rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
rushthatspeaks ([personal profile] rushthatspeaks) wrote2016-09-03 12:32 am

advice about short stories

Wow, I've been doing the editor thing for some time now, and I continue to love it. I get to work with amazing people, both as magazine staff and as authors. Kelly Link won the Sturgeon Award for "The Game of Smash and Recovery" and that was delightful. (Basically I did nothing to that story except figure out how to get it into our site's HTML, because it came in as an incredibly clean and polished manuscript; the HTML was actually non-trivial, but I think it came out okay.)

Anyway, I've noticed that as I read slush, the things that I tell people when I'm writing encouraging rejection slips-- you know, the kind of rejection slip where you're like 'I liked x, I liked y, z was prohibitive, send me more of your work', as opposed to sending the form letter-- these things do, in fact, boil down to a few suggestions that I would like to tell writers* in general because maybe it would help. I'd like to get them out of my head, because maybe they will help, and maybe it will be less frustrating that I do not have time to write a full critique letter to every single slush author. There are several, but I'm going to go over them one at a time, because if I try to write them all up at once I'll never manage.

The really major one is length.

My magazine theoretically accepts anything up to 10,000 words. We buy longer lengths rarely, because anything longer than about 6K is going to be run split over two consecutive weeks, and therefore must not only be amazing enough to take up the space, but also have a splitting point where we can break it for serialization. But we do take up to 10K.

You will notice there is no limit on how short a piece can be. This is intentional.

Over the last year-and-change, I have lost track of how many times I have said 'That needs to be shorter'. I have lost track of how many times I have said 'This would be great if it lost 2K words'. I lost track of that within three or four months of starting as an editor.

Over the same amount of time, I have said 'This needs to be longer'-- not 'There's one element that needs to be expanded and others diminished', not 'This doesn't include the scene that would really interest me', not 'You stopped before the ramifications of the plot played out', all of which can and should be fixable without changing a piece's length, but 'You wrote this too efficiently and it flat-out just needs to be longer'-- once. ONCE. I was shocked to discover myself saying it at all.

What I'm talking about here isn't specifically actual length, as an objective thing, so much as it is a pacing issue. From what I've seen, the amount of content (plot, characterization, setting, backstory, etcetera) that new and newish writers tend to put into their short stories tends to be spread out too much over too long a length. Generally, the longer a piece is, the more drastic a length cut it could sustain. When we get a 10K piece, it could often be 5K and have exactly the same content in every way. If it comes in at 6K, I'd like to see it at 4K, or at 3.5. If it comes in at 4, I'd like to see it at 3.

And so the main piece of advice I have for new short story writers, based on editorial experience, is to get a submission draft ready, the best one you can, and then sit down and remove half the wordcount while changing absolutely none of the content. It will be difficult. It may well physically hurt. You may feel as though you are hair-splitting by rejuggling entire paragraphs to get rid of only two or three words. You will believe that it cannot be done, or that if you manage it the thing will proceed to suck. Think of it as a hard boundary, the way 10K is a hard boundary for our magazine, a boundary where we throw everything out unread that goes over it, and persevere.

After a while, you will find that you are able to pry fewer and fewer words out of your drafts, because you won't be putting the extraneous ones there in the first place. This is how you internalize the kind of word multitasking, the way that every scene and every sentence does more than one thing to help the story move, that makes a professional. This is how you get the kind of density that really sucks your readers in and makes the piece come to life in their heads.

And this is how I get to write fewer 'I love it, but it's three thousand words too long' rejection letters. Seriously. Halve your wordcount, keep your content.

Best advice I have.

* If you're selling short stories reliably, you probably are not my audience for this, although it's always worth checking to see whether this advice happens to apply. But it probably doesn't, because you learned how to do this already.
thawrecka: (Default)

[personal profile] thawrecka 2016-09-03 05:33 am (UTC)(link)
Surfed in from the network, and this is fascinating, not least because my natural length with short stories seems to be 1-2k and I always assumed that if I tried to get serious about submitting them places I would have to write longer.
hunningham: (Default)

[personal profile] hunningham 2016-09-03 06:59 am (UTC)(link)
Interesting. I am so much not a writer, but this is my chief complaint about fanfiction - author is telling me all the things, and using a lot of words to do so, and I am getting bored.
hunningham: (Default)

[personal profile] hunningham 2016-09-03 09:43 pm (UTC)(link)
I really like reading fanfiction where I don't know the original - jumping into an unknown world and figuring out from context, or just sliding over something and assuming that all will become clear.

Sf has some of the same fun and so does fiction from another culture / time. (Historical fiction & science fiction overlap somewhat; something which is not from the now is confusing in a very different way.)
yhlee: I am a cilantro writer (cilantro photo) (cilantro writer)

[personal profile] yhlee 2016-09-03 02:03 pm (UTC)(link)
I once had a story accepted to an anthology (Twenty Epics) when it was 900 words to start with on the condition that I add 500 words, but I'm under the impression that this is...not usual, yeah. :p
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[personal profile] ellen_fremedon 2016-09-03 04:41 pm (UTC)(link)
This is fascinating to me--my experience as a reader has been that reading fanfic pretty much ruined me for original short stories, because the level of shared background knowledge in fanfic lets writers do things in 2000 words that would need to be novella-length in an original setting. In recent years, I've found that I can still read short fiction that's set mostly in the here and now with one speculative element, but that if there's any significant worldbuilding, I get to the end of the story and feel like I've read the first chapter of something.
kate_nepveu: sleeping cat carved in brown wood (Default)

[personal profile] kate_nepveu 2016-09-04 04:10 pm (UTC)(link)
Yeah, exactly the same for me--I can read a 2k fic and feel satisfied, which is something that happens so rarely in original fiction that I've basically stopped trying.
timmc: (Default)

[personal profile] timmc 2016-09-04 11:47 am (UTC)(link)
I don't write stories, but I should probably take this to heart when writing emails. :-)
msilverstar: (Default)

[personal profile] msilverstar 2016-09-05 12:23 am (UTC)(link)
I have the opposite problem, I'm too terse.
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[personal profile] davidgillon 2016-10-22 06:23 am (UTC)(link)
A little late in discovering this, but fantastic advice. I didn't realise how radical, in the sense of radical surgery, editing can be until I was pressured to shave 40K words out of my 140Kword novel to get it through Pitchwars last year, and changed the plot not one jot.

It seems Pascal's "I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time." remains true. So perhaps we should all take more time with editing.

In fact I should probably go do that right now.
navrins: (Default)

[personal profile] navrins 2016-09-03 11:48 am (UTC)(link)
I haven't tried to sell a story since I was about 16 (got the form letter, unsurprisingly), but the funny thing is, when I started writing neuropsych reports, I needed to learn pretty much the same thing. Brevity was never one of my strengths.

[stops here]

[identity profile] 2016-09-03 01:37 pm (UTC)(link)
It's very hard for visual writers in particular to identify the scaffolding in their sentences. (I only started learning about ten years ago, and it's still a struggle. I share this struggle with workshoppers, and when I open with that about visual writers, I can see in faces who is thinking, OMG that's me! I thought I was the only one! And who is rolling eyes, thinking, Oh no, this is so obvious, I learned it by the time I was ten.)

[identity profile] 2016-09-03 03:54 pm (UTC)(link)
I used to be involved with a community newspaper, where all the writers edited each other's work. We discovered that everything could be cut by a third - even if it had been written by somebody who was accustomed to cutting other people's work by a third.

I suspect it's like proofreading, that there are things which are obvious to a fresh eye which are not obvious to the writer.

[identity profile] 2016-09-03 04:01 pm (UTC)(link)
This is pretty true of scientific journal writing as well. Most of my articles have been published in journals with no word limit, which has led to some 10,000+ word articles (shame on me...). Then I wanted to publish something in a venue that had a hard limit of 3500 words (including ways of calculating how many "words" a table or figure accounted for. Cutting something that was originally 6000+ words down to less than 3000 was one of the best writing exercises I have ever undertaken...

[identity profile] 2016-09-05 05:28 pm (UTC)(link)
Your advice is also true of literary criticism. I've reviewed scholarly articles for journals for many years, and not once has my review included "And this really needed to be longer!" Instead, my advice echoes yours, except, to be honest, I've also believed--of a 36-page-long article--this needed to be 36 pages shorter.

[identity profile] 2016-09-05 06:13 pm (UTC)(link)
My three top bits of advice are to be specific, to be intentional, and to be short.

[identity profile] remembering barbara (from 2016-10-02 07:18 pm (UTC)(link)
Enjoyed these useful ideas -- and also your old review of Agatha Christie's Syrian journal, which was right on target
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[personal profile] kathmandu 2017-07-24 05:05 am (UTC)(link)
As a model for anyone thinking about reducing wordcount -- Jennifer Crusie's collection "Crazy People" has her short story 'Just Wanted You to Know' in both the originally-published length, and the reduced length that a secondary publisher asked for. The secondary publisher said it was a great job of cutting, exactly what one would hope for. So you can compare the two versions, and see how much plot, humor, and characterization she was able to retain while cutting a whole bunch of words.