Sunday, February 7, 2010

A long time to be short

I've spent the past month working on two short stories, rising early to write before work (and believe me, spending your first 1.5 hours awake thinking about murder sets an interesting tone for the workday) and devoting many hours on weekends. It hasn't been easy.

Most people think writing a short story must be far less difficult than completing a novel. Although I’ve yet to finish mine, I do know that crafting a short story is extremely challenging.

Relating the story, developing characters the reader will care about, and creating a sense of place are all essential elements that require words – and sometimes lots of ‘em. So if there’s a tight limit, such as 3,500 words for one of my stories, finishing a first draft still means many more hours of work to pare it down without losing the essence. Writers find this process of “killing your darlings” -- deleting words or phrases that took hours, and sometimes days or weeks, to craft – particularly painful.

My friend Kathleen, who delights in writing very short stories, often brags that if she were to divide the meager payment she receives for publication in an anthology by the number of words written, she’s the highest paid author per-word in that book. Last year, however, her 246-word story was not enough to maintain that distinction because someone else wrote a piece that was only 64 words long. Think about it – an entire story in 64 words. That’s shorter than most conversations.

It’s also fewer words than have been allowed in the flash fiction challenges I've been participating in recently to keep my creative juices flowing. I do think, however, that flash fiction readers have lower expectations about what such a short story has to contain to be credible, which helps, but all the primary elements still need to be there.

There are those who contend powerful stories can be told in even fewer words. According to writing legend, Ernest Hemingway once wrote one in six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

I've seen writing challenges urging participants to duplicate this feat, including asking them to describe their lives in just six words. Smith Magazine has been publishing collections of these six-word memoirs over the past few years.

As someone who often writes far too many words, I admire the ability of these writers to sum up their lives in so few of them. Here are a few of my favorites:

“Well, I thought it was funny” – Stephen Colbert
“At least I never voted Republican” – Tony Kushner
“I picked passion. Now I'm poor. -- Kathleen E. Whitlock
“So would you believe me anyway?” -- James Frey

If you had to sum up your life in six words, what would they be?

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