Q&A With Tom Watts: A 500-Word Challenge 

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A happy Twitter coincidence put us in touch with Tom Watts, a writer who has set himself the challenge of writing a 500-word story every day based on three random words generated by an online tool. We caught up with Tom and spoke to him about his project.

Tom Watts

Tom Watts

Jen Harvey: As you know, we here at Mash Stories are fans of the “three random words” challenge. How did you discover this technique and what prompted you to use it?

Tom Watts: I think it’s just a coincidence! I’d spent the last 18 months working on a longer piece of work and having finished a first draft and then put it aside, I needed something to keep myself busy with. Earlier in the year I’d read Georges Perec’s A Void, in which he doesn’t once use the letter ‘e’, and so I did some reading into this guy Perec, and that turned me onto the Oulipo movement of which he was a member. This was a sort of collection of French writers who challenged each other to write within really stringent constraints, you know, like writing without ‘e’, or structuring stories around mathematical problems—really interesting stuff.

I think this three-word constraint is a sort of take on that idea. It’s fun to try and squeeze a story out of so little; it keeps the juices flowing.

Jen: How difficult is it proving to write a 500-word story every day? How long do you plan to keep going with this project?

Tom: At the moment I have a nice little routine. I get into work early, eat my breakfast, then sit and write for 35–40 minutes. It’s a nice way to start the day and fortunately I’ve got enough rubbish rolling around inside my head that the stories themselves are still coming quite easily. Hopefully I haven’t just jinxed that…

I set out to write one a day for 30 days, but I guess I’ll see how I feel when I get there.

Jen: Do you think taking up this challenge is improving your writing? In what ways does taking on something like this help you think?

Tom: Yes, absolutely. It’s a real buzz getting to dip in and out of these characters’ lives, to experience their world for just a moment and then be gone. It’s a real challenge to try and get into a scene, establish a world and convey an actual event too. It’s no holds barred, so I’m free to experiment and try things out that maybe I wouldn’t have otherwise.

I think one major thing I’m taking from this is a new sense of precision. I’ve got more respect for the little things like structuring sentences and the effect it can have on the rhythm of words. Compared to my usual writing, it’s been a challenge having to tone down the purple patches. You need to get to the point fast, so you have to make every word count. I try not to edit too much, just a once-over, so it’s really sharpening my sense of what words should go where.

Jen: Some of the keywords you have been set are very obscure. Day #11’s words, for example—Panade, Pericardium, Cerebrifugal—are mind-bogglingly difficult. Do you ever read the words generated and think “No way! This time it’s impossible”? Which story have you found the most difficult to write so far?

Tom: Haha! I’ve only rejected one word and that was ‘herte’, the definition of which was ‘heart’—so that felt a bit like cheating.  As for impossible, we wouldn’t be writers if we thought things were impossible. Besides, I love the big words! It’s always more fun to try and see how they fit, because if it’s too obvious then it will jar with the reader and that illusion of the story will be broken.

Sometimes though, the words lend themselves to each other. The example you mention—Panade, Pericardium, Cerebrifugal—are essentially: knife, heart, nerves, and so when said like that, they tie together much more easily. On the other hand, you get days like Day #4 and words like Almagest and Antediluvian—and what really ties together the ramblings of Ptolemy and the world pre-biblical flood? Starbucks, apparently! I think Day #13 was another challenging one; just trying to squeeze in Gastroelytrotomy was a real pain. I’m not sure I succeeded to be honest, but it’s a real beast of a word—so unwieldy.

Jen: I really enjoyed reading Day #2—it’s a really fun, imaginative use of the keywords. Where do the ideas come from? Do the words themselves provoke an immediate storyline or do you allow them to linger during the course of the day and have your subconscious figure things out? Or do you write a story as soon as you get the 3 words?

Tom: Sometimes a connection will jump out of the three words, some loose association that you can cling onto, haul yourself up on. Other times a single word will just set off a whole image at once, and it’s so vibrant that the words come easily. I’m always interested in exploring these moments of tension, and that’s why my stories enter a scene that’s already begun and get out before that scene ends.

I’m always thinking up silly questions and ideas, so things do get caught up and, as you put it, linger in my subconscious. I tend to generate the three words the night before, just before I go to bed. I put them into the word document, double check their definitions on, then email them to myself, letting them ferment overnight.

Jen: Have you ever used any other writing techniques in the past? How does using such a technique compare to other ways of writing?

Tom: This is the first time that I’ve tested myself in such a way, so it’s a fun release. I think the importance of writing under constraint is that it hones your skills, tightens your narrative voice and enhances your ability to cut to the core of something. It’s by no means a limiting factor; it just forces you to be more creative. It’s like making a word when playing scrabble: you can only use the letters you’ve got. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all.

Writing free-form has its own set of challenges, though, because the scope is just so vast. At least I have markers and things I have to include; that makes it easier to focus, which is great as I’m a terrible procrastinator!

You’ve got just 500 words to make an impact and build a relationship between the page and the reader, so you can’t afford to wander off on asides and tangents. Being able to focus on one little thing is definitely a nice change.

Jen: What do you plan to do with the stories you are writing once this challenge is over? Do you think you may develop some of them further? I was particularly intrigued by Day #10. I can see that panning out into a longer story because the characters are very memorable and I especially like the voice.

Tom: At the moment there’s no plan! I think people who write do so because on some level they want to be read, so as long as people are reading what I write and are enjoying it, then I’m achieving what I set out to do. I enjoy writing, so it’s nice to see and hear such positive feedback. As for taking ideas further, maybe, maybe not. There are one or two stories that left me wanting to know more, like Day #8 for example, but I’m happy just dipping a toe in for now. Maybe if people are vocal enough about wanting to know more, then I might try a few things and see what happens.

It’s funny you should mention Day #10 as that’s probably one of the most self-contained stories! It actually is just this weird memory I have and it worked nicely with the three random words, so I thought, why not? It was fun to write, though. I think the narrator had some lovely turns of phrase, and it would be interesting to see how such an event might affect the narrator as part of a larger story…. who knows, he might pop up in another short story further down the line!

Jen: Thanks to Tom for taking the time to talk to Mash about his challenge. Curious about his stories? Then why not take a read over at his website.

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Jennifer is one of our judges at MASH. Her fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine and Stories For Homes anthology. Her radio drama won the 2001 European Regional Prize in the BBC World Service International Playwriting competition and a commendation in 2009. Her poetry has appeared in The Guardian as part of their poetry workshops series. Contact Jen via Twitter.

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