Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ever Write a 500 Word Story? Think It's Easy? By Robert W. Walker

Some time back a friend, who was putting together an anthology asked me if I would contribute. It was a horror anthology, so the story had to have a monster in it or some truly scary psychological thrills, or simply be a hoot, a laugh fest. Much of horror walks a tightrope and on one side is fright, the other side hilarity.

In fact, there is a long and noble tradition of humor linked to horror, and the best purveyor of such a seemingly wild mix was none other than the author of Psycho, Robert Bloch, whose short works are classic. You might call Bloch the Mark Twain of horror writing, as the man could make your cry, start, and laugh in the same paragraph.

Another great author of the sort who himself gets a good belly laugh at your goose bumps is Richard Matheson. These two men have been among my favorite authors forever.

Getting back to my friend who wanted a frightful story from me, he added, “And oh yeah, it has to be 500 words.” To which I replied, “You mean 5000, don’t you?” His response, “No, five hundred. Every story in the anthology must be kept to five hundred words. Short enough to read during a bathroom sitting.”

The gauntlet was thrown down, and I love a challenge; in fact, if an editor anywhere knew—just knew the secret—that when challenged by an idea, I go nuts and I must—absolutely must take on said challenge. My four novels in my DECOY series came by way of an editor’s challenge: Can you…in three sentences, she challenged me to create a series character that became Lanark, a Chicago Decoy cop and actor par excellence.

But this…five hundred words? Was it possible? It took rewrite afte rewrite when the story came in at 750 words. I believed after about the tenth rewrite there was nothing more that could come out if I wished to maintain the integrity of the story, but with the editor’s help on the final-final draft, I finally managed a five hundred word story, and I entitled it 500 words. By way of demonstrating a short-short-short story, I am herewith going to share Five Hundred Words with you, and I hope you know that I became a better writer learning to cut, then cut, then cut more, and when I thought nothing more could be cut, I remained open to someone else adding cuts. I learned so much writing this little story you have here:

500 Words
by Robert W. Walker

“In writing…500 words, Alfred! Now regale us.”
“The whole wretched story, yes. What precipitated Charlene’s murder,” asked Detective Kyle Begum.
“Self-defense,” bitched Alfred.
Begum, fed up, went for snacks. “Right back.”
With one hand to write, the other handcuffed to a bolted table, Alfred glanced at Detective Dick Trent. “She-bitch outta hell, cannibalized spleens and livers.”
Trent grumbled, “Write it.”
“Easy for you to say. When was last time you wrote 500 freaking words!
Look, Charlene became this godawful she-bitch. Whataya do when a wife becomes a were-dog and attacks you in the living room? Look, you want it from the beginning, it’s gonna require a 1000 words, sir.”
“500 ‘s all the computer can handle,” muttered Trent. “Just the facts.”
“Shit hit the fan when I accidentally broke her neon filigree-framed painting.”
“ Christ as Elvis; last supper at Graceland?”
“You saw it? Charlene insisted the thing proved the efficacy of the DaVinci Code.”
“—divinely guided, she said, but surely no way Jesus looked like Elvis.”
“And I don’t believe Jesus slept with a woman or sported sideburns.”
“Sideburns? Civil War,” Trent muttered. “Long after JC.”
“And long before Elvis.”
“Just write it.”
Trent had claimed that he and Begum had ‘heard it all before’. Nothing new under the precinct sun. “Put it on paper. Write….”
“Never was much of a writer,” Alfred offered.
“We found your wife’s body torn to shreds and smeared with salsa. Write!”
“I loved Charlene, but she was gonna kill me.”
“Yeah…we know…love is murder. Now, Alfred, write it!”

* * * * *

Detective Lyle Begun entered pissed that Trent didn’t open the door when he kicked at it. Begum had his hands full when he entered Interrogation Room #4. The cokes and chips went flying the moment he realized Alfred had somehow chewed off his cuffed hand and left it dangling, still in the cuff at the table. Blood and Trent’s body everywhere in pieces filled Begum’s vision, when suddenly the werewolf dropped from the ceiling overhead and onto him.
“Your turn now, Begum— take a seat!” the werewolf ordered, his face fierce, fangs bare, claws extended. Begum instinctively went for his gun, but the creature’s massive paw clamped over his hand and holster. “Go ahead, Begum, make my day.”
“What….what do you want from me? Safe escort? OK, OK…we’re outta here. Money, ransom? You got it. My wife? Take her. What?”
“Sit down at the table Begum.”
“I didn’t say shit.” The wereman that Alfred Holmes had become slapped the pencil and paper before Begum where he sat now at the bloodied table and chair. Trent’s blood. It was awful and the room reeked of it.
“What do you want from me?” asked Begum.
“Not much, but your buddy Trent couldn’t cut it.”
Begum begged him now. “What is it you want?”
“Just five hundred words.”

SO that’s it! Lots of fun around the blood and guts. Why humor and horror work in tandem like a good vaudville act, I don’t know. Will leave that to the psychiatrists.

Hope you enjoyed the story and perhaps, if you too write, you see the value of brevity. There does exist an old book out there you might find on a library shelf near you entitled How To Be Brief which I read as a kid. It didn’t take, to be sure, as my novels often run way past the number of words the contract called for, but I do recall it was great advice.

Not too long ago, I had to rewrite City for Ransom for HarperColllins down from 140,000 words back to the contract agreement of 90,000. We finally settled on 100,000 after three—count them—three consecutive rewrites after the many rewrites already done! Three in a row nonstop. Nonstop cutting, cutting, cutting. Is there any wonder that my editorial services are called The Knife Services?

This has been fun. Have fun with it, enjoy life and writing and reading,

Rob Walker -
for Dead On, Dead On artwork, and Knife Services


Morgan Mandel said...

I have the opposite problem. It's hard for me to get the word count up.

Morgan Mandel

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I agree with Morgan. When I'm done, I'm done. All my novels are short--one of the main reasons I've stayed with small independent publishers who don't care about things like word count as long as the story is good.

(PS Love your City of Ransom and etc.)


Norm Cowie said...

I write a 750 word business/humor column every other month ... it sucks doing the last 250 words.

Did I say 'suck'?


No, I'm not.


Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Rob - I loved this!!