Contemporary short fiction, poetry and more

Category Archives: non-fiction

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.

Review: The Bookshop Strikes Back by Ann Patchett


ISBN 978  1 4088 4749 7

20 pages

GBP 1.99

This is a work of non-fiction, but reads like a short story.  The author is the protagonist.  She is a novelist who lives in Nashville.  The inciting incident is the closing-down of the last bookshop in the city.  The antagonists are the unpredictability of the retail book market, and the main character’s own self-doubt.  

This is not life-writing, in my opinion.  It reads more like an adventure story.  The best life-writing is about characters rather than events.  This story is about events rather than characters. 

 It contains what appears to me to be a couple of technical inconsistencies in the tense of the narrative.  It starts in the present, moves into the past, and here and then moves back into the present again.  Unless you are a creative writing technical nit-picker like me, you will not notice this, nor the occasional switch from direct to indirect speech.  It also contains some direct addresses to the reader.

 You may have heard the news that the independent bookstore is dead, that books are dead, that maybe even reading is dead – to which I say, Pull up a chair, friend.  I have a story to tell.

 And so, I suppose you could call it a narrative “from the inside”, like ‘Moby Dick’. 

 This is a quirky story, a story of struggle against seemingly impossible odds.  As I was reading it, I found it difficult to decide whether I liked it or not.  As I considered this question, I finished the last page. 

 Ann Patchett has also written novels, including ‘Run’, and ‘Bel Canto’.  The latter won the Orange Prize for fiction in 2002.