Slattery’s Tao of Writing, Part 4: “Warehouses and All”

Lovecraft in the Agony of ContemplationIllustration by MirrorCradle
Lovecraft in the Depths of Contemplation
Illustration by MirrorCradle

 A problem I have encountered over the last few months is that most of the short stories on which I am working are too long for most publications, but too short to publish as novels.

Most magazines accept short stories of about 2,000 words.  Above that, there seems to be a law of inverse proportions :  the more words your short story has, the fewer publishers who will take it.  Unfortunately,  lately I find it difficult to write a story in less than 10,000 words.   

Usually, I start with a simple concept for a story, but as I write, I see more and more details coming to light, details I think are important to understand what is happening in the story.  I keep whittling down the words, contracting here, expanding there, omitting this and that, keeping the story as lean and muscular as possible while fleshing out the story enough so that the reader can live the story vicariously, but somehow the story keeps growing.

There is a school of thought that stories are out there in the literary ether, just waiting for the right author to come along and give them birth.   That is certainly the way it seems at times.  We could expand that comparison even further and say that stories are also like babies after birth and each will eventually grow to a certain size–whether we want it to or not.   But we have much more control over the size of a short story than we do the size of a baby. 

Here is a link to one of my earliest stories, “Sudan“, which was published by Ascent Aspirations several years ago.  It has 2,095 words.  It is not a work of horror.  It is by my current standards rather amateurish.   I based the story on a rather poignant story told to me by a former US assistant agricultural attache to Sudan, whom I met in Luxor, Egypt in 1989.   That story lingered in the back of my mind for some time, almost haunting me, as if it had always been waiting to be told to the world and it refused to pass up this chance, before I finally wrote it down.   It was published by Ascent Aspirations in August, 2002. 

In 2009, I came across, which challenges writers to tell a story in six sentences or less.   The assistant attache’s story still touched me after twenty years, so I decided to see if I could tell it in six sentences.  I did.  I changed the title and location and submitted it as “Warehouses and All“. 

While the original Ascent Aspirations version was good, I believe the Six Sentences version is much better, more powerful, more poignant, perhaps because it is more compact. 

Both these stories have exactly the same meaning.   Which length suits it best?    It is hard to say.  Ultimately, deciding the length of a story depends upon the effect the writer wishes to instill in the reader.   I do not think there is any way to concoct a rule of thumb about how to determine the length of short story.   The writer must simply have a subjective feel for what length is appropriate.   That is part of the art of writing.

There are probably many wonderful stories out there that cannot find a publisher because they do not fit the space constraints of most publications.   The reality of the literary world is that publishers do have space constraints and if a writer wishes to be published, he will have to conform to those constraints.  But this should not be seen as a brutal, demeaning demand for an author to butcher one of his stories as if he were a literary Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac on a stone altar.  It should be seen as a challenge, an opportunity for personal growth as a writer, because then one is forced to look seriously, impartially, critically, and clincally at the work, and to ask oneself, “What is it that I really want to say?  What do I want the reader to experience?  How can I make this more powerful, more meaningful?  What is the essence of this story?” 

You may find that while it is challenging, it is not impossible to pack the meaning of 2,095 words into six sentences and still achieve the effect you wish to impart.

Now, if you will pardon me, I have to go listen to my own advice.

Thoughts?  Comments?