Exactly The Right Number Of Words

ernest hemingway (2)I had a good deal on petrol this week. My car runs on unleaded and I was given a voucher offering me 5c off every litre. So I filled up with 46 litres and totally confused the girl at the till.

For some reason her cash register wasn’t set up to deduct 5c a litre automatically, so she had to figure it out manually.

‘That’s €2.30 off the total,” says I, trying to be helpful. She consulted her well-thumbed ready-reckoner (remember them?). But clearly, she didn’t believe it (or me). Two colleagues and a calculator were consulted before she conceded, by which time a bit of a queue had built up behind me.

Back in the day, before phones had calculators and bleeping tills had everything automated, sales assistants had to use their brains to work out percentages or change.

Now I wouldn’t be the sharpest knife in the maths drawer (I was totally baffled by calculus and trigonometry), but I find some elements of mathematics very useful. I’ll even work out percentages and totals in my head, just so I have a rough idea of what to expect when I get to the checkout (that way I know if I’m being ripped off or not), and I know how to count back change accurately. (I’m sometimes wrong, but that’s not the point here).

At the petrol station, I’d worked out a 10c reduction would be €4.60 and then halved it. Simples!

But don’t get me started on the rounding up and down thing we have going on here in Ireland as we head for the abolishment of one cent coins.

Which brings me on to word counts.

There’s a little icon on the corner of my computer screen which tells me how many words I’ve written. Handy, although it takes the fun out of guessing. It should make the task of writing to a word limit easier. But I’m not sure it does.

Flash fiction competitions seem to be a moveable feast. Some of them want 250 words, others 300 or 350. Then there’s the 400 or 500 word stories. And I’ve even seen 1,000 words described as ‘flash’.

Ernest Hemingway (the man with the typewriter pictured above) famously cornered the six-word story market with: ‘For sale. Baby shoes, never worn.’  He’s a writer I’ve admired for years, although I wouldn’t have liked the man himself (all that huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’). But what a writer!

I’ve had a good few goes at the six-word story challenge myself, but my efforts tend to sound like gutter press news headlines: ‘Reduced petrol price flummoxes dumb blonde’. Yes? Nah!

Anyway, I’ve the premise for a brand new short story (nothing to do with the price of petrol) and I think I can tell it in exactly the right number of words. I’m just having trouble figuring out exactly how many that is…