Finnian Burnett

Storyteller

I’ve been going through the folders from a creative writing class I took years ago – 2009, maybe? I had just started writing again after an almost 20 year break. Going to school as an almost 40-year old was terrifying, but being forced back into writing was the best thing that ever could have happened to me. It’s hard to believe now that I let self-doubt and some negative comments from people terrify me into not doing something I love for so long.

One of our first assignments was to describe our ideal writing space as if it were already a reality.

This is Where I Write

A wild garden threatens to take over the house and the porch. There is a bird feeder in the middle of the yard; the squirrels spend as much time in it as the birds and I haven’t the heart to kick them out.
Sitting on a wooden bench in the backyard, I peer through the windows of my studio. I see myself sitting at an old, battered hardwood desk, back and shoulders cramped in the hard wooden thrift store chair.
This is where I write. The walls are white and mostly bare, with splashes of color from paintings gifted by artist friends in exchange for books, or stories—a lopsided trade from my view as their brush strokes are so much deeper and lovelier than mine. The art is strewn across the wall haphazardly, hanging dangerously on nails I salvaged from the next-door neighbor’s workshop.
The built-in bookshelves seemed so spacious and plentiful when I first moved into this room.
Somehow, my books cannot be contained by mere shelves and make their way across the floor to the windowsills and the side tables and the corners of my desk.
They migrate, without my permission, and when I sit to write, I have to remove them from my chair, or gently relocate them from under my feet.
I can sit on this bench and watch myself work, at the desk, or in the corner arm chair, leg flung over the arm, sometimes lying on the floor, on the fluffy rug my mother insisted would soften the lines of the white room with hardwood floors, with my giant coffee cup always at my side.
Brutal Brutus the Destroyer lies happily at my feet, or next to me on the floor, until his patience runs out and he tells me it is time for a walk. I rely on him. Without his gentle reminders, I might never leave this room and the garden would eventually take over the house, and the porch and the studio, and I would be found, wrapped in vines, with a notepad, and the beginnings of a new story—partially written—dangling from my hands.

You know, you have those days (weeks, months) when you think you are the worst writer in the world and no one is ever going to publish you again. Or is that just me? Those weeks when you’ve gotten more rejections than acceptances, or worse, when you haven’t submitted anything in a long while and you start to wonder if you ever will again.

My last novel was published in 2018. I traditionally published my first few novels and self-published one. Both ways of publishing have their ups and downs, but I find it easier to publish with a publisher. However, my previous publisher is a niche publisher (LGBTQ press) and my latest works are not queer fiction so it’s back to square one in finding a publisher.

And sometimes, I worry I’ll never publish another novel. I have a couple completed ones, but querying is exhausting and draining to me, so I don’t tend to send them out. I don’t really want to self-publish, either. So, they languish and I think about them occasionally and then I stop thinking about them until the next time. Why is the business of writing so hard on a person’s mental health?

But recently, I’ve become more and more enamored with flash fiction and lately, I’ve been finding some success in short pieces. I’ve been published a few times this year and overall, I’ve felt my acceptance to rejection rate in 2021 has been stellar.

This week, though. THIS has been an amazing week. This is the kind of week a writer needs to have so they can hold on for the next few months.

It started at the beginning of the week when I went to the Bath flash fiction festival online. They do three contests during the day and all participants are encouraged to submit to them the day after the festival. I submitted a piece for the technical challenge, a contest that required writing a narrative in the form of a recipe. I won first place.

Later that week, I found out my 42-word short story was accepted into an anthology.

A couple days later, I found out The Daily Science Fiction will be publishing my short piece, “The Last Gay in the World.”

I was invited to submit several drabbles to a holiday anthology and those were accepted. That book can be found here.

And last night, I found out I won first place in the Wine Country Writer’s Festival fiction contest for my short story, “The Rhee Family Drugstore.”

This has been an incredible year of short and flash fiction publishing for a few reasons.

  1. It’s kept me writing. Even when I feel the novel writing thing is too much, I can still keep honing my craft with short pieces.
  2. The thrill of acceptance. There are so many contests and journals out there. I can enjoy the thrill of the acceptance without the long, excruciating wait of sending out a book to a publisher.
  3. The flash community is wonderful.
  4. All this writing of flash gave me an idea for an novella-in-flash, my recently completed work called, “The Clothes Make the Man,” which I will probably submit to a contest.
  5. I have honed the f*ck out of my craft! All this flash writing has given me a new appreciation for lyrical language, the economy of words, and the balance between revealing too much and not giving the reader enough. When or if I do go back to writing novels, I can’t help but think all this flash practice will be a great service.

Perhaps the most important thing to come out of this writing week of awesomeness is that you just have to keep trying in whatever way feels right to you. I think writers (or perhaps creators of any kind) all go through these periods when we think no one is reading our work, no one wants us to succeed, no one will ever appreciate us, and maybe we should just stop.

That’s normal. But it isn’t permanent. And maybe when I hit another plateau and I’m feeling sorry for myself and doubting my writing ability, I’ll pull up this blog and remember the thrill and excitement of how it felt to have a very good week.

We can hope.

I’ve recently given a flash fiction workshop for the When Words Collide Literary Festival and the Golden Crown Literary Festival. Now, I’m bringing a version of it to the virtual Wine Country Writer’s Festival.

This fantastic festival is free and open to anyone – it’s online so you can join from anywhere in the world. You do have to register, but once you do, you’re eligible for all the Saturday panels/presentations. You can check it out here. The schedule is up, along with the link to register. I hope to see you there!

Emma’s Perfection

She touched my ear during Algebra. She touched my ear, and I didn’t dare look at her, but the tingle stayed long after her fingers had gone. After class, she leaned to whisper, her warm breath dancing across my already sensitive skin. I know, but it doesn’t matter. She couldn’t know. She meant something else. Maybe that I cheated on the last quiz, glancing casually at her paper for answers three and fifteen. She knew. What did she know?

Later, I slammed into my house, tossing my bag on the floor.

Dad 1 offered cookies and asked if I wanted to talk. Dad 2 made a cup of tea.  

I flopped down on a kitchen chair. There’s a girl. I think she might like me.

They oohed and aahed. There’s hope for our little Pikachu yet, Dad 1 exclaimed.

I took my tea and left them in the kitchen, giggling to themselves.

I’d never been afraid of being queer, or bi, or whatever the hell I was that allowed me to love whomever I wanted to love. I grew up with the dads, after all. And my mom was in love with a man who lived with his wife and his wife’s lover and the lover’s ex-husband.

But Emma’s hair was perfect, and she wore the right clothes and when she walked into the classroom, everyone looked at her. She read Jane Austen and had perfect handwriting. She had exactly one father and one mother and one excruciatingly well-behaved little brother whose face was never dirty.

On Monday, I wore plaid pants and a short-sleeve button front shirt, the blue one that made my arms look even scrawnier than ever. I stole Dad 1’s favorite bowtie. It had little whales on it. My mom bought it for Dad 1 on the fifteenth anniversary of the day I was conceived. Kind of a gross and weird thing to celebrate.

I love that tie, Emma whispered while we graphed linear inequalities. Emma got straight A’s. She smelled faintly of lavender and her hair was so long it sometimes brushed against my arm when she shook her head.

She touched my ear and now she loved my tie. I picked up my pencil. What do you know? I wrote, with trembling fingers. I didn’t want to ask, but I had to know. My handwriting looked shaky and small like my grandma’s in the infrequent birthday cards she sent, the ones she always addressed to Alexa no matter how many times I told her to call me Alex.

Emma took my pencil, her fingers lingering for a moment on mine. Her parents were normal. I’d seen them. Her mother had the kind of perfectly frosted blond hair that only came from the most expensive salons. Her dad was hearty and liked to shake people’s hands. They went to church on Sundays and her father played golf with my Dad 2’s boss.  

I know you like me, she wrote. I like you, too.

I scrawled back the first thing that popped into my head. What about your parents? What the fuck was wrong with me? The most perfect girl in the world liked me and I was thinking about her parents.

She touched my ear again. Let’s worry about them after our first date.

This is the piece I wrote for the NYC Midnight Micro Fiction content. It had to be 100 words long, contain the action of smoothing a wrinkle, use the word “amber” and fall into the drama category.

I came in 13th, which is great because it means I advance to the next round.

Four windowpanes, three chairs, twenty ceiling tiles. I’ve counted everything in the room dozens of times. My fingers unconsciously smooth wrinkles on the blanket while she fitfully dozes.

I want to smooth the wrinkles on her drawn face instead, smooth the hollows from weight loss, but the last time I touched her, long strands of amber hair attached to my rough hands and pulled from her head in clumps.

“April,” she murmurs, and I jump. The month we married. Our daughter’s name. I wait for more but she’s silent, barely breathing.

I lean back in my chair and resume counting.