16 May is the first ever day celebrating the art of micro-fiction.
I began to produce these ultra-short stories – sawn-off tales, as I call them – when I was commuting from Manchester to Liverpool: a 50-minute journey, often elongated by windscreen-wiper failure, fights on the train, or getting stuck behind the “stopper”. But I had a book, as did most passengers. One day while ruminating on the number of train journeys it took to read a novel, I began to wonder how long it would take to write one. I decided on 500 words a trip – there and back was 1,000 words a day – taking just four months to reach a respectable novel length of 80,000 words.
So the next day I boarded the 8.12am at Manchester Piccadilly, rushed for a table seat, and, instead of whipping out my paperback, set up my laptop and began tapping away. But after a couple of weeks it was clear that the novel wasn’t working. What I’d produced was a set of separate stories each around a 1,000 words long.
I was about to ditch the idea when I heard about a new website called the Phone Book, which needed 150-word stories to send out as text messages. All that was needed was a bit of editing. Initially, as I hacked away at my over-stuffed paragraphs, watching the sentences I once loved hit the floor, I worried. It felt destructive, wielding the axe to my carefully sculpted texts; like demolishing a building from the inside, without it falling down on top of you. Yet the results surprised me. The story could live much more cheaply than I’d realised, with little deterioration in lifestyle. Sure, it had been severely downsized, but it was all the better for it. There was more room to think, more space for the original idea to resonate, fewer unnecessary words to wade through. The story had become a nimble, nippy little thing that could turn on a sixpence and accelerate quickly away. And any tendencies to go all purple – if it sounds like writing, rewrite it, as Elmore Leonard said – were almost completely eliminated. Adjectives were anthrax.
It worked. By the time I got to Birchwood I had it down to 500 words, by Warrington to 300, at Widnes 200 and as the train drew in to Liverpool Lime Street there it was – 150 words, half a page of story; with a beginning, a middle and an end, with character development and descriptions, everything contained in a Polly Pocket world.
These stories, small as they were, had a huge appetite; little fat monsters that gobbled up ideas like chicken nuggets. The habit of reducing text could get out of hand too; I once took away the last two sentences of a story and realised I had reduced it to a blank page.
Luckily the Phone Book liked my stories and published them, and I continued to churn them out each day on the train, while the train guard announced the delays, the tea trolley rolled past, and a succession of passengers sat next to me, reading over my shoulder.
A week after sending the manuscript to Salt Publishing I got a call from Jen, their editor. They wanted to publish it, and quickly. All I needed was a quote for the cover, a photo for the sleeve, and we were off.
I don’t commute that route any longer – my new job covers the whole north west of England involving train trips to Blackpool, Lancaster, east Lancashire, west Cumbria and Cheshire, so my stories have grown quite a bit longer. But last time I was on a train to Lime Street the guard’s identity badge took me right back – because that’s where I got the names for all of my characters.
How to write flash fiction
1. Start in the middle.
You don’t have time in this very short form to set scenes and build character.
2. Don’t use too many characters.
You won’t have time to describe your characters when you’re writing ultra-short. Even a name may not be useful in a micro-story unless it conveys a lot of additional story information or saves you words elsewhere.
3. Make sure the ending isn’t at the end.
In micro-fiction there’s a danger that much of the engagement with the story takes place when the reader has stopped reading. To avoid this, place the denouement in the middle of the story, allowing us time, as the rest of the text spins out, to consider the situation along with the narrator, and ruminate on the decisions his characters have taken. If you’re not careful, micro-stories can lean towards punchline-based or “pull back to reveal” endings which have a one-note, gag-a-minute feel – the drum roll and cymbal crash. Avoid this by giving us almost all the information we need in the first few lines, using the next few paragraphs to take us on a journey below the surface.
4. Sweat your title.
Make it work for a living.
5. Make your last line ring like a bell.
The last line is not the ending – we had that in the middle, remember – but it should leave the reader with something which will continue to sound after the story has finished. It should not complete the story but rather take us into a new place; a place where we can continue to think about the ideas in the story and wonder what it all meant. A story that gives itself up in the last line is no story at all, and after reading a piece of good micro-fiction we should be struggling to understand it, and, in this way, will grow to love it as a beautiful enigma. And this is also another of the dangers of micro-fiction; micro-stories can be too rich and offer too much emotion in a powerful one-off injection, overwhelming the reader, flooding the mind. A few micro-shorts now and again will amaze and delight – one after another and you feel like you’ve been run over by a lorry full of fridges.
6. Write long, then go short.
Create a lump of stone from which you chip out your story sculpture. Stories can live much more cheaply than you realise, with little deterioration in lifestyle. But do beware: writing micro-fiction is for some like holidaying in a caravan – the grill may well fold out to become an extra bed, but you wouldn’t sleep in a fold-out grill for the rest of your life.
Off you go!
Reprinted: The Guardian 05/14/12