Thursday, July 2, 2009

Long Story Short: But Is It Too Short?

In a recent Funds for Writers Newsletter contributor Julie Bloss Kelsey tells about finding your next writing gig on Twitter. Twitter, of course, is the site where you keep the world updated on your doings in 140 characters or less. Many feel that Twitter, along with MySpace and Facebook and all the other social networking sites, is a must for writers and wannabe writers to promote their work. Now, Kelsey tells us,

"Twitter markets, or "twitterzines", are popping up online looking
for 140 character "nanofiction" (also known as "twiction" or
"picofiction") and poetry."
Lately, many "six-word competitions"(see this six-word site) are cropping up as well based on Ernest Hemingway's answer to that challenge,

"For sale: Baby shoes, never worn."

Hem, of course, was master of the minimal, the king of leave 'em guessing, but while he may have considered the six-worder his best story, the rest of us are pretty glad most of his work is somewhat expanded.

Flash Fiction, which, depending on the guidelines could mean anything from under 1000 words to under 100, became popular over the last decade, most likely due to the growing amount of literature being published online. While putting a name to it may be relatively new, many classics fall into that genre, like Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" that weighs in at 1015. Several of Poe's most famous works, while not close to a thousand, are still quite short, often in the of 2000-2500 range. Going back to Hemingway "The Old Man at the Bridge" is less than 800 words.

There's no doubt that short demands more skill than long. I always counsel new writers to shoot for lower word counts as way of disciplining themselves to trim the fat. In my own mind, I feel that most short fiction exceeding 4000-4500 words leans toward the self-indulgent and could benefit from a trim. That includes the work of new writers and established writers, who, having made their name, are allowed a certain leeway.

However, there is short, and then there is short. While we may marvel at the ability of a Hemingway or Joyce Carol Oates to tell a story in one or two sentences, the majority of writers don't share that skill. Most aspiring writers don't grasp that Flash, for example, is more than telling a quick story. It requires the writer in a very few words to, as Hemingway did with "Bridge" and Chopin did with "Hour," develop three dimensional characters with a past and present––sometimes even a future.

As fascinating as Hem's six-word story is, even he couldn't develop the characters behind it. In fact, most of these stories are pretty much clever statements with a twist at the end. Oates's six-worder at the site above (I hesitate to quote it here. What is fair use when the whole story is just six words?) really tells us nothing of the characters behind it. Why does she want to live without him? Was the problem hers or his? Indeed, we assume the POV is that of the woman, but is it? Was the lover of the opposite or same sex? Was it a lover or maybe a parent?

While these mysteries are worth pondering, after a few, I'd get tired of the pondering and want more. A few years ago I remember leafing through a collection of stories under 100 words that a seat mate loaned me on a plan ride. After just a few it became tedious. All of them relied on a surprise or shock ending and most were not particularly well-written.

I think six-word stories make a great exercise, and if competitions encourage you to try it, why not. However, few people do it as well as they think they do. For my part, I hope twitterzines and nano-fiction are just a passing fancy.


jublke said...

Hi Nannette:

I, too, was surprised to find Twitter markets. That was what inspired me to write the article for Funds for Writers. It will be interesting to see if this is a lasting trend (or not). The idea of serializing a piece into 140 character increments, though, just might have staying power. I also have to admit, I think it might be fun to see a Twitter romance 'zine.

Nannette Croce said...

Very interesting and well-written article I might add. Check out thearticle in P&W about Twitterature––presenting the classics in twitter-size chunks. I'll mention it in a post.


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