On Writing #6:Still struggling with writing a story and getting a little worried. Is it really all about page length?

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FIRST DRAFT: It has occurred to me that my insecurities about the short story are mostly grounded in a fear of the constraints of length–or lack of length. (27 words)

SECOND DRAFT:  I think I am afraid of the short story because it isn’t long enough for all my words! (18 words)

In the novels I have written, my characters have what seems an unlimited amount of time and space to lead the story toward its conclusion.  It isn’t so much how the novel ends as how long it takes to reach that end.  In a novel, I can begin my descent into my conclusion chapters back–with nothing more than a hint, certainly nothing resembling a plan or outline–meandering along, taking detours, tossing down red herrings, changing course, anything I like.  There is no page limit, specific or implied. A novel can go on for hundreds of pages; some of the best ones do.

In a story, I feel rushed toward the finish line, pressured to have that final paragraph composed in my head before I have finished typing the first sentence.  I can already feel the edge of panic. I have written the Prologue and Chapter One of whatever that untitled work is–story, novel, warm-up exercise–and I don’t know where it’s going to end. Nonetheless, I feel strongly that I should know. And what about that length question? Obviously, there is no set number of pages, and some stories even expand beyond whatever the unspoken limit is and then they belong to that mysterious genre, the novella.

Part of my problem is that, if length is to be restricted anyway, I want something more concrete. Show me a rule that a short story must not exceed 65 pages and a novella is between 65-125. These numbers are completely arbitrary, and that  is my point.  It is all much too vague.

I saw a contest  just last week for “Short Short Stories,” maximum length 1500 words.  That is perfectly clear, and give me the great luxury of facing my personal limitations and admitting that I am not, at least today, capable of producing anything like that.

And that leaves me with the Prologue and Chapter One–1600 words–of a piece of writing that has no plot or character development beyond those 1600 words, no idea where it is going and less of how it might get there.

All that said, there is no question about the relative quality of the first and second drafts of the sentence that begins this blog. Shorter is better. The grand and verbose southern writer William Faulkner had no doubts about it–shorter is better or, more to his point, great skill is required, and better writing is produced, by the author who can say the most with the fewest words.  The hierarchy, in his mind, is that those who can’t write poetry, write short stories and those who can’t write stories, write novels.

Perhaps those who can write neither poetry, stories, or novels, sit around trying to write definitions of those genres.

I believe I’ll take a look to see where the characters in my story want to go next.

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