I first encountered the concept back in the 1980s, oblivious to the fact that it was nailed down as a thing by the very people who introduced me to it.
Cast your mind back to 1993.
The Drabble Project was originally published by a chap called Roger Robinson under Beccon Books. It had lots of short (i.e. exactly 100 word-long) stories by famous SF writers, including Isaac Asimov, amongst others. It was soon followed by Drabble II, which was co-edited by David B. Wake, a very strange man if ever you were to meet one, made famous for sci-fi convention party pieces that included the adventures of Captain Tartan, breaking his leg whilst dressed as an Alien Queen and doing a multi-Doctor quick-change routine whilst coming out of a TARDIS-wot-he-built, all whilst starring in plays-what-he-wrote. He is also well known among his friends for taking more time to write his magnum opus fantasy novel than Harlan Ellison took to edit the last volume of Dangerous Visions.
Dave was chair of the Birmingham University SF Society at the time, and was promoting the drabble in its 100-word short story format to anyone that might listen. Whether it was he or Roger Robinson that invented it, or whether they merely defined the modern and most accepted format, I can’t be sure. I do, however, know the term “drabble” was lifted from Monty Python’s Big Red Book (1971). In that is was a word game that involved racing to finish a novel first. To make such novels possible, the BUSF made up the 100 word target and promptly started approaching SF authors and publishing their contributions for charity.
I remember well a conversation with Dave (which he rigorously denies) in which he revealed that a third volume of the Drabble series would focus on Cult TV (or possibly Star Trek) and announced that the cover would be Spock’s head, with a third ear slap-bang in the middle of his face. This, Dave boldly announced, would take the Drabble Project where no drabble had gone before, and would inform the title of this salubrious tome: Drabble III: The Final Front Ear
I remember thinking it wasn’t the best idea he could have come up with (Dave had a lot of them, and most of them were utterly barking) and suggested that perhaps he could approach the Doctor Who community for a Who-themed volume instead. He dismissed the idea, but I was so taken with it that I set about writing a Drabble to submit. At the time I had just abandoned a Doctor Who New Adventures pitch called Haven (which later mutated into a role-playing scenario called The Village of Harmony), which was a thinly-veiled homage to The Prisoner.
My co-conspirator, Steve Jones (writing as Steve Graeme), decided instead to commemorate the idea with a Doctor Who-themed drabble which I dashed off before arguing hours on end with Steve over the last line. Typical. That meant we spent more time arguing about it than writing it. Eventually we agreed to submit my version and Steves, and leave it to Dave Wake to choose (he chose mine, hehehe…), and then we took a joint credit and waited to hear.
A month or so later Doctor Who Magazine announced the book, revealing it was a Doctor Who volume, now called Drabble Who?, co-edited by Dave Wake and David J Howe. it also ran a competition for fans to submit drabbles.
Drabble Who?is sadly out of print now and, having been limited to just 1000 copies, is never to be republished. Funds went to the RNIB.
Next time I saw Dave Wake I congratulated him on his wise choice to use my idea. He smiled momentarily, then blank-faced me, and said “what idea?”, consigning my enthusiasm to the the bin bags of history.
Anyway, I really should have entered that drabble competition, because I never knew that multiple entries were allowed (and that Ness Bishop got THREE drabbles accepted!). Anyway, the book was launched later that year (at Eastercon, I think, where it won an award), and Steve and I duly headed down to London for the launch.
What a day! We were cheapskates, I seem to recall, and travelled down by coach. I wore a fetching t-shirt and a big beige trenchcoat, which I planner to remove upon arrival. However, our coach arrived a little late, and we had to hard it across London on an unreliable underground day with barely an hour to spare. Sadly, I was bursting for the loo, but had neither the time nor found the place to go.
Eventually, with moments to spare, we reached the hotel. By this time my poor bladder was fit to burst, and I dived into some nearby shrubbery to pee before entering the convention’s hallowed halls.
All I can say is never pee on a rubber plant. At least I think it was a rubber plant. Well, it behaved like a rubber plant. Untying my coat I quickly relieved myself. Unfortunately, while my wee was powerful enough to bend said plant upon impact, it wasn’t able to sustain enough force to keep it at bay. The broad leaf against which I peed sprang forwards, spraying a line of wee across the chest of my t-shirt in a manner that rendered my apparel moot. Quickly tying up my coat and rearranging myself so the wee couldn’t be seen, I blushingly entered the convention and was immediately greeted by Dave Wake, who ushered me to the photocall of doom. There some fifteen or more writers gathered in their t-shirts, ready to pose for the cameras. I meanwhile, refused to remove my trenchcoat, in the desperate hope that nobody would ask about my cologne. Among the drabble authors gathered were the likes of Paul Cornell, Simon Bucher Jones, Andy Lane, Mark Morris, Nick Royle and Kate Orman, who kindly told me that mine was the best drabble in the book (and given my hubristic belief that it inspired the whole project, I should jolly well think so!), and promptly drew a picture next to it – a bouncy cartoon of The Prisoner‘s Rover. She proceeded to do the same to several other writers’ copies of my drabble, as if it had been her own. I naturally forgave her naive antipodean insolence. As for that drabble well, as Drabble Who is out of print, I offer it here for those who haven’t seen it:
Materializing in an office at Shepherd’s Bush, the police box doors swing open. The tasteless curly-haired pied piper storms over to Mr Grade. Firsts slam upon a table.
“I will not be cancelled! I resign!” He re-enters his timeship. It dematerialises.
“Come on, old girl, we have an appointment with a cottage in Wales.”
Arriving on a beach overlooked by cottages, he sees a giant bubble bounce towards him from the sea. Fleeing to nearby rocks, he crashes into a short shabby hobo with a recorder, who says…,
“I am Number Two. You are Number Six. Welcome to the Village.”
There is one good thing about drabbles. They count as a published story. Some of the early drabbles from volumes I and II were later developed into full stories at their authors’ leisure, because as previously published stories the ideas contained therein were about as protected as it is possible to be. In fact, Stephen Baxter’s drabble mutated first into The Time Ships and later into his manifold trilogy (Time, Space and Origin). So forget about emailing yourself or posting yourself a manuscript, just get your story published as a drabble, and it will be yours forever…
POSTSCRIPT: I hereby coin the term “twibble”, being a short story of exactly 140 characters. Here’s a Chris Rea inspired sample twibble:
The race to hell was short but exciting as they accelerated towards the pit of suffering. Brakes squealed, rubber burned, and they all died.
Please feel free to post your twibbles in the comments section, and if we reach 140 I’ll publish them for charity!!!
Doctor Where? is copyright ©1993 Adrian Middleton and Steve Graeme.