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'Hint Fiction' Celebrates The (Extremely) Short Story

Can you tell a whole story in 25 words or fewer? Inspired by the six-word novel attributed to Ernest Hemingway -- "For sale: baby shoes, never worn" -- Robert Swartwood has compiled a new anthology of bite-sized fiction.

The stories in Hint Fiction are short enough to be text messages, but the genre isn't defined only by its length. It's characterized by the way the form forces readers to fill in the blanks, Swartwood tells NPR's Scott Simon. Most fiction hints at a larger story, he says, but the brevity of these stories really challenges the reader's imagination.

Take Joe Schreiber's story, titled Progress:
After seventeen days she finally broke down
and called him "Daddy."

The short stories in Hint Fictionwere selected from more than 2,000 submissions -- Swartwood started small, soliciting stories on his website, but the contest grew in scope when publisher W.W. Norton got involved. The anthology also features the writing of well-known authors, including Joyce Carol Oates, Ha Jin, Peter Straub and James Frey.

Swartwood has read a lotof very short stories by now, and he says he has identified some typical rookie mistakes. Many stories come across as "first sentences" or just "random thoughts," he explains. People think it's easy to write a story in 25 words or less -- but it's much harder than you might think.

Edith Pearlman says it took her hours to compose her story, titled Golden Years:

She: Macular. He: Parkinson's. She pushing, he directing, they get down the ramp, across the grass, through the gate. The wheels roll riverwards.

The stories are extremely short, and yet, they feel whole. "A lot of these stories could be expanded into longer stories," Swartwood says, "but as they are, they're complete -- which is the challenge and the beauty of the form."

Swartwood occasionally fields questions from skeptics who fear the hint fiction trend will just further shorten already short attention spans. But Swartwood finds that these first 25 words often serve as a jumping-off point. A 25-word story is approachable; it allows new authors to "start small" and then gradually expand their storylines.

"It helps writers grow as writers," Swartwood says. "[Writing short fiction] helps them learn word choice and helps them with their longer forms."

Though it's hard to choose from the 125 bite-sized stories in the collection, Swartwood shares a few of his favorites:

J. Matthew Zoss'
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.

David Joseph's
Polygamy
I miss her more than
the others.

Joe R. Lansdale's
The Return
They buried him deep. Again.

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