Yes it’s true and it all came about like this …
For years while I was teaching, I’d been planning to write a short-story and send it away but I never seemed to find the time to get around to it. Then in 2003 the Brisbane Writers Festival held its inaugural Writesmall Short Story Competition. To enter you had to write a micro-story of 100 words – not 99, not 101, but exactly 100 (excluding the title). This was my sort of competition! I could do this. After all, I knew a hundred words – possibly even more!
From some dark and disturbing recess of my brain I got this bizarre idea of writing a short-story about a short-story writer who was also short – a short short-story writer. (Yes, I know and I apologise in advance.) Also I thought it would be great if my short-story about this short short-story writer could reveal his character in some surprising way while at the same time saying something useful about the art and structure of the short-story writing genre itself. All in 100 words. Easy-peasy!
So I sat down at the computer to write the story as succinctly and concisely as I possibly could, paring it back to the barest of bare bones. Some time later I eagerly hit the word count button and … … … 953 words!!!!!!!!! I couldn’t believe it. I had to somehow get rid of 853 words and still have a story left.
In the end this challenge was a great learning experience as far as writing goes. It made me really focus on what was the essential essence of the story and discard the rest. Then it made me work out how I could say the same things with fewer words. Finally, when the word count got lower and lower, it made me weigh up each word like they were rare and precious jewels. These days I try to remember all this every time I write.
Anyway, to cut a long story about a short-story, short, there were over 600 entries for the competition – and I won!
As the winner I received a stack of books, some clothes and a weekend holiday for two at a beautiful coastal island resort here in Queensland. (My wife was pretty impressed with me – at least for a weekend) But even better than those prizes, I was told that my story was going to be printed on the back of the official Brisbane Writers Festival Volunteers T-shirts. Brilliant! I was finally going to be a published author – on cotton!
However what I didn’t know, was that the organisers weren’t intending to print the whole of my story on each shirt. What they decided to do was to cut the story up into 3 or 4 word bits and just print one of those little random phrases on each shirt. That meant that unless around 30 volunteers lined up in the right order there was no way you could actually read the story or even tell it was a story in the first place. (Not sure why they did this, although maybe it was because the story is a little controversial).
The other thing was, that apart from the 3 or 4 words in a black box on the back of the t-shirts, there was no explanation at all on the shirts about where those words came from or what they were doing there in the first place. So for example, my story was called, The Dos and Don’ts of Short Story Writing. I was given the first t-shirt. In a box on the back it had the opening three words of the title, ‘The Dos and’.
Despite all that, as I wandered around the Festival that year, it was still a huge thrill to see the scraps of my story on the backs of the volunteers’ shirts. In fact, whenever I spotted a volunteer I’d eagerly duck around behind them to check which bit of my story they were wearing. (This turned out to be quite disconcerting, especially for the female volunteers, and I eventually ceased this activity rather than be ejected from the Festival for stalking, or worse.)
But on one particular occasion that day I was waiting in line to buy a book at the bookshop, and the volunteer who was serving there turned around to get a purchase for another customer. On the back of her shirt were emblazoned these three words plucked from the middle of my story – ‘and to the’. Beside me I noticed two women looking at the words then frowning at each other in confusion. So I leant across to them, pointed to the T-shirt and said proudly, ‘I wrote that!’
I learned a valuable lesson that day about being a writer. It was this: ‘Not every reader will be impressed by your work.’
These days when I visit schools I sometimes give workshops on short stories and occasionally someone will ask me to read out my winning 100 word short story. I hardly ever do it. It’s not that I’m not happy with it. It’s just that on the rare occasions I do read it out loud, people generally stared at me like I’m Ivan Milat expounding the benefits of bush-walking. I can’t blame them. I guess the story is a little bizarre.
Anyway, for what it’s worth, here it is …
The Dos and Don’ts of Short Story Writing
Clifford Frelock was a short story writer. It was in his genes. Not only had his body refused to grow beyond one hundred and thirty centimetres but his manner was as clipped, condensed and to the point as the genre itself.
One Christmas, Clifford sank his pudgy fist into the angelic face of an eight year old girl who had, in her excitement, mistaken him for one of ‘Santas helpers’.
The judge branded his action ‘utterly reprehensible’, but the short story writer in Clifford Frelock saw it merely as a fitting and satisfying climax to a rapid escalation in tension.
WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT ME LIKE THAT FOR?!?
PS Two days after I was told I’d won the Writesmall Comp, I received a phonecall from Dyan Blacklock of Omnibus Books offering to publish my first novel. It was quite a week.
PPS The volunteers told me that the two T-shirts that were the most highly sought after that year, were the ones that ended up with the phrases “utterly reprehensible” and “satisfying climax” on them.
PPPS This was the picture that appeared in the paper about my win. (They used it again the following year to advertise the 2004 Comp) The photographer who came to our house took around 50 shots from all different angles and locations. Wisely they went with the photo that didn’t show too much of my face. Also as one of my teaching colleagues at the time thoughtfully pointed out, “It looks like you’re pissing in the corner”. Marcus Zusak, eat your heart out!