Part 2 of 3
So I had Steven test-drive my intended post, as I almost always do. He said, “I love you. Break this into smaller posts so your readers don’t go insane.”
I cannot argue with his logic, so this is part two of three.
- Part one includes the background, the disclaimer, and why I think this is worth reading.
- Part two includes what I could find on official short story definitions
- Part three includes what I like to see in MY short stories, and some pointed questions to try and fuel further discussion.
Popular Definition of Short Story
So, what is this popular definition that I’ve been building up to?
There kind of isn’t one. It’s one of those frustrating things where you’ll find a definition that seems to jive with your own, then read a half dozen more who lay down the law and then throw it out the window, just telling you “if it works, it’s good”.
Take something simple, like story length. That one should be easy to pin down, right?
Not even remotely.
Some places say no more than 10,ooo words. Some say no more than 5,000 words. Some say anything up to 17,500 words (after which point it is defined as a novella).
Some places say that the lower bound should be 2,000, because anything less than that is flash fiction. Some say no, flash fiction is only up to 500 words, and anything between 500 and 2,000 is a “short short”.
Honestly, it’s dizzying, and more than a little confusing.
The only true, solid advice I can find on length is to determine which publication you plan on submitting to and follow their guidelines.
Guidelines which do have some overlap with other publications, but which could very well leave you with a rejected story that you can’t even submit somewhere else.
Moving on. How about content?
Surely there are some broad, general content requirements? I’m not talking genre differentiation here, I mean the sort of meat and bones kind of thing that would be used to structure a proper short story.
I found a ton of sites willing to help with this, many of them giving the same five “vital” components to a short story.
Which is lovely, and I do like that list … except pretty much all the sites go on to say that you don’t have to follow those as a rule, or even really as a guideline. The reason for the immediate retraction is clear … there are a ton of very well-received and critically-acclaimed short stories which don’t have all or most of these components.
Right, okay, so if we cannot define a short story by saying what it ought to be, maybe we should look at what it ought NOT to be. I found a great blog post from the Willesden Herald (which is quite old, so if you disagree with what you read, please don’t bash on them). The post is so wonderful because it was written by someone who helped judge that year’s short story contest (of some sort) telling people the sorts of things that caused the short stories to be rejected, disliked, or definitely not make it to the winner’s circle.
I found that useful, but saying things like “don’t be boring” is necessarily helping me with that concrete definition that I’m searching for. One man’s garbage, as they say, is often another man’s treasure. “Boring” is too subjective.
Then, of course, you read articles like this New York Times piece which bemoans the number of short story readers who are actually just writers, trying to figure out how to sell a story to a magazine, rather than reading because they love the format.
The actual quote (copied here for clarity)
In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines (and The New Yorker, of course, the holy grail of the young fiction writer) not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there. And this kind of reading isn’t real reading, the kind where you just can’t wait to find out what happens next (think “Youth,” by Joseph Conrad, or “Big Blonde,” by Dorothy Parker). It’s more like copping-a-feel reading. There’s something yucky about it.
And then, of course, I feel yucky, because he’s kind of talking about me there. I don’t seek out short stories.
But on the other hand, I don’t seek out short stories because so often, I don’t enjoy them. In my mind, they have a reputation for being shocking-for-the-sake-of-shock (grotesque, horror, violence, sex), or to leave the reader feeling uncomfortable.
I don’t want my fiction to make me feel uncomfortable.
I don’t want to feel uneasy or sad or … icky.
I’m not looking for something that will shock or surprise or awe me. I’m not specifically looking for something that changes my perspective on the world or challenges my morals.
I’m looking to be entertained.
And no, I don’t care if that labels me as an escapist reader.