Tuesday, February 09, 2010

It can take a long time to write short

By Pat Remick

As you know, short fiction is our theme this month and after spending a month working on two short stories, I have to echo Wilfred Bereswell’s earlier post that creating a short story can constitute some of the hardest writing you’ll ever do.

I've been rising early to write before work (and believe me, spending your first 1.5 hours awake thinking about murder sets an interesting tone for a workday) and devoting several hours on weekends. It hasn't been easy and the task has consumed me, because when I'm not at my desk, I think about the stories and where they should go next – or where they shouldn’t have gone before.

Telling a story, developing characters the reader will care about, and creating a sense of place are essential elements that require words – and sometimes lots of ‘em. So if there’s a tight limit, such as 3,500 words for one of my stories, finishing a first draft still means many more hours of work ahead to pare it down without losing the essence – or important details. This process of “killing your darlings” -- deleting words or phrases that took hours, and sometimes days or weeks, to craft – is excruciatingl.

My friend Kathleen, who delights in writing very short stories, often brags that if she were to divide the meager payment she receives for publication in an anthology by the number of words written, she’s the highest paid author per-word in that book. Last year, however, her 246-word story was not enough to maintain that distinction because someone else wrote a piece that was only 64 words long.

Think about it – an entire story in 64 words. That’s shorter than most conversations. It’s also fewer words than are being allowed in the flash fiction challenges here. Fortunately, I suspect flash fiction readers have lower expectations about what such a short story has to contain in so few words to be credible, which helps, but all the elements still need to be there.

As you probably know, there are those who contend powerful stories can be told in even fewer words. According to writing legend, Ernest Hemingway once wrote one in six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

I've seen writing challenges urging participants to duplicate this feat, including asking them to describe their lives in just six words. Smith Magazine has been publishing collections of these six-word memoirs over the past few years. The latest version is "It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure.”

Being someone who often writes far too many words, I especially admire the ability of these writers to sum up their lives in so few of them. Here are a few of my favorites:

“Well, I thought it was funny” – Stephen Colbert

“At least I never voted Republican” – Tony Kushner

“I picked passion. Now I'm poor. -- Kathleen E. Whitlock

“So would you believe me anyway?” -- James Frey

If you had to sum up your life in six words, what would they be?


Paula Matter said...

I chose money. Now I'm horny.

It's not true, but I had to do it.

Jennie Bentley said...

I've always been partial to Julius Caesar's "I came, I saw, I conquered." There's also the Irish version, "I saw, I conquered, I came." (Sorry. Couldn't resist.)

Joyce said...

Bartender, I'll have a Guinness draught.

More snow coming. Weatherman must die.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

For me it's simple:

I wish I had a Valium.

If I were Kramer from Seinfeld, it might be:

These pretzles are making me thirsty.

Wilfred Bereswill said...


Karen in Ohio said...

Started. Restarted. Restarted. Got it right!

Anonymous said...

Wednesday's child is full of woe.
Misery; my soul swims in it.

Party Crasher

Jennie Bentley said...


Gina said...

I couldn't come up with anything original, so I'm borrowing a phrase from Pink Floyd's "Learning to Fly:"

Just an earth-bound misfit, I.

Wilfred Bereswill said...


Interestingly, I got in my car tonight, flipped on the CD, it changed to a Classic Rock disc and...

Tongue-tied & Twisted
Just an earthbound misfit, I.

Gina said...

Wil -
That's what we call a synchronicity - occurrences connected by meaning but not causation. They happen all the time. proving that the world is not the rational place we like to pretend it is!

Pat Remick said...

These are some interesting offerings... there's no way I could write just six words -- against my nature to write that short, but i do admire those who can and do....
OK, maybe,
Wrote too long, life too short.