Wednesday, February 25, 2009


There is an adage pertaining to the writing of fiction, or any writing for that matter, which suggests an author would be wise to reduce his verbiage and lower his word count for the sake of brevity. In other words, keep it short and sweet. Keep it short and simple. Keep it stupid, simple. Keep it super simple. Keep it simple simon. You get the idea. Kiss excess words goodbye.

Legend goes in the 1920’s someone bet Ernest Hemingway ten bucks he couldn’t write a story in six words. He came up with:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

He won the bet. He even went so far as to declare his six-word story his best work. That’s saying something since he went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 for The Old Man and the Sea followed by the Noble Prize for Literature in 1954. Wikipedia states “Hemingway's distinctive writing style is characterized by economy and understatement, and had a significant influence on the development of twentieth-century fiction writing.” No doubt about it. Understated and economizing. I’d say so.

I’m no Hemingway expert, I’ve only read the one short story, but even I get the point. Less can be more. No unnecessary backstory. No convoluted, lengthy explanations. Zero research. Only possibilities.

Here’s an example of a six-word story by Margaret Attwood, our Canadian goddess of the written word.

Longed for him. Got him. Shit.

Here are my efforts:
Seeking sanity. Missed by a mile.
Widow tosses gun in river. Amen.
Here, he won’t be needing it.
He arrived late. She left early.
(And no, I’m not going to admit how much time I spent on these sub par examples. Suffice to say, I had fun.)

Enter flash fiction or postcard fiction. These are short stories known for their extreme brevity (1000 words or less). They contain the usual: a protagonist, conflict, complications and an outcome, some of which are hinted at or implied. Nanofictions involve at least one character and a plot and are exactly fifty-five words in length. 69er’s have an exact word count of sixty-nine not including title. Drabble – one hundred words. Who knew? Not me, but I live in a bubble.

I think trying one’s hand at flash fiction might be an effective writing exercise. Take an out of control scene and reduce it to flash fiction size. I recently did something similar after a friend included a KISS comment as part of her critique on my wip. The scene is no longer passive but shorter, action driven and not bogged down by backstory. I think.

Have you ever tried your hand at flash fiction or postcard fiction? Do you want to have some fun today? Give the six-word story a try and post your efforts in the comments.


Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Karen - you know in the military, KISS meant something different - at least until they had to stop yelling at us when the Human Rights Charter took effect. :)

I actually participate in a bi-weekly challenge where I have to keep my scene/story to under 1000 words over on the Writer's Challenge board at

And about your 6 word story, Lit agent Rachelle Gardner ran a contest with that theme back in May 08. She rec'd 149 comments for that blogpost and they all had entries. You can read them here:

My comment read: 'I'm not good at 'short and sweet', but I can't pass up the chance of a critique from Rachelle, so here goes...oh and I've got 4 projects on the go so I won't even attempt to explain my mindset when I wrote these:

News headline:
From Starvation to Gluttony; Parents Sued.

Bumper Sticker:
Foster Care Parents are Freedom Fighters

Definition of boredom:
Polygamy wife: less work, less play.

Personal Ad:
Wife wanted: all work, no play.'

No, I didn't win, but many others did. She posted the winners here:

I believe all writers need to challenge themselves with the short length pieces, even if it's just to get into the habit of 'tightening' your wip.

Another great post, Karen. Thank you for the reminder.

Karen said...

Anita, you know all the good places to hang out. I've got to start hanging out with you over at eharl.

I thought your contest entries were great but my favorite is the last one.

I agree, playing with short length pieces is a valuable way to learn to tighten sentences.

Now I'm off to Rachelle Gardner's blog to check out the other entries.

Janet C. said...

Great post, Karen. Sometimes as writers we don't see the forest for all the trees. Sometimes we need good friends and a critical eye to point out the obvious :)

And great examples of 6 word stories - from you both. I'm going to give it a whirl, try not to grimace.

I go to work. Bored. Repeat.
His touch, his eyes, my life.
Bloody knife, dead body, witnesses. Guilty!

Now, I'm obsessed. Must write more. (hey, that's one).

K- now I really do have to get back to the daily grind (see above short story). And I'll keep that KISS in mind when I get back to editing/revising Lady Bells tonight.


Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Karen, those are good! I especially liked the work one.

Karen said...

Hi Janet,
Those are great examples and the work one is my favorite too.

Have fun revising tonight.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Karen, my husband reminds me of that adage a lot as well, but like Anita, his use of that acronym has more of an rcmp-depot feel to it ;)

Another interesting short challenge is Twitter stories. Twitter only allows 140 characters (including spaces and punctuation) in a message, so it's an interesting challenge to condense something to that space. The same goes for Twitter-queries, and such. I've seen contests for Twitter stories/queries off and on, but I can't recall where right now, so no links.

Trying my hand at one before I dive into my day's writing.

Grandmother's wedding dress. Ivory, not white.

Janet C. said...

Love your short, Hayley. As for Twitter Query Contest - The Swivet (Colleen Lindsay's blog - she's an agent for Fineprint Lit). You'll have to check in the archives. This week she's been doing a Haiku Query Contest.

People might also want to check out
An e-zine for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror that publishes twitter stories (140 characters). Last I heard, they were paying 5 cents/word which works out to be $1.20US.


Karen said...

Hi Hayley,
I've seen Twitter mentioned all over the place but don't really know anything about it. I'm very intrigued, I'll have to go check it out.

Love the short story. Brings to mind all kinds of possibilities.

Karen said...

Thanks for the info Janet!

Suse said...

Hey Karen, this was an excellent reminder, not only of tightening our sentences, but trying to create tag lines for our stories. If we met an agent in an elevator and she asked us to explain our story in a nutshell, this might be what she's looking for.

My favorite of yours is "Widow tosses gun in river. Amen."

Unfortunately I had another busy day at work, so the brain isn't firing on all cylinders. Here are my attempts at 6 word stories:

For sale: wedding dress. Never worn.

Two projects. Two bosses. Too tired.

Karen said...

Hey Suse,
That's another interesting point - tag lines. I need a tag line. I'd offer one but my brain's too tired. Just came back from High School Musical on Ice.

I think your stories are great.