Every novel I've written has been too long for its genre. And contrary to popular belief, I don't think that means I automatically have a lot of work to do on trimming them. After all, when really good authors prove themselves in the field, they're granted the privilege of rambling their books out to huge word counts (see J.K. Rowling and Stephen King), simply because readers will enjoy huge amounts of words from those authors and will pay to read them.
|--Henry David Thoreau|
However, I don't think that necessarily means none of my longer works needed chopping. I think they all did. And I'm learning more about why every day--learning to recognize junky sentences, unnecessarily detailed internal monologues, detours into stuff I think is interesting but doesn't move the story along--and I'm making these sacrifices and concessions in order to modify my writing to appeal to the most people. (It's funny how often people assume, without looking at my work, that my word counts are probably bloated because I can't stop describing everything in sight. No, that's not where my extra words come from.)
But I think some stories are plus-size. They don't fit in the publishing industry's proverbial size 8. Sure, most of them could probably stand to lose a few thousand words, but they'd still be big, and they were naturally built that way. Squeezing them into straight sizes sometimes means losing vitality; if you stripped them away to the bare bones or chopped off one of their legs, sure, they'd weigh less, but they don't function as intended. It's been a struggle for me to figure out what my manuscripts' ideal weight IS, and whether putting my books on a diet (and to what extent) is really good for them.
But this past week, I completed a short story ending at a very reasonable 5,000 words. I have two magazines in mind that accept word counts that high and specialize in the story type. I plan to submit after I get some more feedback, but I'm still feeling pretty insecure about things. I like the story a lot, and there's an unusual amount of stuff going on that isn't on the surface, but at the same time I do wonder whether it's enough. I've been dinged for pacing problems in my writing before. I've been called out for having navel-gazing characters. I've even been told my stories have no plot (which is often true, though I guess I've always thought characters' mental lives are a plot; the consensus is that's not true). I don't know if this new story is really any different, because (without spoiling things for those who might read it), what really happens? A mom worries about her daughter. And the daughter worries about who she's going to date. The mother and child misunderstand each other and then come to a better understanding through unusual forms of communication. And that's it.
I've only received one response so far from my little pool of test readers, and it was positive feedback from my friend Shelby:
So soft and gentle and beautifully written. You get the atmosphere through with very little description to clutter the story. I'm usually bothered by present tense, but you did it so well that it never pulled me out of the story – I barely noticed it.
She also gave me a few line edits but overall nothing major--no suggestion that the story had big issues. I'm still just not sure. I've read short stories wherein nothing really happens; they're about a feeling, or they're a vignette, or they're a conversation, or they're a concept piece. And they get published all the time. I can't tell if I've hit a sweet spot here--is it a poignant enough interaction between mother and child that people will connect to it and want to read it, or will I still be told there's just not enough happening?
When I went to that presentation by Joyce Sweeney, I learned about keeping the pages turning. Okay, so there aren't that many pages to turn in a short story of 5,000 words, but you still have to give people a reason to want to read those words. I learned about tension and pacing. I was aware of it while I was writing, trying to consciously construct my telling of the story to maximize the push forward without inserting contrived drama.
There was a figurative ticking clock--the protagonist's daughter is afraid she'll be chosen as someone else's significant other before she gets her turn to do the choosing. Other than that, there's not an extremely clear-cut "problem" to solve; it's just interpersonal family tension. There's a secondary driving force in the story surrounding the mother's inability to relate to her daughter; she feels inadequate and strangely helpless because mothering her third daughter is considerably more difficult than mothering her first two daughters had been and she has no idea why. So resolving that was also a problem —> solution dynamic. I just never know if it's enough. People have enjoyed my stories plenty of times but the people who are enjoying them haven't been the editors of magazines in a position to publish them, so I'm convinced I'm still not doing something right.
Maybe that'll change with this one. Or the next one. Or the next one. I'm gonna keep writing them no matter what. It's just a little frustrating sometimes when I wonder if I'm doing the same thing again and again hoping for different results.