Every year New Times of San Luis Obispo hosts a unique writing competition. The goal is to write an entire fictional story in 55 words. Submissions are not due until mid-June, but are accepted all year. As the website states, keeping a tale under 55 words—fewer than are in this paragraph—is “not as easy as it seems.” But it’s a pretty interesting experiment to see how much story you can squeeze into a few sentences, so I’m planning on giving it a go again this year.
In about 2002 I was working in insurance and desperately seeking some way of releasing creative energy in between performing financial analyses and filling out rate sheets in Excel. When I accompanied some friends to Cal Poly one weekend, I happened to pick up a New Times and read about the competition. I decided to write down a few ideas over the following year, and somehow managed to stay organized and submit them before the deadline. I think I entered about 16 stories, and the following story was chosen as one of many winners:
The Last Patient
Her father had died too early, plagued by schizophrenia.
An old psychiatrist now, she’d devoted her life to treating mental disorders—convincing her patients that they weren’t seeing ghosts, goblins, or God. She knew the human mind created all these things.
One night, working late, she was asked, “You ready to go?”
“Not yet, Dad.”
Since New Times first introduced this competition in 1987, imitators have sprung up across the web. Do a Google search and you’ll find some, although many seem to be poorly organized or haven’t been updated since 2007. One competition that I found was specific to crime-related 55-word stories (one of my favorite genres), and my entries can still be found on their site.
At some point I decided to try some additional constraints and wrote a few stories that rhymed, contained only one sentence, or employed creative layouts of text. Whether or not all this helps develop useful skills outside of writing 55-word stories, I can’t definitively say. At the very least, it forces the writer to edit himself and think about alternative phrasings. At best, however, writing these stories may be a way to practice coming up with interesting, inspiring, or compelling ideas that can be communicated efficiently. If so, seems like good practice for anyone hoping to write taglines, ad copy, or any other form of short copy. Although these days, maybe Twitter serves the same purpose.
Planning to submit? Get in touch (@robmeyerson, or comment here) and let me know how it goes.
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