Flash Fiction: The Weird Way the Internet tells Good Writers to ‘Keep Writing’

It began with a simple idea: You unexpectedly time-travel to 1985. You have no way back, ever. What do you do?

The key word here is “unexpectedly.” You did not prepare for this, so you have no winning lottery numbers or sports almanac. Using only your memory, knowledge and skills, how do you benefit from this?

What started out as a thought experiment turned into something much bigger. I was imagining what could be the start of a new story concept, but as always, I was hung up on how everything played out for the character involved. I turned to the Internet for help.

AskReddit is an online community where you can post thought-provoking questions, and people will reply with answers. The more interesting the question, the more popular it becomes, and the more replies you receive.

The popularity of the question is determined by the community’s voting system. If readers like the question, they’ll vote it “up” — and if readers don’t like it, they’ll vote it “down.” The combined total of these “upvotes” and “downvotes” gives your question a score, which will determine where it appears on the website. Questions with a higher score are more visible.

I posted my time-travel question to AskReddit, and waited for responses to come back. I was hoping that someone’s answer would trigger a great plot idea I hadn’t thought of yet.

At first, people’s answers fell in line with my initial thoughts. You’re in 1985 with knowledge of future events. You invest in Microsoft, Google, and Apple. You bet big on the Super Bowl outcomes that you remember. You make startlingly accurate predictions about world events, and maybe even try to prevent the attacks on 9/11.

Most of these answers are missing the mark. You have no money or identity in 1985. You can’t just buy stocks and expect to immediately profit from them. The question of “What would you do?” doesn’t only refer to how you might benefit financially — it suggests how you now have the opportunity to start a new life, maybe befriend your parents when they were younger, or even give your younger self some personal advice from someone who’s “been there.”

By this point, people were asking additional questions for clarification of the rules. “Do you arrive in 1985 naked, like the Terminator? Or do you take everything you’re wearing with you?” — “Can you change things? If you meet your parents and prevent them from conceiving, do you still exist?” — “If you wait 26 years and meet 2011 for a second time, are you sent back again? Are you stuck in an infinite loop?”

My question was gaining popularity, so I clarified the time-travel rules:

  1. Your current clothes and any belongings on your person come with you.
  2. It is possible to change things as a result of your actions, HOWEVER you’re in an alternate timeline/universe, so nothing you change affects the fact that in 2011 you are unexpectedly sent back to 1985 (You cannot prevent your own existence).
  3. After being sent back to 1985, if you reach 2011 a second time after 26 years, you do not get sent back to 1985 again (No infinite loop).

So if you have any money in your wallet, it would be viewed as counterfeit in 1985. Your bank cards are similarly useless, as they all refer to accounts that don’t exist yet. Your I.D. indicates that you either haven’t been born yet, or that you’re much younger than you look.

People started to understand what I was getting at. New suggestions included going to the nearest hospital and faking amnesia. This is something I hadn’t thought of, and has potential. Many people explained how they’d go to their family for help, which is a reasonable reaction to the situation. Someone suggested they’d steal their father’s identity, because their physical appearance closely matches their dad’s.

Then one guy came along and blew everyone else’s reply out of the water:

Well, let’s suppose that I am walking home from work on a normal day and boom, I open my apartment door to find out it is 1985.

First comes confusion as I wonder why my apartment looks different. Hopefully no one is home. Hopefully something will trigger a sense of the ’80s, a magazine or household product. The TV will be old as hell but look new. I turn it on. It is around 6 pm, so I am watching the news and there is an earthquake in Mexico City and maybe something about Tipper Gore. I have $20 in my pocket and a wallet full of useless cards that would appear fake to authorities, not to mention no identity.

Sorry past apartment renters, but I gotta rob you. I search the apartment for anything I can take in my over-the-shoulder and maybe make some cash. I’m out the door.

It’s 1985. I am 11 years old in St. Louis. But 37 year-old me has a bag full of stolen goods in Chicago and is a block and half from my grandmother’s house. Will my grandmother recognize the 11 year old in the 37 year-old me? Is my youngest uncle currently around the corner at The Bubble having a drink? How can I get to St. Louis?

It’s September 19th and in a few weeks the Royals will escape defeat at the hands of the Cardinals with some bullshit call in Game 6. Also, the Bears will win the Super Bowl. Aside from the stolen goods, I have an Andriod LG phone, a 5-year old iPod nano and earphones, and a USB drive with personal and business files in a format that probably hasn’t been invented yet.

Credit goes to Reddit User: Hornswaggle

I told Hornswaggle that this read like the opening to a novel. I loved it, and “upvoted” his reply. Within the next 24 hours, it snowballed out of control.

People demanded more. “Dear god please don’t stop writing!” — “I would totally read this if you wrote a full length book about it!” — “Where can I buy your novel?”

As Hornswaggle continued his story, it only drew more people in:

At this point, I’ve got to get to St. Louis. What will that take in 1985? I can’t fly without ID, can I? I am trusting that my parents will somehow know that I am, in fact, their time-traveling son. I am trusting that parental feeling. But will my grandmother? What if she doesn’t… has she moved to Florida yet? I think back to a photo of me on the family station wagon with my sisters visiting my grandmother in Fort Myers, FL. How old was I? I look taller than 11 and I remember wearing a Led Zeppelin T, so probably older than 11. I think she is still in Granville. I’m going there, but first let’s get rid of these stolen goods. I don’t know how long I will be in this neighborhood, so I can’t find a pawn shop around here. I have some watches, jewelry, and 36 more dollars. I have two gold coins from 1976 and an antique Mickey Mouse watch with moving hands. I should go downtown, the L train is right here and I have 6 dollars in ones. I remember seeing older looking marquees for jewelers downtown, north of the Mag Mile. I walk to the Bryn Mawr stop. Thankfully, someone else is getting tokens from this machine I’ve never seen before, so I mimic her actions and get as many tokens as $6 will get me. I have a transit pass in my wallet, but it won’t work until 1999 or so.

Things are crazy as hell on what would later be named the Red Line and I am tempted to get out my iPod, but I will need all the power it has to maybe sell it or demonstrate its use to someone capable.

Walton and Delaware downtown are littered with jewelers and antique dealers. I sell 8 pieces of jewelry at 6 shops to avoid arousing suspicion and to get a better price, hoping I don’t look like anything but someone who recently lost his grandmother and these are the pieces we can part with.

It is 7:27 pm and I now have $467. I consider avoiding my grandmother altogether. I go over to State and Chestnut, the current “Viagra Triangle”, and have a beer. While I am at the bar I hear a laugh I recognize. I look over and see my boss. My boss is an awesome gal, 51 in 2011 but 25 in 1985. 2011 us had recently returned from a two week business trip though Hong Kong and Guangdong province.

That’s when it hits me. If I get lucky, I can use the tech in my bag to get a job manufacturing this shit in China, maybe start my own tech hardware company. Hell, even though the items in my possession are basically useless hard drives with programming in languages yet to be invented, the hard drive, USB, and touch-screen tech are invaluable technological head-starts.

First things, first:

Bang my 25-year old boss (she meets her current 2011 husband in 3 months!),

Get to St. Louis.

First things first.

Hornswaggle was creating “Flash Fiction,” a kind of writing style where a story is produced quickly and on-the-fly by the demands of social media. He had thousands of people’s attention, all of them constantly refreshing the page and begging him to keep writing. “PLEASE, do go on! I want more of this story can you please write a book and message me where I can buy it. I want a book about this whole story.”

As Hornswaggle continued to write more installments, people offered their assistance to help him along. They edited his grammar. They offered to host his developing story on their website. They bought him a premium Reddit account. Chicago locals offered to buy him drinks. One guy even created a cover art mock-up for Hornswaggle’s book-in-progress:

Hornswaggle 1985 - Cover Art by ltw999

An entire community was created in support of Hornswaggle’s developing story, and he already has over a thousand followers. You can read the continuation of the story as it unfolds at http://www.reddit.com/r/1985sweet1985

What I’ve learned from this is that an idea is only an idea. If you take that idea and run with it, though, you’ve got a story. With good writing and a good “hook,” a simple idea can turn into something big faster than you’d expect.

In short, there is no substitute for captivating writing. The reaction to Hornswaggle’s story is proof of that.

Thank you, Hornswaggle, for adding something interesting to my life this week. You are an excellent writer and an inspiration to aspiring authors like myself. I hope to write something as compelling and engrossing as your piece in the near future, and pray that one day I’ll meet the man behind the username. Perhaps at your first book-signing?

Cheers, good luck, and Godspeed.

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8 Responses to “Flash Fiction: The Weird Way the Internet tells Good Writers to ‘Keep Writing’”

#1 HL on 21, Sep, 2011 at 3:35 pm

I said it over there, and I’ll add it here as well:

Hornswaggle had me in tears, the unfolding story was so moving. I hope he goes to fame & fortune.

#2 null on 21, Sep, 2011 at 4:54 pm

this kind of shit is why I keep coming back to Reddit.

#3 Bezzmo on 22, Sep, 2011 at 7:08 am

The author (Mr. amazing Hornswaggle), have a special way to write.
I find myself holding my breath at certain “points” (don’t wanna spoil anything for those of you, who have not read the story), kind of the same way you hold your breath for the “hero” Hasselhoff in Baywatch. You get captured! Swept away to another time and place.

This great skill that Hornswaggle perfected in his art, is waaaaay better then what the manuswriters for Baywatch came up with!

If Hornswaggle endures to writre a 150+ pages novel, I think it could sell pretty good. Not just to us on Reddit. I’m thinking worldwide.

Do you guys need an PR-manager? 😉

#4 Chris Luckhardt on 22, Sep, 2011 at 4:51 pm

The question you posed and the ensuing responses highlight the best of the Reddit/online community to me; encouraging creativity and bringing out the best in people.

Offline, the concept has spurred on several intense conversations with my friends and family. In an overall sense, it seems to have created an interesting platform for reflection and introspection into one’s own life.

I sincerely hope to see Hornswaggle continue with his story. I would be in the (on)line-up of people waiting to purchase a PDF version!

#5 Dawn on 23, Sep, 2011 at 6:24 am

Oh no……I’m hooked! When will I EVER have time to write my own stories when I’m so busy reading other people’s?????

#6 Audiovore on 29, Sep, 2011 at 3:38 pm

Hmm, from the title I thought you’d bring up Rome Sweet Rome? But not even a mention…

#7 liquidjaguar on 16, Dec, 2011 at 10:58 am

Uhh, that’s not what flash fiction is. Flash fiction means a very short piece of fiction, often less than 1000 words. This is certainly not flash fiction.

#8 A on 27, Dec, 2011 at 10:08 am

Jokes on you, I carry a few pages of lottery numbers with me everywhere.

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