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One of the hardest things, in writing fiction, is deciding what to leave in a story and what to take out. I'm here to say that this is a skill that a writer can learn, and I have some suggestions about how to learn it.

I read a lot of fiction submissions for Clarkesworld Magazine. Several submissions a day, so on a normal week I read about twenty to forty stories of varying quality, and I've been averaging about that many per week for most of the last year and a half. Before reopening to submissions on January 15th of this year, CW had a word count limit of 1,000 to 4,000 words. Since reopening, we've been accepting up to 8,000 words per submission.

When we had the smaller word count limit, many writers I met at conventions told me that they would love to submit stories to CW, but they couldn't write stories that short. Now that the limit is higher, we get more submissions, but in my opinion the longer ones could nearly always use some serious editing for length. It's absolutely fine for people to submit stories up to 8,000 words long, but in most cases the stories I've seen that are that long could be written much more memorably without so many words.

Here are the main problems I see in stories that seem too long:

1. Too much exposition. Backstory explained at great length.

2. Too much description of surroundings. Unnecessary passages about the appearance of things that aren't significant in the story.

3. Simple wordiness.

The Exposition Problem

First of all, it's important to look at your reasons for including information in a story. What's the core of the story? What changes for the protagonist, and why? Exposition is often an attempt to show what is normal for a character, but it can go too far. It goes too far when the telling of a short story starts with things that happen days before the inciting incident that gets your character to act. It goes too far when it explains too much of an alien society, or the political structure of your fantasy world. If your story relies upon a lot of this kind of description to make sense, then you may have a novel on your hands; it may not work in a short format. But maybe you can find a way to tell the story you want to tell without including so many details about the whole world where it takes place.

Choosing the most important things to show will strengthen your story. You need to reveal what your character wants by showing her in action. Stay close to her efforts to get what she wants, or to avoid what she's trying to avoid. You might (and probably should) know everything in her background that leads up to what she wants, but you don't need to tell the reader all of it.

For good examples of stories that convey a lot in only a few pages, you can read "A Letter from the Clearys" (Connie Willis), "The Way Down the Hill" (Tim Powers), or Clarkesworld's Nebula-nominated stories like "Non-Zero Probabilities" (N.K. Jemisin) and "Spar" (Kij Johnson). I'd also recommend reading the shorter stories in any "Year's Best" anthology in the genre of your choice (up to, say, 15 pages long). Study how they convey information. It will help you to learn how to express ideas efficiently.

Description Could Kill Your Story

The reader needs to know where and when a story is taking place, or at least to be given enough clues to form an opinion, but going on and on about the setting slows a story down. The beautiful castle may sparkle with gems, the scent of roses wafting upon the air, with strains of fairy music uplifting the spirit in every room; the walls may taste of candy when one licks them! But if the story isn't moving forward, even the thought of characters licking the walls won't save it.

I'm not saying not to describe the setting at all. I'm just saying you should judge long passages of description with your objective pants on. Does the reader need to sit through all of that? Are you describing something of particular importance to the story? Or are you being a little self-indulgent if you leave that part in?

There's a Shorter Way to Say It

Once you have your draft finished, and you have a clear idea about what the story means to you and what you want to convey (you've thought about that, haven't you?), then it's time to really scrape away the excess. I have two masters to offer you on this subject. You've heard of Ernest Hemingway? You can get plenty of advice from that guy without leaving the internet:

Ernest Hemingway’s Top 5 Tips For Writing Well (Brian Clark)

27 Secrets To Writing Like Hemingway (Joanna Young)

More importantly, I'd like to get all writers to read The 10% Solution (Ken Rand). In this little book, there are practical, concrete steps listed that show you exactly how to reduce the length of your manuscript by 10% (at least; I've taken out up to 12% of my word count in some of my stories by following his advice). You can retain and even strengthen the meaning of what you wrote by looking through your work mindfully, examining the types of words and phrases you've chosen and thinking of tighter ways to put things. You use your own opinions and end up with your own voice in the work.

But Don't Skimp on the Ending

Nearly always, if a story is too long, the problem is in the beginning, the middle, or both. If a story is too short, the problem is in the ending. One of my top reasons for rejecting stories, back in the 4,000-word-limit days, was abrupt endings. It was as if the authors had looked at their word count, panicked, and chopped off the last page or two. A story needs some resolution, a bit of closure about what's changed and a sense of what might happen next. Even an open-ended story shouldn't let the reader fall off a cliff and go splat.

I suggest another approach. Instead of cutting from the ending, start the story later in the timeline. Copy the draft into a new file, and remove the first few pages (start with three). Look at how you could start the story there, and sprinkle backstory lightly into the middle, or leave it out altogether. Why not try this, just once?

The whole point of the short story is to create a strong impression with few words. It takes confidence to leave unnecessary explanations out, and to believe in the reader's ability to co-create a story with you. Confidence always helps.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 23rd, 2010 05:36 pm (UTC)
Interesting post.

'Even an open-ended story shouldn't let the reader fall off a cliff and go splat.'

Nor should he/she leave them hanging on to that cliff by their fingernails, unless it's a chapter ending ;)

Thanks for sharing :)
Feb. 23rd, 2010 05:37 pm (UTC)
I'd say most stories could do with having their beginnings chopped off; and I'm with you on a bit more ending, as well. :)
Feb. 23rd, 2010 05:58 pm (UTC)
Thanks! This is a great post! I have often had trouble writing short lengths, and after a while I realized it was because I had the habit of throwing in extra characters and complications when I got stuck in the plotting. Now I know that for a short story you can't do this.
Feb. 23rd, 2010 06:06 pm (UTC)
The other problem with those of us who have issues with writing short--sometimes you're trying to shove too big of a story into too few words. One of the most valuable things I learned at Clarion West was how to correctly size a story--at this point, I can tell the difference between a 4k words idea, a 10k words idea, and a 80k words idea. My first CW story was 10k words and turned out to be part of a novel, not a short story.

The "chopping off the beginning" thing is something that works variously well for me. Sometimes it's exactly what a story needs. Other times, like with a story I am intermittently revising, while the story at first doesn't seem to *need* those first 1500 words, without them the pace of the story goes all wonky and the protagonist isn't properly introduced.

However, chopping off those 1500 words has let me redefine what information really needs to be conveyed in the opening and how exactly I need to pace the first half of the story. When the intro goes back in, I'll be aiming for 400-500 words.
Feb. 23rd, 2010 07:45 pm (UTC)
However, chopping off those 1500 words has let me redefine what information really needs to be conveyed in the opening and how exactly I need to pace the first half of the story. When the intro goes back in, I'll be aiming for 400-500 words.

This exactly. :)
Feb. 23rd, 2010 08:09 pm (UTC)
"Come in late, go out early." Always excellent advice, and something we all need to be reminded of. :)

Of course, this can backfire horribly when you start after the Inciting Incident and then end up having to weave backstory into the narrative. I nearly did that with my current short story (oh, god, I hope it's short) WIP until I realized I was being stupid. Same thing with the novel--instead of starting out with Wedded Bliss that later goes horribly wrong after my protag is kidnapped, I'm starting with an Ice Monster Prologue that introduces my villain in the midst of a violent jailbreak instead. Much better to throw readers face-first into the action.

I've pretty much decided that a story will be as long as it needs to be. I'm certainly willing to whack off giant unneeded chunks--as long as they're really unneeded.
Feb. 23rd, 2010 10:06 pm (UTC)
Some excellent advice here!
Feb. 23rd, 2010 11:09 pm (UTC)
Posting generic grumble/grump about how "too much description" and "too much wordiness" are often dependent on style and aesthetic, and while it's good that some people are (edited) Carver and Hemingway, one is glad that some people are Flannery O'Conner, too.

(I suspect I know what you mean, and that I agree with you. But the grumble/grump had to have its say. Grumbly/grumpily.)
Feb. 24th, 2010 01:25 am (UTC)
It takes confidence to leave unnecessary explanations out, and to believe in the reader's ability to co-create a story with you.

I love that you used "co-create" in this context! Because yes! Readers aren't just receiving your words - good readers are absolutely co-creating. We're all, always, co-creating our stories, and I think those who are more successful at it are the ones with the faith that their co-creators will not drop the ball.

This is probably where fanfiction writers have the edge - there's already a perceived backstory, there is a built-in familiarity with the setting and/or characters, there's also the willingness to actively co-create more stories with each other. It's amazing when you get a fully developed "drabble" (100 words) that packs a 10-ton whallop. It's even more amazing when you come across something of a similar size and heft from an original starting point.

rambly goldy is rambly. I liked this post.

Edited at 2010-02-24 01:27 am (UTC)
Feb. 24th, 2010 02:03 am (UTC)
I love reading and writing short fiction. Generally I stick to around 1,000 words because my favorite genre is "slice of life." Wordiness takes away from the story. I agree completely with what you said in your post.
Susan Cross
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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