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Making stories shorter

I’m in between turning in the outline on Star Trek DTI and getting it approved, so I’ve been doing a bit of work on original stuff in the interim.  I decided to revise an old novelette that I haven’t had much success selling.  I belatedly realized part of the reason why.  I’d attempted to give all the story’s characters nuance and texture, but I somehow ended up making them all rather unlikeable.  Maybe that’s because it’s a murder mystery and I wanted them all to be plausible suspects, but then, the detective wasn’t much better.  So I wanted to strip away the unappealing aspects of the characters.  I also decided that I wanted to trim this 10,000-word story down to 7500 or less, short story length, since that would increase the number of markets I could submit it to.  (This was kind of inspired by my recent realization that I’ve never actually had a short story published, unless you count “The Weight of Silence” at 7600.)  I figured I could kill two birds with one stone, cutting out the unappealing character stuff along with the rest of the extraneous verbiage.

I wasn’t sure I’d actually be able to  meet my goal of 7500 words, but as of a little while ago, I managed to pull it off.  One thing I realized in the process was that I’d put in a lot of unnecessary worldbuilding.  The story’s in my “Default” universe, and as with much of my Default-verse fiction, I tried too hard to establish the story’s place in the larger continuity, to elaborate on backstory and historical and social context, even though a lot of it wasn’t really necessary to tell the story per se.  I guess that’s an important lesson to learn for an aspiring short-story writer: keep the focus tight.  Only include what you need in order to convey the crucial information about the single specific event you’re depicting.

Indeed, detailed descriptions in general are unnecessary in short stories.  I ended up stripping out a lot of the physical descriptions of characters and settings, paring it down to the bare essentials, and doing the same for a lot of the description of characters’ expressions, reactions, etc., letting it rely more on the dialogue.  Again, keeping the focus tight on the specific ideas that are relevant to the story, leaving out extraneous detail.  Short-story writing is about tightness of focus.  It’s not something that comes naturally to me.

The next bit of story reworking I want to do is the opposite in some ways, yet symptomatic of the same problem in others.  I got one of my recent short stories rejected with a very helpful note that I wish I’d gotten sooner: namely that the early portions of the story focus too much on setting the scene, on worldbuilding, and not enough on establishing the viewpoint character, what’s at stake for him, and why the reader should care.  This story actually turned out to be one of my shortest; I succeeded in the part about focusing on a single specific event and leaving out unnecessary detail.  But maybe I left out too much detail on the main character, or maybe included it too late and the other exposition too early.  I’ll have to look into remedying that, and since it came out so short, I have room to expand it where I need to without having to worry about cutting stuff.   But maybe cutting stuff from the early portions is what I need anyway.  Remains to be seen.

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  1. Charlie
    May 22, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    Hey Christopher. I just wanted to say that I really really enjoy your writing. I own all of your star trek literature. It has actually inspired me to write my own short story fanfiction. I am sooo not good enough to do it professionally…i know that…but i have always wanted to create so i have been doing that on Fanfiction.net. Anyway wanted to say thankyou for always being inspiring. You attention to details are amazing. I read your stuff and it helps me to do the same. Thanks again…Charlie

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