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Monday musings on Australian Literature: Social micro-story telling on Drabbl.es

December 10, 2012
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Have you heard of a Drabble? Besides Margaret that is? It is, according to Wikipedia, “an extremely short [but complete] work of fiction of exactly one hundred words in length”. The concept was developed in the UK science fiction and fan fiction communities in the 1980s, with the word itself coming from a Monty Python sketch. Where else I suppose?

There are, I’ve discovered, websites out there for drabblers* (is that what you call the person who writes a “drabble”) but the reason for this post is a new Australian site – drabbl.es - which was recently launched in Canberra by writer Ellen Harvey. The site is in alpha testing phase so looks a little unfinished, particularly in terms of the Home Page and its navigation, but it looks like fun.

Harvey developed the site because she believes that

the idea of humans being storytellers is cemented in history, when cavemen told stories around fires. It’s part of our DNA to do this.

Her concept is a little more relaxed than the official definition. Her drabbles can be “up to” rather than “exactly” 100 words. She describes it thus:

Our site provides users the ability to write creative stories, document and record memories, create a life-stream, and participate in storytelling and creative challenges. Each story (which has a maximum of 100 words) is called a drabble.

As with other drabble communities, the site hosts challenges. For example, she recently asked contributors to write about anger. The project has other aspects too. She wants to encourage people to share and comment on each other’s writing. Authors, she says, have posted snippets of their novels, including works in progress. She is also developing a children’s app and would like to attract promoters to offer prizes to challenge winners.

In another departure from the tradition, entrepreneur Harvey is encouraging non-fiction drabbles. “Perhaps use it [the website] as a blog that gives you a 100-word limit”, she suggests. In fact, on the Home Page (today, anyhow) is a review of Melina Marchetta’s fantasy novel Finnikin of the rock. Now here’s an idea for we litbloggers: write a 100-word review and free up more time for reading. Or, will compressing our ideas into 100 words take as much time as writing an 800 word review? Somehow I think it might.

Regardless, all hail to 22-year-old Harvey I say … it’s exciting to see social media being harnessed in such a creative way.

Have you heard of drabbles before? Have you written one? (I considered writing this post as a drabble but decided I needed more words!)

* Just search on “drabbles” – unless you are already well across the form – and you’ll see what I mean.

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26 Comments leave one →
  1. December 11, 2012 1:37 am

    Considering how much time I spend editing down my waffle in every. single. writing. format, then yes, I can see a 100-word review taking just as much time!!

    • December 11, 2012 7:29 am

      Me, too. Who was it who said, “Apologies for the length of this letter. I didn’t have time to write a shorter one”?

      • December 11, 2012 8:14 am

        Thanks Hannah and Elizabeth … I totally agree … I labour over getting my views shorter but still they’re 800-1000 words. My aim was 800 when I started this blog but I rarely achieve it.

  2. December 11, 2012 4:02 am

    Not entirely relevant, but this assertion fascinates me: “the idea of humans being storytellers is cemented in history, when cavemen told stories around fires. It’s part of our DNA to do this.”

    Is there evidence that cavemen told stories around fires? Any evidence whatsoever? Do we know that cavemen — what are these: Neanderthals? — could speak in coherent sentences, or had any kind of verbal narrative ability? If so: can the behaviour known as storytelling actually be coded in DNA? (I suspect that the answer to all of these is no. How many of our very sincere drives and actions do we attribute to tropes and fantasies? How hard is it to describe why, exactly, we do something?)

    • December 11, 2012 8:22 am

      Good questions DKS … I didn’t read it literally and in that sense I don’t quite call it a fantasy because there is evidence that we’ve loved stories for a long time isn’t there … if we go back to medieval days (not quite cave days) and to, say, troubadour songs. Rock art might indicate an interest in stories though we are not always sure, are we, of the intention of rock artists (the painters etc not the musicians!). In other words are some of these things fantasies or are they exaggerations? They’re worth unpicking though I agree … I love that you picked this point up!

      • December 13, 2012 11:58 am

        My first reaction was the same — I didn’t read it literally — and then I thought, “Why am I not reading it literally when” (I’m only looking at your quote; I haven’t checked the site) “she seems to be writing it literally, even though, on the other hand she can’t seriously mean it?” Is there really a scientific paper out there somewhere that has a drawing of a DNA strand and one little part circled with storytelling code detected here printed alongside? I don’t think so. Then what has she written? What do you call it? Not a lie, although it’s not true. Not a metaphor really. A representation of an idea — the idea that telling stories is important. How do you make something seem important? With science. So DNA gets a mention. With science and history. So cavemen get a mention. That’s how I’m reading it. And I come across this, and I read those facts she’s written, and I automatically understand that what she means is probably not, “Cavemen told stories around fires,” but “I think storytelling is important and I want you to think so too.”

        “Rock art might indicate an interest in stories …”

        It might, but I think the only thing we could say for sure is that it indicates an interest in representation — since it is a representation — and then you could go on to point out that stories are representations. “So the building blocks were there,” you say. Then you go to Wikipedia, and you look up ancient literature, and you see that the earliest bits of recorded prose have been attributed to Bronze Age Sumerians, who at least had some sort of knack for beginnings. “In those days, in those far remote days, in those nights, in those faraway nights, in those years, in those far remote years, at that time the wise one who knew how to speak in elaborate words lived in the Land,” saith the translated opening lines of the Instructions of Šuruppak son of Ubara-tutu. But they lived in cities, not caves.

  3. December 11, 2012 7:19 am

    The only drabble I have ever heard of is Margaret so your opening made me laugh! I took an essay writing class once and one of the assignments was to write a personal essay of 300 words or less. It was the best thing I wrote in the class. Makes you really pare down to what is important and choose words very carefully. I suspect writing drabble reviews would be much harder than going on and on about a book!

    • December 11, 2012 8:25 am

      I’m so glad I’m not the only one, Stefanie … When you search the web a lot of hits come up so I was a little worried the comments would all be shaking their cyber-heads in astonishment at me! an essay in 300 words – hard but a bit more doable. I have managed the odd 300-400 word post though not a review!

  4. December 11, 2012 7:36 am

    No I have never heard of a Drabbler but I think I must have aspired to be one. I used to write a weekly series on my blog in 200 words and it was always exact.
    The process of working out just which one or two words the piece could do without made me a better writer and it is amazing the ideas you can cover. I have no doubt that each of those 200 word posts could have been shaved down to 100 with an idea still in place.
    I’ll check out Ellen Harvey’s site and I might even suggest to her that she should take a stand and make the format “exactly” rather than “up to”.

    • December 11, 2012 8:28 am

      I love that you’ve done that Karenlee! You could suggest that to Harvey .. But maybe she wants not to make it too hard. She could though incorporate it into some of the challenges … Either have two winners, one for the best exact and one for the seat (which might sometimes be the same). That way she could ease people in without discouraging them from engaging!

      • December 11, 2012 8:29 am

        BTW, Karen Lee … I can see how writing such a short review would really make you hone in on one significant idea wouldn’t it.

  5. December 11, 2012 1:32 pm

    No I haven’t heard of it before. The only Drabbles that comes to mind is Margaret, as you said. This sounds like a fabulous site for aspiring writers… and bloggers. 100 words for a story is an acute training ground for succinct writing indeed.

    • December 11, 2012 10:20 pm

      Thanks, Arti … there’s a lot more of this sort of controlled form in poetry isn’t there, like haiku, tanka and sonnets. I’m sure having to fit into a form is good training for identifying what it is you want to say and getting to the point!

  6. December 11, 2012 6:01 pm

    I agree it seems like a great training venture, as are blogging word limits! I tend to write in a totally different way, ie when the story is told, it’s over. But I think the exercise could be useful in sharpening ideas and avoiding waffle. That said, what do you think of flash fiction?

    • December 11, 2012 10:28 pm

      Being the wishy-washy person that I am, I think any form that encourages some people to write (particularly those that help hone skills) and others to read is good. Flash fiction, from what I understand, is less restrictive but is also about being brief. Some probably argue that these are all about current day short attention spans but there have been short forms of writing around for ever. Fancy names like Drabbles and Flash Fiction don’t really change that do they? What do you think?

      • December 16, 2012 2:26 am

        Yes I agree the names are just to draw attention to forms that have been about for years. I did read one absolutely fantastic book of one page pieces but gave it away to a best mate. Just found it online! Called ‘Pieces for the Left Hand’ by J. Robert Lennon. Do you ever give beloved books away and have to order them again?

        • December 16, 2012 8:15 am

          Pieces for the left hand. What a great title.

          No, I must say I haven’t often given away beloved books like that …. Often the particular copy is special or I’ve written in it … So I’m more likely to buy the new copy for the other person, tho this isn’t quite so spontaneous is it.

  7. December 13, 2012 5:53 am

    sounds like a great Idea sue ,so many ways to get writing out there via internet ,all the best stu

  8. December 22, 2012 6:19 pm

    This piece from the LRB is interesting in relation to the idea of working within strict limitations (although some of the things the writers mentioned in the article set themselves to do make 100 words almost seem a doddle):

    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n23/paul-grimstad/anticipatory-plagiarism

    • December 22, 2012 7:10 pm

      Oh thanks for this zmkc. Not being a subscriber I can’t see it all, but I love the paradox in Perec’s comment that he applied rules/limitations in order to be totally free.

      • December 22, 2012 9:25 pm

        QUOTED FROM LRB: Asked, in an interview with Claude Bonnefoy in 1977, why he resorted to such contortions for the making of fiction, Perec replied: ‘Je me donne des règles pour être totalement libre.’

        • December 22, 2012 10:13 pm

          Thanks for this .. I have read it but then removed the majority of it from the comment field because I suspect posting it all here might contravene LRB’s copyright?

  9. December 23, 2012 11:56 am

    Please remove it all, I just meant you to read it & thought you had moderation so it would be possible not to post it to the web. Happy Christmas and New Year Zmkc

    • December 23, 2012 3:58 pm

      Okey doke … I did have moderation but say it was from you and automatically approved it and then saw what it was! Happy Christmas and New Year to you too!

    • December 23, 2012 4:00 pm

      Oh and it was fascinating … I knew a little of it but the full discussion was great to read. I love the notion of setting challenges like this …

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