Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Short, Shorter, Shortest

Some of you scribblers were a bit thrown by the prospect of writing very short fiction for the two recent competitions I posted news of. (Here and here.) Can an effective short story be written in 600 hundred words, 1,000 words?

Jules Horne on the Guardian blog tells us not to be dismissive of the form:
Ultra-short stories are newly fashionable and marketed as quick fixes of fiction, but the best of them demand close attention - and time - from readers.

Nanotale, nanonovel, flash fiction, microfiction, sudden fiction... call it what you will, the ultra-short story is enjoying a much-hyped revival. At a time when not-so-short story writers are struggling to get their collections out, it's the tiniest tales that seem to be squeezing on to publishers' lists. Ziv Nanoth's Nanotales is the latest in a recent line of pithy prose works by often experimental writers including Dan Rhodes, Dave Eggers and David Gaffney.

Of course, the short prose form is far from new. It has roots leading back to Aesop's fables; from the 19th century on, French writers such as Baudelaire and Max Jacob wrote prose poems that explore the boundaries between prose and poetry, and could happily sit with either. Twentith-century exponents include Italo Calvino, Franz Kafka, Elizabeth Bishop and Raymond Queneau, whose Oulipo movement of experimental writers pushed formal constraints to the limit.

Maybe that's why I'm perturbed to hear nanotales marketed as an ideal form for our attention-deficit age. These distinguished writers, often at the maverick outer edges of their art, weren't interested in offering up quick fixes for us to absorb between tube stops. They were drawn to its special challenges: the distilled essence of storytelling, the condensed emotion, the perception shift, the power of the unexpressed.

That said, it's easy to see why microshort stories have taken off in the digital age. They can be read at a single sitting, on a single screen. They fit beautifully into a blog. They can be whizzed around on the same "have-you-heard?" grapevines that bring us jokes, news and gossip. And now, they can even be heard: a 200-word short story makes a perfect minute-long podcast. Maybe that's their future - carried around on our iPods, as a kind of fictional "Thought for the Day"? Writers like Patrick McLean are taking this even further, with straight-to-audio stories written specially for the web.
As Horne points out, the usual length of a short-short story is between 100 and 1,000 words, so 600 words is actually quite a generous allowance! Not so long ago, Starlight posted a 300-word story challenge on her blog, and many of you tried your hand at it. (Incidentally, short-short-story.com is a very useful resource for writers of flash fiction.)

One of the best short stories I ever read was about a postcard to the future and was just 50 words long and incredibly effective! (It was in a an ELT writing textbook ... if anyone knows it and could send me a copy I would be so grateful).* There are some good fifty word stories on Bill Collin's website, if you think it can't be done.

And of course, there are stories that are shorter still. Horne reminds us of the Hemingway example:
For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.
which he describes as:
... a perfect specimen: a mighty backstory, a compelling character, and an emotional kick to crack the toughest heart.
Then there's this one by Margaret Atwood which I like even more:

Longed for him. Got him. Shit.
While a reader adds a cryptic six word tale by Joss Whedon:
Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so.
And knowing you guys (bored in the office, reading me surreptitously when the boss' back is turned) you want a go too.


*Hsian found the 50 word story I was trying to recall here. And this is it:

The Postcard

Friendless, he despatched a letter to the twelfth century. Illuminated scrolls arrived by return post. Jottings to Tutankahmen secured hieroglyphics on papyrus; Hannibal sent a campaign report. But when he addressed the future, hoping for cassettes crammed with wonders, a postcard drifted back with scorched edges. It glowed all night.

Isn't it just wonderful? It gives me goosebumps.

I forgot to tell you that the Guardian website has some of the Nanotales up already so if you want to see some samples ...


Kenny Mah said...

O Sharon, it's ever so easier when your office is currently a CoffeeBean cafe and the boss is a thousand miles away (well, not so far lah but you get the idea).

I am so behind the concept of short short stories! I'm all for them! Hurrah for short shirt stories!

This may be due largely to the fact that they are all I write... Longer stories are murder... :P

tunku halim said...

Email. Blog. Cafe meeting. SMS. Lunch meeting. More SMS. KLPac meeting. Oh, aren't I so important? Traffic. Airport. Now I can stop meeting-ing. Now I'm me again. To simply be. But can I really fly?

bibliobibuli said...

t h - meeting-ing? like it

kenny - i like to imagine my blog readers. i know most access from work. you should see the numbers whizz up on my counter first thing monday morning and slump away at weekends.

Lydia Teh said...

I like shorts. Can't seem to write long tomes. Mmm, should seriously consider this.

irene said...

I have this book -- an anthology of short-short stories, each one only 55 words long. Quite eye-opening. I've always thought it would be an amazing challenge to make myself come up with something whilst keeping to 55 words. But I've never actually sat down to try it!

midnite lily said...

i think that's cool. it should also give potential writers something to try out if they feel intimidated by writing a novel. =)

Kenny Mah said...

Yes, it's called 55fiction. I just discovered it myself. In fact I wrote an entire blog on it --- 5:55 ~ five stories, each 55 words long.

Oh I know what you mean. Weekends are the worst. Everyone's out partying and stuff. Weekdays they curi-curi read blogs so don't have to work. Which reminds me, I still have an assignment to finish --- oops! :P

bibliobibuli said...

haha just shows you who has a life and who doesn't! what kind of loser even thinks of checking their site meter on a sunday???

Kenny Mah said...

*looks around quickly, turns to self and appears sheepish*

animah said...

Here's my 6 lines:

Sunday. She checks blogsite meter. Again.

BawangMerah said...

I still remember the time when I used to struggle to reach 100 words required for essays in exams. Nowadays even blog posts can go on and on heheh.

BawangMerah said...

Oh and I forgot to include this,

Withered flower. Empty seat. Broken heart.

Hsian said...

Excellent idea, will use it for next "writing gym" I have!

Sharon, would you perchance be referring to this postcard story:

Another variation would be to write stories or poems in free verse just with one syllable words. A silly old one I did a while back :):

a note went to the wrong phone
my phone
tongue in cheek. some lust.
text twist. a text kiss?
who are you? i ask
he or she?
just like me?
should i call?
hear the voice? hushed tones
but i am shy
and i dont buy
love at first text

Have you read this book, Anthropology by Dan Rhodes? i wouldn't call it a great collection but there are some gems and the concept is interesting:

"Adult/High School-Anthropology 101 is a beginning course on the study of Man. Anthropology consists of 101 extremely short short stories (101 words) that explore the interactions between men and women."

See http://www.amazon.com/Anthropology-Hundred-Stories-Dan-Rhodes/dp/184195649X/ref=sr_1_1/105-6217129-9806841?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1173205272&sr=8-1

bibliobibuli said...

kenny - as well you might. but then, me too!

animah - good encapsulates everything

bawang merah - yes blogging ... it's hard to stop. maybe exercises like this are good fro us? your 6 word story works very well. maybe tho' you don't need to tell us that the poor guy's heart is brokn as we should (if we're good readers) be able to work it out from the clues.

love this outpouring of creativity!

hsian - you found the story for me!!!!! am so very grateful

i like the poem - works very well - this is an OULIPO kind of exercise - must blog this topic soon

bibliobibuli said...

hsien - the dan rhodes book is now on my amazon wishlist! many thanks for telling me about it

Kenny Mah said...

Love your six-word masterpiece! Can't stop laughing... at myself! :D

Anonymous said...

Sharon, that's a lovely mini tale. Am almost tempted to try and write one myself. Eliza.

Hsian said...

Hi Sharon

You're most welcome, know what it's like trying to recall that song, that story etc. Remembered reading the piece too and had a little help from google :).

Don't have too many expectations of the Dan Rhodes book, but it IS a fun read and like I said, has some gems. I believe Borders has copies, you should go sneak a peek.

Look forward to your post on Oulipo exercises. I find sometimes working with constrained writing techniques quite stimulating, especially as warm ups! And I like that mathematics has also found its way into writing too.

darkhello said...

Ooooh, Sharon! Just reading this made me all hyped up and excited!! Personally, I am a big fan of haikus. The careful and meticulous choosing of words, the punctilious attention to the littlest details' the whole profound-ness and simplicity of nanotales is heartrendingly beautiful. I read 'Near Taurus' that was posted on Starlight's blog, it had some kind of poetic property that was uncannily similar to that of the Symbolist era (perhaps nanotales is a revival of that, no?)

Reading the many Nanotales you cited made me feel like someone was cutting out a piece of his/her heart and extending it on languid palms to me, it's so refreshingly honest, minus the pretense and literary verbosity. Perhaps that's really what it is, a piece of someone's heart, at a certain place and point of time.

This is a superb post! you could start a revolution for potential Malaysian authors with nanotales! I can't wait to start writing my own!!

darkhello said...

Um, btw, blogger's commenting system is really...annoying. It's the third time i'm posting a comment on your blog. I typed a really long comment on The Company of Planters and Blogger ate it up!! :(

Perhaps it's time to get Haloscan commenting? Please? Saves us the trouble of going through the password protect thingy...

bibliobibuli said...

dark hello - verey short fiction i think has a great deal in common with poetry. not a single word can be out of place.

have you heard of haibun? they are a cross between haiku and prose. i think you might love these.

bibliobibuli said...

will think about haloscan comments? are they really that much better???

sashi said...

Haloscan comments are ok, but after a while your older Haloscan comments get archived and don't appear anymore unless you upgrade to a paid account.

Oh, and while I'm here... my contribution:

"The crying child opened the door and ushered me in. She held the knife doused in her father's blood. I walked into the room, witnessed the carnage. Too late, I heard the swish of the blade behind me."

Sorry, my mind went blank after 38 words.

bibliobibuli said...

you were probably bleeding to death by 38 words ... scary stuff!

darkhello said...

Hello Sharon!

Here are some info about third party commenting systems for blogs:-


2)A comparison between Haloscan and Blogger's comment system

Hopefully these might help you a little! :)

Oh thanks for the link! I totally love Haibuns!! Never knew about it at all.Can't stop reading them now...yikes. I can't help marvelling, it's such a wonderful cocktail of poetry + prose. Beautiful beautiful, beautiful!