Monday, 13 April 2015

The Long And Short Of Stories

Photograph of Ernest Hemingway as a baby.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have been asked once again by the Canadian University of Dubai to be a judge of their short story competition, '100 words'. This statement is laced with mild surprise that any reputable academic institution would repeat the same awful mistake: I was a judge last year, too.

It's a fascinating task, weeding through submissions from three groups, Under 12's, high school and university level entrants. For a start, you wouldn't necessarily be able to divide the submissions if all three groups were mixed up. Birth and death are themes that run through a number of the stories. Some chose not to send in a story at all, but an essay. Quite a few tried the old trick of setting us up for a punchline ending: a couple delivered with quite astonishing verve.

I always feel a bit sorry for them: while 100 words may not seem too daunting a task - 500 or 1,000 words seeming too much like 'real work' to encourage entries - 100 words puts us in the realm of 'flash fiction', stories of extreme brevity - it's actually quite hard to pull off well. For a start every single word counts and lazy habits like redundancies, filters and adverbs stare out of the screen accusingly at every turn.

She screamed with her mouth. Suddenly the gun fired. She cried deeply and agonisingly, her soul bared for all the world to see her pain. He laughed with joy, the sound of her lovely, golden voice reaching him across the wide yawning gap of the ages. The trophy dropped down to the floor and landed with a bang.

These are all remarkably common occurrences and when you've got 100 words to play with, you can't really afford them. Actually, I'd argue you can't afford them even when you're playing with 90,000 words - I'm currently reading one conventionally published author's second book and his publisher seems to have decided it wasn't worth hiring an editor this time around. I'm actually finding it hard to wade through the text at times, there is so much of this sort of thing going on. So it's no surprise to see them creeping into students' short stories - but they needn't be there. They're cuckoos, stealing space that other words deserve to occupy.

I find Twitter one of the most useful editing tools of all time. Expressing yourself in grammatically correct English using 140 characters (no 'text speak', please) can work wonders in encouraging the habit of actually constructing sentences as elegantly as possible. It's a skill I think we lose when we sit down to type stories on a word processor rather than a clackety typewriter or even, saints preserve us, grabbing a pen. Writers like Durrell, Waugh, Greene and Hemingway had time to think about every sentence, to roll it around in the mouth and savour it before committing it in inky scratches to that sheet of fine vellum. When they weren't busy beating their women or carousing in low bars, of course.

The perfect example of a short short - probably about the flashiest flash fiction you'll find - is often attributed to Hemingway, but sadly it's apocryphal and there's no proof it was Ernie at all...

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

There we go: six words and it never fails to punch way beyond its weight...

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