Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Monthly Archives: May 2014

How I write 4: the 6-word story

I have recently entered a competition on http://www.readwave.com to emulate Ernest Hemingway’s famous exercise in writing a story in 6 words.  One of the Readwave editors then asked me to become an editor for this format.

The first thing to get clear is that the object of this exercise is to write a fictional narrative – a story.  Many of those I have seen so far on the Readwave website are not stories.   They are not even bad stories: they are philosophical statements, or motivational slogans.  The basic rules of narrative fiction are bound to be squeezed when we are dealing with such an impoverished format, but they are still to be observed as closely as possible.  That is the point.

Of the competition entries which are at least fictional narratives, the next biggest group of failures are the ones which are completely generic.  “There was a man, he lived, and then he died,” – even when condensed into 6 words – will not do.  Pieces in this category tend to be the beginning of a story, or the end of a story, but not a whole story.   Hemingway’s classic: “For sale: baby shoes.  Never worn” leaves a great deal to the reader, as much of modern literature does, but it does not require the reader to re-write the whole story.  The story must engage the reader.  To do that, it needs either details, or a narrative twist, or both – probably both.  The twist in Hemingway’s comes in the last two words.

My approach when I began this exercise was to begin by trying to get as far away from Hemingway’s classic as possible.  Rather than something in the form of a personal ad, I began to think about whether it would be possible to squeeze more subject matter into the story by only using nouns.  This is what I came up with:

Milk. Beer. Whisky. Meths. Milk. Morphine.

As a first attempt, I was quite pleased with this, because it has enough detail to engage the reader, and it has a narrative arc which would be obvious to most readers.  The idea of selecting 6 nouns with a discontinuity between neighbouring words struck me as quite a powerful technique.  This is my next attempt:

Scissors. Stone. Paper.  Machete.  Shears.  Bin-bag.

Entrants to the Readwave competition may notice that you can cheat like mad because the format of the Readwave website gives you a title and a strap-line, neither of which is counted towards the 6 words.  Many of the weaker entries are trying to set the scene or explain the point of the story through the title and the strap-line.  Hemingway’s piece has no title and no strap-line, and so I have left those out of the examples in this article.

The only other one I have posted so far is a variation of the sub-title of my solo performance at the 2013 Ilkley Literature Festival.

Abandoned in woods.  Raised by lawyers.

“Woods” provides (just) enough detail to engage the reader, and the narrative twist is provided by substituting “lawyers” for “wolves”, which also triggers the reader’s cultural view of the legal profession.

One consolation of this format is that, like writing a villanelle, you at least know almost straight away whether you are on the right track.

28 May 2014: a short statement by William Thirsk-Gaskill

I fight on.

Writing process blog hop

I was tagged by Judi Sutherland http://judisutherland.com/ .

1.  What am I working on?

I take it that just means writing, and not the boring things like marketing.  I am always writing poetry.  I am not a very prolific poet.  I write about 4 or 5 poems a year, often in response to a writing exercise set by my friend Gaia Holmes.  In short fiction, I am writing a story with the working title of “Valves”, which is a kind of spy story set in an imaginary totalitarian state.  I like imaginary settings, because I don’t like having to do research which takes longer than 5 minutes.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Both my prose and poetry tend to be made from very simple ingredients.  In poetry, I have an unwritten list of proscribed words.  For example: cerulean, orb, gossamer, zephyr, and so forth.  I agree with the principle that, in dialogue, you only use the word “said”, not verbs that try to convey how the words were said, which should arise from the content of the dialogue.  Nearly everything I write is in the first person and the present tense.

3. Why do I write what I do?

Much of it comes from previous experience.  I grew up in an unusual family: my mother was 21 when I was born, but my father was 38 years her senior.  There were three distinct generations in our household, and the three of us never agreed about anything.  At the time, this seemed normal, but I have since been trying to learn how to look sideways and it and see how strange it was.  A lot of my protagonists suffer from some kind of mental illness, obsession, or delusion.  I did not take up writing seriously until I was 44, and so I am still near the beginning of my writing career.  Sometimes I write something because I realised that I have not written in that form or genre before.  These exercises sometimes turn out artificial or unconvincing, but sometimes they succeed and hence extend the range of my work.

4. How does my writing process work?

It starts with notebooks.  I have three notebooks on the go at all times:  a small one for writing ideas; another small one for everyday stuff like shopping lists, which prevents the first one from becoming diluted by real life, and an A4 one for drafting and longer writing exercises.  As soon as I know how I am going to start, I usually go straight to the word processor.  In a sense, I am writing 24 hours a day: when I’m in the bath, when I’m cooking.  I do get blocked, of course.  When I can’t write, I read.  Just about everything I read is selected to enrich my writing.  That may sound humourless and mechanical, but one of the best feelings I get when I finish a book is to think, “I wish I had written that,” or “There is no way I could have written that.”

The one part of the writing cycle that frustrates me is marketing.  It is very time-consuming, and can eat into writing or reading time.  So far, I have not perfected it, but I fight on.

The writer I am tagging is a fellow member of the Black Horse Poets in Wakefield, http://www.michael-yates.co.uk/   (Mick: this blog hop works by your writing your responses to the above 4 questions in your own blog, and tagging another writer at the end.)

‘Escape Kit’ free of charge until 25 May 2014

To encourage people to vote for ‘Escape Kit’ in the 2014 Saboteur Awards,  I am giving it away for nothing until voting closes on 25 May.  Fill in the form below, and I will send you the story in Kindle format as an email attachment.   This is a discount of £1.99.

The link to the voting page is here:


All the categories are optional: you can vote for as many or as few of them as you like.  There is no registration, or anything complicated about it.  It only takes a few seconds.  Your support is greatly appreciated.

The printed version is of course still available, but I am told there are only about 200 copies left.  The likelihood with the printed version, which is an extremely well-produced and handsome book, is that once it is gone, it is gone. 


Once again, I would like to thank the Grist editing team at the University of Huddersfield for enabling the book to get this far.  They are: Michael Stewart, Jayne Edge, Sarah Milne, Kate Pearson, and James Whitely. 



‘Escape Kit’ is nominated for a Saboteur award

‘Escape Kit’ has been short listed in the “best novella” category in the 2014 Saboteur awards.

I need votes.    Please follow this link, and vote for ‘Escape Kit’:


Voting closes on 25 May.

I will be attending the ceremony in Oxford on 31 May.  The results are not being revealed before the ceremony. 

If you want to go to all the trouble of reading it before voting for it, then you can obtain the printed version here:


and the Kindle version here:

Escape Kit – http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00JLKBWZM/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=19450&creativeASIN=B00JLKBWZM&linkCode=as2&tag=sproutnet-21

(If you use this link, rather than a generic search, the publisher gets a better deal from Amazon.)

Your support is greatly appreciated.