This month’s FLASH on the FIVE comes from the fabulous Cheap Pop. They have been putting out great flash for years, and one of the things that sets them apart from the magazines I’ve highlighted in previous months is that Cheap Pop publishes stories 500 words and fewer (while most, if not all, of the previous flash magazines I've discussed have a max word limit of 1,000 words). Although Cheap Pop's stories may be shorter in length, they definitely still pack a gigantic punch. And this month’s story – “Becoming” by Kyra Kondis – is certainly no exception! I invite you to click and read the story below and then please return for the fantastic Q&A with the author. This one matters.
FAVORITE LINE: When the ghost arrives at the photo shoot, she is a burst of cold wind, a slight tinge of silver in the air.
For those following the column, you may notice that this is not the first time the opening line is also my favorite. It’s so important in a short piece of flash fiction to have a killer opening line. Something that grabs readers by the wrist and pulls them in immediately. And this one, as much as any, does just that.
But beyond all of the beautiful lines like this throughout the story – there are dozens – what I love most about this piece is how it brings up such important commentary yet at no point does it dip into being preachy. There’s a strong takeaway here, but it doesn’t take away from the actual story. The ghost is not a generic placeholder used to serve a great message. The ghost is a fully-formed character (though not literally in this case), but a character nonetheless, a girl with “such round cheeks” who finally realizes that “being wanted doesn’t replace being her.” For someone so hard to see, there sure is a lot of clarity to this character.
And what a treat to be able to pick Kyra’s brain about the creation of this story and the issues it addresses. Whatever you took away from the story, get ready to double that in this standout Q&A:
1) I'm always curious about where stories come from, that first tiny seed. What was the inspiration or idea-spark for “Becoming”?
I was scrolling through Instagram and saw a photo of a celebrity whose face had been so Photoshopped/FaceTuned, I didn't even recognize her at first. And I don't mention this to ridicule her -- rather, it's to say that I think we're under this immense pressure to fit a certain image of "beautiful," which is of course hugely problematic, damaging, and unhealthy. That's how I got the idea of the ghost model: she doesn't show up on camera, so they just Photoshop whatever image they're going for, and it doesn't really matter to them who she is (was?) as a person. She's commodified, basically.
2) That small opening paragraph is so powerful. They can’t even really see her, yet they laud her with compliments (“stunning”, “you’re so hot”). It’s hilarious, but it’s also so sad. I think it can be really difficult to make a strong statement, which this story does, without coming off as preachy, which this story doesn’t. Can you speak to that balance, and your approach with this story. How conscious/deliberate were you of that fine line?
Thank you! To me, it felt important to make sure everything happening was something that we could imagine happening in real life, even though it's obviously a surreal story. The first bits of dialogue were things I could imagine being comments on an Instagram post, for example. I think if those small moments of how everyone else treats the ghost were exaggerated too much, the story would feel too "in your face." In addition, it was really important to me that the ghost feel like a fully-fledged character in that short space, otherwise she would kind of be succumbing to the flatness that everyone else around her is ascribing to her. I think in order to strike the balance between making a statement and still being a story, the ghost had to have a certain humanity about her--she needed those memories, those feelings that she has.
3) Along this same idea – “A ghost makes the best model. She has no imperfections.” – it got me thinking: is this more of a specific commentary on the industry (modeling, entertainment, etc.) or on society’s view and treatment of women in general? Or is one really just a magnification of the other? Another way to think of this – would this story work as well with a different profession?
I would say that these two things you bring up--how women are treated in public-facing positions/careers like modeling and entertainment, and how we're treated in general--are kind of hand-in-hand. I think there's a certain absurdity to, for example, a lot of clothing and makeup advertisements where the models are photoshopped so much that you don't actually know what the product being advertised looks like. And I think we see those advertisements and feel a lot of pressure because of them. But I also think that the impossible standard we're held to image-wise is just one type of many impossible standards we experience. For example, there's not being too outspoken at a job so you aren't considered "bossy," but then being passed up for a promotion because you weren't outspoken enough. And of course, this all is amplified when you add in other intersections of identity, such as race, class, disability, sexuality. It's no secret that there are degrees of racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism embedded in these "ideal" (read: impossible) standards that make everyone's experiences different.
Which is all to say, though--I think this story, or a version of it, could work with a variety of different situations, but modeling felt "right" because of how it is so public-facing, and it's something that we've all likely seen before--we've seen those impossible standards in magazines, billboards, social media. As something we can picture, for a story that would need tight imagery, modeling felt like the best fit.
4) This is something I haven’t asked yet in this series, but I think it will be an interesting peek (for both writers and non-writers) into the process: can you speak to the overall journey this story went through – drafts? amount of editing? readers? time between first word and finished product? All that fun stuff.
The first draft of this story came together pretty quickly, but it was several paragraphs longer, and had some stuff that it didn't need; the ideas were all there, but sometimes, it overstated things. I tend to over-write in a first draft so that when I go back and revise, I can see very clearly what I was trying to accomplish. I personally find paring something down to be easier than trying to conjure up depth (though I've done both before). I'm lucky to have a handful of trusted beta readers from my MFA program with whom I exchange writing--they are incredible and talented, and I hope they get scooped up by an agency or publishing house somewhere--and I sent this to one or two of them. They let me know where I could be more implicit, and where lines or bits of dialogue felt too overwrought. This is ultimately what made the story sing, I think, as mentioned in question 2--in order for it to work, it had to feel natural, and the first draft was more heavy-handed.
I tend to spend months to years on longer short stories, but for flash, I think I usually end up with a final draft after anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, just because it's fewer pages and often a matter of tightening and tweaking the things that make the story work (not always, but usually; some flashes get shelved for much longer while I re-work them). This story was somewhere in the weeks-to-months range. After I revise, I like to sit on a piece for a bit before reading it again and deciding what's needed, and sometimes I'll send the revised version to a reader, depending on how big the revisions were.
5) What are you working on now, and where can we see more of your writing?
I'm working on a collection of short stories, most of which are not flash, despite most of my publications up to now being flash! I'm a little bit nervous to put that longer work out into the world, but I really, really love a good 15-to-20-page short story, and I've had a lot of fun working on the pieces in the collection, in part because of how much room I have to try things in each one. I've just started to submit some of these, so nothing is available to read yet, but I have a variety of pieces (mostly flash) linked on my online portfolio, which can be found here: https://www.kyrakondis.com/creative-writing-publications/. You can also find me in the Best Microfiction 2020 anthology and Wigleaf's Top 50 Very Short Stories of 2020, if you are so inclined! You can also find me on Twitter at @kyra_nicole_k.