Small big worlds: Writing microlit
by Emma Ashmere
From the inkstone to the smartphone, some writers will always be drawn to brevity. Here’s a quick look at the increasingly popular short form – microlit.
Microlit. Microfiction. Flash fiction. Micro non-fiction. Sudden memoir. What are they? And how do they differ from the good old short story? It must be all about the word count, right?
Yes. And no.
Word count is everything
Microlit is the umbrella term for very short pieces of writing – fiction, prose poems, non-fiction. The term was coined by the Australian publishers Spineless Wonders, although not everyone agrees on the word limit for each sub-species. As a rough guide, microfiction/nonfiction hovers around 200-500 words. Flash fiction/non-fiction is up to 750-1000 words. Short stories range from 1,000 to 10,000 words before straying into novella territory. But one thing is certain. When you’re submitting to a microlit journal or competition – stay under their set word limit.
Word count isn’t everything: control, illusions of space, gaps
In short stories, every word must pull its weight. In microlit – every syllable counts. Control is paramount, as Cassandra Atherton emphasises in her introduction to the microlit anthology, Landmarks. But it’s not the kind of control that stifles or dulls a work. It’s a suppleness, exactitude, and restraint. Paul Hetherington refers to the ‘TARDIS’ qualities of microlit. They may look small and unassuming on the outside, but once inside, they defy the usual conventions of space.
If every syllable counts – so do the gaps. As Spineless Wonders publisher Bronwyn Meehan says, ‘in the best flash fiction, there is no spoon feeding, the … writer trusts the reader to fill the gaps, to sit with unresolved endings and ambiguity.’ Karen Whitelaw puts it this way: ‘Things don’t have to be explained, merely implied. This is the beauty of the form, that behind the words a whole world is peeping through.’
Perhaps that’s why many poets have taken to the form. The boundaries between poetry and microlit seem intriguingly blurred, elastic, porous. Both experiment with rhythm, and seek to distil complexity. Anyone who’s tried their hand at haiku knows the challenge of creating something personal yet universal, regulated but surprising, tiny but expansive.
A thimbleful of history
Like haiku, versions of microlit have been circulating for centuries as fables, pithy sayings, and commentaries. In the 1330s Japanese Buddhist priest Kenkō sat at his inkstone for several days, ‘feeling strangely demented’ as he jotted down ‘at random whatever nonsensical thoughts’ entered his head. His series of witty, precise, sorrowful snippets became Essays in Idleness. But perhaps the most notorious western 20th century microfiction is Ernest Hemingway’s six-word haunter: ‘Baby shoes. For Sale. Never worn’.
Then there’s the Man Booker-winning Lydia Davis who’s been publishing bracing short fictions for decades. Her 700 page Collected Stories reads like one drip-fed mini-drama at a time. Davis says she draws on ‘humour, language, and emotional difficulty’ rather than focusing on what her stories might be ‘about.’
Joy Williams’ new book Ninety-nine stories of God is a dazzling mosaic of funny, harsh, tragic, shards of imagined and recorded lives. Some pieces seem beguilingly smooth. Others lacerate. The famously non-computer-owning Williams typed out a list of 8 Essential Attributes for the aspiring microlit writer, the first being: ‘a clean surface with much disturbance below.’
So how to go about writing it?
Ask the locals
Several successful local microlit writers have shared their thoughts in a series of interviews on the Spineless Wonders blog.
Moya Costello: ‘I draft and re-draft a lot. I also work by imitation (intertextually). I love working with language over narrative/plot.….If you get the right first line, you are often away on a short piece.’
Nick Couldwell: ‘there are no rules. Unlike a novel or traditional short story where there are obvious points that need to be covered like plot, character building and the ending… microfiction has to drag the reader in in only a couple of lines.’
Stevi-Lee Alver: ‘Short sentences must be carefully placed together to convey meaning and paint emotion, like pieces of a puzzle… I often spend a great deal of time exchanging words, with similar meanings, until the words right sound.’
Barnaby Smith: ‘I wrote one in 10 minutes whilst visiting my sister in Stockholm, after being reminded of an experience we shared as children – and very quickly jotting it down – it was a fairly spontaneous, impressionistic thing. I’m not one for ‘stories’, more imagistic fragments. I see them as prose poems more than flash fiction.’
Whatever a writer’s style, technique, ‘rules’, intent, or content – microlit in all its many guises continues to morph, sending out its tendrils, snaking into people’s lives via phones, audio, social media, zines, and film animations.
If you’re interested in writing microlit – read and listen to as much as possible. Australian journals include: Canary Press, Kill Your Darlings, Going Down Swinging, Mascara Review, Pencilled in, Peril, Seizure, Snap Journal, Spineless Wonders, The Lifted Brow, Suburban Review, Voiceworks. Competitions: Avid Reader Miniscule comp, Big Issue comp, joanne burns/Newcastle Writers Festival microlit award, Odyssey House, Outstanding, Peter Cowan Writers Centre comp, Wyndham Writers comp.
Starting (and ending)
South Coast writer Susan McCreery set herself the challenge of creating one piece of microlit a day and ended up with her book, Loopholes. She says of course you must ‘work hard at whittling away unnecessary words, rearranging sentences, chucking out flabby bits….’ But other pressures are at play. ‘There’s not much time to set a scene, or introduce character… Implication is crucial. The title is vital. Endings shouldn’t be too neat.’
‘Start big, end small,’ says David Gaffney in his 6 point how-to list, who also advocates starting ‘in the middle’. As for endings – avoid cheap punchlines. The last line should ‘ring like a bell’.
Twists, changes, shifts
Hillary Simmons suggests successful microlit ‘must combine efficiency of text with immediacy of imagery and neat narrative twists, all in a space small enough for a single reading.’ Emma Marie Jones says, ‘Microfictions are, after all, still fictions: they need, even in their brevity, character, setting, action, conflict, a shift.’ This ‘shift’ or ‘turn’ might be as imperceptible as a shadow creeping across a room, or a horizon-tilting quake. Sue of Whispering Gums took her first dive into reviewing microlit via Angela Meyer’s collection Captives, and noted a pattern: ‘the protagonists confront a challenge, a change, a decision, or they create worlds that suit themselves.’
The aim of the microlit writer then, is to construct convincing, compelling, contained worlds – or shards and slices of micro-worlds.
All writing is rewriting…
Even if your piece arrived fully formed in a burst of clarity (as suggested by the term ‘sudden fiction/memoir’) it still might need reworking. Identify loose threads and pull them out. If the piece still hangs together, you’ve cribbed another micro-inch to stitch in another sentence, idea, nuance, glimpse, or layer. If less really has become less, rethink. Editing microlit is not so much charging in with the pruning shears, but more your dexterous tweezer work.
…with one eye on the wordcount
If a story still can’t manage to limbo in under a 200 word count, perhaps set it aside for a 500-750 word-er. A themed competition/journal might cast a new light, giving sharper focus or stronger direction to an earlier wandery draft.
Microlit becomes microlisten
Before pressing send, consider reading your drafts aloud – a kind of microlisten. This can detect any stumbles, unintended repetitions, slumps, clanging notes, and clumsy rhythms. Better to find those misbeats or hollow notes before your piece wings its way to a publisher – to double-check you’ve paid attention to the small big things. The glimpses. The control. The tension. The rhythm. The precision. The twists. The gaps. The expansiveness. And of course – the word count.
Emma Ashmere’s new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the Age, Griffith Review, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, Short Australian Stories, #8WordStory, NGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She’s been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, Newcastle Short Story Award, Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Emma’s ‘What I’m Reading’ article has just been published on Meanjin’s blog. Emma’s critically acclaimed debut novel, THE FLOATING GARDEN was shortlisted for the Small Press Network Book of The Year prize 2016, and she’s a finalist for the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award 2021. Read more of her posts re short and long stories here.