Have I Learned My Lesson About Brevity?

Despite my recent negative comments on this blog about the San Diego Central Library, I will readily say that the San Diego Library system – which encompasses the Central Library and 34 branches – is doing something that’s pretty cool:

This event presents a very real challenge to many writers, including me – that challenge being…

San Diego Public Library’s Matchbook Story Contest is the opposite of this writing contest:

The Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest honors Sir Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1830 novel Paul Clifford begins with “It was a dark and stormy night.”  The contest challenges participants to write an atrocious opening sentence to the worst novel never written, and here’s the 2022 grand prize winner:

This is just the opening sentence of an imaginary novel, and at 70+ words it’s a perfect example of the opposite of brevity, which is:

Instead, the Matchbook Story Contest invites writers to create an entire story that’s so short, it will fit on the inside of a matchbook cover:

Figure 40-50 words…

To tell an entire story.

Now, that’s brevity.

I first learned about the Matchbook Story Contest – now in its sixth year – only recently, in this article:

The article included the 2021 contest winner, described as “a playful twist on the supposed serenity of meditation apps”:

“Imagine yourself as a frog on a lily pad,” the soothing voice murmurs in my ear.  Obediently, I picture it:  Slimy and cold, I am adrift in a polluted pond.  A heron’s lethal beak looms.  My legs prepare to leap but it is too late.  I delete the meditation app.

This sent me to the library’s Matchbook Story Contest website for more examples.  Here’s the 2020 winner:

After their date he turns to her, pausing.  Smiling, she gets ready to say:  I had fun too, or yes let’s do this again, or even, I love you too.  But he says, “This has been really weird.”

Here’s the 2019 winner, pictured on the matchbook cover above:

Who stole my youth?  The detective I hired uncovered the truth.  “They were in it together,” he said, passing me photos.  Father Time showed no remorse, his face kind and gentle.  Mother Nature was unrepentant.  “Honestly, darling,” she said when questioned, “what did you expect?”

These winners’ word count?

2021 winner:  50.
2020 winner:  38.
2019 winner:  45.

Brevity.

The contest website had more examples, and I liked the second-place winner from 2017:

My life in six words:
Cursed with happy childhood;
No bestseller.

While I didn’t care much for 2017’s third-place winner:

January Thaw
At last, skates off.  Kicking, gliding, she
Rocketed up toward the light, but she could
Not find that broken surface in the ice.

But whether or not the Matchbook Stories resonated with me, they were, indeed, stories and they were, indeed, short.

A challenge.

Brevity can be anathema to writers – some of us consider every word we write as gold, so how dare an editor suggest that we cut a word…a sentence…an entire paragraph?

Like an experience I had with an editor.  I’d worked hard on a magazine article and was delighted with the finished piece.  I presented it to the editor, and sat with him in his office as he read it.  I was aglow with anticipation of what I was sure would be his forthcoming lavish praise.

“Well,” he said. 

And then, “I want you to get rid of the third and ninth paragraphs.”

I gasped, turned pale, and clutched my throat in shock.

“And the last paragraph needs to be shorter – much shorter.”

“But…but…” I stammered.

Then the editor said something I’ve never forgotten:

“Nobody but you and I know those words are there.  And nobody will miss them but you.”

I may not always apply that lesson in brevity, but I’ll always remember it.

So – could I write a short story worthy of submission to the San Diego Public Library Matchbook Story Contest?

And submit it by the contest closing date:  November 15, 2022?

And if I expend my time and energy – and $5 entry fee – attempting this, what might my reward be?

Here’s the payoff, says the contest website:

  • The winning short story will be printed on 2,000 matchbooks available for purchase at the Library Shop:
  • The winning author will receive 50 matchbooks…

…a $50 Library Shop gift card, publication of their story in the Library Connections e-newsletter (circulation 200,000), and exhibition of the Matchbook in the Hervey Family Rare Book Room’s tiny book display:

  • The winning story will be announced at the Third Annual Shorties, “San Diego’s Shortest and Quirkiest Awards Gala,” on Thursday, December 8th:

That sounds like a pretty great payoff.

But the competition will be tough:  The 2021 contest drew about 400 entries, the most ever, with writers ranging in age from 8 to 92.

So:  Am I up for the challenge?

I am!

I’ve written a story of 45 words and I’m going to enter the contest!

And on December 8, when my story is announced as the 2022 Matchbook Story Contest winner…

And I’m up on stage making my acceptance speech…

I’ll endeavor to remember that editor’s lesson about brevity

So as to avoid this…

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