Editor’s note: Hey, gang. In lieu of a poetry slam this month I’m giving you a special treat: a look into the brain of our original micro grid editor, Christine! Christine started writing micros back at the old Trifecta challenge and when YeahWrite decided to add a third weekly challenge, there was nobody else we wanted to run it. (Mostly so she wouldn’t just show up and win all the time.)
With the microprose grid reappearing at YeahWrite this month (and on the first Wednesday of every month from now on, yay!) we thought this would be a great time to revisit Christine’s suggestions about what makes a good microstory. And rather than throw a bunch of links at you, she volunteered to write an entirely new post. So here you go. For those of you who really like to metagame your writing, this is one of the people who chooses our editors’ picks, and the rest of us agree that she’s got the right idea. So pay close attention and we’ll see you on the microprose grid for YW #312, right? -Rowan
More isn’t always more
Charles Dickens was paid by the word, and it shows. I mean, if you’ve ever read Oliver Twist, I bet you found yourself wondering if all those words were really necessary to move the story forward. It’s a question I face every day while editing my own novel, to be honest: why all these words? How can I tell my story without forcing the reader to slog through a whole bunch of extra text and without losing the essence or the voice?
This month, instead of looking for ways to flesh out your writing, I’ll be talking about ways to trim it down – just in time for the first grid of our monthly microprose challenge!
What exactly is “microprose”?
You’ve probably heard of “microfiction,” especially if you’ve been around these parts for a while. Generally, microfiction is defined as a very short story that contains the classic story elements, including protagonist, conflict, and resolution. How short is “very short”? Well, most people have heard the famous six-word story often attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Six words is pretty extreme, but really anything over about 300 words is pushing the limits of “micro.”
Here at YeahWrite, we’re expanding on the concept of microfiction, and asking for your microprose. On our grid your stories can be fiction or nonfiction, lyrical or literal. They can tell a story, describe a scene, or narrate a conflict. What they can’t do is be a poem. Step away from the “enter” key and write sentences.
The thing to remember about microprose is that with such limited space you can’t spell everything out for your reader. You’ll need to rely on hints, clues and other indirect means to get your point across. Here are a few tips to help you fit a big story into a small package.
Words: choose them wisely
It sounds simple, but choosing exactly the right words is the most important thing you can do. This is how you whittle a sentence down from eight words to five. With the right word choices you reduce your word count and increase the impact of your tiny piece all at once. A few tips:
- Look for verbs that include an understanding of how something is done. This eliminates the need for excess adverbs. Try “tiptoed” or “shuffled” instead of “walked softly,” for example.
- Consider your verb tenses. Do you really need to use that present participle (-ing)? Are you sure passive voice is the way to go? Here’s what I mean:
- A fire was sparked while I was dreaming. [8 words]
- A fire sparked while I dreamed. [6 words]
- I dreamed; a fire sparked. [5 words]
- Use your thesaurus, but don’t assume that all the listed words are exact synonyms. “Tiptoed” and “shuffled,” for example, lend a different perspective to the action. Make sure the word you choose has exactly the connotation you want. If you’re not careful, you’re liable to sound like a high school senior prepping for the SATs.There are plenty of simple, precise words out there that are in your – and your readers’ – ordinary vocabulary, so don’t go reaching for that five-dollar word unless it’s really the right one. [Ed’s note: an example would be using ‘whisper’ instead of ‘susurrus.’ Susurrus is a fantastic word with great onomatopoeia, but it’s not used to describe a single voice so don’t. /rbg]
Allusions: get a clue, give a clue
An allusion is a reference to an object or circumstance outside of the piece you are writing that provides context. This literary device is an efficient way to lead your readers where you want them to go. Start with a story about a girl and her stepmother. Drop in a glass slipper, and your reader sees Cinderella. Mention a mirror instead and you’ve got Snow White. You don’t need to waste more words describing the setting or characters; the reader can make those connections.
One caveat: if your allusion is too obscure, you may lose your reader. This is especially true with pop culture references. What’s common knowledge where you come from may be completely unheard of in my hometown, and vice versa.
Titles, or why you shouldn’t name your story “micro #312”
If you don’t use your title well, you’re missing out on a chance to influence your reader. I am not suggesting you use your title to sneak in extra words – that’s a sly trick, and a cheap one. [Ed’s note- while titles are not part of your “exact word count,” titles that are, for example, all or part of the first sentence of your story are not titles, but body text. trying to sneak body text in as a title can get your micro disqualified, which I’m sure you don’t want. /rbg] On the other hand, you can use your title to set the stage for your story, slip in a bit of extra context, or even change the meaning of your piece altogether. Hint: it’s a great place to put that allusion.
Finally: don’t cut corners
You’re three words away from making word count. What do you do? I’ll tell you what you don’t do: you don’t drop articles (a, an, the). It seems like an easy way to slim your story down, and sometimes it works as a style choice, but most of the time it sounds like you don’t know how to write or you’re a sloppy editor. Micros are short, but they are still stories. Respect your reader. Do the hard work to make your stories worth reading.
Speaking of hard work, now’s the time to take a final look at the guidelines for that week’s challenge if you’re writing for our grid. Hand count your words to make sure you’ve got the right number (check the word count rules in our submission guidelines if you have questions about numbers or hyphenation). Make sure everything is spelled correctly, because if you’ve only got 30 words and three are wrong, that’s a pretty big percentage of your story. Make sure you didn’t accidentally cut out your reference to the prompt when you were cutting words (you’re laughing at me but it happens more often than you think).
It’s your turn
If the idea of writing a complete story in so few words is a little intimidating, try this: take your favorite short story, fairy tale, or personal blog post and cut it down to size. What are the most important elements of the story? Which ones will you focus on? What will you leave for the reader to figure out?
There are a couple of really great articles about microfiction out there that can be applied to nonfiction as well. Check them out!
- Stories in your pocket: how to write flash fiction by David Gaffney
- The art of microfiction by Gayle Towell
You can also check out our micro archive. Pay special attention to crowd faves and editorial staff picks. As always, we tell you what impressed us about a story (or poem, for our old micro grid) which will give you some hints and tips for your own work. [ed’s note: sorry about the weird formatting in some of the most recent winners’ posts; we’re still catching up on updates from the new site theme. If it really bugs you, jump back a couple pages! /rbg]
About the author:
After a long stint as a Russian scholar and composer, Christine rediscovered her passion for writing in 2006. She joined the YeahWrite team in 2014 as the microstory editor. A lover of beautiful stories in small packages, her primary focus has been microfiction; she also writes flash fiction, short stories, and the occasional personal essay, much of which has been posted to her blog, Trudging Through Fog. Christine was a 2015 BlogHer Voices of the Year award recipient and Community Keynote speaker. She is currently editing her first full-length novel.