Friday, October 11, 2013

The Art of the Short Story

I'm no good at writing short things.

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.

And then you have short stories. As you might imagine, I'm not so good at short stories. Everything I write runs long. So many of my "short" stories tip the scales of the magazines' word count limits and render themselves ineligible by a large margin. I've written short stories that were over 20,000 words long. (I've done that three times. Urgh.) Sometimes it's hard to tell whether there's a novel hiding in there or whether it's just a slightly chunky short story, and whether I should beef it up or slim it down to try to fit somewhere.

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.


  1. Ahhh, I have a bit of a problem with short stories too.

    I just got out of workshop at my creative writing class :D. (You'd probably hate it because we have a ten-page limit--I barely chopped and squeezed mine to fit 16 pages). The criticism I got was interesting...but also a little confusing for me.

    I got told my characterization was too small but my world building was good. That said, whenever my character, Kaede, acted out in a way that I thought defined her character (nicknaming a girl she'd just met, stumbling around an abandoned ship, being reckless and cocky and confident) I was told it wasn't realistic.

    I feel like I could have developed those things better in a longer narrative, but in a short story, it didn't work too well. I either try to justify and explain too much or not enough. I think I don't understand too well how short fiction works. Like you said, I've also seen stories that are just about...feelings and nothing really happens. But then how do we define plot exactly?

    But you have a better grasp on what constitutes a short story. I didn't volunteer to be a beta reader because I've proven to be terrible at it >.> but the tension you've mentioned does sound to be in a good balance. I find it admirable that you're going to keep trying with different short stories. I think after I'm done with these classes, I'm going to awkwardly shuffle away from short fiction since it really frustrates me. It always feels like there's too much going on while also not being enough Dx.

    Good luck on submitting the short story! :D

    1. It's weird when people decide examples of your character's personality are out of character before they even know the character. (Like hello, I'm showing you stuff!) But it's always possible you did something to suggest to them that she was a different kind of person before showing these aspects of her, which made it read as jarring; usually, though, when test readers are put on the spot to react to something, they try to be critical to sound smart, and when things they say aren't based on what's actually in the text (or are based on assumptions about it), I usually just kinda go "yeah, sure."

      Short stories are definitely a different animal and I know I'm no master at all. Instead of viewing short fiction as long fiction that has to be crammed into a shorter space, though, I think what you probably need to do is zoom in. And I guess the real craft of it is figuring out how much background/setting detail you need to include in order to make the characters' interactions and plot elements make sense.

      Please let me know if you'd ever like me to critique a short story for you. I wouldn't mind.

  2. I don't think all stories are or need to be plot driven. You have characters whose full personalities slowly unfold throughout the story, and you have that lovely atmosphere. It ends up being a slice of life type thing, and plenty of people love that kind of story, especially when it's well done like yours :)