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  • Writer's pictureS.C. Jensen

Thoughts on the Limits of Short Fiction

Just kidding, guys. Mostly.

So, I decided to participate in a Fantasy short story competition this month. Fantasy story up to 5000 words, sounds easy enough, right? Well, folks. I think I discovered one of my hard limits. Writing fantasy as short fiction is painfully difficult. Not the good pain.

I love fantasy. It was probably the first genre I really got into as a young reader, and it carried me through into adulthood before I reached my saturation point and gave up on it for a while. At the time, I felt like there was nothing much new happening in the genre and I wanted to branch into different things. Like James Joyce.

I may never recover.

Anyway, I still like fantasy. I have never been a fantasy writer, though. I use a lot of fantastical elements. I almost never write general fiction. Bizarro details sneak in when I’m not expecting it. It is a gift and a curse. But full on fantasy in a different world with different rules… Never.

A short fantasy story seemed like a nice easy way to get acquainted with the genre as a writer. Even typing that sentence now has me giggling manically and pulling out my hair.

HOW DO PEOPLE DO THIS THING WHERE THEY CRAM A WHOLE WORLD AND BACK STORY AND CULTURE AND EVERYTHING INTO ANYTHING LESS THAN A NOVELLA????

I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled.

But I need to vent. Let me tell you about my experience.

Draft #1 (secretly hoping “and only”)

My first draft went really well. I was riffing off of a 1200 word flash fiction piece I did for 12 Short Stories last year that was well received. The overwhelming feedback I’d gotten was that readers wished it had been longer. Convenient, right? I’d just flesh out the details to about 4000 words and voila, my competition piece would be born.

Well, luckily I have reader friends who set me straight on that front. It was a fine story. But I was info-dumping like I’d eaten a bad literary burrito. That’s a new thing for me. I do not info dump. I am usually accused of the opposite–withholding all the necessary details and forcing my readers to puzzle out the truth. But apparently, the info-dump is how one deals with all of that back story and world building and other crap that is supposed to appear in a good fantasy story.

Okay, Draft #2 then…

Second round. I cut out a bunch of the extra details, culled the back story to what I thought were the bare essentials, and tried to disperse it a little more evenly throughout the story. The result? Readers thought it was better. There was still a little too much exposition, but that’s to be expected with fantasy. Then one of my readers suggested working all of that backstory into the dialogue with an “As you know, blahblahblah” technique.

I balked at that, naturally. The only thing worse than an infodump, surely, is an infodump pretending to be natural conversation.

But I also wasn’t happy with the lukewarm reception of my second draft. And I’m a writer, dammit. I can figure out how to get my characters talking about their world, can’t I?

Third time’s the charm?

Draft three. Glowing praises from the readers. Yes, the pace was much better now, there’s no more info dumping. I’d killed all of the infodumps, there were none. It was glorious.

So I gave it to my husband to read. He hadn’t read any of the previous drafts. He’s not a writer, so he doesn’t get hung up on all those little writerly things we like to nit-pick about one anothers’ work. I figured it was going to be a slam dunk.

Not so. He had no idea what the hell my story was about. The only reason my other readers loved the new version was that they, unwittingly, were still benefiting from all the exposition I had cut. Just like me, they knew the story that was behind the scenes, and they couldn’t unknow it. I needed new readers.

I’m not going to lie, I cried.

Two more new readers gave me the same feedback. So, back to the drawing board again.

Draft #4. Bring it on home!

Draft Four now. An editor friend of mine suggested that I reverse engineer the story to discover the absolute bare minimum amount of back story necessary in order to make the story work. In order to do that I really had to focus on the little golden kernel at the heart of the story. Everything else was chaff. Cut, cut, cut, cut cut.

Okay. I revealed the key elements of my story. Now I had to drop those elements in earlier, without killing the pacing I’d just amped up. And make them more obvious, despite my overwhelming desire to hide them like easter eggs at random throughout the story (Why do I do that? We may never know.)

Result? Much better, much clearer. But…

But? What do you mean ‘but?’ I solved the problem. I fixed the story. It’s all good now, right?

Well, it’s just a little choppy is all. You did hack the whole thing apart with a meat cleaver. And now that these details aren’t here, these character reactions are completely unmotivated and seem overly dramatic.

Fucketh.

Draft “Just-let-me-die” #5

Well. Draft #5 was it. Not because I have a masterpiece of fantasy writing on my hands but because today was the final deadline for the story contest. I managed to smooth out most of the rough edges and I think I’ve got a story that is worth reading, if not a home-run-slam-dunk winner. To be perfectly honest, I can’t tell if it’s garbage or not anymore. I’m just exhausted. I only sent the final copy to a couple of my original readers, and I made them promise not to tell me if they notice anything I need to change. They can sit on it until I get my rejection.

But I’m coming back to it. Because I will make this story work, dammit. I will. I have put too many bloody hours into this thing not to see it published.

The Moral of the Story Is…

First of all, fantasy is an incredibly hard genre to write in short forms. I clearly underestimated the skills required to tackle a project like this. I also need to read more fantasy stories in the 5000 and under range to get a feel for how experienced writers go about crafting micro-fantasy worlds. Because now that I know how hard it is, of course I want to keep doing it. I’m a glutton for punishment.

Second of all, first drafts suck. Usually second and third drafts suck. If you come at writing expecting to do it right the first time around, from inspiration to finished project, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Or maybe you don’t see it, in which case you’re setting your readers up for disappointment. Either way it’s not good.

Now, I know this about my writing. I have come to terms with the fact that first drafts are beautiful in their potential and ugly in their execution. I also know that it is infinitely easier to work through the drafting process if you give yourself time between each kick at the can. What I didn’t realize was how mentally and emotionally exhausting drafting can be when you don’t give yourself that distance between drafts.

I did not have the luxury of time on my side and getting through these drafts nearly drove me insane. Do yourself a favour and plan to take your time. Your story and your mental health with thank you!

But I don’t regret the experience at all. Even if I don’t place, which I know I likely won’t, what I learned by doing this intense speed-drafting process was invaluable. I pushed through even when I didn’t want to, I tried things I didn’t want to try, I took advice I didn’t want to take, I stuck with it even when I wanted to throw my computer out the window. And the story I have now is so, so, so much better than my first draft.

And in a month or so, I’ll be ready to tackle Draft #6, 7, 8… however many it takes to get it right.

End Rant.

Writers, have you ever tried to cram massive revisions into a short time frame? How did you feel during and after? Readers, did you have any idea how many different versions your favourite stories go through before they make it into your hot little hands?

Add your questions, comments, and moral support below.

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