Drabble — A Going Away Party

The residents of the last escape ship wake up early and decide what events to attend. A Shakespeare reading or a striptease? A fistfight or a folk dance? A prayer service or a rave? An orgy or a tea ceremony?

The sacred, profane and mundane are represented in equal measure.

We disable the fire suppression systems for makeshift campfires. We sing songs and eat nutrient paste s’mores. Some laugh, some weep.

Enemy ships close in, faster and more powerful than ours. We take our sedatives, and sleep in each other’s arms.

All in all, not a bad send-off for humanity.

For more drabbles, check out the fiction section of Words Deferred

Revising Short Stories

The Short Story Series

When we think of revision, we often think of line edits: correcting grammar and punctuation; cutting tropes or overused idioms; improving word choices here and there. These are mechanical improvements that anyone can learn to do.

The real challenge, however, is in making the story great. It’s in making something that hits the reader like a punch to the gut. While grammar and punctuation are important, they’re surface polish. What a story really needs underneath that is focus.

Finding Focus

Even the tightest of novels is huge in comparison to a short story. Short stories simply don’t have as much space to maneuver. A novel can choose to have more characters, go into more depth, have more plot points, more ideas. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As I said previously, if a novel is a searchlight, a short story is a laser. It needs to cut directly to the point. When it does, it can be incredibly powerful.

If you’re the sort of writer who likes to plan up-front, you may already know what you want the focus of your short story to be. If you’re more of an exploratory writer, you may leave yourself open to a few different options and see what speaks to you as you write. You don’t necessarily have to know all the answers while you’re writing your first draft.

It’s during revision when you have to make the hard choices.

Cutting Diamonds

Once you have a first draft, it’s helpful to go back and think about what you were trying to achieve. What made you want to write this in the first place? Is it still the thing that excites you the most about the story? Is there a twist ending that everything leads to? A particular character or situation? A hard choice that has to be made?

Maybe it’s not a “traditional” story element that excites you. Maybe it’s formatting or style. Maybe it’s tone or exploration of a particular emotion.

If you didn’t have a clear plan, reread your work and see what speaks to you. You’re looking for the core of the story, the beating heart that makes it live. Of course, it may not actually feel like that just yet. The important thing is that you want it to.

Once you’ve found the core of the story, there’s only one thing left to do. Put it at the center and rearrange everything else to support it. Even if you’ve written the greatest sentence to ever grace the page, if it doesn’t reinforce the core of the story it has to go.

Cut Relentlessly

When I was writing microfiction and studying drabbles, I learned an important lesson about revision: no matter how perfect you think your story is, there’s something that can be cut. When you have to fit a coherent story into a single tweet, you make some hard choices. You can replace two words with one, or a six letter word with five. If you can lose a sentence and the story still makes sense, you cut it. If you have a fun little aside you want to include…you don’t. You’re still fifteen words over budget. Cut, cut, cut.

I highly recommend any writer try writing a few tweet-sized microfiction stories. It’s one of the best exercises you can do to really internalize an understanding of trimming a story to its bare bones.

Of course, most short stories are much longer than 250 characters. After writing microfiction, a short story will feel positively spacious, but the same principles still apply. Unfortunately, writing a short story is harder than writing microfiction. Microfiction takes away most of your choices. If you can cut something, you probably do.

In a short story, you have some wiggle room. Not a lot, but some. You don’t have to cut quite as much. You still need to identify the places where you can make a cut with just as much ruthlessness as microfiction. Then, you need to identify the cost of that cut. Usually, there’s some identifiable reason you wrote that paragraph or sentence or word in the first place. If there isn’t, that’s an easy cut.

Once you’ve identified the cost, the only question is whether it’s worth it. Remember, as an author, you’re already biased toward loving your own words. Are those words really earning their keep? Do they reenforce the core, the beating heart of the story?

Cut more than you think is reasonable, and see how it feels. Save as many versions as you need to in order to cut fearlessly.

Getting Feedback

Revision can’t be done in isolation. No matter how much you try, no matter how much space you give it, it will always be your story. You need to see it through the eyes of fresh readers.

Luckily, requesting feedback on a short story is a much smaller ask than requesting feedback on a novel. If you’re lucky enough to have trusted beta readers, by all means ask them to critique it. A writing group is another great way to get feedback from several people.

There are also several online options. Critters is my go-to website for online critique from other active writers. Just be aware that you’ll be expected to return the favor and provide critiques for others in return.

Revision is Exciting

Often, the mere mention of revision is enough to make an author groan. It can sometimes feel like writing the first draft is the creative part of the process, and revision is dull in comparison. However, revision can be every bit as creative and challenging as the first draft. It is the art of perfecting—of finding the core of the story and trimming, sanding and polishing until every single word sings it out.

It is like taking a crude circle of glass and shaping it into a precise lens, to get that laser focus.

Short Story Categorization

The Short Story Series

When you’re writing short stories with the intention to publish, you’ll want to pay attention to your word count. Short story publications most often pay per word, and will have limits on the size of stories they are willing to publish.

As a general rule of thumb, shorter stories are easier to get published than longer ones. Many publications won’t accept longer stories at all, and those that do accept them will often only accept a small number per issue.

On the other hand, the internet has provided new opportunities for longer stories that still fall short of novel-length. Novellas are becoming more common on e-book services like Amazon. If your story lends itself toward serialization, you can also consider breaking it up for episodic publishing, like Vella.

Microfiction/Nanofiction (<500 words)

Not everyone agrees on the definition of these terms, but they typically refer to the shortest of stories. I’ve used the microfiction tag for twitter-sized stories, but some people apply the term to stories up to a page long, or up to 500 words (about two pages).

Drabble (100 words)

Drabbles focus specifically on a length of 100 words. Some publications, like Martian Magazine, require exactly 100 words. Others, like The Drabble, treat 100 words as an upper limit.

Flash Fiction (<1000 words)

Flash fiction is a blanket term for the shortest fiction. One thousand words is a common upper bound, although some publications will categorize up to 1,500 or even 2,000 words as flash.

Short Story (<10,000 words)

Again, this is a little nebulous, but once you get beyond ten thousand words, you’re getting outside “standard” short story territory. Many publications will have tighter limits for what they allow, like 7,500 or 5,000 words.

Novelette (10,000 – 17,500 words)

There is a weird limbo between the short story lengths typically published by magazines, and the length of full-fledged novels. Novelettes live at the shorter end of this range. They’re typically defined as anything from ten thousand to 17,500 words, although some definitions cap them at an even 20,000. Sometimes novelettes are considered a subset of our next category, novellas.

Novella (20,000 – 40,000 words)

Novellas are the top end of the range before you get into novels. These are rare in traditional paper publishing, but they’ve become more common with the proliferation of cheap e-books.

Novel (40,000+)

Anything above 40,000 words is typically considered a novel. If you’ve participated in NaNoWriMo, this is the default goal. However, a higher word count is expected in most genres. This leaves “short novels” in a similar situation to novellas. As with novellas, these have become more common in e-books, where customers are less likely to consider how thick a book is before buying, and the economics of printing are less of a concern.

Others?

Any length-based categories I missed? Let me know in the comments.

Why Read Short Stories?

I began my series of short story posts with the question, “Why write short stories?” This time, I want to look at the other side of the coin and ask, “Why read short stories?”

For Fun

This one should be obvious. This blog is mostly about becoming a better writer, and we all got into this whole “author” mess because we really enjoyed a good story, right? (If you got into it for the fame and fortune, well…maybe you should consider letting someone else make your career choices for you?)

As I mentioned in the last post, novels have become the default unit of fiction. If you chat someone up at a social event and discover you both like science-fiction, you wouldn’t be surprised to be asked, “What’s your favorite book?” But it seems like it would have to be a very specific crowd of people to get asked, “What’s your favorite short story?”

And yet, there is a smorgasbord of great short fiction out there. There are still fiction magazines, even in this very non-magazine-friendly era, but there are also piles of short stories out on the internet, many of them available for free. If you’re the sort of person who reads dozens of novels a year but never reads short stories, I’d encourage you to go out there and try some. You can read a lot of short stories in the amount of time it would take to read one or two novels.

Recently, I’ve been savoring the anthologies of short stories I got from the Martian Year 2 Kickstarter. They’re great, because I can pick up one of these little books and read a story or two when I have a spare ten minutes. When I’m reading a novel, I much prefer longer reading sessions, where I can really get into it. Short stories are more like literary snacks. I can just pop one or two whenever I’m in the mood.

To Feed The Compost Heap

One of the most common pieces of advice given to writers is to read widely, both inside and outside of your chosen genres. Short stories are a great way to survey the scene and expose yourself to the ideas and techniques that other authors are using.

I haven’t been able to find the attribution, but some author suggested that the writer’s subconscious is like a compost heap. You put bits and pieces of stories and style and weird ideas and the nightly news into it, and every once in a while you turn it over with a pitchfork. That mix of stuff becomes good dirt, a fallow base to grow your own stories from.

Short stories give you a lot of good fodder for the compost heap. You expose yourself to so many more ideas and styles by reading an anthology or an issue of a lit magazine than by reading a novel. Of course, short stories are necessarily smaller and less complex than a well-crafted novel, so there’s certainly value in both.

By reading more and more varied stories, you can cover more ground. One of the nightmares that keeps some authors up at night is the idea that they’ll finish their perfect novel, only to discover that an almost identical book was written in the early ’80s. Honestly, I think this is an overblown fear, and that for pretty much any story you can find something similar in the past, if you try hard enough. However, the more aware you are of the “story landscape” that you exist within, the more likely you are to come up with ideas that go beyond what others have done with a particular topic or style.

To Learn Technique

For the most part, we all have the same words available to us, whether you work in the deeper or shallower ends of the vocabulary pool. And yet we manage to have incredibly different styles of writing. Compare three semi-random examples from my bookshelf: Hemingway, Vonnegut and Tolkien. They’re all writing in English, but in a side-by-side comparison, they certainly feel like they’re writing in different languages.

By exposing you to more variety, short stories let you experience more varied techniques and tones. In the span of an hour, you could experience stories with the tight, simple language of Hemmingway, the lush descriptions of Tolkien, and the sly, comedic-yet-depressing viewpoint of Vonnegut.

Short stories also tend to be distilled and concentrated. A novel has some room to meander. A short story needs to be tight; it needs to know what it is and what it’s trying to do. If a novel is a big, bright search light, a short story is a laser.

To Research Markets

I won’t get into this too much, because we’ll talk about it in a later post, but if you’re writing short stories and you want to submit them for publication, it’s always good practice to read some of the stories from that publication before you submit. Magazines and anthologies usually describe in some detail the kinds of stories they’re looking for, but you’ll get a much better idea of the things the editors like by reading some of the stories they actually picked for previous issues or editions.

When you get into the short story submission grind, it might feel onerous to research a lot of different markets like this, but really it’s a great opportunity—you get to target your stories to markets that are more likely to accept them, you get to read some good stories, and the magazines get more readership and maybe a few bucks if you buy a sample issue or two.

Get Started

Whether you want to publish short fiction or not, don’t overlook short stories in favor of novels. There are a lot of great stories out there, and you’re going to miss out on so much if you only read the ones that are hundreds of pages long.

If you want somewhere to get started, check out my page on drabbles. These are super-short stories of exactly one hundred words. That page has links to ten of my favorite drabbles, as well as a couple of my own stories.

Beyond that, a simple google search for free short stories will turn up more than you could ever read. If you prefer reading words on paper, pretty much every genre has a few short story magazines you could subscribe to. Or you could visit your local library where the librarians would no doubt be delighted to help you find anthologies in the genre of your choice. Once you start looking for short stories, they’re not hard to find.

Martian Magazine — Year 2

As an occasional writer and frequent reader of drabbles (exactly 100-word stories), I don’t think there can be any doubt that Martian magazine hosts the best of the form. They’re a web-zine that has published a science fiction drabble every week for the past year, and they pay authors professional rates. If you prefer your drabbles in themed anthologies, they’re doing that too!

Now, they’re running a Kickstarter to fund their second year, with hopes of expanding. They have all manner of physical and e-book rewards available. I don’t have any skin in the game—I just like what they’re doing, and I’d love to see them get to do more of it.

Check out their post here, and the Kickstarter here.

I’ve Been Reading Drabbles…Lots of Drabbles

In my pursuit of the form, I’ve now read something like 100 to 150 drabbles. Luckily, hundred-word stories don’t take that long to read.

In addition to the Martian Magazine, which I’ve mentioned previously, I discovered The Drabble (which does include poetry and fiction less than 100 words, rather than exactly 100 words). I also found Speck Lit, which stopped updating a few years ago, but has a large archive still available. I’ve found drabbles of the exactly-100-words definition in a handful of other places. I’m sure there are plenty more out there, especially in flash fiction publications that would accept very short fiction, but typically have max lengths of 1000 or 1500 words. They’re just a pain to find.

One of the nice things about drabbles is that you can read quite a lot of them in a short amount of time. It’s relatively easy to see what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, because everything has to be laid out in a couple of paragraphs. They lend themselves to quick analysis.

My Favorites

These are my favorite (freely accessible) drabble stories so far. They surprised me, or made me laugh, or made me feel something. As usual, I skew toward speculative fiction. You can read the whole lot in less time than it would take to read a typical short story.

  1. Nicholas Was — Neil Gaiman
  2. Orbital Views — Gretchen Tessmer
  3. Todd — Jason P. Burnham
  4. The Reluctant Time Traveler Wears Two Watches — Wendy Nikel
  5. The Weave — M. Yzmore
  6. Double Trouble — R. Daniel Lester
  7. The Forest of Memory — Anna Salonen
  8. A Cabin to Die In — Anna Salonen
  9. Of Artistic Temperament — Sophie Flynn
  10. Redemption — Belinda Saville

Styles of Drabble

Having now observed quite a few drabbles in the wild, I tried to classify some of the common styles that are used to make a story interesting in one hundred words. It’s interesting to see that the limited word count really does force a wide variety of forms.

Haunted (A Drabble)

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been reading and writing drabbles recently. If you’re not aware, drabbles are just short stories with exactly 100 words — no more, no less. It has been both interesting and frustrating. Where microfiction stories feel like little toys, drabbles feel closer to “real” stories.

Closer, but not quite.

The Challenges

Drabbles invite experimentation and strange forms, like a story-as-a-list, story-as-app-review, or story entirely in dialogue with no context. They require odd tricks, unusual style, or very clever wording to be engaging.

Dialogue is hard in a drabble. Even the vanilla “he said, she said” tags use up precious words. It’s tempting, because dialogue can do so many things at once, but I’ve found it very difficult to write drabble dialogue in practice. It needs to be tight without becoming artificial, stilted, or confusing.

What Makes A Good Drabble?

Drabbles love little twist endings. A twist ending is one of the easiest ways to make a drabble interesting. I’m not convinced that it’s the best way though. I can’t help but think that it’s a bit of a crutch, which may be silly considering how challenging it is to write a good drabble without any additional restrictions beyond word count.

I think a good drabble uses one, maybe two, storytelling structures. Drabbles are too short to include a setting, characters, a real character arc, a conflict, a resolution, dialogue, strong voice, and all of the other scaffolding that we typically use to hold up a story. A good drabble has only one or two of these things that it does really well. It might glance sidelong at one or two more, but that’s pushing it.

So far, I only have one hard and fast rule for a good drabble. A good drabble makes you think, “There’s no way that was only one hundred words.”

My First Drabble

Haunted

It sounds fun to rent a house haunted by a sexy ghost. I guess it was, at first. The dreams were amazing, until she got stabby.

It took a while for her to stop shrieking and talk, but she eventually told me about the adultery, the murder-suicide, and the whole “vengeance against all men” thing. She says she’ll be free if I burn the bones buried in the cellar. Free to leave, and kill as she pleases.

It wouldn’t be right to unleash a murder-ghost on the world. But if she keeps breaking things, I’ll never get my deposit back.

This is my very first drabble, a little parody of horror tropes. The idea came from a Story Engine prompt.

You’ll notice it has no dialogue. I summarized the conversation, because dialogue is hard in a drabble. It has two characters and approximately three words of setting. No arc. A conflict, but no resolution. It does have a twist, although the twist comes in the form of a joke. I’m happy with it, for a first attempt, even if it doesn’t make me think, “There’s no way that was only one hundred words.” On the other hand, I had to carefully whittle it down to those one hundred words, so maybe that rule just doesn’t apply when I’m the one writing it.

Drabbles

I recently went on a foray into Twitter-size microfiction, a story format so short that it’s challenging to even fit the basic elements of a story. It was a fun exercise in minimalism and editing down to the bare bones, and gave me something to do with a bunch of ideas that I had never found a home for. I wrote 21 of these little gems and I was rather pleased with myself.

Well, that was then, and this is now. I’ve really grown as a creator in the last…uh, month or so. My stories need to grow with me. I simply cannot be contained within the narrow confines of 280 characters. No, I need more.

I’m moving up, friends. Moving up to drabbles. “What are drabbles?” you ask. Drabbles are short stories of exactly 100 words. Yes, that’s an astonishing two or three times the length of an average tweet.

On the one hand, a drabble might be harder to write. In terms of pure labor, it has more words. On the other hand, one of the biggest challenges of microfiction is making a structurally sound, interesting story, within the size limit. So the extra space may make the editing that much easier. More likely, I’ll just be tempted to cram more into that luxurious extra space.

How to Drabble

I’ll admit, I haven’t read very many drabbles, so I thought I had better educate myself. There are some examples by well-known authors (and a bit of history) at meades.org. I also found the site Drablr, where authors have freely published thousands of drabbles. They have section on drabble history and suggestions on how to go about writing one (namely, write a short short story, then edit it until it’s exactly 100 words).

When it comes to Drabble construction advice, I think Connie J. Jasperson has the best take I’ve seen. She says to limit yourself to a setting, one or two characters, a conflict, and a resolution. No subplots, and minimal background. She also suggests a dedicating about 25 words to the opening, 50-60 for the middle, and the remainder for the conclusion (and resolution). Check out the whole post over on her blog.

More to Come

My first attempts at this format will probably be expanded versions of my microfiction. There were several that left a lot on the cutting room floor. I’d like to see if they benefit or suffer when given twice as much breathing room. I plan to write some “fresh” ones as well, to get the full experience of writing drabbles from scratch.

It’s worth mentioning a notable benefit to writing drabbles instead of tweet-sized microfiction: drabbles are more practical to sell to online and print magazines and journals. In fact, there are markets like The Martian magazine that only publish drabbles. If there are markets for tweet-stories, I haven’t seen them.

I’m guessing drabbles are going to be a bit harder to write than my microfiction stories, but I’ll have a follow-up post once I’ve finished a few, to describe the experience.