“Kill your puppies.”
Don’t worry, I’m not talking about dogs.
I received that morbid, but memorable, advice while studying journalism. In print and broadcast news, physical space and airtime are always at a premium. There isn’t room for every element of a story, which often means chopping out a quote or detail you absolutely adore for the sake of the article. As my professor put it, you have to “kill your puppies”.
I was also taught to grab the reader’s attention with the first sentence of an article, but I digress.
This advice never really affected my creative writing until 2015, when I decided to explore microfiction. For those unfamiliar, microfiction is exactly what it sounds like: fiction too short to be a short story. While some people set the limit as high as a thousand words, encompassing works by the likes of Virginia Woolf and Mark Twain, I walked a more disciplined path. I chose to write my stories on Twitter (@QuietPineTrees), which at the time only allowed 140 characters per post. Many of my early stories were just one sentence long. That’s Hemingway territory.
At this point, I was working 50-60 hours per week as a radio journalist, so there wasn’t much time to just sit down and write. Microfiction seemed like the perfect way to express my wild ideas about time machines and vampires in my spare time while also realizing one of my goals as a creative writer: to inspire the imaginations of others. I’ve always admired creators like Rod Serling, whose stories have been retold countless times and inspired generations of other artists. I expected coming up with new high-concept ideas for stories would be challenging, but this turned out to be the easy part. The hard part was squeezing them into the microfiction format, like Cinderella’s sisters trying on the glass slipper.
So, I learned to edit my creative writing with the same merciless approach I used to edit a news article. I trained myself to pluck out the heart of a story, expressing just enough to hint at a larger fictional world. In doing so, I learned some important lessons that would be particularly helpful for anyone else thinking of getting into microfiction.
- Most descriptive words are expendable. My fellow microfiction writer (apparently) Mark Twain said an ‘adjective habit’ weakens your writing and ‘is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.’ Adjectives and adverbs in fiction are only necessary when they clarify something unintuitive in the story. You don’t need to describe ‘the majestic eagle’ unless the reader has some reason to assume this eagle is rubbish.
Humans were drawn to that region of space. There wasn’t enough Earth left to know it had been our home. The constellations just felt right.
- Prioritize words that deliver the most impact for the reader, rather than the ones that most closely adhere to your vision of the story. If you let the reader make their own assumptions to flesh out your stories, that’s fewer words for you to write. If you get a chance to include descriptive words, use them on things that really matter rather than minutiae.
The forest wanted to beg for mercy, but knew precious little about us. Pine trees roared like chainsaws, hoping this was the language of man.
- Vocabulary is your best friend. A properly-chosen noun or verb can stand on its own, without descriptive words. Your character doesn’t need to ‘run quickly’ when she could ‘sprint’ instead. Further, replacing words or even phrases with shorter synonyms has the pragmatic effect of shortening the whole story. The monster is not ‘invisible’, it’s ‘unseen’. The war is not ‘interstellar’, it’s ‘galactic’. Just don’t overdo it. Your readers won’t have much context to help them sort through vague or abstract language.
She had the unmistakable look of a spacefarer, covered in tattoos of our night sky so aliens could send her home if death ever found her.
- Be flexible. Early on in my microfiction career, I tossed plenty of stories in the bin, convinced they would not fit in the format. And I was right! In some cases, you can only strip a story down so much before it is fundamentally changed, usually for the worse. But all is not lost! Look for a new perspective, a new point to make, or a different facet on which to focus. Not only will this help you expand how you think about a story, there is a good chance that this new version will fit within the microfiction format.
Time moved slower at the spot on the outskirts of town where a time traveler had crash-landed. Lovesick kids spent years there every night.
- Share your work. The Internet loves impactful content that is quick to consume, but takes time to digest. Twitter worked well for me, providing instant feedback on every new story so I could see what resonated with my audience. If a story falls flat, don’t worry. You can try something new tomorrow.
The young mage strummed his guitar, smiling as the crowd sang along. He was using their mouths to say his words. It was basic mind control.
All of this allowed me to explore a new format for my creative writing, one which has found a new popularity thanks to modern technology. The best part has been the response from readers inspired by my stories, just as I’d hoped. I adore the fan art and short stories they send me, expanding on their favorite tweets. One person showed me the tattoo they had gotten based on one of my stories, which was only mildly distressing. A filmmaker in New York created a hilarious short film based on my tweets that has been shown at festivals around the United States.
And now, I have a book so my weird, tiny stories can reach more people than ever. Quiet Pine Trees is out now. Check it out. Maybe it will inspire you, too.
(c) T.R. Darling
Author photograph (c) Nicole Mills
About Quiet Pines Trees:
‘This is the one true star-map,’ he whispered. ‘Time fluctuates wildly beyond our solar system. Everything we know about distance is wrong.’
Quiet Pine Trees is jet fuel for your imagination, a wrecking ball against writer’s block. This collection features more than 500 enchanting microfiction stories, each one a miniature work of literary art.
Using just a few words, these stories combine powerful imagery with compelling, high-concept themes to create snapshots of bigger, stranger worlds and inspire the reader.
The stories in this volume span genres and galaxies alike: from science fiction about advanced time travel techniques and lovestruck androids, to fantasy about the best ways to wish and trees that long to speak, to chilling tales about dolls’ eyes and the horror that awaits humanity between the stars.
Order your copy online here.