The Commuter Challenge

2 September 2008

The September 2008 Challenge

by CC @ 15:19

For September we’re going to spend the month immersed in process of writing really short stories, a genre popularly known as flash fiction. However, the typical flash fiction word limit is between 750 and 1000 words, and that’s just too expansive for us.

The challenge is: Write a story between 250 and 300 words long, as per Micro Fiction. Then write another story between 50 and 55 words long, as per The World’s Shortest Stories. Finally, write a story using exactly six words, as per Not Quite What I Was Planning.

Subject matter is up to you. Your three stories can be loosely related, but not as a way to get around word limits: Each story should stand on its own.

The Results

Brian Raiter

300 words


A teenage boy strides across the park’s grassy slopes, avoiding the well-lit gravel pathways. He doesn’t want to be at home but there’s nowhere else he needs to be. He is simultaneously bored and anxious. The summer evening air is warm and still. On a nearby rise he spots a telescope on a black-legged tripod. Curious, he walks over. The barrel is crimson and bigger around than his leg. He stands beside the instrument. Nobody’s around. He leans over to peer into the eyepiece, gingerly, to avoid touching anything. Had the old man who owns the telescope been present and invited the boy to have a look, he would have declined. Instead the owner is currently comatose, and will be pronounced dead of a cerebral aneurysm before the next shift change at the ER. There was little the paramedics could do by the time they found him, slumped in the driver’s seat of a parked car. He had called 911 from there — stumbling back to the car in a panic, where his cellphone sat in his jacket pocket, after the headache had begun and he found himself unable to focus. He had set up his telescope in good cheer, as the sky was clear and moonless and sure he was alone but he was used to that (he had friends but none interested in astronomy), only 68 minutes ago, as sunlight reflected off the rings and upper atmosphere of Saturn back towards the inner solar system, a tiny sliver of which threads its way into the lens and eyepiece of the telescope just as the boy leans over, 68 minutes later, and finds himself riveted by the unexpected sight, one that he has certainly seen in photographs but never before, he realizes, with his own eyes.


55 words

Back From Vacation

“How was it?”


“In a good way?”

“Yes! Except for the exit procedure. That sucked.”

“But it was worth it?”

“Definitely. It’s … like nothing else. You should go.”

“I do have a vacation coming up. Conscious Life, it’s called?”

“If you go, look into the blue whale option. I heard good things about that.”


6 words







Ryan Finholm

300 words

I remember the day the front porch light bulb burnt out. It was May 22, 2006, and that Cessna had hit the Williams’ house so early in the morning, and the fire trucks and ambulances and police cars were driving up and down the street most of the day and nobody could get any peace. I put on my hat (that fedora I later lost in Campoalegre) and revved up the Studebaker for a trip to the waterfront. I swerved all over the road, keeping an eye out for stray Cessnas. I drove by Mrs. Congreve’s house to see how she was recuperating, but her house had been converted into a liquor store. The proprietor informed me that the building had always been a liquor store, a claim I found dubious. I resumed my trip to the waterfront, which is a place that typically soothes my nerves. I found an ideal parking spot and had just begun my walk along the boardwalk promenade when I was accosted by a woman who insisted that she remembered me from school. I had no recollection of the woman, but nevertheless we spent hours talking and reminiscing. We ate lunch out of vending machines and enjoyed the salty air until I tired of her company and left her with the wrong phone number (your phone number). On the way back home I saw what was either a UFO, or a cloud, or a helicopter. A note tacked to my front door notified me that everyone had gone to the Stevensons’ to gawk at Daphne, who had fallen in the well. While I was reading the note, the porch light popped and went dark. And I remember it all vividly, because that was May 22, 2006: the day the front porch light bulb burnt out.


55 words

Julie and John hosted the backyard barbecue. Julie was Japanese-American. John was Manhattan-American (his term). Their matching blue aprons read “KISS THE COOK”. A rectangle of electrical tape changed her C to a G; a small square of painter’s tape changed one of his Os to a C. Most laughed. Kevin laughed uncomfortably.


6 words

After Reno, they had to hitchhike.

1 comment

  1. In a way this challenge was the opposite of Nanowrimo, in which you’re stretching to get above a given word count in a month. The initial version of my 300-word story was over 500 words long, and the initial version of my 55-word story was over 150 words long. I was amazed when I did the counts, and really sweated to cut them down to size. And that’s the other way in which this exercise is different. Nanowrimo is kind of a crash course in how to write first drafts, but this exercise was a crash course in writing second drafts. Having done Nanowrimo several times now, I find that first drafts come relatively easy now, but then I’m back at sea when it comes time to revise. Trying to get below a maximum word count really forced the issue for me, and I was surprised at how satisfied I was with the final results. Perhaps this is something we should do more often.

    I’ve read numerous 55-word stories before, enough to know that you almost have to use a familiar warhorse of a plot, because there just isn’t enough space to do anything unfamiliar. (Although I note that Ryan dodged that issue by just painting a simple scene. It reads like it’s going to be no more than a joke, but then the last three words suddenly turn it into a story.) I decided to use a classic science fiction short-short story twist after the final line popped into my head one day. One nice feature of this particular type of story is that it pretty much requires that there be no physical descriptions — nothing but dialogue. So that also helped with the word count.

    That dialogue-only approach then gave me the idea of trying it with the six-word story. Normally the six-word story is a single sentence, if that, but I realized that with six verbal exchanges I could, just barely, tell a story. (The names John and Marcia are of course references to Stan Freberg’s radio sketch “John and Marcia”, in which a soap-opera-style story is told entirely through inflection, the dialogue consisting solely of the two characters saying each other’s name.)

    I don’t remember now where the idea for the 300-word story first came from, but I was partly influenced by a short short story I had read once about a young boy drowning that was told backwards. It began with a paragraph about the lifeguard doing CPR on the boy, and the next paragraph described the moment immediately preceding, and so on, each paragraph going back a little further, until it ended with an image of a warm summer day on the beach. I did something similar with the old
    man’s death, starting in the present tense and then smoothly slipping into the past tense and tracing events backwards until the arrival of the telescope. Then later in the month I got the idea of using the time light takes to travel between planets as a way to bring the story back to the present. (I still remember when as a child I learned that it took like over 8 minutes to get from the Sun to Earth: I knew the distances were huge, but a time of 8 minutes really hammered it home.)

    Of course David Foster Wallace’s suicide took place during this challenge, and so his writing was very much on my mind, more so than usual, that is. His baroquely prolix style was of course very much out of place in a challenge of extreme brevity, but I can see his influence in my 300-word story anyway, in the run-on sentences that supply seemingly innocous details, internal thoughts, and authorial intrusions all at once. I try not to let my own writing turn into a pastiche of David Foster Wallace’s style, but sometimes it’s hard.

    by Brian — 2 December 2008 @ 14:32