When we write, it's sometimes (always) hard to fit in everything we might want. Short stories have characters, have plot, have imagery, language, tone, this, that, the other thing.
So we make sacrifices, and we elevate some elements over others, distilling a story down in order to convey one truth, as best as we can.
There are the prose poems that convey a moment and the sneaky hint stories that lie in the subtext.
When you write short, how do you start? Where do you try to end up?
Not sure if this answers your question completely, but when a story idea comes to me, I usually know immediately (or have an idea) just how long the length will be. Sometimes though, I might take a story that's, say, 1,000 words long and shorten it to 500. Sometimes I'll find a missing thread that eventually makes the story longer. With a novel, you want to make sure the reader is satisfied in the end, but with a short story it's a borderland between readers being satisfied and wanting more. Flash fiction, nano fiction, hint fiction, whatever, almost gets to the point where you leave the reader not necessarily hanging, but definitely wanting more. So when I write something so tiny it could be considered hint fiction, I want to make it complete, but in the same way I want to leave a lasting effect on the reader.
That's interesting. When I've written recently, I always seem to want to capture just one thing. An image or a character or a moment or a change or or or. And this year that has almost always meant writing it in 140 characters first, then seeing if more words add power or take it away. Perhaps ironically, most of my favorite nano/hint fictions don't gain much in the transition. Then again, I suppose that's probably the true testament that something should be that short in the first place.
In terms of hint fiction, I know immediately when an idea or whatever will be that length. Like with my story "Lea & Perrins," I just happened to pick up a bottle of worcestershire sauce and the story just came to me. I typed it up on my BlackBerry and e-mailed it to myself to save it. Then again, other hint fictions have taken much longer to write ...
Most of the time when I write nano-short, I'm trimming down something that started out at around 200 words. Some type of free write. I find it intimidating to write with the 140 character limit hanging over my head--especially when I'm still playing with ideas. But as someone who loves to write spare/minimal poetry, I find it much easier to cut, trim, refine until I get down to the 140 core.
As an editor of nano-short pieces, I find that many writers write just until they reach the 140 limit--that once the plot fits, they send it. But I want more than that. Every character counts, which makes the choice of multi-character words platinum. Like the word "flower"--a basic 6 character word. Why not, instead, use "rose"--4 characters (saving you 2 for somewhere else), with all kinds of social & sensory connotations. Or "mums" or "iris" or "orchid" or...
As I say to my kids when helping them with their grade-school essays: use "something" words, not "nothing" words. Some writers are more open to revision than others, but I'm always trying to push PicFic nanos more toward the "something" end of word choice.
Great responses here. I used to write 2000 - 4000+ word stories. After a five-year hiatus, I began writing flash late last year. I love it. Like Robert, I sort of have an idea how long each piece will be when I start it. Sometimes, I'm way off (like I had a 200 word flash that is about to be published as a 4000+ word piece in FRiGG that is probably the hardest/most rewarding thing I've ever written. Had Steven McDermott not pushed me to write more than the 1000 word piece I submitted to him, I'm not sure I'd have pushed myself to expand the piece. That's sort of a red herring though b/c it's such a vast type of story (as far as what I write at least).
Sometimes writers I know (WONDERFUL writers of flash and longer SS) say they wonder if they're just being lazy writing flash. I know some editors feel that most, if not all flashes, could be strengthened if lengthened. I have some pieces that work as well as they're going to work as flashes (adding to them only weakens). However, a couple pieces of mine weren't really done and ended up getting greatly lengthened. I love writing nano pieces and those of a few hundred words. Like Jessi, I often take stories a few hundred words and trim down to far fewer words.
I like writing on the train so I have about 30 minutes each morning to really get on it. Often I can write something then and through edits find a story.
I've definitely written some midnight stories on my Palm Pre—having a smart phone has been fantastic for writing and remembering ideas.
I'm still curious about the strengthen = lengthen idea. I hear it all the time. When I wrote this question, I was thinking exactly of that: the shorter the piece, the more often it focuses on a single element to bring to the forefront. But that single-minded desire to express one thing and do it well appeals to me. Sometimes I wonder about that length issue. Novels are one thing and tend to have complicated plots, but short stories often don't necessarily "say" much more.
Sometimes it seems that the real concern is that short is "too easy," both to write and to read.
Except it's not easy. I see "easy" all the time in the submission box at PicFic, but we rarely take them as-is. We're notorious for revision requests.
I also see "easy" in my own journal, which is why I let my nano-pico-whatevers incubate for at least a month. Just like my poems. I always see things that could be stronger after I've disconnected. Yet STILL Ben finds a way to twist the screw just a little tighter [you know I love it, Ben].
And I think it's only easy to read if you merely read it once for a quick laugh as you're rushing off somewhere--which gets you the surface/obvious content. But if you spend time with the well-written ones, you find so many layers. So many questions. I wouldn't want my favorite n-p-w's to be made longer or more complex, because their brevity and spareness allow me to be an active participant in them--to choose how to furnish the room, so to speak.
A good question, and good answers. I’d reiterate what others have said, and add this: while very short fiction depends on implication or suggestion for its effect, longer fiction can sometimes retain that implicative or suggestive atmosphere without sacrificing the generosity of details that very short fiction, by its nature, lacks. Kafka’s novels, for instance (especially “The Castle” and “The Trial”), depict fully realized worlds and developed characters while never surrendering their most fundamental impulse – to leave in shadow that unknown, unapproachable and slightly sinister ‘something’ that is central to their plots.
That's a good point Edward. I think back on Jessi's post, it what occurs to me is that when I read The Trial, there is active engagement (and really, frustration) over the course of hours, but at end, it's relatively difficult to take in the whole work at once. With shorter pieces, when it comes time for reflection it's not impractical to reconsider the *whole* piece, every word, every line. I think on some level shorter pieces demand that active engagement from the reader in a way that is perhaps more amenable to a close read.
I think you're right. What short pieces gain from their brevity is the capacity to be experienced, or felt, 'all at once.' This is one of the reasons they need to be constructed in such a way that their apparent subject is not their only subject; without the quality of suggestion, short pieces run the risk of resembling facts or observations.
"...they need to be constructed in such a way that their apparent subject is not their only subject; without the quality of suggestion, short pieces run the risk of resembling facts or observations."
That should stapled onto the sub guidelines of every place publishing brief fiction. Exactly right.
Seriously Edward, may we quote you?
So there's this publication. It's called Nanoism. It has exceptionally short stories.
But more than just celebrating itty-bitty writing and discussing shorter and shorter fiction, let's maybe think about brevity itself: about capturing a moment or a story like a fly snatched from the air, about distilling our writing down to its tiny, easily-digestible core.http://nanoism.net