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.

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.

The Final Week of Microfiction

This is the last installment of the experiment where I write tiny stories and post them daily on Twitter at @DeferredWords. You can find stories from previous weeks here and here.

If you enjoy this sort of thing, you should check out another Twitter account, @DailyMicroFic, who has been doing this a lot longer than I have. Through them, I discovered the the #vss365 hashtag, where you can find lots of people writing very short stories on Twitter, 365 days a year. See vss365today.com for more info and daily prompts.

I enjoyed writing these. They were a fun exercise in writing under severe limitations, and the format gave some life to lots of little ideas I’ve been kicking around for ages, but I hadn’t been inspired enough to expand into longer formats. I think I’ll have to do it again sometime.

The Furies

The Vine

Desert Bones

Moon and Sea

Politically Correct

Jungles of Minnesota

“No More Kings”

Another Week of Microfiction

I’m back, for the second installment of the experiment where I write tiny stories and post them daily on Twitter at @DeferredWords. You can read the first week of stories here.

Our Time Together

The Last Game of Go

The Warp

Black Clouds

Starfall

*(Yes, it should be “pens.” Thanks Twitter.)

Knight, Forsaken

A Concern

There’s one more week of stories left. I’ll post the final installment next Wednesday. See you then.

Weekly Microfiction

Last week, I talked about a little experiment I’m doing — a very little experiment! As a slightly silly way to get back into writing short stories, I started putting out microfiction on Twitter, @DeferredWords. Every morning for the past week, I’ve been posting a story in a single tweet, and I’m going to keep doing it for a couple more weeks.

Here are this week’s stories:

Gary Left

Princess, Under the Moon

Carlos and Esteban

Angela’s Enlightenment

Space Wizards

Dana Asks

The First Time

See you next week for seven more micro-stories!