Monday, February 22, 2010

THE LONG AND THE SHORT OF IT

by Gina Sestak

Regular readers know by now that we Working Stiffs have declared February to be the month of short fiction.  It is, after all, the shortest month.

I have mixed feelings about short fiction myself.  In earlier times, writers were often paid by the word, so maybe things did get a bit out of hand.  I mean, why write "sunset" when you could cover an entire page with descriptions of the blazing glory of vermilion skies and even the elusive green flash?  Writers have to make a living.

We may be going too far in the other directions, though.  According to the Arcade Dictionary of Word Origins, "short" derives from the Indo-European root "*sker-", meaning to "cut off," which is also the source of our word "shear."  The trick to writing short seems to be the ability to pare away unnecessary verbiage without cutting off so much that the story is left short, flat and meaningless.

It's easy to write, "Jacob fell," but readers are left wondering why he fell, where he fell, whether he fell from a tree or from grace, etc.  We need to keep enough detail to convey not only that information but to set a mood and make us care enough to want to read about Jacob in the first place.  Otherwise, fiction becomes just as incomprehensible as real life.

So what do you think?

[By the way, you know the longest word in the English language, right?  It's "smiles" because there's a mile between the first and last letter. :-)]

5 comments:

Laurie said...

I didn't know writers sometimes used to get paid based on the number of words. Interesting :-)

Dana King said...

"Jacob fell" might be enough, assuming there's a proper context. We probably don't need a description entire languid arc, arms and legs pinwheeling, as his eyes desperately searched for something--anything--to grab hold of.

As someone much smarter than me once said, "use as man words as you need; and not one more."

Jennie Bentley said...

Interesting... I've always felt kind of bad for being verbose - i.e. chatty - in my writing. But maybe there's such a thing as going too far in the other direction, as well. For me personally, I'd like some description of arms and legs pinwheeling and eyes desperately searching for something - anything - to grab on to. At least that way we'd know that Jacob didn't want to fall, and was trying to prevent it. Goes to character...

Annette said...

As someone who trimmed a 9,000 word short story down to 4,000 words to meet a word count requirement, I can tell you it is amazing how much we can pare away and still keep the meaning of the story.

Patg said...

Hmmm. Paid by the word--yes, a dim recollection from the distant past. Yes, some publications still do pay by the word, but they are quickly disappearing, and those that remain only take stories from very prestigious writers, unless they have a 'new author' section, which you can only get into once, if you are lucky.
And since it is going by the wayside, I'm for shorter descriptions. IMHO, (remember that) those long flowery descriptions of sunsets and flowers and the sky and his/her enchanting smile are for writing exercises. They do not define great writing (okay, maybe in mainstream) and they don't seem to do too well in genre, if fan reviews are anything to go by. True or not, it gets slammed as fluff to fill pages in weak plots.
Sites that now publish 'short shorts' or drabble, are becoming very popular with the younger set, who would normally tell you they don't read much. They are thinking of novels or even paper magazines. Somehow, their phones is all together a different thing.
Patg