Thursday, November 20, 2008

How Short is Too Short?






I write long short stories. Probably a holdover from my days of writing literary fiction. Four to five thousand words often feels right to me.

But as an zine editor pointed out to me Monday, that's long for online reading. So I cut a 45oo word story to 3000 words in 30 minutes. Not hard at all.

Why didn't I see all those unnecessary words before I sent it out? Does this happen to you? Or, alternately, do you read stories that feel longer than they need to be?

Or are we all getting to be too impatient in wanting such bite-sized stories. Are those extra words the ones that give it depth, grit or meaning? Have we sacrificed something else in the name of brevity? If you can read a novel on a Kindle, why is a 5000 word story long for online?

23 comments:

Dave Zeltserman said...

I think it's because when you're reading a magazine or book,you can relax more, plus less strain on the eyes. 3000 words seems about the most an online story should, just because of the less comfortable reading position, extra eye strain.

John McFetridge said...

I haven't seen a Kindle (not in Canada yet) but the screen on the Sony e-reader is much better than my computer monitor for reading.

I do think that some fictin simply has too many words. I think maybe we've all read so much and seen so much that we just don't need as much description as we used to.

It's also a style preference - I prefer to listen in to the characters telling each other the story, or just watching it unfold more than I like an author's voice telling me the story. I really only want the words the characters would use and no more.

Already I've used too many words here ;)

Gerald So said...

I think it's tied to reading habits, as Dave says, but I'm not sure it's eye strain or position. One assumes viewing position has to be comfortable enough to work at a computer for 30-50 minutes a sitting.

When I go online, I want to get information as quickly as possible and move on to the next thing. With the rate technology improves, we all expect greater convenience.

Consider that an e-zine owner wants readers to stay on his site longer, scrolling and clicking on ads, etc. Longer stories mean readers might print them out, closer their browsers, and walk away. If readers see shorter stories, they might stay and read them to save paper and toner (and possibly click on more ads).

In the case you mention, cutting words increases the likelihood a story will be published. If you were targeting a different market, your idea of what works best would change with the market. This is not a bad thing. It's simply a creative challenge.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Gerald, that's a good point--I think you're conditioned to read differently at a computer than sitting down with a book or magazine. At a computer, you want things quick, and have less patience for a leisurely read.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes, I have to admit, shorter stories do seem more desirable on a computer. You are pretty much tied to a position and it's as much about back and neck strain as eye for me.

Travis Erwin said...

You bring up some great points. Ones that I have no answers for.

sandra seamans said...

Since I have people in and out of the house all day, I like shorter stories on line. With a book, I just stick in a book mark and pick it up later, can't do that with a computer screen. And chances are I'll have forgotten what and where I was reading a story.

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Patti,

The other thing is that I sit at a computer much of the day while I write, attend to personal business, and surf the blogosphere.

When I read I want to be out of this chair and out of this room, which I can do with a book, or even with a Kindle, but, not with my pc.

Terrie

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes, I often download a story. Then I can really enjoy it more.

David Cranmer said...

When I read EQMM or AHMM I always prefer stories that are no more than five or six pages. I read the longer ones later. As far as e-zines go, I probably agree with Dave and 3,000 words should be about it. However if the writing is good and holds your interest than it hardly matters.

Megan Powell said...

I understand the usability arguments in favor of brevity online. But ultimately the fiction is the product, not the design, of a webzine.

I've never understood the "too long for online" thing. I sit in front of a computer for 8 hours a day at work, after all, and people have been reading off desktops, laptops, and handhelds for years.

I sort of wonder how much fiction, and what types, are being read by the people who won't read long stories online. I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of them don't read longer short stories regardless of format, and the online thing is a red herring.

pattinase (abbott) said...

That's a good point, Megan. I don't give much consideration to length in short stories. But I do with novels. I am unlikely to read a 500 page novel because it would prevent me from reading the other three books I might during that time period. In my early years, a novel couldn't be long enough to suit me. But now....age, time constraints, other beckoning concerns.

ARCHAVIST said...

I think that the perfect story has a natural length, that is needed to tell the story. Maybe it's 3000 words or maybe it's 100000 words. I do prefer online fiction to be shorter than the printed thing, though.

pattinase (abbott) said...

If only the author can intuit it too!

Ray said...

One problem is that the age of computers is rather like mobile phones. It equals a fast paced life - but....
The way I see it if a story is that good and holds the attention then I can stay the course. I have read an entire book on-line and I was able to book mark where I had got up to.
A short story is as long as it needs to be told.

pattinase (abbott) said...

When you read an entire book, did you read it in one bite, a few bites, many bites?

Anonymous said...

For me it's all about the writing. I have read stories that were under a thousand words that felt bloated, while others of a similar length blew me away by how deeply I was drawn to the characters and their situations in such a short time/word count.

John McAuley

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think writing flash influneces your length. Pretty hard to come from that to a 5000 wrd story.

Anonymous said...

Patti: A definite maybe...but at the risk of sounding fawnish I've never read anything of yours that didn't draw me in regardless of word count or subject matter. Like I said, for me as a reader, it's all about the quality of the writing.

John McAuley

pattinase (abbott) said...

You're too generous--as usual.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Who the hell is that guy?
==============
Detectives Beyond Borders
“Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

pattinase (abbott) said...

Someone with good taste.

Barbara Martin said...

Length is of no concern to me if the writing is good.