Over the Transom: Writing Micro

Micro: the wild and elusive subgenre of truly tiny tales

One of our favorite traditions at AE is announcing AE Micro . As editors, it’s a chance for us to switch gears from evaluating individual stories to assembling a collection of bite-sized stories that provide five unique takes on a single theme. And while we’re looking for many of the same things we do in any story we publish in AE, there’s no doubt that writing for Micro is a particular kind of challenge.

The most obvious difference is in the constraints we put on Micro. There’s the word count, of course, which gives precious little room to make an impression. We count the words in each entry, and while we give the benefit of the doubt on hyphenated compounds to help stories squeak in under the limit, it’s often the ones that clear the bar with room to spare that stand out the most. A truly compact entry is usually a sign of a story that was built from the start to work at a miniature scale, rather than one that wanted to be longer but was shaved down to fit.

Because the title counts against the number of allotted words, it’s more important than usual for it to pull its weight, especially as we’re reading stories in quick succession. At the very least the title needs to be distinctive — both to prime the reader for what’s coming and remind the editors of what made an entry special as we’re winnowing the field. Titles like “Home” and “Time” don’t do much to make the case for a story. A good title sums up the the core of the story; a great title can play against the events in the story and contain a twist or add another layer to the narrative.

Distinctiveness also comes into play with the treatment of the theme. We try to offer themes that can be taken in several different directions, but some work better than others. Stories for “second” were generally more successful when they implied the existence of something that came first rather than when they focused on a moment that was a sixtieth of a minute. “Space” stories that took place in non-terrestrial settings were an easier sell than ones that played with more abstract notions of space. And while we sometimes joke about the range of meanings for a theme, we’re glad that no one took us up on the opportunity to write about the guy who’s got your back in a duel or the hot thing at the bottom of an electric kettle. We’d rather see a unique story that falls squarely in the most obvious interpretation of the theme than a thin story that stretches to hit a more obscure definition of the word.

Sometimes in the quest for uniqueness there’s a temptation to be more experimental with form, and we’ve seen entries that read like lists, streams of clipped sentence fragments, and — in one instance — a series of hyperlinks. Aside from the fact that these entries tend to lack a strong narrative, they’re a difficult fit in general. Micro is one of the rare times that we care about how the story will work in print; the microzine format imposes its own restrictions in the form of a letter-size sheet of paper.

Over the years of doing Micro, our initial short list has always been longer than the number of entries we can include each year. The final cut often depends on more than just the merits of each individual story. It’s at this stage that we look at Micro as a whole. We want a good cross-section of stories that offer different angles on the theme and vary in tone. It’s at this stage that humorous entries have a slight edge as we look for something upbeat to add to the mix (most stories that come in tend to be serious or downright depressing). When we’re reading stories for AE proper, some submissions that are built around a single joke feel like too long of a setup for the punchline, even at our lower limit of 500 words. Micro can be an opportunity to show us something funny at just the right length.

In the end, the most important thing is the word that’s come up in every paragraph of this editorial: story. Even at an abbreviated length, we want characters and motion and consequences — even if we can only catch glimpses of these things just off the page. If you can capture these and wrap them up in a tight package, you’ll have a good chance at being in the next AE Micro.

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