In Praise of Super-Short Fiction

While I haven’t been blogging lately, I’ve had quite a rush of productivity. I wrote a Halloween story that was quite well-received by beta-readers, and I’m about 8k words into a (probably 20k word) novella that I expect to have finished by the end of the month. Rather than do NaNoWriMo this year and wind up with 50k words I’d need to either expand (80k seems to be the minimum spec-fic novel length these days) or vastly cut, 20k seems like a perfectly reasonable tradeoff between writing long and not burning out. It’s a hard length to sell, of course, but I’m extremely happy with my results so far. If push comes to shove, I’ll publish it here.

I have also been experimenting with extremely short fiction (100 words exactly) at the suggestion of one of the masters of the art. I’ve been posting my favorites over on the Drabblecast forums (one of which appears in this week’s Drabblecast, Episode 222!) It’s been an interesting experience — fiction at that length is very pared-down and tends to turn on a twist. It’s difficult to get right, and very easy to botch. There’s not a lot of room for complication and nuance, but it’s surprising what you can do with some carefully-chosen verbs and adjectives. In particular, it’s been good practice at word tactics, trimming all of the fat in a piece, learning how to change a few words into one while preserving the punch so that more story can be fit into the same number of words.

For example, compare:

Pitr rationed out the precious crimson fluid, fingers tight on the control knob. One drop. Two… Oh, good lord, dare he?

Yes! Three!

Hands trembling, he twisted the knob to stop the drip. The bottom of the tube bulged oily red liquid.

He took the jar from under the drip, carefully mixed it, then threw away the stirrer. The jar felt warm; it seemed to faintly glow. He dipped a carrot into the sauce. It hissed.

The student’s eyes bulged. “Are you sure you don’t want to try it first, Professor?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, I don’t even like spicy food.”

to:

Pitr rationed out the precious crimson fluid, fingers gripping the control knob. One drop. Two… Oh, good lord, dare he?

Yes! Three!

Hands trembling, he stopped the drip. The bottom of the tube bulged oily red liquid.

He took the jar from under the drip, carefully mixed it, then discarded the stirrer. The jar felt warm and glowed faintly. He dipped carrots into the sauce. They hissed.

The grad student’s eyes bulged. “Don’t you want to try it first, Professor?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, I dislike spicy food. Wait, stop!“

The student relaxed.

“Don’t eat until the camera’s going. OK, now.”

I’m not saying that either one is genius fiction or even worth more than a chuckle. But you can see some of the process there, how I decided that the ending wasn’t quite satisfying enough, I wanted a slightly more complicated ending, adding a dozen words of story without increasing the word count. So I went back and removed and rephrased. For example, changing “he twisted the knob to stop the drip” to “he stopped the drip”, or even pluralizing “carrot” so as to remove its article and save one word. (Here’s a challenge: Can you cut that second version to 90 words? 80?)

The best thing is that as exercises go, this really has a tremendous bang for your time buck. The result isn’t always (or maybe even usually) a good story, but the practice of going from idea to execution and then to polish really is worthwhile.

This is the kind of exercise recommended by Ken Rand’s The Ten Percent Solution, which is basically advice on cutting down any story to make it leaner and clearer, and as a result, stronger. I’ve tried it on a few short stories, and while it can be a real pain to do right, the results is almost always considerably better. Every now and then I think to myself that I’ll try it out on one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, or an early Lovecraft, just for fun. If I do, I’ll put the result up here for you all to laugh at me.

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