'Hint Fiction' Celebrates The (Extremely) Short Story Can you tell a story in 25 words or fewer? Inspired by Ernest Hemingway's six-word novel — "For sale: baby shoes, never worn" — Robert Swartwood has compiled a new anthology featuring bite-sized works of fiction.

'Hint Fiction' Celebrates The (Extremely) Short Story

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Who has time to read fiction these days? I mean, between carpools, soccer games, being on hold with their credit card company or Internet provider, blah, blah, etc., etc. - but Robert Swartwood has compiled a collection of fiction in which the stories are short enough to be text messages - "Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer."

Robert Swartwood joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. ROBERT SWARTWOOD (Editor, "Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer"): Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And I gather you were inspired by a six-word Ernest Hemingway story.

Mr. SWARTWOOD: The Ernest Hemingway story, yes. For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

SIMON: My gosh, if you just added a beat or two, it could be haiku, couldn't it?


SIMON: So, what makes hint fiction hint fiction? Not just the length, I assume.

Mr. SWARTWOOD: No. I think that, I mean a lot of fiction, no matter, you know, what the length, a lot of fiction does at hint at always a larger story, but with the brevity of, especially the Hemingway story, and you know, the stories in this collection, because they're so short, they just rely on the reader's imagination, on hinting at a larger story.

SIMON: Let's get you to read some - share some with us, if you could.


SIMON: For example, a story called "House Hunting" by Gary Braunbeck(ph).

Mr. SWARTWOOD: The fence is tall. Good. The mother is typical white trash. Too loud. But the kids, they seem frightened and quiet. Good. Easier that way.

SIMON: Ooh, my blood runs cold.

Mr. SWARTWOOD: Yeah, it's very - it's very, very effective.

SIMON: And let me read this one, if I could. Joe Schreiber. It's called "Progress."

After 17 days, she finally broke down and called him daddy.

Oh my gosh. How did you come by all these stories?

Mr. SWARTWOOD: I had a contest on my website and it became a really big contest, because word just kind of circulated around the Internet. And then later on, after the, you know, then Norton contacted us about doing the anthology, we opened it up to general submissions and received over 2,000.

SIMON: Do you find you believe in the form now that you've been through so many?

Mr. SWARTWOOD: You know, with the over 2,000 submissions, a lot of them, they came across more like first sentences or just random thoughts. Or they were like, you know, last sentences. And the initial thought is that it's easy. 'Cause yeah, you should be able to sit down and write a sentence or two in a couple of seconds - that shouldn't be hard.

But actually, you know, writing a couple of seconds that are meaningful and say the right words, that's very hard. Actually, one of the contributors in here, Edith Pearlman, she has a story called "Golden Years." And she had sent an email, it took her like a couple hours to come up with her story.

SIMON: Could you read that one to us?

Mr. SWARTWOOD: Sure. She: macular. He: Parkinsons. She pushing, he directing, they get down the ramp, across the grass, through the gate. The wheels roll riverwards.

SIMON: That does make your mind reel, doesn't it?


SIMON: Let's read a few more. K.J. Maas, "Silence."

She wondered what it was like in his silent world and wished she could tell him. Instead she traced his eyebrow with her fingertips.

That is a whole story, condensed, isn't it?

Mr. SWARTWOOD: It's a whole story, yeah. I mean a lot of these stories, they could be expanded into, you know, longer stories. But, as they are, they're complete, which is, again, the challenge and I guess the kind of beauty of the form.

SIMON: What about Sarah Lyons, "The Date"?

Mr. SWARTWOOD: How could he admit that this was not actually the first time he had seen Claudia's scar? He couldn't. He would have to feign surprise.

SIMON: And you can foresee, if you please, how that would lead to another story. But on the other hand, there's also something satisfying...


SIMON: ...if it ends right there, you understand it too.


SIMON: Now, as enjoyable as this is, do you have any fear that this could just continue to encourage the short attention spans we keep hearing about? Make your answer quick, by the way. Twenty-five words or less - I'm kidding.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SWARTWOOD: I was almost tempted to try. There is the mindset that this -that the anthology and these 'hint' fiction pieces are just another part of people's ADD, that this is just going to kind of help make it worse. But I actually see that oftentimes - and I've gotten emails from readers who are kind of like, you know, they were inspired by these really small stories to kind of write their own short stories.

And so, you know, they started small and they kind of worked their way up, which was really great to hear. I think that also by doing 'hint' fiction, it also kind of helps writers grow as writers and helps them learn word choice. And kind of helps them with their longer forms.

SIMON: You were kind enough to send us some of your favorites. So let's finish up, if we can, with a lightning round of that. Okay?


SIMON: Let's begin with Joe Lansdale's wonderful "The Return."

Mr. SWARTWOOD: They buried him deep, again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SWARTWOOD: Yeah, and he undercuts the Hemingway story by one word. Actually - this is another thing too, about 'hint' fiction, because the stories are so short, the title is really part of the story.

SIMON: Let me read Eric Siu's(ph) story, "An Impromptu Robbery." Think about this, Francis Ford Coppola fans. The pen, which was attached to the bank counter, did not go all the way through his throat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Oh, my word.

And could you take "Houston, We Have a Problem?"

Mr. SWARTWOOD: Yes. This is J. Matthews Zoss's "Houston, We Have a Problem."

I'm sorry, but there's not enough air in here for everyone. I'll tell them you were a hero.

SIMON: Oh boy. Well, let me follow that with Nick Arvin's "Knock-knock Joke." My father, standing at the sink with white sleeves rolled, says knock-knock. I say who's there. She loves. She loves who? He says: Exactly.

Mmm. Well, I enjoyed these stories, I must say, Mr. Swartwood. Thank you.

Mr. SWARTWOOD: Well, thank you.

SIMON: Robert Swartwood, editor of "Hint Fiction: An Anthology Of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer."

You can read more very short stories and submit your own hint fiction at our website, NPR.org.

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