Tweet Petite - the Nanofiction of Simon Sylvester

Thurday, 8th September 2011

Originally written for Culturedeluxe magazine.

It is now well-established fact that around 90% of the public think Twitter is a waste of time: no more than several million wastrels logging their dietary habits or complaining about the weather. The other 10% may indeed be tweeting with gusto about pesto or raining down on their keyboards about, er, the rain but a select few do so much more with each precious set of 140 characters.

One interesting outlet of the medium is the ‘very short story’ which has given rise to the #vss hashtag and one of its foremost proponents is Simon Sylvester whose ‘nano-fiction’ was recently compiled, printed and released in a volume via Scottish-based Cargo Publishing.

‘It’s my take on 500 words a day.’ explains Simon. ‘I moved from writing full-time in Manchester to a dull office job in Kendal. Having lost so much writing time, I started working on nanos in my lunchbreak to stop myself going crazy. The more of them I wrote, the more I enjoyed writing them.’

‘I did a reading for Gutter magazine early in 2010. One of the other performers was Cargo Crate editor Anneliese Mackintosh, who asked me to submit a few things. I sent them 80-odd stories – all I’d written at the time – and Cargo wanted to go with 140. From that point, I used the office job primarily for writing nanos and not getting caught writing nanos. I’ve now written more than 800. I’d love to do a collection of 1,001 stories. When I’m happy with that many, Cargo Crate will be the first people I approach; they’re doing some really exciting things with epublishing, and their commitment to new writing and new media is extraordinary.’

But what is nanofiction? Some say it is a form of flash fiction of exactly 55 words in length. But why use that many when you can use but six? Arguably the most famous example of the very short story is that of Ernest Hemingway’s 1920's classic ‘For sale: Baby shoes, never used.’ Often a story that some authors will take up to 200 pages to unfold can be unravelled in the imagination of the reader with the smallest of prompts. All storytellers know that less can often be more and Simon agrees:

‘Nanostories give one or two jigsaw pieces to a reader, and point them in the direction of the picture on the box.’ he says. ‘As a medium, nanostories free me up to write about many more subjects and in a far more explicit manner. The challenge is to see how much life you can fit into a microcosm. I don’t find 140 characters confining at all, and I’ve become increasingly confident with how much it’s possible to achieve with such a small space. Is it like writing poetry? For me, that involves a sense of gravity, and I find that weight of expectation quite restrictive, [but] there are some great haiku writers using Twitter; those haiku and the nanos make flipsides of the same penny.’

Having discussed the art and craft of nano-fiction, the next question is where to publish it. Simply tweeting it to your followers on Twitter may result in confused responses, but adding the #vss hashtag will not only give your tweet some context but open up your story to a voracious online audience of those who follow that particular search. It is through the use of #vss that Simon has found favour with this initial group of people, many of whom love to retweet them.

‘When ‘140 Characters’ was released, I asked a few people before the launch to provide words I could channel into stories for my reading; somebody gave me the word ‘duck’, and I wrote this:

The duck stood by the road, waiting to cross. “I wouldn’t,” said the chicken, darkly. “People in this town like to talk.”

That was retweeted 25 times when I posted it on Twitter. It doesn’t sound much, but if each of those people has an average of 10 followers, that’s 250 people; if they’ve 100 followers, it’s 2,500. The more people reading my work, the better. Twitter is a superb platform for finding new writers and new readers.’ However, authors are by nature contrary and some of Twitter’s best writers like to make it harder for you to find them. ‘Loads of writers use #vss,’ explains Simon. ‘But two of the best never use it; @veryshortstory is reputed to have started the whole thing in the first place, and Shorty-winner @arjunbasu tends to write three or four a day. I like @jadamthwaite, too; she’s very prolific. My favourite is @jrobertlennon. He hardly ever posts nanos, but the ones he does are stonkers. Online zines like @onefortyfiction and @7×20 offer good stories, most of the time.’

Being a Twitter storyteller might get you noticed on a small scale and Simon has turned his hand to full-length novels in a bid to be published more conventionally: ‘[I haven't] yet, alas.’ he says. ‘The consensus from the agents and publishers I’ve approached thus far is that [my first novel] is too bleak, which is probably a fair cop. It’s about an old man with dementia who may or may or not have fought in WWII Burma, and it’s pretty dark. I learned a lot while writing it, and I have vague plans for a full redraft at some point, but I’ve several other projects on the go at the moment. I’m about a third of the way through a collection of connected short stories, and I’ve passed the halfway mark with my second novel, which is about a beached whale. After a recent holiday to Kintyre and Gigha with my partner and daughter, I’m suddenly really excited about a third novel, too. That’s stalking most of my waking moments.’

We asked Simon if he would write a nano-story in celebration of Culturedeluxe’s new ‘In Print’ section and, prolific as ever, he wrote us four. Thanks Simon! Check them out below:

"Some bloke down the caff hammers at a fancy computer. I asked him why. 'I'm a writer,' he said. 'Ah,' I said. 'Ain't we all, chum."

"Trapped by a mythical bird and a muscly fish, the subeditor knew she'd gone too far. She was caught between a roc and a hard plaice."

"He spent two years with the tribe. Sniggering, they spiked his meals with peyote. Then he published his book. Who's laughing now, bitches?"

"The mummy shambled towards her, ancient fury in its eyes and Kirsty finally accepted that this Book of the Dead thing had been a bad idea."

’140 Characters’ by Simon Sylvester is available through Cargo Publishing. You can read more of Simon’s nano-fiction by following @simonasylvester.