How long is a short story?

This blog is dedicated to the idea that a writer or would-be author can’t write 52 bad short stories in the span of one year.  Ray Bradbury suggested it to be true.  And if you love Ray’s work then it’s tough to question his wisdom on the subject of writing short stories.

But what is a short story?  I mean, how long should it be?  Is there a magic word count, pass that number and you’re writing a novella instead of a short work?

I wish I could answer your question in a number or even a span of numbers.  But when I asked this question of myself I never found an answer I liked.

Sure, you’ll find lots of advice regarding the correct length for a short story.  And I’m not discounting that advice.  But when I tried to write one short story per week for one year I realized I’m not good at being brief.  I stink at it actually.  And the stories that I did manage to finish wound up being tens of thousands of words long.  I guess I wrote some novellas.

If there is not a measure that tells a reader when a story is short and when it’s decidedly not-short, there can still be a number that works for you as a writer.  And if you want to meet a weekly deadline and finish that story you started Sunday afternoon by Saturday evening, well you have to make some rules.  So while I won’t tell you how long a short story should be, I will tell you what happened to me when I let myself run long and go through draft after draft of the stories I was most interested in writing.

First, let me get this out of the way.  I was happy with failing.  I guess that sounds terrible to competitive people.  But after years of not writing anything, I was just happy to be writing.  So I wasn’t upset then and still am not now.  But that’s not you, right?  You want to finish one story per week.  So here’s what you should avoid.  These are the pitfalls I fell clumsily into again and again.

  • Too many characters:  Nearly all of my stories depended on a big cast.  Like a big budget film without a big bank account behind it, my time just wasn’t enough to meet the demands of the stories I dreamed up.
  • Too much dialogue:  In many cases my stories were almost entirely driven by dialogue.  Another writer with whom I shared some of my drafts helped me understand that I was leaning on dialogue too much and not freeing up my characters to move around within the narrative.  I got tangled up in a desire to bring my characters to life in their own words, I suppose.
  • Way too much exposition:  I am a detail person.  I like a lot of information in everything I attempt to understand, even the fiction I read.  I’m not really a Hemingway in that sense.  But when you try to complete a short story in seven days you can’t necessarily rely on a lot of description or back story.  Some times you must thrust the reader into the action, letting the characters and plot develop along the way.
  • Too much editing:  I could not stop second guessing myself.  That’s where I ran into the biggest problems.  Draft after draft came and went, or worse, some stories I only made it through two paragraphs before hitting a wall of self doubt.  Once my 52 weeks were over and I surveyed the written product, I saw lots of signs that I wasn’t trusting myself to just write.  I was trying to edit as I wrote, something that proved to be a very bad idea for me personally.

So if you are already writing short stories or are thinking of starting, look for a length that works for you.  And if you sometimes surpass that length, don’t worry.  If you, like me, are just happy to be writing again then no unfinished story or novella will keep you down for long.

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