Saturday, September 29, 2012


3,500.  No, this isn’t the title of an upcoming sci-fi series on telly. It’s not the number of days until Armageddon (though, I suppose, it could be). It’s not even how much I charge per hour to be my own fabulous self, although that would be nice.

It is, however a magic number.

For starters, it’s divisible by seven, which is a sure sign of magickness if your favourite number is seven.  But that’s not the reason it’s magical.  I’ll explain why.

For the past year or so, I have been writing short pieces, mostly for my monthly writers’ group.  The criteria there is that they must be readable within about 5 minutes.  So I’ve nigh-on perfected squeezing my stories onto a single piece of paper, printed front and back.  This typically means that these short short stories, or flash fictions, are around 700-800 words in length. If I manipulate the page margins, flout the time limit and read really quickly, I’ve topped out at 1,100. (Naughty, yes. But it was a particularly strong piece).  Which is still a very short story in a genre that requires spaciousness for interesting details and imagined realities.

The result of this is that I have a burgeoning collection of short pieces, which are now arriving at a very polished point. But I’ve no clue where or how to find a home for them.

All of this changed recently when I went along to a Writing fantasy, horror and science fiction workshop with Lisa L Hannett. 

Lisa said that 3,500 words is the magic number for short stories in the speculative fiction paradigm.  It’s the peak word count for publication, and very attractive in competitions.

Neat. Desirable. Magic, even.  


I suspect this magic number was buried somewhere deep in my consciousness, because I had one of those zinging moments of recognition.  Did I read this somewhere?  Did I learn it at TAFE 10 years ago?  Or did a parallel self hear it in a writing workshop in an alternative universe? 

Who knows?  All I know is that it was an epiphany

This single number awakened in me a way forward.  It is time to break out of the short form, and start moving towards longer pieces with greater complexity.  In her feedback, Lisa gave me some useful tips on how to build on existing pieces to move them towards this goal.  Build the central scene, add another scene on either side of it, layer some nuances into the plot, and voila! 3,500 words. 

To someone else, this might not be a big deal, but my toes are bruised from long dancing past an elephant, so a way forward is worth its weight in steel-capped boots. 

And now, for all the magic number enthusiasts out there, here are some more: 

Magic Square by chrisinplymouth @ Flickr

Besides the illumination, Lisa also provided some suggestions for markets for the very short pieces that I already have.  Apparently it is not an easy thing to do, to contain a whole story within a small word count, and publications that want short pieces are always on the look out for good ones.  Stay tuned... 


  1. It is one of the problems with a largish writing group...the necessity to keep it short so that everyone can share in the time frame. However,it is a useful discipline.

    1. Yes it is a fantastic discipline, and I believe one that many writers struggle with, so we are lucky to have the opportunity on a regular basis to flex our writing muscles in this way. I was heartened to hear Sean talking about the fantastic market for very short (<500 words) pieces. I hadn't considered tablets and phones as a market for wickedly short writing.


Your witty, insightful and encouraging comments welcome!