At this weekend’s #barcampliv 2011, I ran a short session on 100 word stories. In the science fiction and fantasy writing community, these are often called “drabbles”. The experience of targeting exactly 100 words is tricky and fun: the constraint shapes the narrative, and makes you make hard choices about what to keep in the story. It was also the ideal length for a writing workshop in a 20 minute slot at Barcamp!
Throughout the morning, I handed people a small sheet of paper  with a story prompt, usually taken from something I’d seen at Barcamp – the title of a talk, someone’s Twitter nickname, or a phrase I’d overheard.
Starting off, I had no idea whether people would be interested, or have time to write a story, but it looked like my gentle coercion and shameless pimping throughout the morning had paid off, as I knew of at least 3 stories, and the session was well attended. I wanted to start off with my attempt , to make sure that people knew it was OK, not to quite hit the target…
Cloud Computing by Hakim (190 words)
When I took the research fellowship, noone mentioned interpretative dance!
“What do you know about Cloud Computing, Matthew?”. Professor Cirrus was a good old boy, odd socks, trousers back to front, that sort of thing, but a fine scientist.
“They have a computing cloud already, in the machine room.”
“Ah!” he said triumphantly. “I’m not talking about machines.”
Though he was eccentric, he wasn’t crazy. “What do you mean, Professor?”
He pointed out of the window at a cloud. “The charged particles of water vapour are arranged into an array, a cloud brain!”
“How do we communicate with it? Do you have a keyboard?”
He looked at me as if I was crazy. “Are you crazy, dear boy? As every shaman and witch doctor knows, you speak to clouds using a Rain Dance!”
So I found myself in the gardens of the Old Quad, shaking a stick at the cloud.
Some undergraduates had gathered and were pointing and laughing at me. “Is it going to do anything, Prof?” I snapped at him.
“Wait,” he said.
Slowly, the undergrads stopped laughing. The cloud had shifted its shape, “Hello Matthew,” it said.
That’s far too long, and highlights the danger of worrying too much about getting a punchline in. My story was by far the worst attempt at targeting 100 words, so yay everyone else! One of those who was pretty much there was Andy, whose story was titled after the talk Paul was giving next door at the same time. (My ‘wc’ program counts 99 words, but hey.)
The Vagrant and the Puppet by Andy Potter (99 words)
A man had got on the bus and left his case standing on the street.
The vagrant had taken the case, hoping to find something to sell. Instead he found a puppet. Not a ventriloquist’s dummy, a muppet puppet. It was green and furry.
The vagrant tried in vain to sell the puppet, but no-one wanted to buy it. He was in a quandary. He didn’t want to throw it away, as it made him smile. He didn’t want to carry it around with him all the time, as it was bulky.
He left it at the bus stop.
Alex, one of the usual suspects at DoES’s study group for the AI Class got a
prompt about remote controlled blimps (we’re building one of these. Eventually.)
The AI Blimp by Alex Nolan (99 words)
The program glanced up. “Remote Controlled Blimp, huh? I’ll need some decent source material for that!”
Alex chuckled. What better way to write a story about designing an artificial intelligence routine to solve a problem, than to get a completely separate routine to do the writing for him?
Unfortunately as the minutes ticked away, his research uncovered difficulties in the field – natural language generation is well understood, but the creative process less so. Some even suggest that an artificial system built on rules by definition can’t be creative. Alex sighed as the program imploded in a paradoxical twist.
Rosie was the first person to pass me a story, after which I knew it was all going to
Piracy by Rosie Diver (84 words)
“That sounds great – I LIKE that! I can DO something with that!”
Download > de-code > garageband > elongate that > swap that for that > change that one > save as > rename > new file!
Upload > meta-data > myfile
Publicise > facebook > Twitter > iTunes
Build a buzz – build a brand! 120,000 likes > Tweets by the tonne!
“I’m a big fan – meet me to help promote your tune”
“Hi – ooooh a letter – how quaint!” Open it tomorrow – too busy now.
“Right, that letter”
“A what! A summons-”
“But I’ve done nothing wrong!”
I was really pleased that Jan, a native Spanish speaker, submitted a story, titled after Mycroft, Brox & co’s Arduino game:
“Tickets Please” by Jan San (92 words)
I live in a very warm planet, with a minimum temperature of 50C degrees. Today is 124, I can feel how my blood is going thicker. Anyway, there is nothing I can do about it, if I had one of those tickets…
A ticket is just a way to get into any place with air conditioner, no one really cares about what’s going on inside, but at least you can think straight for an hour or so. I wish I didn’t spend my last one on Friday… What I was talking about?
Tim wrote a story without me even handing him a prompt, but inspired on part of the discussion at Ian Forrester’s panel on Piracy:
Mickey by Tim Waters (102 words)
mickey was annoyed, he had spent his day off on land after his time on the steamboat, performing for a new show, and his costar told him his ears were too big.
He went to the dock bar, open 24 hours – and ordered a whiskey. He liked his whiskey neat, like his clothes.
The barman, wiping sleep sand from his eyes came over to him and started a conversation?
So, have you heard about these new computers? he asked.
Yeah, mickey said, they are pretty neat, they can help calculate things, but they wont change my life.
The barman replied, heh.
Having failed to hit 100 words for my new story, I read out this one I prepared earlier. Again, after the discussion on Intellectual Property, I should hasten to add that it’s not that time-travelling Doctor, honest.
Tea by Hakim (100 words)
“Would you care for some tea, Doctor?” the Beast offered.
“Tea?” he sputtered, incredulous.
“Silver needle white tea, actually”, specified the Beast, “Wonderfully relaxing. But I believe you have drunk it at its origin.”
“Yes, in old China,” said the Doctor weakly. He shook his head, “But… I mean, aren’t you the implacable evil? The ineffable malevolence? The eternal enemy?”
“Oh, that?” said the Beast, waving the idea away, “Well, strictly speaking, yes. But I find it’s such thirsty work.” It paused. “I’m taking a cup myself, are you sure you won’t join me?” It whispered conspiratorially, “I have biscuits.”
Though I run the Speculative Fiction writing group at DoES, I explicitly didn’t limit the stories to any genre. That said, I was very pleased that a number of the stories were in fact in a fantastical genre, such as Mycroft’s tale:
Green Foot by Mycroft Milverton, (111 words)
Our attack on the little green men had been anticipated. They had set mines around their village to discourage attack. It was I who discovered this fact!
I woke in the medical bay among a crowd of frowns. “Sorry” said the surgeon “You have lost a foot in the attack. We didn’t have a warrior foot, we’ve given you a foot from one of the captives”.
I was fit and well in time for the next raid on the village. I set off to run with the other warriors, they all ran straight towards the village. However I veered off to the right and ran around in circles around a tree.
Ian chose the prompt I’d scribbled down based on his twitter nick, and delivered an interesting philosophical musing:
Cubic Garden by Ian Forrester (105 words)
A cubic object is a mathematical thing while a garden is a natural thing which strikes as organic opposed to the sterile mathematical nature of cubic.
You can get cubic gardens but when saying “cubicgarden” it doesn’t strike up visions of a sweet garden. Even if you did, it wouldn’t be a cubic garden.
Refereces to cubicgarden online point to a guy called Ian Forrester. What caused him to choose cubicgarden, a lot of people ask? Why ot Qubic garden or even square garden?
In Donnie Darko one character says the most beautiful word in the dictionary is “Cellar door.” I would contest it’s “Cubicgarden.”
We had a great and varied crop of short pieces, and everyone read them out beautifully (I did promise that people could get a volunteer to read if they didn’t feel up to it, but we didn’t need to worry).
By the way, I’m missing a few stories (as it was the first time I’ve done this, I wasn’t quite as organized as I should’ve been!)
but Beth had a great werewolf story and a lad whose name/nick I now forget wrote about the “Golden Vision of the Future”. (Did I miss anything?) I’ll update this post as soon as I get them!
Werewolf by Beth (90 words)
Puberty is a difficult time for most people, but Suzi fond it even more of a strain, for this was when her unusual genetics really came into play.
Hormones, growth spurts, acne, emotions, snouts, claws, paws, hair growth (everywhere), a fascination with the full moon – all of these changes were wreaking havoc on poor Suzi. During the days she was having to learn how to be a teenager and make the transition to adulthood. Whilst at night she was running with the pack, learning the ways of the she-wolf.
In the last 10 minutes, we wrote a piece as a variation of the Exquisite Corpse game. People read out a line, or some words, and we pieced them together into a story using a mixture of democracy and dictatorship (I had the pen). We ended up targeting 80 words (the atomic numer of mercury) and edited to make sure we hit exactly that number. We started off, again, with a story prompt, based on 3 words, called out from the audience, based again on things they’d heard at Barcamp:
Swans. Chrome. Quantum. by #barcampliv (80 words, the atomic number of mercury)
They say a swan is strong enough to break bones. But the mercury lake brings bigger fears. The density of mercury allows the chrome swans to float as long as the moon is high in the sky.
It is anyone’s guess if the swans are actually there. The Royal Society of Quantum Birds had put the Chrome Swans on the uncertain list. Alas due to Heisenberg’s principle the constant velocity of the birds means we never know where they are.
Finally, Brox arrived late to the session, and wrote his piece just to late to read it out. So let’s end this post with the World Premiere of his story:
Being Late by Brox Baslow (90 words)
I was expecting to apologise for my tardiness; things were already underway. I found a seat. Nobody commented, too polite perhaps?
People read out their stories. Suddenly a lull in the proceedings and I thought I’d dive in. I stood, announced the title and launched into my tale.
But nobody heard. I tried being theatrical, dramatic. I spoke in a silly voice. This phrase I sang in my best tenor. Nothing at all, no reaction! They stared right through me. Somebody said there was a strange chill in the room.
 kindly provided by Tim Dobson of Barcamp, though the notepad was in fact from the upstanding chaps at AntibodyMX. I don’t know why more sponsors don’t give out notebooks. We would love more of them at DoES. Antibody’s ones have pages that are exactly the right size for a 100 word short story.
 because of technical problems (yup, I wrote the story on computer instead of paper, silly me) I ended up reading a different story first…