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Every Sunday I write and distribute from my phone a story that’s entirely contained within a single SMS. That’s 160 characters. I did the first one in November 2008 and now I’ve written over 300. Microfiction wasn’t as popular in 2008 as it is now but I think I’d been reading Dan Rhodes’ book Anthropology back then, which is a collection of 101 stories each 101 words long. That’s the only explanation I can think of for why I started writing SMS stories.
I also cut the stories down to 140 characters for Twitter (@MondayStory) but I prefer the SMS versions. They’re more vibrant: usually a Twitter story is an SMS story minus adjectives. There’s a weird hatred out there for adjectives but I love them. They’re great. So I hate cutting them, but it’s the only way.
I also prefer the SMS versions because there’s an element of surprise. If you read a Twitter story it’s because you’re actively choosing to check Twitter; but when you get an SMS story you could be doing anything. Walking down the street. Having dinner. Pashing someone (in which case, sorry about the dead children stories). Reading is such a deliberate act that I really like the idea of stories being accidents in somebody’s day.
I don’t have many subscribers but they all share the stories with one, or two, or three or four other people. Beyond that, I don’t know –there could be hundreds of people out there reading my stories. I’ve only ever had about three people ask to unsubscribe.
A few of the stories have been published in The Lifted Brow and The Canary Press. I’m also trying to get an illustrated book of the stories published. A Mexican artist who used to live in Melbourne, Fabián Gutierrez Bahena, drew some amazing illustrations:
Unfortunately publishers aren’t interested.
The stories are all stand-alone. A disproportionately large number of them are written in the first person, present tense, because in English that uses the least number of letters. Imagine a story that starts “Jan walked”. The space counts in an SMS, too, so J-a-n-SPACE-w-a-l-k-e-d is ten characters. That’s a big chunk gone and you haven’t even really written anything story-like yet. But look what happens when you change it to first person, present tense: “I walk”. Six characters. Those four extra characters don’t sound like much but they can drive you mad if you get to the end of the story and it’s 164 characters long.
The tightness of the format also influences genres. Spy dramas or noir or anything with terse language are great. But on the other hand it’s really fun trying to write a full-blown gothic melodrama in 160 characters. Sometimes the stories start out as exercises, like this one which was an attempt to cram as many twists into 160 characters as possible:
I keep thinking “What if”. What if I hadn’t gone home? Would he still have met her? Got in her car? Crashed it? He wouldn’t need my care now. I’d be rid of him.
There’s an old truism in art that restrictions are liberating. If you’re writing a normal-length story or a novel there’s a lot of space for lack of research to show up. It just takes a little bit of library laziness for the bottom to fall out of the story. But in an SMS story there’s just not enough length for that to be a problem, so I write about subjects in these stories that I’d never go near in my other writing. I particularly like writing historical dramas which are completely anachronistic to the idea of a story written and read on a mobile phone. It amuses me.
You can do anything in microfiction and something that annoys me about a lot of microfiction is its lack of ambition. So many people think that because a story is super-short it can only convey one idea; but you can make a tiny story so complex. Writers should always assume that their readers as are intelligent, and writing should always be an invitation to a dance – and if a story’s tiny and takes no time to read, why not write something that demands to be re-read? The SMS stories that I’m happiest with can always be re-read.
This doesn’t mean they have to be action-packed. My two favourite stories from this project are both very small-scale, intimate domestic dramas. I wrote one of them way back in 2009 and the other one was written late last year. They go like this:
Our daughter came to cut some flowers & found 7 Easter eggs; years of childhood, like rings in a tree. She put them in a bowl on our kitchen bench before going home.
Shyness then joy then 9 months & then. It’s a seed that cracks concrete, ice that splits rock. It’s the sea, they see, wide & forever. They call her Rosemary.
The only thing I’d change about that second one is the verb, “call”. I got that all wrong. Parents don’t call a baby something, they name it. But by the time I realised that I’d already pressed “send”.
Names are important in these stories. Names have archetypes attached and any cultural shorthand is invaluable in such a short story; and in a 160-character story every word has to count. For instance:
Ida’s 1st day of school ended in a bomb scare. A hoax. Kids ran gleefully to the police cars; Ida told Inspector Cobb “School’s the most exciting thing ever.”
“Gleefully” is nine characters long which is a lot – but it’s the most important word in the story. Everything hinges on it. It’s a silly story about a kid having completely unrealistic expectations about school so it has to be obvious that the children are utterly unaffected by the bomb scare. Without that “gleefully” the whole story would be out of whack. In a three-sentence story there’s no room for hangers-on. Every single word has to be essential.
Harry Saddler was born and raised in Canberra and has lived in Melbourne since 2004. He is the author of We Both Know: ten stories about relationships (Ginninderra Press, 2005) and a short novel about the aftermath of the 2003 Canberra bushfires, Small Moments (Ginninderra Press, 2007). In 2014 he was joint winner of the Melbourne Writers Festival/Blurb Blog-to-Book Challenge for his blog Noticing Animals. Since 2008 he’s been writing and distributing weekly text-message stories, some of which have appeared in the Lifted Brow, the Canary Press, and Australian Poetry’s Sotto.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.
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