Micro fiction – stories in 140 characters or thereabouts.

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

                                               – Ernest Hemingway

Way back in 1920 much, much before the little blue bird began a 140 character fever, Hemingway wrote a raw writhing emotion of a mother to be in just six words.

Today with the advent of social media the concept of micro fiction has become a genre of writing. twitter_fiction

The popularity of this form of writing in few words has soared in recent times. The digital explosion coupled with the intrusion of work and life into our reading time has caused a sudden interest in fiction in the short and micro category. Times have clearly changed. Young writers today are wired to think in terms of bite-sized data.

The classification of micro fiction is in fact a broad one. From writing the stories in Hemingway inspired six words, to Twitter’s prescribed 140 characters to writing in specific number of words from 55 to 99, all come under micro fiction. With mobile-ready quarterlies and weekly updated fiction columns that can fit in your pocket, even the physical dimensions of literature have shrunk to make both writing and reading a way to pass the time during life’s brief commercial breaks.

Personally I love the gradual build up of plot, character, tension and climax of a novel. Frustrating though it is, I even like waiting for the next book of an interesting series to hit the stands.

But the micro stories, they are different. Here is the raw, naked truth without the buffer of many words and oftentimes stays much longer in our hearts and minds than regular 90,000 words novels. It is not the size of the word count in the story, its the story in the word count that matters.

140 characters requires the writer to put down a raw, unflinching emotional honesty. In the words of Philip John, Creative Director of an advertising startup “Its like knocking back a shot of tequila as opposed to nursing a cocktail”

While the number of words may make this craft seem easy, I feel it’s anything but.

A story whether told in a 7 book series, a 700 page novel or in 140 characters needs a plot, character, tension, beginning, middle and an end.

Consider this,

Feet pounding on concrete, sweat pouring, his Nike app read 10 kms. Then the phone rang.

The above description might make a lot more meaning if ended better.

Feet pounding on concrete, sweat pouring, his Nike app read 10 kms. Then the phone rang. He could never run far enough.

The above description still lacks impact, tension and character. Maybe we can modify to,

Feet pounding, sweat pouring, his Nike app pinged at 10kms. Muscles rejoiced while his heart contracted at the memories he would never outrun.

A short story regardless of the number of words is a whole life. In a capsule maybe, but whole nevertheless.

A number of high profile writers have recently dabbled in the burgeoning realm of Twitter fiction.

here are also dozens of Twitter accounts for websites that publish only 140-character stories. Some of the most notable are @OneFortyFiction, @seedpodpub, @sixwordstories, @twitterfiction, @7×20, and @trapezemag, all of which are unpaid markets.

@Nanoism is a paying Twitter fiction market, which publishes three times a week and pays between $1.50 and $1 for stories: not bad, given the brevity of the form.

In 2012, The Guardian challenged well-known writers – from Ian Rankin and Helen Fielding to Jeffrey Archer and Jilly Cooper – to come up with a story of up to 140 characters. This is their stab at Twitter fiction.

Jackie Collins

She smiled, he smiled back, it was lust at first sight, but then she discovered he was married, too bad it couldn’t go anywhere.

Ian Rankin

I opened the door to our flat and you were standing there, cleaver raised. Somehow you’d found out about the photos. My jaw hit the floor.

Jeffrey Archer

“It’s a miracle he survived,” said the doctor. “It was God’s will,” said Mrs Schicklgruber. “What will you call him?” “Adolf,” she replied.

Simon Armitage

Blaise Pascal didn’t tweet and neither did Mark Twain. When it came to writing something short & sweet neither Blaise nor Mark had the time.

The days of full-length manuscripts and short story collections are far, far away, so embrace the attention deficit of the 21st century, because that person who anxiously checks their phone at every red light may just be your newest fan.

Writing as Therapy

“I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.” 

Ever since I read those lines by Prof. Dumbeldore in Harry Potter, I have wanted a similar Pensieve. Sadly, for want of a wand and quick magical powers I am forced to stick to paper, ink and some time alone.

As a writer just hearing the scratch of pen on paper itself is pure bliss and writing brings out many an emotions in me. The immediate relief of jotting down an idea even if it is a shopping list or my kid’s homework schedule; the sense of accomplishment of having completed a piece of writing, the frustrations of not getting the exact emotions on paper. But most profound in my attempts at writing have been the aimless wandering of my restless mind on paper. Sometimes in finding the right idea, sometimes to understand a problem and many a times just a silent companion as I plough through the emotional maelstrom to find myself a calm anchor.

Whether in ink or the inner monologue that we to listen to everyday, writing guides us toward our higher calling.

In the words of Graham Greene, Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”  

Writing is a meditative experience, a talk with your soul, psyche and a deeply enriching one at that. Writing therapy today is an important tool, a form of expressive therapy used widely in hospitals with patients dealing with their mental and physical illnesses, as well as in university settings aiding students in self-awareness and self-development. Clinically they are classified into therapeutic writing, free writing and reflective writing. Although people have written diaries and journals for centuries, the therapeutic potential of reflective writing didn’t come into public awareness until the 1960s, when Dr. Ira Progoff, a psychologist in New York City, began offering workshops and classes in the use of what he called the Intensive Journal method.

So what makes writing so powerful? A nice rant can work wonders too. Maybe even reading a good book.

The basic difference is in the kind of cure. An rant and submerging your emotions in a book is an attempt to bury your emotions, sweep them under the carpet. While writing does the torturous duty of confronting them.

It isn’t alchemy that makes the concept of merely venting out on paper a fundamentally life changing experience.  The mere act of penning down your thoughts, emotions and even fears can be incredibly cathartic. Writing is understanding our thoughts through a personal, inward looking lens that may not have existed till language was put to use. Words are a medium. They express, clarify, illuminate beyond the factual details to the deepest thoughts and emotions.

Cognitively, writing has been shown to increase working memory and performance in patients. Writing is more deliberate and personal. Hence there are better chances on being honest than having a heart to heart chat with your best friend. In this context, writing is like a truth serum. The greatest advantage being the paper is non-judgmental and hence will not ridicule, scoff, judge or carry tales.

Writing is both the teacher and the lesson that individualizes the course to suit your needs and will guide you to a more positively driven life. It is a multi-dimensional catalyst of change and learning that acts as a sieve separating your fears, insecurities, confusion and helps understand and confront them from the outside in.

As leading theorist in writing therapy James Pennebaker explains, “The development of a coherent narrative helps to reorganize and structure traumatic memories, resulting in more adaptive internal schemas.”

As a writer again I have found this to be my best therapy. Free writing of my thoughts that encourage no standards, compare no other work, disregard the odd grammatical error breathes new life into my writing. Perhaps the most important writing element that Writing Therapy enables is the discovery of your voice. Writing about your life is the best way to discover and develop your writing voice. Only you can tell your true story. You are the only person who has your perspective. Writing your life is a gift that only you can offer to the world.

So write freely, even if it is for just yourself. Many a great memoirs on the bestsellers stands today began with the same idea.

Some writing exercises

Random Writing – The Mind Dump

Write. Anything. Don’t know what to write? Begin with that line and write for a set period of time – 10 minutes or half an hour. It may read as nonsense, and that’s okay. That’s how our minds work. Write down all the random, apparently nonsensical words and sentences, anything that comes to mind. You might include brief descriptions or sketches of any images that come to mind. Don’t change or edit anything. Simply write.

Dumbeldore’s Pensieve.

Write about any emotion, thought or problem that’s overwhelming you right now. Vagueness and confusion can be overwhelming too. Write through the emotions till you come out the other end, clear and confident.

Coming Home

Chennai Rains

The dousing squall greeted me with soft sweet drops on my face and a churning sludge around me feet, spoiling my slippers. I quickly hurried to the car park. Rain, sludge or bog, this was home. The smell of the city is always the first thing I notice stepping out of the Chennai airport. I revel in my olfactory trail trying to separate individual scents – the various trees, shrubs and flowers, the humid air, exhaust fumes and a unique scent of civilization; of having lived on this part of the Earth for more than 2000 yrs. A taxi was waiting for me. After dumping my belongings, two massive suitcases and folding myself into its frayed seat, smelling of diesel we set off. “Shall I turn on the AC?” the cabby asked “No. I like the city air” said I. We sped on towards dawn, through my city that was still asleep. The soft rain created a gauzy curtain and blurred out the details but I saw through my mind’s eye, memories of this busy city that would spring to life in a few hours. A rush to work, school, and college mixed with the shouts of vendors, kirana stores and little temples at every street corner. As we came towards my street corner, I knew my mother would be waiting, filter kaapi freshly brewed, smiling from the balcony. An act so simple yet so profound in its permanence. Do I love my city for the journey it is or for the destination – my mother’s smile?

Pin it!

I used to remember your birthdays. Those excited afternoons of thinking what to wear for our evening out. The thrill of meeting you all at least once in a while and reminiscing about old times, old friends, wondering how they are moving on. Wishing for friends to be forever and in constant touch.

The devil heard my prayers instead of God. He said you’ll stay in touch always. Just share, pin, post or tweet and your friends will be yours forever. Now I do as he asked, but…. please update your profile dear friends as I need the prompt to wish you on your birthday!

Why Write?

Imagine your favorite activity. Keeping your thoughts on the activity and try to write a short paragraph in science or history. Difficult? Impossible? Yes it is.

A multi-window, multitasking, multi-tabbed system might be good on computers but it is difficult for our concentration. Like Micheal Yeboeuf says, few if any of us can write one thought and think another at the same time. Thus a pencil and paper makes excellent concentration tools.

A blank page has been a source of both excitement and trepidation. Few tools can accomplish what a scribbling pad can.

Dumbledore’s Pensive

If only we could all touch a phoenix feathered wand to our temples, pull out our thoughts and store them in a blue colored fluid for later contemplation or review. But such things cannot be done by simple muggles like us and hence we depend on the trustworthy pen and paper.

Our memory is like a leaking bucket. A lot escapes in time. Amazing ideas, powerful thoughts, goals and even passions regularly leak out of our memory bucket. Writing them down improves our chances of success.

Writing as therapy

Cognitive science and psychological studies show writing as a very effective tool in overcoming trauma. This means, it is also a very powerful tool in anger management, blockages in self expression and to boost self esteem.

Practicing the process of filling up a page with personal reflections is therapeutic and often paves way to better creative interest.


An often talked and practised activity in creative writing is freewriting. Freewriting is the ultimate tool if you just don’t know what to do! If you are blocked, or your ideas are simply too tangled up to put down in a list, freewriting is for you. If you have an idea in the back of your head but just can’t quite pin it down, this is the technique that will pull that idea out. Freewriting is a little like fishing – you cast out with your pen, and then you let the ideas swim to you… but they won’t come if you don’t start fishing for them!

How to Freewrite

For five minutes, write non-stop: don’t lift your fingers from the keyboard or your pen from the page. Just keep writing. Don’t stop to ponder or make corrections or look up a word’s meaning in the dictionary. Just keep writing.

While you are freewriting, forget the rules of formal English. Because you are writing only for yourself at this point, you don’t have to worry about sentence structures, spelling or punctuation, organization or clear connections.

Freewriting can be used as a prewriting activity to tell your mind to start concentrating or as a brainstorming activity to put all your thoughts in perspective.

Creative writing prompt – Travel diary entry

Skill: Writing Travel Diary notes.

Writing a travel diary is like capturing your memories in words. It is even better than the photographs as you will have noted your emotions as well. But with the aid of photos, the travel diary becomes a magical memory. The art of writing a travel diary is therapeutic too. The creative juices, hidden thoughts, other memories and needs begin to surface. A few tips while writing a travel entry, but first read through this passage from mine a few years back.


Sample Travel Journal Entry

I had always loved any form of water and particularly wanted to go to a waterfall. Hence with a lot of planning we went to the Athirapally falls in Kerala. These are the excerpts from my travel diary.

Day: 21st June, 2005

It was a long ride from Cochin and I fell asleep in the bus. Suddenly I felt the bus stop. People were moving out and a rushing sound reached my ears like mother nature was running to come meet me. I quickly pick up my bag pack and go out. After moving through a rough trail for 5 minutes we reach a clearing. The magnificent falls is to my right and falling down.The Athirapally falls drops 80 feet to meet the Chalakudy river. I am on top of the Athirapally waterfalls! It is the most wonderful feeling.

I splash in the river running before it fell into the falls, but the current is too strong. As it became evening a soft mist settles. The spray of the water, the mist and cloud above – it looks like a soft magical passage is being made from Earth to Heaven.No doubt this place is called ‘God’s own place’.  I so loved my trip there. I clicked a lot of pictures to treasure this memory and am coming back again.

Features of a travel entry:

  1. The entry starts with a date and the place.
  2. The entry is written in the first person always. Use ‘I’.
  3. The entry should recount the events in a logical order, preferably as they occurred.
  4. The travel entry is mostly written in the present tense. But can be written in simple past tense if recounting later.
  5. The entry should include facts about the place along with the writer’s feelings. Just a list of facts would make it look like a trip brochure.

Try out your own travel entry now. Make it from memory or use your imagination to camp with the penguins in Antartica. And remember, the next time you travel write a proper entry!

What is Creative Writing

Anything creative is an art form and is subjective; hence a straight forward definition is difficult.

We can say, every creative and imaginative thought, idea, feeling and narrative expressed in the written word is creative writing.

What is not creative writing?

This is easily explained than what is creative writing. Written content that simply conveys information cannot be called creative writing.

Have you read the terms and conditions or the privacy policy of websites? That white colored booklet that accompanied your latest camera? T.V? Washing machine? You of course remember your boring history text book! These books at a glance tell you they are definitely not creative writing material.

What is creative writing?

By the above logic, all works of fiction be it a short story, memoir, novel, or a kid’s picture book are works of creative writing.

Poetry is creative writing in verse. So are playwriting, screenwriting, drama etc forms of creative writing.

Creative writing requires the writer to travel uncharted territory in the realms of fantasy creating alternative worlds, strange characters, giving life to inanimate things and emotions.

Shades of Grey

Often the obvious is easy to define. Likewise it will be hard to pin down works in journalism, essays, memoirs and biographies as strictly non creative or creative.

A piece of news may not be considered creative writing but a feature or editorial has a big element in creativity.

A biography written with such a personal touch that it takes right into the life of the character must have a lot of creative zeal.

When nonfiction transcends the boundaries of style, excellent research and approach and when it is written with a personal approach instead of merely factual, it becomes creative.

Haiku and Limerick

Reading the Percy Jackson series, I remembered the Haiku poetry. (Apollo, comes out with some terrible Haikus in the book)

“Haiku” is a traditional form of Japanese poetry.  Dating from 9th century Japan, Haiku is more than a poem. It is a way of looking at the physical world and seeing something deeper.

A haiku poem consists of three lines, with the first and last line having 5 moras, and the middle line having 7. A mora is a sound unit, much like a syllable, but is not identical to it. Since the moras do not translate well into English, it has been adapted and syllables are used as moras.

Haiku poems consist of 3 lines.  The first and last lines of a Haiku have 5 syllables and the middle line has 7 syllables.  The lines rarely rhyme.

Because Haikus are such short poems, they are usually written about things that are recognizable to the reader.  Animals and seasons are examples of recognizable topics children might enjoy exploring.

Haiku examples

Basho Matsuo

Here are three examples of the haiku of Basho Matsuo, the first great poet of haiku in the 1600s:

An old silent pond…

A frog jumps into the pond,

splash! Silence again.

Autumn moonlight—

a worm digs silently

into the chestnut.

Lightning flash—

what I thought were faces

are plumes of pampas grass.

Characteristics of haiku

The following are typical of haiku:

  • A focus on nature.
  • A “season word” such as “snow” which tells the reader what time of year it is.
  • A division somewhere in the poem, which focuses first on one thing, than on another. The relationship between these two parts is sometimes surprising.
  • Instead of saying how a scene makes him or her feel, the poet shows the details that caused that emotion. If the sight of an empty winter sky made the poet feel lonely, describing that sky can give the same feeling to the reader.


Another famous type of poetry that will be compared and contrasted in this essay is Limerick.  Limerick originated from England by Edward Lear in the 19th century. And now, the name is taken to be a Country of Limerick in Ireland.  This type of poem is usually silly, funny, and does not really make sense. The authors often write this kind of poetry to express their thoughts but not completely, they will leave some space blank for the readers to figure out. For example,

There once was a man from Peru

Who had a lot of growing up to do,

He’s ring a doorbell,

Then run like hell,

Until the owner shot him with a .22.

The major difference between Haiku and Limerick is their structure and rhythm. Also while both use metaphors, limerick is generally a funny, silly poem while Haiku uses a physical description to show the nature of existence.

Read like a writer – Part 2

In the earlier part ‘To read like a writer’ I discussed how a writer should look for the theme and organization of a story. Let us continue this journey.

Let us strip writing to its bare bones, down past the genre, idea, theme or audience to study them at word, phrase and sentence level. A set of well chosen, well placed words create a sense of magic within the book. Look for the patterns in the language, the passion in the character, the striking adjectives. Look for;

Voice – It is the individual writing style of the author. The quality that makes writing unique. When reading like a writer, let us try to answer questions like ‘How does the author demonstrate the emotions of the protagonist’? Or how does he bring out the personality of the character? Now Wodehouse wrote in humor, using a unique blend of slang and elegant, classically-informed drawing-room English. Roald Dahl on the other is known for the devilish twists in his story.


Word Choice – What words and phrases does the author use to bring across the story? How does the author use striking adjectives, verbs, proper nouns? Evena simple ‘and’ in a sentence ‘And then he fell down dead’ creates the required impact.  Do these word choices make the story more memorable?

Sentence Fluency – the rhythem and flow of the sentence as we read it, is there a rhyme? Do the repeat in pattern? Repeating sentence structures, like

Night in the Country (1986) by Cynthia Rylant: “There are owls. Great owls with marble eyes who swoop among the trees and are not afraid of night in the country. Night birds. There are frogs. Night frogs who sing songs for you every night: reek reek reek reek. Night songs”

Conventions – Conventions are the usage of grammar, spelling and other such things that make writing consistent. Does the author follow convention in writing? Do you newer words like blacksurround, magicated etc? Are the sentence complete? Are there artful fragments and one word sentences?

The next time you read a book, pick up your pen and read like a writer.

Read like a writer – Part 1

What happens when you read a story?

The thrill of being transported to an enchanted kingdom,  the awe of being a princess, the adventures on the ridged back of a dragon and the gnawing fear before the book ends – an exhilarating journey indeed.

To be a writer, even an insipid one lacking the courage to paint true reality or the imagination to create a whole new world should read avidly.

A good book is the best writing institute, but one needs to understand how to read like a writer.

‘There is a difference’? One might ask. Yes. There definitely is.

A reader, even a thoughtful one who tries to understand not just the story but the context, theme and the underlying emotional undercurrents also looks predominantly into WHAT the writer is saying.

But as aspiring writers, we need to use a good book like a reference. To read like a writer is to move away from WHAT and towards, HOW the writer captures the story.

Now as a reader, one will question the genre of the story, infer the characters by the action in the book, feel the emotion, connect with the characters and evaluate if the story is well enough to continue reading till the end.

While a writer needs to approach a book from a completely different angle.  When reading like a writer, pay attention to  –

  1. Ideas – Look into the main idea of the book. How does he reveal it? Is it stated or implied? Look into the theme of the story. For e.g; Pride, family, prejudice, woman and marriage, society and class are the theme present in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”.
  2. Organization – this refers to how the writer moves between these ideas. How does he build his characters, plot and setting around these themes. Here the writer learns pacing, sequencing and detailing. Compare a thriller and a drama for better understanding.

Part 2 of this series will conclude the other points of reading like a writer.