Emma Ashmere

writer | author | novelist

Category: Short Stories

Small big worlds: Writing microlit

final micro worlds for blog sep 2017

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.

Read/hear

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 short stories have been published in The Age, Griffith Review, Review of Australian Fiction. Her most recent micro/flash fiction appears in NGVmagazine, Press: 100 Love Letters, and Landmarks. Her debut novel The Floating Garden (Spinifex Press) was shortlisted for the 2016 MUBA Prize.

This article was first published in the Sept/Oct 2017 edition of northerly.

 

 

 

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Writing Outside Youth: Two Uneasy Pieces by Janet Frame and Ali Smith

janet frame PortraitBlogMay2016 121 (2)

A few months ago I was asked to choose a favourite piece of writing that captured ‘the essence of youth’. This got me thinking about being a writer of a Certain Age who occasionally writes younger characters, and the process of drawing on – or strategically remembering and forgetting – the ‘other country’ of my youth. The young characters who grip me in fiction are usually outsiders, so I turned to two of my favourite writers to see how they do it.

Ali Smith’s short story ‘Writ’ dazzles because it’s about being young and old – literally – at the same time. In Janet Frame’s short story ‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’, the protagonist is probably younger than ‘youth’, but there’s a link between the two stories – the moment these characters discover they don’t fit in and are forced to make a decision about what that means.

Here are my thoughts on these two uneasy pieces.

‘Writ’ by Ali Smith

There’s a razor sharp exchange about the vantage point of age in Ali Smith’s short story ‘Writ’. A middle-aged woman finds her fourteen-old self scuffing about her book-lined house, lolling in front of the blaring television, perfecting the art of looking needy, bored, and beautiful. There’s so much to say – and not say – to this girl as she smirks, shrugs, advances, and retreats.

For a moment they find a patch of common ground when they talk about the Romantic poet John Keats whose writing she’s/they’ve studied at school. But the chasm soon opens up again. ‘He did die unbelievably young, you know,’ says the woman. The girl fires back, ‘No he didn’t … He was twenty-five or something.’

This is trademark Ali Smith, snapping the elastic of time and place, thrusting a two-way mirror between the other and the self. Just when you think she’s writing about the hopes, anxieties, limitations and freedom of know-it-all youth – you begin to suspect it’s more about the hopes, anxieties, limitations and freedom of know-it-all middle age.

‘Writ’ appears Ali Smith’s 2009 collection The First Person and Other Stories.

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‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’ by Janet Frame

When it comes to crystallising the tensions between individuality and conformity, belonging and alienation, loyalty and betrayal, I can’t go past Janet Frame. In her story ‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’ a girl learns her place in the world during a visit to her ‘Cultured’ cousins.

The cousins have ‘good trellis work’, a garden full of flowers, and fine lacy clothes. For the girl, it’s an ‘alien world’ where nobody fights, or yells, or sings dirty little rhymes. Her mother seems ‘far away’ and ‘high up’ as she perches at the aunt’s ‘white and ready’ kitchen table. The girl watches how her mother begins to say ‘really isn’t that just so fancy’ about everything she sees.

The girl feels ‘sad and strange’ as she stares at the cooked turnip waiting on their plates. She wants to go home, where she can run wild in the fields and yank turnips out of the ground, and eat them raw under the friendly gaze of ‘an approving cow’. But then she realises. She is the poor cousin. She must do as her mother does – hide her ignorance, oddity, and shame. So she eats her cooked turnip, shows interest in her cousins’ fine lacy clothes, and begins to say ‘just so fancy’ to everything she sees.

‘My cousins who could eat cooked turnips’ appears in Janet Frame’s 1983 collection You Are Now Entering the Human Heart.

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For more recent short story collections exploring the tricky terrain between various worlds and (not necessarily) fitting in, I heartily recommend Paddy O’Reilly’s Peripheral Vision, Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light, and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil.

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Emma Ashmere’s short stories have appeared in The Age, Review of Australian Fiction, Griffith Review and Sleepers Almanac. Her debut novel The Floating Garden is published by Spinifex Press and was shortlisted for the 2016 MUBA prize.

 

New short story in the Review of Australian Fiction

I am very pleased to have a new short story published in the latest edition of the Australian Review of Fiction. It’s a great opportunity for newer writers – as the editors pair an established writer with an emerging writer. The much-published local RAF_VOL16_ISS_5Lisa Walker has her story ‘Romantic’ in this edition, along with my story ‘Seaworthiness’ which is based on the last sailing ship to carry wheat from South Australia to England in 1948. You can see the stories here: http://reviewofaustralianfiction.com/issues/volume-16-issue-5/
Happy holiday reading!

On short stories: Make every word count

On short stories: Putting the right only words in the right only order

Short story writers are often told to ‘make every word count’. But what does this mean? And how can we identify and winkle out those sluggish words, clichéd ideas, and flaky images that once seemed so vital, original and essential in our own first drafts?

Mark Twain allegedly lamented to a friend he’d wanted to ‘write a shorter letter but didn’t have the time’. If the single defining element of the short story is its brevity, then precision is everything. And like any finely-tuned motor skill, precision takes practice and patience. Of course longer forms also depend on exactitude, but there are simply less places for dead ends or missteps to hide in a more concentrated hit of words. According to Mel Campbell ‘anyone can noodle on for 10,000 words, but it takes creativity and discipline to express oneself within word limits.’

Word count can be both friend and foe. A 500 word cap challenges the writer to keep on track, but that track still must offer an arresting glimpse of life, relationships, the world etc. On the downside, enforced limits can cramp your style. When a piece balloons over its allotted space, there are probably only two options. Keep it for another occasion when word limit isn’t an issue. Or cut.

Ali Smith talks about needing to find your own ‘balance between instinct and edit’. For some stories less will be more. For others, less really is less. Multiple ideas, extravagant details of setting and mood, the number of characters, or quirks of voice might be the very elements you’d hoped would hook and haunt the reader. Lose those hard-wrought surprises and idiosyncrasies, and the story risks diluting into ordinariness. If a story keeps buckling against the word limit, there’s no going wider. So go deeper.

Kurt Vonnegut said every sentence must either ‘advance the plot’ or reveal something compelling about the character. If I think a story is worth redrafting, one of the most useful questions is: ‘do I need this?’ First lines, last lines, dialogue, heavy-handed or colourless titles, characters’ names, favourite phrases – nothing is safe from the scalpel. Openings must act as irresistible invitations to read on, however Jennifer Mills warns against ‘strong beginnings’ petering out. As for endings, ‘a short story doesn’t have to have a neat ending, but it should turn – it should show readers the moment something changes.’

Priscilla Long suggests making a list of ten things you want to include before you start such as objects, feelings, colours, places, people, events, particular phrases. Even if you haven’t done this, go back and see what’s survived the redrafting knife. Is this still the story you wanted to write?

After fine-combing through several times, the words that kick-started the piece might suddenly seem clunky. Some will be worth refashioning. Others won’t. Check every word is working as hard as the 499 other pistons hopefully chugging away in the engine room keeping the story ticking over. Even the seemingly insignificant ones such as ‘the’ and ‘and’ must pull their weight.

Reading aloud can help detect stumbles, flat spots, unintended repetitions, clumsy rhythms, clanging notes. Try to imagine you’re sitting on the other side of the editor’s desk, listening in. What would make this story leap straight over the ‘no’ pile and into the ‘yes’?

Some pieces will never amount to more than exercises. But the act of writing is never wasted. Set them aside for awhile, then revisit and try to see what you’d change in them now. Some pithy lines might even be salvageable for recycling elsewhere.

At this year’s Byron Writers Festival, Jeanette Winterson talked about the benefits of having a wood-burning stove in her study. Apparently she feeds it regularly with paper and ink. She also said that good writing of any length means putting ‘the right words in the right order’. Later, this was refined slightly. Good writing is about finding ‘the only words’ and putting them ‘in the only order’. No multiple choice. No ‘and/or’. There’s only one right word, or 500 right words. And it’s every writer’s job to pounce on them and place them where they can chug away, unfettered, at full capacity.

This article first appeared in the Northern Rivers Writers Centre’s newsletter northerly, November 2014.

Emma Ashmere’s short stories have appeared in The Age, Review of Australian Fiction, Griffith Review and Sleepers Almanac. Her debut novel The Floating Garden is published by Spinifex Press and was shortlisted for the 2016 MUBA prize.

Portrait or Landscape

Read Emma Ashmere’s short story Portrait or Landscape here or  at http://www.textjournal.com.au/speciss/issue17/Ashmere.pdf

The Ends of the Earth  

Read Emma Ashmere’s short story The Ends of the Earth  by visiting  https://griffithreview.com/articles/the-ends-of-the-earth.

Polar Bears in Sydney Harbour

The first time I went to Sydney, I went with my mother. One morning we climbed onto a bus full of people who said ports instead of suitcases and pronounced school as if there was a curl in it. The bus driver was wearing long white socks and short grey shorts and told us there was a convenience at the rear of the vehicle. Read the rest of this entry »