Thoughts on the Limits of Short Fiction

Just kidding, guys. Mostly.

So, I decided to participate in a Fantasy short story competition this month. Fantasy story up to 5000 words, sounds easy enough, right? Well, folks. I think I discovered one of my hard limits. Writing fantasy as short fiction is painfully difficult. Not the good pain.

I love fantasy. It was probably the first genre I really got into as a young reader, and it carried me through into adulthood before I reached my saturation point and gave up on it for a while. At the time, I felt like there was nothing much new happening in the genre and I wanted to branch into different things. Like James Joyce.

I may never recover.

Anyway, I still like fantasy. I have never been a fantasy writer, though. I use a lot of fantastical elements. I almost never write general fiction. Bizarro details sneak in when I’m not expecting it. It is a gift and a curse. But full on fantasy in a different world with different rules… Never.

A short fantasy story seemed like a nice easy way to get acquainted with the genre as a writer. Even typing that sentence now has me giggling manically and pulling out my hair.

HOW DO PEOPLE DO THIS THING WHERE THEY CRAM A WHOLE WORLD AND BACK STORY AND CULTURE AND EVERYTHING INTO ANYTHING LESS THAN A NOVELLA????

I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled.

But I need to vent. Let me tell you about my experience.

Draft #1 (secretly hoping “and only”)

My first draft went really well. I was riffing off of a 1200 word flash fiction piece I did for 12 Short Stories last year that was well received. The overwhelming feedback I’d gotten was that readers wished it had been longer. Convenient, right? I’d just flesh out the details to about 4000 words and voila, my competition piece would be born.

Well, luckily I have reader friends who set me straight on that front. It was a fine story. But I was info-dumping like I’d eaten a bad literary burrito. That’s a new thing for me. I do not info dump. I am usually accused of the opposite–withholding all the necessary details and forcing my readers to puzzle out the truth. But apparently, the info-dump is how one deals with all of that back story and world building and other crap that is supposed to appear in a good fantasy story.

Okay, Draft #2 then…

Second round. I cut out a bunch of the extra details, culled the back story to what I thought were the bare essentials, and tried to disperse it a little more evenly throughout the story. The result? Readers thought it was better. There was still a little too much exposition, but that’s to be expected with fantasy. Then one of my readers suggested working all of that backstory into the dialogue with an “As you know, blahblahblah” technique.

I balked at that, naturally. The only thing worse than an infodump, surely, is an infodump pretending to be natural conversation.

But I also wasn’t happy with the lukewarm reception of my second draft. And I’m a writer, dammit. I can figure out how to get my characters talking about their world, can’t I?

Third time’s the charm?

Draft three. Glowing praises from the readers. Yes, the pace was much better now, there’s no more info dumping. I’d killed all of the infodumps, there were none. It was glorious.

So I gave it to my husband to read. He hadn’t read any of the previous drafts. He’s not a writer, so he doesn’t get hung up on all those little writerly things we like to nit-pick about one anothers’ work. I figured it was going to be a slam dunk.

Not so. He had no idea what the hell my story was about. The only reason my other readers loved the new version was that they, unwittingly, were still benefiting from all the exposition I had cut. Just like me, they knew the story that was behind the scenes, and they couldn’t unknow it. I needed new readers.

I’m not going to lie, I cried.

Two more new readers gave me the same feedback. So, back to the drawing board again.

Draft #4. Bring it on home!

Draft Four now. An editor friend of mine suggested that I reverse engineer the story to discover the absolute bare minimum amount of back story necessary in order to make the story work. In order to do that I really had to focus on the little golden kernel at the heart of the story. Everything else was chaff. Cut, cut, cut, cut cut.

Okay. I revealed the key elements of my story. Now I had to drop those elements in earlier, without killing the pacing I’d just amped up. And make them more obvious, despite my overwhelming desire to hide them like easter eggs at random throughout the story (Why do I do that? We may never know.)

Result? Much better, much clearer. But…

But? What do you mean ‘but?’ I solved the problem. I fixed the story. It’s all good now, right?

Well, it’s just a little choppy is all. You did hack the whole thing apart with a meat cleaver. And now that these details aren’t here, these character reactions are completely unmotivated and seem overly dramatic.

Fucketh.

Draft “Just-let-me-die” #5

Well. Draft #5 was it. Not because I have a masterpiece of fantasy writing on my hands but because today was the final deadline for the story contest. I managed to smooth out most of the rough edges and I think I’ve got a story that is worth reading, if not a home-run-slam-dunk winner. To be perfectly honest, I can’t tell if it’s garbage or not anymore. I’m just exhausted. I only sent the final copy to a couple of my original readers, and I made them promise not to tell me if they notice anything I need to change. They can sit on it until I get my rejection.

But I’m coming back to it. Because I will make this story work, dammit. I will. I have put too many bloody hours into this thing not to see it published.

The Moral of the Story Is…

First of all, fantasy is an incredibly hard genre to write in short forms. I clearly underestimated the skills required to tackle a project like this. I also need to read more fantasy stories in the 5000 and under range to get a feel for how experienced writers go about crafting micro-fantasy worlds. Because now that I know how hard it is, of course I want to keep doing it. I’m a glutton for punishment.

Second of all, first drafts suck. Usually second and third drafts suck. If you come at writing expecting to do it right the first time around, from inspiration to finished project, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Or maybe you don’t see it, in which case you’re setting your readers up for disappointment. Either way it’s not good.

Now, I know this about my writing. I have come to terms with the fact that first drafts are beautiful in their potential and ugly in their execution. I also know that it is infinitely easier to work through the drafting process if you give yourself time between each kick at the can. What I didn’t realize was how mentally and emotionally exhausting drafting can be when you don’t give yourself that distance between drafts.

I did not have the luxury of time on my side and getting through these drafts nearly drove me insane. Do yourself a favour and plan to take your time. Your story and your mental health with thank you!

But I don’t regret the experience at all. Even if I don’t place, which I know I likely won’t, what I learned by doing this intense speed-drafting process was invaluable. I pushed through even when I didn’t want to, I tried things I didn’t want to try, I took advice I didn’t want to take, I stuck with it even when I wanted to throw my computer out the window. And the story I have now is so, so, so much better than my first draft.

And in a month or so, I’ll be ready to tackle Draft #6, 7, 8… however many it takes to get it right.

End Rant.

Writers, have you ever tried to cram massive revisions into a short time frame? How did you feel during and after?

Readers, did you have any idea how many different versions your favourite stories go through before they make it into your hot little hands?

Add your questions, comments, and moral support below.

31 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Limits of Short Fiction

  1. Everything I write is first draft Material it’s what makes my writing so great. Haha. I understand this had to be a frustrating process for you. I feel like fantasy is more in line with poetry honestly. Its whimsical and shit. I need to read your story promise to do it today.

    1. I don’t think you have the right draft! Lol. I’ll send you the latest if you promise not to tell me what’s wrong with it until after April 1.

      I think there are two ways to improve one’s writing. One is drafting, receiving feedback and applying it judiciously until you achieve the effect you are going for for each story. The other is to write, receive feedback, and apply that feedback to new pieces until you are a good enough writer that your first drafts stop sucking.

      The more you write, the better your first drafts get. When I’m in my comfort zone for with form and genre, my first drafts are pretty clean. I’ll do 2-3 drafts, but the changes are very minor—grammar, spelling, word choice tweaks, etc. But if I try something new to me, the first attempt, no matter how awesome I think it is, invariably blows.

      Every genre has its own conventions and expectations. Every form has its limitations and stylistic sacrifices. Experimenting broadly has helped me become a better writer overall. But it also means I don’t have a comfortable niche to plug away at and pump out great first drafts every time, haha.

      I’m willing to live with that. But next time I have a tight deadline, I’m not going to try something totally new to me! Except, I probably will…

  2. Right to the heart! All I write is fantasy or fantasy laced with horror or fantasy/sci-fi. When I’m not writing poetry that is. But let’s face it, a lot of my poetry is fantasy too. Either way, fantasy is the heart of it. And it’s truly hard to get it right the first 5-6 times. Even harder in less than 5000 words!

    You have to rely on a level of trust. Trust that the reader is going to stick with you through the story no matter what. Trust that your reader is able to ferret out the little details you’re trying to draw. Trust that most of your readers are already well acquainted with other worlds or other realms and get where you’re going with the story.

    I’ve found that rewriting known stories is often easier to do in the short form. Mostly because of the fact that the story is already well known and the details of the backstory are already accepted. You’re just twisting it around. But, even that has its limits. After all, you’re trying to build something new, so building on something old and rewriting it gets tired.

    However, I’m hoping that the old adage “practice makes perfect” holds true. Because I love the genres so much I’m not going to stop. Because, if I can pull off world-building in the small stories, how much better are my large stories going to be?

    1. That’s exactly it, Harvey! And it’s why, now that my little rant is out of my system, I’m adding short fantasy to the top of my “needs practice” pile.

      Knowing your reader and trusting them is a very important thing, too. The dedicated fantasy readers in my critique circle had totally different expectations for the amount of “allowable” exposition, had more patience with slower pacing, and generally liked my story all the way through. I likely could have tweaked my first draft and made a lot of High Fantasy readers happy. But it wasn’t me.

      The most cutting feedback was from a reader who said “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you expo-dump like this before.” I knew he was probably right because I felt immediately defensive and wanted to light my computer on fire. That first draft might have been passable fantasy, but it wasn’t my “voice.”

      I went to all of the trouble of these drafts not to appease readers or editors, but my own sense of who I am and how I write. Which might mean I have a weird story that there will be no market for, haha. But I’ll be happy with it and it can have a home with all of my other weird stories until I have enough for a collection of rejected gems.

      “Rejected Gems” has a nice ring to it, now that I think about it… possible title?

      Anyway, thank you for reading and commenting and being an invaluable member of my critique team! I really need to start this 12SS piece now 😬 How is yours coming?

  3. Fantasy is rough in short form. I’ve done it, but my best one was more of a whimsical comedy. These days I’m blessed with really good critique folks. It speeds the process up, and they are better than I’ve ever had before.

    1. I’m slowly building up my critique circle, too. I have some great critiquers, but I have to be careful not to abuse the privilege because I don’t have many! I should get more involved with my local writers guild, too, and take some of the pressure off of my internet buddies. It’s tough to find the right combo of people who know your voice and like your writing style, but who can still identify weaknesses in it.

      I’m scouring my old copies of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine and studying the fantasy pieces now. There is much to learn…

      1. Science Fiction works pretty well in short form. I’ve known my critiques for years before we started all this. It goes in spells. I feel like I’m swamping them, then slow down and they swamp me. We’re all experienced and that helps too.

        1. Ya, I’m a lot more comfortable with sci-fi or speculative fiction in short forms (well, in all forms). Pure fantasy is something else, lol.

          Most of my critique buddies are also parents with young kids, so life gets in the way too. It’s hard to find other writers at this awkward in-between stage I’m in. I’m not a beginner, but I don’t have any established cred yet either, lol. This is the year I’m really focusing on submissions to semi-pro and pro markets. The whole process has been extremely interesting. Frustrating sometimes, but educational!

  4. Wow this sounded like you were writing lord of the rings… I’ve not tried to write fantasy in that way. Maybe I should give it a go and see what a pigs ear I make of it.

    BTW… fucketh – my new favourite word!

    1. I think it’s possible to write fantasy without so much backstory. I foolishly made the history of the world integral to the plot, which meant I had to find a way to get enough details in that the reader could follow but not enough to kill the flow of the story. The balance is much harder to find in a shorter works than longer ones. I would recommend it for the challenge! But I don’t recommend trying to include the history of the world in your actual plot, not at 5000 words anyway.

      Fucketh is a great word, haha

      1. I think if your going to try what you did the back story needs to be known and perhaps more of an understandable goal so you don’t have to have lots of dialect to explain it.
        If you compare what you had to the scenario of lord of the rings and destroying the ring you see the goal in simpler but the are ment sub stories around it.

        Just a thought.

        Fucketh is great and now in my phone 😂

        1. Well, I wasn’t actively trying to cram a story like LoTR into 5000 words. That would be crazy! I just “knew” how this particular world worked and struggled with how much I needed to convey to the reader for it to work at this length. I started with way more than the reader needed and then pared it down and smoothed out the delivery with each draft. I think the amount of information is manageable now, though the delivery might need more smoothing. I’m pretty happy with where the story is at, though.

          If The Sea-Hag doesn’t place in this competition, and I do go back for further revision, my goal won’t be to add any more words, but to make the story work at this length. Likely, I’m still trying to force too much “why” into the plot when most fantasy readers would pick up on the themes without needing an explicit explanation. But we’ll see. Hopefully there will be some feedback from the editors/judges.

          I won’t hold my breath though 😂

  5. I don’t write many fantasy shorts, but looking at the ones I’ve done, they tend to be ‘well contained’ so the backstory and world-building are minor. On the other hand, I don’t really do ‘classical fantasy’ and often write 1st person which can solve a lot of problems with sneaking in background information.

    1. Yes! Scope is really important, and I was way out of bounds with what I was trying to cram into a 5000 word story. In order to write in a fantasy environment we, as the writer, often need a huge amount of detail in our heads to keep everything straight. But that doesn’t all need to be communicated to the reader! This length of story is one I’m not too familiar with, so I tried to take on a lot more than I should have in my earlier drafts. I still know all of that back story, but in my “final-for-now” version, I have communicated only the bare minimum that the reader needs for the story to make sense.

      First person can definitely help with info dumps. Also, I made the mistake of making the world’s history integral to the plot line which, in a short story, was a really poor decision. Writing a story in a fantasy setting doesn’t necessarily have to involve so much back story.

      As I play around with this genre/form combo, I might do a blog piece on how to decide on the scope of your story based on the word count available. I think I also need to write at this length a bit more and get a feel for the overall structure. I’m a lot more comfortable in the 1000 to 2500 word range as far as that goes!

      1. A few years back I did a 8k story for a competition – it didn’t get published in the end, but I had a nice conversation with the editor before the final bounce. He really liked the character but in the end it wasn’t right.
        One of the bits of feedback I’ve had on that one is how good and detailed the world-building was, which is amazing because I didn’t really do any, or not consciously. Again, it was 1st person, which makes the infodumping cleaner, but even so, whatever I did painted a picture. Looking back, one of the things that helped is a very “standard” trick – my narrator was an “outsider”, someone suddenly working in/exploring an unfamiliar strata of his own society, able to comment on the new and unexpected.

        1. That’s great! I love getting actual feedback from editors. It’s so rare. Having an outsider as the POV character would be a great way to address the “strangeness” of your world without it seeming info-dump heavy! I think I’ll need to compile a mental list of techniques to deal with more foreign settings. For some reason I do it much more naturally in sci-fi than in fantasy. Maybe because the fantasy I read tends toward epic/high fantasy and I’m subconsciously trying to recreate the immensity if those worlds in too small a space. Hmmm, there’s something to chew on over my coffee!

          1. When I stop and think, I use the “outsider” a lot. The urban fantasy series is narrated by a “master of the dark arts” who suddenly finds that the world of magic and demons does not work the way he thought. It’s really a series of disasters which would have been avoided if he’d been able to take an introductory course on practical supernatural phenomena.
            That space opera has four characters who get their world turned upside down – my foul-mouthed professor of causal engineering (and time-travelling slave gatherer) meets his wife-to-be when she pulls off some supposedly impossible time travel; a resurrected assassin finds herself (or himself – Charlee is of indeterminate and variable gender) as wedding planner to the big-bad-Baron’s daughter; a similarly resurrected nineteenth century bad-girl sees the big-bad as future husband material, but is thousands of years out of her own culture; and the local administrator, a sort of composite personality conditioned to absolute and selfless loyalty to the big-bad, falls in love with the latest slave to be delivered.
            Pick ’em up and drop ’em thousands of miles from their comfort zone – the perfect white-water ride to explore my universe.

  6. OK, who stole the “reply” button
    Anyway, don’t hold your breath on that space opera. I’ve been writing book 3 for at least four years because it keeps getting interrupted and then it takes me forever to figure out where I got to.
    Somewhere (unless I’ve lost it) I’ve written one tiny scene for book 4 (unless it has to move out and become a book 5 – I have a spare title in case I need it).

    1. That sounds like me and book two of my trilogy. Book one came out 5 years ago! I’ve rewritten book two twice and am now doing it again. But I’m getting burnt out on the whole thing. Short fiction is so much more instantly gratifying.

      1. I have a recent calendar that goes like this:
        2015 – space opera #3 going well. Yay!
        2015 – October, life goes down the pan; writing largely ceases.
        2016 – 9 months on, life crawls back out of the pan and we decide to publish urban fantasy, which takes 3 months instead of the two weeks we expected.
        2016 – press “go” on amazon and two days later life goes back down the pan.
        2017 – take the insane decision to write book 2 instead of finishing that space opera.
        2018 – publish book 2, write book 3, aiming to publish Mar 2019. Space opera? What space opera?
        2019 – life takes another swim around the pan; fail to publish book 3 in March. (Yes, I know there’s a few days of March left, but I need another 4-6 weeks).

        1. Oh no! That sounds very stressful 😳 But you’ve still been more productive than me! I had three kids in the (ongoing) hiatus between books one and two and I likely won’t get back to novel writing in earnest until they’re all in school full time. I’m trying to improve my craft and hone my skills with short stories in the meantime so that it’s not “wasted” time and I don’t get too rusty. But who knows what life will throw at us as they get older. I should probably just get on with it and stop waiting for the “right” time.

          1. If you want a quiet life, there are three big things to avoid: kids, livestock and running your own business.
            On the other hand, who wants a quiet life?

          2. Haha, yes! We also run our own business. So far we have avoided the downfall of livestock… but with I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.

            If nothing else, it all offers story fodder! A quiet life sounds very uninspiring and a little dull.

          3. I know they’re not strictly considered livestock, but… cats.
            That vital and irreplaceable document is the only acceptable place to vomit.
            When you’ve only got five minutes left to get in the car and drive to something really important, a cat will need a vet in a hurry.
            When your pension adviser drops by to sort out a few final details, at least one cat will leap up and dance across the laptop, erasing you entire financial history.
            After you’ve spent the day cooking, cleaning and generally preparing for a party, in the last minute before your guests arrive one of the cats will let go of some piece of mid-sized and destructive local wildlife which was not as dead as the cat assumed, and suddenly frantic to escape.
            Or, as I’m about to demonstrate again, when you head to bed at the end of a long day, one of the cats will have beaten you to it…

          4. They’re worse than children!

            Good luck in the battle for your bed 😂 Goodnight!

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