Writing Short Fiction: The Word Count Limbo
JG Ballard once said in an interview:
“I am very grateful that I started my career as a writer writing short stories because you really learn your craft. You can also explore yourself; if you write a huge number of short stories it doesn’t take you long to realize you have certain strengths and weaknesses and that your imagination leans towards one corner of the compass. I think young writers today are tempted into writing novels far too early.”
That pretty well matches up with my experience as a writer so far. And I would add that short stories are a great way to get your name out there, either by sharing them on a blog or submitting to anthologies and journals.
I started out writing fragments of stories: just ideas, really, but written as prose rather than notes, and usually in first person. I progressed to writing ‘proper’ flash fiction with more curated content between 300 and 1,000 words. I wrote them in great numbers and shared them in multiple formats, so I got lots of feedback on what worked and what didn’t. In particular I learned where the uniqueness of my style shone and where it felt forced or mechanical.
I planned to write a novel next. I successfully got a first draft down, but it was missing sections I knew I wanted to develop and was way below the word count I’d been aiming for. It was obvious that, probably due to my background of writing ‘bare bones’ stories, I would be an underwriter rather than the more common overwriter. That is to say, my second drafts and edits would be all about fleshing out the story as opposed to cutting back the excess.
But it seemed I still wasn’t ready to finish the novel, because new ideas were coming to me with urgency, and all of them for short fiction. I wrote down a few while the novel draft was left to simmer in the background. I quickly found not only were the new ideas all linked in a loose way, but they were also crying out to be much longer than I’d originally expected. So I ran with it, and the resulting stories ended up being what is now Mind in the Gap: one story of which is around 10,000 words (Winter Triangle) and my longest published piece yet.
I learned a whole lot more about my style, structure, preferred themes and clarity during the course of writing that book, and those are things that are definitely going to serve in making my first novel stronger.
One thing I’ve noticed is that as the stories I write get longer, it’s becoming harder to squeeze back down to flash fiction length. I’m not so good at the word count limbo anymore – I learned the dance in reverse. My stories are now consistently sprawling out in all directions. Recently, I planned to finish two submissions for a flash fiction opportunity, but every idea I came up with ended up running away with me and begging to have more involved plots. When I did squash them back down, I wasn’t happy with the result; they seemed somehow too… simple. And so, I think the novel is finally the direction I’m naturally moving in. That is why I have to step up my writing game now: finish something that can be considered full length. Well, either that or the experimental novella that’s telling itself to me day and night will push in first…
Reading Short Fiction: The Serial ‘Did Not Finish’er
Following on to the above quote, JG Ballard then said:
“I think part of the reason I did take such a long time to write my first novel was that, of course, there was this huge market for short stories, which doesn’t exist today. People read short fiction then, which they don’t do now. I think, as I’ve written elsewhere, people have lost the knack of reading short stories, which is a great shame.”
I share JG Ballard’s sentiment in that it is a shame short fiction isn’t so popular anymore. Short story collections seem to be something publishers are only interested in as easy additional products from their established writers. There are a fair number of indie journals and anthologies out there if you look. But are they selling in huge numbers? Probably not.
Whilst I do think it’s a shame, I also have a confession to make. When it comes to reading short story collections, I’m a serial starter but ‘did not finish’er. I’ll buy a collection, read one or two, and even when I’m really enjoying them, leave it with a bookmark in for months. Why? Well, I think it has a lot to do with the sense of completion a short story gives. There’s nothing to hook the reader into turning the page to read the next one. There’s no sense of desperation to know what happens next, or to invest time in the next world the book provides.
This is something I tried to overcome with Mind in the Gap. It contains short stories, but the reader is rewarded if they push through to the end as though it were a novel because that’s how the hidden connections emerge. It also has ‘skits’ of 150 words or so in between each story: an ongoing conversation between two characters with its own little narrative to shed light on the bigger picture. The idea was to create more of an urge to read on than you typically get with traditional collections and I really hope I managed to achieve it.
Other advice that is given to short fiction writers is to consider length, pace and tone when selecting an order for the stories in a collection, making sure to mix them up well for a varied experience. I don’t believe there is a perfect number of stories to include, but I have read books where there were arguably too many crammed in, sometimes at the expense of quality. A sure fire way to have a reader put your collection down is to include mediocre offerings alongside your best. Of course, some stories are always going to have more appeal to individuals than others, especially if the subject matters are broad, but that’s a matter of taste.
Despite struggling to finish short story collections at times, I do love them and will keep buying them. Just as when I’m writing, they give me little windows into what is possible with fiction; little bites of ideas that sometimes demand more from me as a reader to imagine what isn’t said within those limited word counts. They’re also great to pick up when I don’t have the attention span for something longer, like when I’m trying not to get distracted from something I’m writing. Sometimes I read short fiction in the gaps between activities, when I’d otherwise be wasting time scrolling social media…
Here are ten of my favourite collections from recent reading, in no particular order:
Eating Robots – Stephen Oram
On the Shores of Lake Onyx – Ayd Instone
You Should Come With Me Now – M. John Harrison
Tales from the Shadow Booth Vol. 1 – Anthology edited by Dan Coxon
Smoke and Mirrors – Neil Gaiman
Metamorphosis and Other Stories – Franz Kafka
Three Moments of an Explosion – China Mieville
Burning Chrome – William Gibson
Sixty Stories – Donald Barthelme
Under a Glass Bell – Anais Nin
How about you? Do you find short story collections hard to finish? What are your favourites? And if you’re a writer, how do you find writing shorts compares to writing a novel?
If you’d like to check out my flash fiction collection Fragments of Perception, or my connected short story collection Mind in the Gap, please visit my Books page for details.