Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Word Count and Ruthlessness

Novels have room for words, lots and lots of words. That doesn’t mean you can spend them unwisely, but it does mean you can loosen the cinch on your story a “bit” without losing your saddle. Not so with short stories. I’ve heard that writing novels and short stories are two different art forms, and I believe it. Short stories require a ruthlessness that most novel writers seldom need to match.

I was talking to a young writer not long ago about short stories. She was explaining how all her stories ran long because there was just so much to tell. One idea led to another, one twist to the next. And then she found herself wanting to explore every quirk of her characters.

My advice to her was to: “Stop that!” I said: “Such distractions rear up in my own stories sometimes. I beat them about the head and ears until they go away.”

“Distractions!” she said. “But those are the kinds of things that made me want to write the story in the first place.”

“Then you’re thinking primarily like a novelist,” I responded. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s different than thinking like a short story writer. Short stories are hard enough to publish for money as it is. But when you trowel in sub-plots and layers of characterization for multiple actors in the story you’re virtually assuring that you’ll never sell it as a short.”

Nine and ten thousand word short stories very, very seldom sell. Unless you already have a big name, which you probably got from writing novels. I wish this wasn’t true. I enjoy reading longish short stories and novellas, but there isn’t much market for them today. In fact, there hasn’t been in my memory, because in my early days of writing, my stories used to run long too. Especially my fantasy stories. And selling them proved extremely tough.

So what’s the solution? How do you tell the story completely in the way you want to tell it and still sell it? The solution for me was to take those long stories and rip their guts out. Sub-plots? Gone! Full character development for secondary characters? Gone! World building? Minimized! Description? Intensified but minimized! Twists? Leave one or two and throw out the rest!

I still have story files on my computer with titles like “Riderorig,” which stands for “The Evening Rider, original version.” Then there’s a second file just called “Rider.” The second version is three thousand words shorter. Guess which version sold.

You can always write a story for yourself, save it, then revise it under another file name strictly for the reader. The existence of one doesn’t hurt the other. So have your cake. And eat it too.



Richard H. Fay said...

What you said is certainly true of short stories, but it's even more true of poetry. Poetry demands that every word be there for a reason. If you tell a story using verse, you have to tell it using the fewest possible words. Wordiness of style can make or break a short story; word choice can make or break a poem.

Poetry composition can be a rigorous undertaking, especially if you approach writing like a novelist.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

I've always felt short stories and novels are worlds apart. And although I often read and enjoy short fiction it never satisfies me in the way a good long novel does. A short story is like a snap shot while a novel gives the entire picture.

Angie said...

Novels and short stories are completely different animals and require a completely different point of view. There's no room for self indulgence and absolutely everything has to be on track and to the point. [nod]


Heff said...

"Nine and ten thousand word short stories very, very seldom sell. Unless you already have a big name, which you probably got from writing novels"

So essentially what you're saying is Size Matters ?

LoveRundle said...

So that's where I keep going wrong. I keep thinking as a novelist and the short stories just get too complicated. My teacher, (forgot what year, but it was one of those low level writing classes) said that I shouldn't give my secondary characters last names.

Writing short stories is difficult for me. I agree that short stories and novels are two different art forms. If a person can do both and make them both work, they are pretty advanced.

Greg said...

good advice. most of the stories i write are very short (under 3,000 words) but the tendency is still there to include as much as I can.

Miladysa said...

Charles you have no idea the power of your words for me at this moment. Read the first review for my short stories and you will understand. LOL

You should do a lecture tour for would be writers - it would be a sell out :-D

Crushed said...

You could of course release BOTH versions.

Take the legends of Middle Earth.

The Silomarillion is a condensed version of the legends of the first age and sells well.

But the 11 volume History of Middle Earth containing pretty much every scrap of paper ever written by JRRT is what real afficionados such as myself rely on.

Angie said...

Crushed -- except that the eleven-volume version would never have been published in a million years if the author had had one shred less stature (and marketability) than Tolkien. Publishing your worldbuilding bible really isn't an option for the other 99.9% of us. :)


Travis Erwin said...

Nice post. You make some great points.

Middle Ditch said...

It's a bit like that with scripts too. Drama's can be more wordy because it's longer, comedies quick and sharply worded, soaps both.

I wanted to say a lot more but phone rang and now I'm off the track.

Charles Gramlich said...

Rhfay, thanks for dropping by. You're right. Poetry also demands ruthlessness.

Archavist, I love both good stories and good novels but I actually appreciate a well-turned short story better than a novel under many cirumstances. Some ideas aren't suited to a novel length development but are still wonderful ideas.

Angie, yup. Agreed. And I think you're right in your response to Crushed as well.

Heff, I believe I am, although shorter size is better in this case.

Christina, I find that I have to switch gears pretty drastically to go from one to the other.

Greg, most of the stories I've sold have been under 5,000, and most of the "first" banch I sold were 2 to 3 thou.

Crushed, thanks for stopping by. And of course, if I were to get as famous and have as many fans as Tolkien or Howard I'd probably realease both versions for sure. I've seen authors do that. I mean, Stephen King published the long version of The Stand after he was famous, but had to have it cut down in the early days.

Travis, thankee. At least it's how I tend to work.

Middle ditch, I never really thoguht about that with scripts. I guess I've not really looked at enough of them to see the difference.

David Cranmer said...

I find my short stories continue to grow longer and it's an art to trim the fat and make every word count.

Cath said...

What excellent advice for a beginner (me). Thank you.
I haven't found any niche yet. Short long or genre. Still experimenting and soaking up advice.

laughingwolf said...

sage advice, charles, but so difficult to adhere to....

Erik Donald France said...

Your solution is completely sensible.

Traditional "longer" short story collections in traditional book form are going to fall of a cliff. Simple economics.

Steve Malley said...

Shorts and novels are indeed different animals, but the audiences for both these days demand serious economy. Farting around simply is not as welcome as it was in Days of Olde.

I think my favorite short story remains 'Me and Bobby McGee', or possibly 'Boy Named Sue'. :-)

Angie said...

Steve -- oh, man, seriously! I've tried ploughing through some of the sprawling Victorian novels out there and just can not get through them.

Although I'll admit I can still enjoy a chatty narrator, if the tangents are interesting and/or amusing. :)


Stewart Sternberg (half of L.P. Styles) said...

The way some people ramble in short stories, it makes me shudder to think of what they might do in a longer work.

I think I am going to get a bumper sticker that reads: "It's The Economy, Stupid".

Travis Cody said...

Economy! GAH! My bane and my nemesis is economy of words in my stories.

I think I'm getting better though. I love to describe, and I have to fight the urge to over-describe.

Scott said...

Charles, I think this is true..the novel and the short story(or even the 'novella') are completely different animals. The short story is the quick, sharp short series of strikes, and the novel is the deliberate, piece by piece attack, if I may make a somewhat violent metaphor.

Lana Gramlich said...

You make good points here, baby, AND you're damned sexy. What else could a woman want? ;)

ivan said...

It is my fim belief, especially after reading Tillie Olsen's "Ironing John's Shorts", that a short story has to come to a point.
Heh. A moment of revelation?

There really has has to be this terrific "aha!" at the end-- and even throughout the story before we come to the "aha."
It is really like a long poem.

Tillie Olsen should be admired becaue her stories emulate poetry.

And to sort of agree with rhfay, every word does count.

the walking man said...

I think that the death of serialization in publication led to the downfall of the in between size stories. A 10 k story could be a bit more intricate then a 2k, but publishing a longer story in 5 installments is not so much available anymore.

BernardL said...

I think short stories and novellas might flourish with e-book publishing popularity. The price can be adjusted for a download so as to make them very attractive, and they can be grouped in small collections. They do it all the time in erotic romance e-book publishing and the concept works. I see no reason why this couldn't be done in other genres.

Charles Gramlich said...

David Cranmer, I went through a period where they got somewhat longer, but now I think I'm heading down in wordcount again. I've been writing a lot of flash fictions.

Crazycath, glad you enjoyed. All of us are always learning more about the craft.

Laughingwolf, Yes it is.

Erik, I wish it wasn't so but it certainly seems so.

Steve Malley, I never really thought of that but Boy named Sue is certainly a story.

Angie, I know, reading some of those old novels, like Moby Dick, can be agony. But I still find quite a few newer authors who seem incredibly wordy. Stephen King comes to mind in some of his novels.

Stewart, agreed. that's why I'm enjoying collections of flash fiction these days.

Travis, I enjoy good description too, especialy in SF or fantasy where you're dealing with another world.

Scott, good imagery, I'd say. I agree.

Lana, you make some good points, if you know what I'm saying.

Ivan, I haven't read her stories. Will have to give some a try. I really found myself disliking Carver's stories because they never had a point. At least for me.

Mark, Yes, I'd agree that had a big impact. The pulps used to advertise a "full new novel from ERB" or something but it would really be a 30,000 serial of some type. Not much market for those today. I was lucky to get Swords and Wings serialized in the 90s.

Bernardl, that's a good point, maybe a niche the epublishers could exploit. I see Fictionwise does that to some extent. They've got sevearl of my short stories for sale individually there.

Rachel V. Olivier said...

Yeah. What you said. And then I get so used to writing short stories that when I move to try to write a novel, I get stuck, because I'm used to cutting everything out.

Virginia Lady said...

Excellent points, Charles. Hard to do, but necessary if you want to write a short.

Merisi said...

Thank you for the insights!

I have had many a discussion with friends, avid readers, who do not appreciate short stories. They complain about them being too short. *smile* Do you say the same about short poems, I ask them. They do not understand. ;-)

My three favorite short stories (or should I say the ones that come immediately to mind?) are:

- Richard Ford's "Calling"
("A Multitude of Sins")
- Raymond Carver's, "Call Me When You Need Me" (Collection of the same title)
- Denis Johnson's "Train Dreams"
(The Best American Short Stories 1992)

Short stories, yes,
too short? No!

Btw, "Train Dreams" has been published in 2004 in Germany as a novella, to great success apparently.

Merisi said...

P.S.: I noticed that "Snow Leopard" is your all time favorite book. I guess I must have mentioned before that Peter Matthiessen is one of my fav writers. ;-)

Chris Benjamin said...

good advice. i've been thinking about this lately too, trying to shift my thinking to see a short story as a scene. all that backstory should stay in the brain, or be written and cut. they help the writer but not the reader.

Jennybean said...

I'm trying out a new genre... check me out at


Shauna Roberts said...

I write both short stories and novels. I find it gets easier over time to switch back and forth—it becomes more of a conscious mental "clicking" of a switch.

Charles Gramlich said...

Rachel, it certainly takes a switch in gears to go from short stories to novels. In both directions.

virginia Lady, it can be tough for sure.

Merisi, I like most of his work a lot but Snow Leopard is just an incredible work. Most of my favorite short stories are genre works, such as "hangover" by John D. MacDonald.

Benjibopper, I used to have to write it and cut it, but these days I can keep it in the head and not get it down on paper. Most of the time.

Jennybean, hello.

Shauna, I think I find it harder to switch from nonfic to fiction, but still the switch from novel to story and back is tough for me.

writtenwyrdd said...

Yes, there you've written the reason I focus on novel length. But I'm trying to work on short stuff now, learn that aspect of crafting stories.

I've begun to think that you better learn the craft of writing plot by writing short stories, you see.

Shauna Roberts said...

WRITTENWYRDD, I agree. In short stories, one can play with different voices, styles, POVs, lengths, and types of characters enough to get a feel for them AND one can do lots of short stories in the time it takes to write a novel.

Rick said...

Hey Charles- I still sell stories in the 8,000 to 9,000 word range to Sam's Dot Publishing, but, as editor Tyree Campbell says, "They have to be damned good." If I'd written them in the 3,000 to 5,000 word range, they would have moved with a lot less scrutiny.

So I agree with you, ruthlessly trim what you write, because if you don't, some editor is likely to suggest you do anyway.

Charles Gramlich said...

Writtenwyrd, Shauna's right. Doing short stories allows a lot more experimentation in a short time and I think strengthens you ultimately.

Shauna, exactly.

Rick, I sold a series of 7 to 9 thousand word heroic fantasies to Shadow Sword back in the early 1990s but there aren't many markets for tales that long around.

FANCY said...

*LOL*...my cake is that one with chocolate and when it come to that yum-yum thing I put it in my mouth and just eat it up...what is left is the short version of everything in my writing wor(l)d. ;)

Josephine Damian said...

Stuart Kaminsky had a writer friend of his tell him he thought short stories were harder to write than novels - SK did not agree, but I could see the friend's point.

I seldom read the modern, current long stories I see published, and I don't read flash either - there's an art form to shorts - too long or too short don't seem very artful to me.

Charles Gramlich said...

Fancy, many of us do enjoy cake.

Josephine, I think, word for word, short stories are certainly harder to write than novels. Of course, with many fewer words a single short story doesn't compete against a novel. But match it word to word and I believe it does. And even more for good flash fiction.

Anthony said...

Thanks for the write up. I will have to reevaluate my writing style and see where I want to take my story. I posted a few exerts on my blogger. It is quite rough but I was looking for feedback on the content and the flow.

I am still trying to master the art of deciding when to describe a scene for quality and when to just have a short lived run through it. Characters may be a little easier to deal with then actual scenery. Why describe someone if they are only going to be involved for a brief glimpse rather then a recurring character.

Thanks again for the insight.

Barbara Martin said...

Thanks for the tips on cutting for short stories. I'm planning on sending out a few to see if they bounce.

Charles Gramlich said...

Anthony, no problem. So much about writing is about "feel." There are no hard and fast rules for so many aspects of the craft.

Barbara, good luck with those. I hope they do well.

Vesper said...

How true, Charles...
Can you switch easily from one to another?