate relationship between the songwriter and a new song.

Holding off submitting my story until late on Sunday also allowed me a final edit. At this stage, I was sitting on 499 words. And I decided one line, "... the longer I'll be stuck in Court", read better as "... the longer I could be stuck in Court".

Perfect, 500 words! I took a deep breath, crossed my fingers and clicked Submit.

Other True Sentences

October'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 (November 2020) at the Al-Rabie Hotel in Damascus, Syria — it opened with a "true" photo of me sitting in the hotel foyer in 1995. And I based Signs of the Second Coming (March 2021) on a primary school teacher who greeted my class with a beaming face after news of disasters because they heralded the Second Coming.

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However, I still doffed my cap to Hemingway for his advice to write one true sentence for October 2021. And thanks to four true sentences, a few half-truths and my writer's imagination, I'd enjoyed another productive weekend of Furious Fiction. Hopefully, the competition judges will enjoy and reward my short story, too — I'll let you know.

And after the judges' decision is announced, I'll share the story on Tall And True, so you can read it and learn how my protagonist fared in Court and what I did with BALLOON, ROCK and UMBRELLA.

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!

© 2021 Robert Fairhead

With thanks to congerdesign from Pixabay for sharing the image of the work-in-progress writing.

N.B. You might like to read my writers' tip piece quoting Ernest Hemingway, Writing First Sentences.

Grammarly

Robert Fairhead

A middle-aged dad and dog owner, 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 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, and in 2021 Twelve Furious Months, twelve short stories written for the Furious Fiction writing competition.

Outside of writing, Robert's favourite pastimes include reading, walking his dog, and watching Aussie Rules Football with his son.

He has also enjoyed a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.

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