by Gay Degani
Me, I want to coin a term, so I’m going to do it here and now: those very, very, very, VERY short stories should be called Hint Fiction. Because that’s all the reader is ever given. Just a hint. Not a scene, or a setting, or even a character sketch. They are given a hint, nothing more, and are asked — nay, forced — to fill in the blanks. And believe me, there are a lot of blanks. –Robert Swartwood
In April of 2009 an article appeared at Flash Fiction Chronicles called “Hint Fiction: When Flash Fiction Becomes Just Too Flashy,” written by Robert Swartwood. He coined the phrase, “Hint Fiction” which started a conversation about how short a short story could be. He launched an on-line 25-words or fewer contest and created an immediate to-do which led to the subsequent publication of Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer by W. W. Norton.
With the publication of his short story collection, Phantom Energy, it’s time for Flash Fiction Chronicles to catch-up on his writing endeavors—and there’ve been many—and his continued involvement in everything “hint.” If I remember correctly, I first heard of Robert Swartwood when he was a finalist for the Second Annual Micro Award. His piece, “Between the Keys,” originally published at elimae, is included in his recently-released eBook compilation.
Flash Fiction Chronicles: The impact you’ve had on online fiction since you wrote your article about “hint fiction,” continues. Can you give us a thumbnail history of what’s happened over the last couple of years?
Robert Swartwood: I’m still trying to process how the whole Hint Fiction thing created such a stir in the first place; after all, anyone who reads the original essay can tell by its sardonic tone that the thing wasn’t supposed to be taken too seriously.
For years I had been trying to break into publishing, writing novel after novel and securing first one agent and then another. Initially, after a novel was submitted to publishers and ultimately rejected, the idea was to put that novel away to come back to later when there was a book deal. I’ve been sitting on novels for years, many of them publishable, but just not right for publishers at that time.
Then over two years ago, after that essay was published and that stir started, Norton approached me about putting together an anthology of Hint Fiction. It was one of those publishing ironies that after years of searching for a publisher, a publisher found me.
Since the anthology was published the feedback has been pretty great. It received great reviews in The New Yorker and The Los Angeles Review and was even featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday with Scott Simon. It was even chosen as one of The Nervous Breakdown‘s favorite books of the year. This past September there was an art show inspired by the anthology courtesy of the Columbia Art League, and there is currently a very short film contest based on some of the stories from the book which will premiere at next year’s Vail Film Festival.
FFC: Whoa. That’s a lot going on, but after visiting your website, it’s obvious you spend much of your time writing. I counted nine wonderful book covers—compliments to your artist—and that these are all available as eBooks. What’s prompted you to go this route? With the excitement around the anthology, landing a traditional publisher seems like it would be a slam-dunk.
RS: Publishing the Hint Fiction anthology was a great experience, and I loved working with everyone at Norton, but now it sort of feels like I’ve gotten the whole thing out of my system. Granted, I didn’t publish a novel with a major publisher, but it was still the same kind of experience. Since then, major changes have occurred in publishing—eBook sales keep building every month, more and more bookstores are closing—that it’s beginning to look like the better option for authors is to do it themselves.
Before, self-publishing never made sense because to sell books to readers you needed a publisher to get you into bookstores. More and more readers are purchasing Kindles and Nooks and other eReading devices and the need for a middle man is no longer there. Writers don’t need bookstores anymore, and they don’t need publishers.
But, in that respect, self-publishing is a lot of work and responsibility. Pretty much everything—the editing, proofing, cover art, formatting, promotion—falls on the writer’s shoulders. A lot of it can be outsourced at a cost—the only thing I pay for is cover art—and that all adds up.
A lot of writers want to try to slide by with doing the minimum and then complain when their books don’t sell. Well, what do they expect? It’s a business, so it needs to be treated like a business. When I first had a few novellas available as 99 cent eBooks, they didn’t earn much, but since I started publishing a few novels this past spring, I’m selling over 1,000 eBooks a month, with even more titles scheduled to be released in the next year.
Currently Amazon offers 70% royalties to authors who self-publish through them for eBooks priced between $2.99 and $9.99. So for an eBook priced at $2.99, the author earns just over $2.00. With a regular publisher, they would make a little bit more of that amount on an eBook priced at $9.99 (the royalty is considerably less and averages out at about 25%). If a reader has to choose between a book priced at $2.99 and one priced at $9.99, which one are they going to pick?
Don’t get me wrong. I love bookstores. I love walking through bookstores and seeing all the books on the shelves and on the tables. I loved seeing my anthology in those bookstores (at least for the month or two or three it appeared in those bookstores; the shelf life of most books isn’t very long). But I also love writing novels and creating stories and finding new readers. And right now, it’s clear that eBooks are the future.
Also, when an academic and author friend of mine found out I planned to self-publish Phantom Energy, she said, “It makes no sense why you would do that. The book is good enough to be published as it is.” And I thought, Well, yeah, isn’t that the point? I wouldn’t self-publish a book if it wasn’t any good. For a lot of people, they view self-publishing as a last ditch effort. For others—like me—I see it more as the best option.
FFC: Can you talk a little bit about your longer fiction, your novellas and novels?
RS: I have three novels currently available: The Calling, which is a supernatural thriller; The Dishonored Dead, which is a nontraditional zombie novel; and The Serial Killer’s Wife, which is a straight-up thriller. Among those are a few novellas, like Spooky Nook, which is a “prequel of sorts” to The Calling and which, after my novels, is my best seller among novellas. In the next several weeks, I plan to release a new thriller, the first in a trilogy, called Man of Wax.
FFC: Let’s go back to the collection. This book contains work as short as 14 words as well as longer short stories. How do you approach the 1000 word story vs. one that is 50 words or even 25? How does length impact character, structure, and theme?
RS: For me, a story should always be as long as it needs to be. A lot of writers sit down to write with specific word counts in mind, and I’ll admit I’ve done that too, but I don’t think it’s beneficial for either the writer or the story, at least not for the first draft. For the first draft, the writer should tell the story that wants to be told. The writer can worry later about trimming it down to a certain word count so a certain magazine will consider it.
But yes, of course different lengths will have different impacts on characters and structures and themes. The main reason I started writing flash fiction a few years ago was because I had started a blog and wanted to get traffic to my site. I noticed there were a lot of online magazines around (I had taken a hiatus from short story writing for a few years to concentrate on novels and so was out of the loop) and realized the majority of them published stories under 1,000 words. It made sense because reading on a computer screen isn’t the funnest thing in the world (of course, this has changed recently with iPads and iPhones and other devices that don’t hurt your eyes like a bad monitor). So I started writing some very short stories and submitting them to these online magazines.
I also submitted to a few print journals (and even had some stories accepted), but for me, I prefer online media more than print. Sure, it’s cool to have a journal printed with your story and name in it, but realistically who’s going to read it? Unless it’s in The Paris Review or Tin House, probably not many people. At least with online journals, those stories are constantly there and anybody can check them out with a simple click.
Anyway, going back to your question, I strongly believe that less is more. Obviously there’s a thin line between telling too much and too little, and that’s the fun of writing these very short stories. So the characters and structure and theme have to be handled even more delicately than if I were writing, say, a 5,000 word story. There I would have a lot more room to deal with these things. But with a 500 word story, or even a 50 word story? It becomes even trickier.
FFC: What I find appealing about your work, whether short or longer, is how you manage to use such an unadorned straight-forward style that also manages to create clear visuals in the mind of the reader. When I say “unadorned” I mean it in the most complimentary way, thinking of Hemingway or Carver.
The spare quality of the language creates an immediacy to the story that keeps me reading to the end. It’s energetic without being frenzied, visual without be overwritten. Your stories are compelling, with a complex, but not complicated structure.
Some of my favorites include “Phantom Energy,” Fright X,” “The Chameleon Kid,” “Between the Keys,” and “The Dry Patch,” though stopping there with my list favs, makes me uncomfortable. Can you name three or four of your favorites and explain why?
RS: I’m going to give the standard generic author answer and say that picking and choosing which stories are my favorites is like a parent picking and choosing his favorite children. I can’t do it. But I will say this: all the stories in the collection are in there for a reason. I’ve published over 50 short stories in the past three years, the majority of them less than 1,000 words, and I put together what I felt were my very best in this collection.
Anybody familiar with my stuff will know you never really know what you’re going to get when you start reading one of my stories, and that’s because I like playing around with style and language and genre. So in Phantom Energy, there are stories both real and surreal, stories that aren’t at all traditional and break conventions. There were other stories that I wanted to include too, but which I felt just didn’t fit with the overall tone of the rest of the collection.
FFC: Thanks for getting us caught up. It’s inspirational to read about everything you’ve done.
Phantom Energy is available for just 99 cents at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords. It will also be available for $5.95 as a paperback at Amazon very shortly.
Robert Bio in Brief:
Robert Swartwood was born in 1981. His work has appeared in such venues as The Los Angeles Review, The Daily Beast, Postscripts, ChiZine, Space and Time, Wigleaf, and PANK. He is the editor of Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer, which was chosen by The Nervous Breakdown as one of their favorite books of 2010, and was featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday with Scott Simon.
Want more? Check out his recommended reading list, which grows longer and longer by the year. Find a list Robert’s writing here: Robert Swartwood: Occasional News, Insights, Rants, and Other Miscellaneous Stuff