I have decided to place this essay here for those who want to know how to write microfiction. It is a matter of precis, which I was aways good at in school. In fact I am not as good at writing long stories! But I don’t think they do that in schools these days and so this might prove a useful example for some aspiring writers. That is my hope anyway.

The Long and Short of Writing Micro Fiction

by Oonah V Joslin

Version 1

1,253 was a tad longer than the 500 word limit for the challenge set on our forum the other week. The words marked in red were to be included in the text so I had to retain those whilst more than halving my count. Quite a challenge.

Ambassador Ekbert put the last of his possessions into the transfer holds. ‘So that’s all?’ Then he disengaged the environmental adaptation system with a 5 minute delay code and called security. ‘So, that’s all,’ he said into the translator he’d spent years developing – not that he actually needed a translator any more but protocol demanded a certain distance at this moment.

‘Vor,’ came the reply.

“So – that’s all!” he thought.

The taint would remain in his mind. He had little choice but to resign quietly. The work might continue if he was able to acquaint a successor adequately with the cultural requirements of the mission. After all, he gave no direction to the way this species interacted with humankind. He was a mere sprocket; neither the driving force, nor the end result. His job was to keep the chain of events leading to cultural understanding on track and thus his faux pas was probably of little importance outside of his immediate circle. Provided he left quickly and was replaced soon, nothing would be lost; he must keep sight of that – but he would miss these lovely beings and their strange ways.

‘Vor,’ he affirmed.

‘Yaie,’ had been his first word – a simple hello, without use of body language of any kind and with minimal eye contact, no preconceptions with regard to time, space, gender or any other value or construct. The Gola had moved from its platform and circled him very slowly, clockwise, then anti-clockwise, then touched his forehead with one long, blue finger-like limb, almost a benediction, and mounted the platform again in one long graceful motion that mesmerised and sedated. Each of the twenty or so attendants had done the same and as they passed in endless dance, he grew accustomed to the slight tingling of his skin as they reached out to touch him. That was his first lesson in standard greetings among the Golathe. But it took a long time to identify the collective and individual colours and feel of the vibrations in each subtle greeting, as an emotion.

‘There comes a moment of epiphany in any interaction between beings, be it linguistic or empathic, social or personal, when barriers are broken down and true friendships and lasting liaisons become normal. This is what I hope for our two planets – for our two peoples.’

His inaugural speech as ambassador had been the culmination of months and a triumph of translation.

‘It does not necessarily follow that the stranger the culture, the longer that takes. It depends upon variables that none can predict and can be measured only in terms of enlightenment. Today friends – may I call you friends? – the darkness has rolled back.’

He stood naked before them as they always were, and took the accolade with pride.

As ambassador, Dillon Eckbert pieced together every nuance of their melodic language, dipping gestures, colour changes and came to appreciate their complexity. They were graceful, calm creatures for the most part. When they paled to white something was wrong. He was an experienced diplomat who detected the first signs of trouble well. For their part, though they could detect no emotion from him, for he didn’t change colour, but they gradually became less suspicious.

And so Eckbert fashioned himself a life amongst this alien race and thus came to that epiphany himself when, circling two friends he recognised in the market whilst buying schbOr, a local delicacy he’d come to love, he felt all at once, completely at home. Despite his own words, the sensation took him by storm. Here he was, far from Earth under a golden sky on a planet whose inhabitants floated around him and he was almost dancing around them, turning his head this and that way, never looking into their eyes, making small piping sounds with his lips to imitate their intonations and if any other man had appeared there, he would have thought it a strange creature indeed and perhaps have required the use of his own translator. It had been six years. Now, in his dreams, he floated too beneath a golden sky of shifting hue. “So, that’s all,” is how his thought would have translated in that moment but it really meant a myriad of things – it was a term of wonder, resignation, regret, or surprise – even of endearment. The slightest tonal shifts changed meaning, combined with colours which he of course, could not affect and that gave him the equivalent of a foreign accent and a slightly untrustworthy air, for those who were unacquainted…

Then he saw Agat. She was the daughter of a high ranking official. The function was informal. As the higher in rank, he was supposed to circle her slowly in the usual manner, then touch her forehead lightly with his finger. But she took his breath away. She was like mother of pearl, tall slender, wavering and demure even by the gentle standards of the Golathe. Yet something, some frisson, had passed between them and he met her eye and could not look away and so failed to begin the clockwise dance – a thing no Golathe would ever do. But they were well prepared for such a circumstance and not for one moment had Eckbert ever countenanced any romantic attachment in his own case. It was electric, overwhelming. His body reacted in the normal way and Agat paled. Then her father paled. The other guests picked up the vibration and turned and saw the three stalk-still and realised that something had occurred. Eckbert was ejected from the domicile and made his way home in a state of confused arousal. He could not banish Agat from his mind. The Golath requested an audience.

He remembered the boy. So, you’re going into the diplomatic service? That should satisfy your wanderlust.’ His father had had a way of putting him down without saying much and it would take more than a magna cum lauda in Intercultural Competencies to change that. ‘An unlikely choice given your predilection for solitude.

The combination of allophilia and wanderlust were such persistent voices inside him that Ekbert knew he could never be happy doing any other work and this had been a unique opportunity.

He remembered the young man, Dillon Eckbert who’d stood on the podium exuding all the knowledge, empathy and self confidence of a popular student about to embark on a most promising career. He’d always stood out, and addressing his peers he began to speak but such was his standing amongst them that his first words were drowned out by cries of:

‘Hail the Valedictiorian! Hail the Valedictiorian! Hail the Valedictiorian!’ And caps raised in the air thrice in deliberate and universal praise.

Now he must face the Golath – alone.

To his dismay, Agat and her father were there. Agat stirred in him the same reaction as before and he blushed but he did not meet her eye again. Instead he circled both her and her father four times without a word and then he allowed the Golath to circle him.

‘You have emotion,’ said the Golath.

‘Yes.’

‘You turn colour.’

‘I go pink, yes.’

‘What meaning?’

‘Shame – love.’ He looked at Agat.

‘What has shame to do with love, Ambassador?’

‘You’d be surprised.’

‘So, that’s all! My people thought it was the violence your kind sometimes displays. Instead you want to mate?’

‘Mate? Is it…’

‘It is up to Agat,’ said the Golath and Agat reached out and shyly touched Dillon Eckbert’s body. He had come home.

Version 2

You will see that in this second version I tried to collapse the back story down. The first paragraph is reduced from 70 to 23 words. But there is still a hint that we are not on Earth in the words marked in green. Now, 697 words is better but that still left almost 200 words to get rid of and that is a greater challenge still.

Ekbert cleared his possessions, disengaged the environmental system and called security. ‘So, that’s all,’ he said into the translator.

‘Vor,’ came the reply.

I honed the second paragraph to less than half its length too whilst keeping the essential cue words in place. If you have to half a piece that you’ve already written, it’s usually best to do the précis one paragraph at a time to make sure you’re keeping the balance of all the original elements and you should give each new version a separate identity – Sprocket1, Sprocket2, etc so that you can print off and compare versions if you feel the piece has lost vital elements at the end.

The taint would remain in his mind. He’d resign quietly, acquaint a successor with all cultural requirements. He was a mere sprocket; neither the driving force, nor the end result in this endeavour. His faux pas was probably of little importance outside his immediate circle. Provided he left quickly and was replaced soon, nothing would be lost; except to him.

In Version 1 I had put a lot of detail in about the language and customary greeting that didn’t really need to be there. The audience will fill in a lot from imagination if you just hint at otherness. So although I’d spent time dreaming this stuff up, my darlings had to go. And you will also notice that 4 paragraphs now get compressed into 3 – 564 -224 words. Looking at them here, I can’t see that anything was lost.

His first word had been a simple hello, ‘Yeai’; no body language, minimal eye contact, avoiding preconceptions with regard to time, space, gender or any other value or construct. The Golath had circled him slowly, clockwise, then anti-clockwise, then touched his forehead with one long, blue finger-like limb, almost a benediction, in a long, graceful motion of mesmerising calm. Twenty attendants had done the same, passing in endless dance. He grew accustomed to the slight tingling as they reached out. It took longer to identify their collective and individual colours and feel the vibrations of emotion in each subtle greeting.

His inaugural speech as ambassador was the culmination of months of translation.

‘There comes an epiphany in any interaction, when barriers are broken down and true friendships form. This is what I hope for our two planets. It does not necessarily follow that the stranger the culture, the longer it takes. It has an agenda none can predict and can be measured only in terms of enlightenment. Today – may I call you friends? – the darkness has rolled back.’

He stood naked as they were, and accepted the accolade with pride.

He studied every complexity of their melodic language, gestures and colour changes. When they paled to white something was wrong. However, they could detect no emotion from him, for he didn’t change colour.

The story pivots here and so at this point I had to make some radical changes because in Version 1 the story is as long from here to the end as the entire word count should be and I already have a 307 word count! I began to mark things I could easily lose.

One day, circling two friends in the market whilst buying schbOr, he felt suddenly, completely at home. It took him by storm. Far from Earth, under a golden sky, with beings floating around him, imitating their intonations and gestures, at that moment, he would have thought another human, a strange creature indeed. It had been six years. In his dreams, he floated too. “So, that’s all,” he thought. But it meant a myriad of things – wonder, resignation, regret, surprise – even endearment. Tiny tonal shifts here changed meaning, combined with colours which he could not affect and that gave him the equivalent of an accent and a slightly untrustworthy air.

Then he saw Agat, daughter of a high ranking official. She was like pearl, slender, wavering; demure even by Golathe standards. Some frisson passed between them and he met her eye, could not look away and so failed to begin the clockwise dance. He had never thought any romantic attachment probable. It overwhelmed him. His body reacted and Agat paled. Then her father paled. Other guests picked up the vibration and turned.

Eckbert was ejected. The Golath requested an audience.

He remembered his father, ‘So, you’re joining the diplomatic service to satisfy your wanderlust?’ His father had always put him down despite his magna cum laude in Intercultural Competencies.Unlikely choice given your predilection for solitude.’

But Ekbert knew he could never be happy doing any other work. He was the young man who’d stood on the podium exuding self-confidence, about to embark on a promising career, addressing his peers. But his first words were drowned out by cries of:

‘Hail the Valedictiorian!’ And caps raised in the air in praise.

Now he must face the Golath.

Agat and her father were there. She stirred in him the same reaction as before and he blushed. He circled her and her father without a word and then he allowed the Golath to circle him.

‘You are emotional,’ said the Golath.

‘Yes.’

‘You turn pink.’

‘Yes.’

‘What meaning?’

‘Shame – love.’ He glanced at Agat.

‘What has shame to do with love, Ambassador?’

‘You’d be surprised.’

‘So, that’s all. My people thought this a violent display. Instead you want to mate?’

‘Mate? Is it…’

‘It is up to Agat,’ said the Golath.

Agat reached out and touched Dillon Eckbert’s body. He was home.

Version 3

As you can see that wasn’t going to do it so at this stage I went back to the beginning to see what else I could take out or how I could rephrase sentences in order to lose a word here and there. At this stage every word-cut, counts. Strange then to start be putting one back but the simple title Ambassador says much about the character, saves words later on and is a required word so it does 3 jobs quickly. The first two paragraphs are now one, 51 words long and they take the reader straight into the story – a successful man who has done committed some terrible gaff – what can it be?

Ambassador Ekbert packed possessions and called security. This taint would remain. He’d acquaint his successor with all cultural requirements. He was a mere sprocket; neither the driving force, nor the end result. His faux pas was probably of little importance outside his immediate circle. Nothing would be lost; except to him.

These next 3 paragraphs have been reduced from 224 to 135 words now.

Here is version 2 again for easy comparison and I have highlighted the cuts.

His first word had been a simple hello, ‘Yeai’; no body language, minimal eye contact, avoiding preconceptions with regard to time, space, gender or any other value or construct. The Golath had circled him slowly, clockwise, then anti-clockwise, then touched his forehead with one long, blue finger-like limb, almost a benediction, in a long, graceful motion of mesmerising calm. Twenty attendants had done the same, passing in endless dance. He grew accustomed to the slight tingling as they reached out. It took longer to identify their collective and individual colours and feel the vibrations of emotion in each subtle greeting.

His first word had been a simple hello, ‘Yeai’; no body language, minimal eye contact, avoiding preconceptions. The Golath had circled him, then touched his forehead with one long, blue, finger-like limb, almost a benediction. Twenty attendants had done the same. He grew accustomed to the slight tingling as they reached out. It took longer to identify their individual colours and feel the vibrations in each subtle greeting.

His inaugural speech as ambassador was the culmination of months of translation.

‘There comes an epiphany in any interaction, when barriers are broken down and true friendships form. This is what I hope for our two planets. It does not necessarily follow that the stranger the culture, the longer it takes. It has an agenda none can predict and can be measured only in terms of enlightenment. Today – may I call you friends? – the darkness has rolled back.’

He stood naked as they were, and accepted the accolade with pride.

His inaugural speech took months of translation.

‘There comes an epiphany in any interaction, when barriers are broken down and true friendships form. This is what I hope for our two planets. It does not necessarily follow that the stranger the culture, the longer it takes. None can predict the schedule. Today friends, the darkness has rolled back.’

He stood before them naked and accepted the accolade.

He studied every complexity of their melodic language, gestures and colour changes. When they paled to white something was wrong. However, they could detect no emotion from him, for he didn’t change colour.

He studied every complexity of their melodic language, gestures and colour changes. When they paled to white something was wrong. They could detect no emotion from him.

The denouement was cut by 100 words. The part I honed most was his looking back to his father’s rather harsh attitude. I needed to show that he might have chosen a life amongst aliens because of his own alienation and also I need that word – wanderlust. It also led up to the happily ever after ;). But I could see that I’d made way too much of it so I worked on that section in particular.

One day, circling two friends in the market, he felt suddenly at home. It took him by storm. Far from Earth, under that golden sky, with beings floating around him, he would have thought another human, a strange creature indeed. It had been six years. In his dreams, he floated too. He felt a myriad of things – wonder, resignation, regret, surprise – even affection. Tiny tonal shifts here changed meaning, combined with colours he wished he could affect.

Then he saw Agat. She was like pearl, slender, wavering; demure even by Golathe standards. Some frisson passed between them and he met her eye, and failed to begin the clockwise dance. He had never anticipated any romantic attachment. It overwhelmed him. His body reacted and Agat paled. Others picked up the vibration and turned.

The Golath requested an audience.

Version 2

He remembered his father, ‘So, you’re joining the diplomatic service to satisfy your wanderlust?’ His father had always put him down despite his magna cum laude in Intercultural Competencies. ‘Unlikely choice given your predilection for solitude.’

But Ekbert knew he could never be happy doing any other work. He was the young man who’d stood on the podium exuding self-confidence, about to embark on a promising career, addressing his peers. But his first words were drowned out by cries of:

‘Hail the Valedictiorian!’ And caps raised in the air in praise.

Version 3 – 30 words gone:

He remembered his father, ‘So, you’re joining the diplomatic service to satisfy your wanderlust? Unlikely choice given your predilection for solitude.’

But Ekbert knew he could never be happy doing any other work as he stood on that podium confidently about to embark on a promising career, addressing his peers. His words were drowned out by cries of:

‘Hail the Valedictiorian!’

Now he must face disgrace.

Even this final dialogue is 10 words shorter.

Agat and her father were there. His reaction was as before and he blushed but he circled her and her father and then he allowed the Golath to circle him.

‘You turn pink?’ said the Golath

‘Yes.’

‘Meaning?’

‘Shame. Love.’

‘What has shame to do with love?’

‘You’d be surprised.’

‘My people thought you would attack. Instead you want to mate?’

‘Mate? Is it…’

‘It is up to Agat,’ said the Golath.

Agat reached out and touched Dillon Eckbert’s body. He was home.

If you read Version 3 I’m sure you’ll see that the story actually improved by being cut. Ah how I love short fiction – the shorter, the better! The last part was to choose a title and the challenge stated it had to have a duel meaning so I give you:

In Diplomatic Circles by Oonah V Joslin. (Thank you for reading!)

Ambassador Ekbert packed possessions and called security. This taint would remain. He’d acquaint his successor with all cultural requirements. He was a mere sprocket; neither the driving force, nor the end result. His faux pas was probably of little importance outside his immediate circle. Nothing would be lost; except to him.

His first word had been a simple hello, ‘Yeai’; no body language, minimal eye contact, avoiding preconceptions. The Golath had circled him, then touched his forehead with one long, blue, finger-like limb, almost a benediction. Twenty attendants had done the same. He grew accustomed to the slight tingling as they reached out. It took longer to identify their individual colours and feel the vibrations in each subtle greeting.

His inaugural speech took months of translation.

‘There comes an epiphany in any interaction, when barriers are broken down and true friendships form. This is what I hope for our two planets. It does not necessarily follow that the stranger the culture, the longer it takes. None can predict the schedule. Today friends, the darkness has rolled back.’

He stood before them naked and accepted the accolade.

He studied every complexity of their melodic language, gestures and colour changes. When they paled to white something was wrong. They could detect no emotion from him.

One day, circling two friends in the market, he felt suddenly at home. It took him by storm. Far from Earth, under that golden sky, with beings floating around him, he would have thought another human, a strange creature indeed. It had been six years. In his dreams, he floated too. He felt a myriad of things – wonder, resignation, regret, surprise – even affection. Tiny tonal shifts here changed meaning, combined with colours he wished he could affect.

Then he saw Agat. She was like pearl, slender, wavering; demure even by Golathe standards. Some frisson passed between them and he met her eye, and failed to begin the clockwise dance. He had never anticipated any romantic attachment. It overwhelmed him. His body reacted and Agat paled. Others picked up the vibration and turned.

The Golath requested an audience.

He remembered his father, ‘So, you’re joining the diplomatic service to satisfy your wanderlust? Unlikely choice given your predilection for solitude.’

But Ekbert knew he could never be happy doing any other work as he stood on that podium confidently about to embark on a promising career, addressing his peers. His words were drowned out by cries of:

‘Hail the Valedictiorian!’

Now he must face disgrace.

Agat and her father were there. His reaction was as before and he blushed but he circled her and her father and then he allowed the Golath to circle him.

‘You turn pink?’ said the Golath

‘Yes.’

‘Meaning?’

‘Shame. Love.’

‘What has shame to do with love?’

‘You’d be surprised.’

‘My people thought you would attack. Instead you want to mate?’

‘Mate? Is it…’

‘It is up to Agat,’ said the Golath.

Agat reached out and touched Dillon Eckbert’s body. He was home.