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Free Your Stories—Put Them in Cages

I futzed away on a tiny short story today for the Esquire Short Short Fiction contest, which honors the magazine’s 78th birthday with a contest for stories of 78 words. Mandated word counts are an interesting exercise: they are both constrained and liberating. Constrained, because if you go 79 words here, you’re out. Also because they force you to examine every branch of your story’s tree, and to see that a careful pruning can open up the air and the light in a tale (as well as a tree).

Word cages are liberating because knowing a story’s boundaries allows you to map it all the more clearly. You chop that subordinate clause there because it droops too heavily with verbiage. You might even have to chop out a subordinate character for the very same reason. (Note: you cannot do this with your relatives.)

Shaping Stories by Word-Slicing
Thus, being told by a child “Tell me a story” can be so much more challenging than “tell me a story with a princess who bets on the horses and ends up becoming a big-wave rider in Hawaii.” Riding the waves is easier when you can see their definition. Also, there is an almost surgical sense of control when it’s evident that you can change a sentence’s flavor just by excising some sagging skin. Even the whisking away of a “that” or an “a” can put more pepper in a phrase.

Which reminds me of the Twain quote: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

War AND Peace? Please Choose
Sometimes writing to a theme and a word count is just plain fun. I have a piece coming out in the Nov/Dec issue of Writer’s Digest, for their “Reject a Hit” page. The challenge is to act as though you were the cruel, benighted editor that turned away a literary classic, and you must do such in 300 words. Like for that handicapping, wave-sailing princess, the theme constrains and liberates. Here’s mine:

Mr. Tolstoy: Re: your “War and Peace” query—my God man, one word: editing! Readers today are busy counting the serfs, polishing their mazurkas and dusting their Pushkin collections. They haven’t the stomach to digest a twelve-room dacha of a work. Think a brightly lit (but slight) tea garden of literature for today’s busy readers, or at most an airy drawing room. And let’s be reasonable—War AND Peace? Confine it to one, and save 350 pages.



Now, some specifics: Instead of the original Petersburg setting, it’s best to confine the whole thing in a tiny village, eschewing all those dreary travel scenes. If I had to read again about the boorish behaviors of a panoply of grubby roadside characters, I’ll scream! Keeping it to a village makes it more like a tidy play. In fact, perhaps this WOULD make a fine play—study your Chekov for pointers.

And let’s avoid all that violence and mayhem; we can’t found literary works on sensationalism, you know. And any drinking scenes have to go—that’s a fusty Russian stereotype that could use refreshing. Perhaps all the villains could be low-level clerks? Everyone hates a clerk. 

You do show some promise with character, though must you go on so? No more interminable sighs for the women, or long-winded hortatory oaths from the men; think clean, declarative, adjective-free sentences. It should go without saying that no women should die in childbirth, ugh! And really—including the French, even if the portrait is unflattering, in a popular novel? No. No French.



In summary, the work shows no small promise—but it’s TOO LARGE! Tighten its belt, shave its unshorn soldiers, pare 10 peasants for every one saved, remove all those fluffy word-curtains and showy emotive splashes and you might have something here. In fact, this might make a perfect piece of flash-fiction. Cut it down to 500 words and re-submit.

You can see it how it will be printed in the magazine here. And if you really want to put some tight wraps on your writing, hie on over to Smith Magazine, home of the Six-Word Memoir project. Every day lots of folks work on putting their words on a diet by posting six-word stories. (Dirty trick: use hyphenated compounds and cheat!) The editors even collect some of the entry categories for publication in books. So get cracking, but remember: six words is a story, seven is a stultifying bore.

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14 thoughts on “Free Your Stories—Put Them in Cages

  1. Quite true. Sonnets and haiku are my favorite poems to write because of their restrictions. They offer a nice sandbox to play in.

    (I feel the effect of this post already – trimming this comment to its essence.)

  2. Hey Joshua, I try now and then to write both haikus and sonnets (and it shows that my trys are only now and thens). Those are two forms that are very demanding, but pretty rewarding when you come up with something that even resembles the beautiful models we have from the past.

    And yes, there can (and should) be definite play involved, because something so challenging should come with a reward. (See how spoiled I am?)

  3. “Sperm too potent, just had triplets.”

    Now THAT is pithy (and culled from the many interesting submissions at the Smith Magazine Six-Word Memoir project).

    Congrats on the “Reject a Hit” piece, Tom, though I cannot imagine why any editor would urge Tolstoy to leave out those interminable sighs for women.

  4. Well, if those interminable sighs were particularly melodic, as must have been the woman’s that bore triplets, I might be persuaded to leave them in. If I could leave the room.

    Those six-worders can be fun, though. I entered a few myself, but none about potent sperm. Maybe “Duct was cut; sperm purgatory bound”

  5. Rick and Joshua—you guys are obviously hungry! I’m worried about your blood sugar. In the meantime, you can eat this:

    Ate a poem with wings; flew

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