Most writers eventually settle upon a form. Some decide that poetry is their bag, finding the constrained construction of a sonnet a superior experience to the jazz of free verse. Others may find the novel their forte, and will dedicate their writing time to drawing up character development, narrative arcs and deeply embedded analogy. To others, the tight hit of a short story floats their boat. While there are writers who turn their talents to a much wider spectrum of scribing – DH Lawrence even threw painting into his novel/short story/novel/play mix and Byron’s political speechwriting with his Don Juan – there is a particular fascination with those whose talents are biased towards the idiosyncratic.
This therefore makes Brian Mackinney, Master of Drabbles, particularly interesting. A retired headmaster who admits his life “Was so busy I didn’t have time to really read much”, made a decision on the 8th October 2019 – note the precision here – that writing was to be his hobby. From there, he would sit down for 30 minutes each day, Monday to Friday, and write. “My target audience was, well, myself” he explains “And then I thought I needed more of a challenge. I’d write stories that would be fit for publication”. The stories in his wife’s favoured magazine, People’s Friend, became a target: could he write things that made that grade? Ten stories later, each around 1,500 words, he realised he could. Time to up the challenge again.
“I’d watch TED talks on writing, and read Stephen King’s thoughts on the subject. I didn’t worry that I knew little about writing: every writer is in development. I’m attracted to structure and schedule: Lee Child (mega-successful thriller writer) writes a new novel from January for publication in October, year in, year out. I liked that: to have a set goal to aim for”.
That’s when Drabbles came into his life. For the uninitiated, Drabbles are stories of exactly 100 words. 99? 101? Not Drabbles. You wouldn’t add a 15th line to a sonnet, or a 18th syllable to a haiku. Their strict form is immutable, and by being so present a challenge to writers. Anyone who has strayed into above 240 character-length tweets knows that such strictures make for better writing. Mark Twain is often quoted as stating “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one” *.
Brevity to Shakespeare was the soul of wit. To Brian, it is a craft and a test of imagination. “The title should be interesting, but vague enough to draw the reader to it. The first two or three words have to attract attention. Then embroider context, and end on a high note. There is a skill that constantly challenges, a quest for the perfect Drabble. Sometimes I master it, sometimes I don’t”.
As well as a challenging form, Brian set himself a challenging schedule: he has to publish one Drabble on his website per week, a fresh precise 100 word story each Friday morning. This pressure leads him to view the world in the context of Drabbles “I get my inspiration from anything: I’ll look at news stories and bingo, that could be it. Or I’ll overhear a snippet of conversation, read an obituary and my imagination will do the rest. It makes you more attuned to the world”. As well as his own page, he submits selected work to Drablr, where he receives praise and constructive criticism. Another site he has been published on, has led to one of his works selected to feature in a forthcoming book.
Writing has enhanced Brian’s life in ways he didn’t think possible when he first pledged himself to the new hobby back in 2019. In this time of Covid, where options are greatly narrowed and our existence can feel rather threadbare through restriction, there is a strong case for turning to the imagination and setting ourselves targets and goals. They’re also brilliant to read, in turn funny, mysterious or sombre; stories that often turn on a final line and blindside, sending you scrambling back to the start to see how that trick was done. It would be easy and dishonest to describe them as mere finger-food to the banquet of longer-form literature; or curios to appreciate through novelty. They are polished gems, small and perfectly formed. Brian Aldiss was an enthusiast, and they’ve become a popular form amongst sci-fi writers and flash fiction fans.
If you’re looking for a fresh challenge, then you’re just 100 words from your first dabble into Drabble.
Read Brian’s collection here.
*This is, as most quotes from Twain seem to be, apocryphal, and is more likely a variation of Blaise Pascal in 1657:” I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”