Collapsible Stories

I used to think that the short fiction part of my brain just wasn’t hooked up. I had plenty of ideas for novel length stories, but what to do with 7000 words? I just didn’t have a feel for it, even though I’ve always read and loved good short stories. BTW, I think the current master of the short story is Joe Hill, but his stuff is so good that it just bums me out.

When I started writing short stories last summer for the first time since I was a teenager, I was turning out works that typically ran 12 to 15,000 words in the first draft (that’s about 20 to 30 double spaced pages).  Then I did my homework and learned that there are only about three editors who will even look at anything over 10k in the horror/fantasy market. Most want half that. 5k seems to be the magic number these days.

I usually aim for at least a 10 to 20 percent reduction in any work when editing. It makes everything not only tighter but much more energized and confident. The Devil of Echo Lake dropped from 111,000 words to 92,000 between drafts five and six (but that was after first shrinking and then growing in the earlier drafts).

So I was used to cutting, but hacking these babies down to size meant that they were losing almost half their body mass. And the process taught me how to write short fiction.  My latest tale currently out on submission is a flash fiction piece that’s around 800 words and it didn’t start out much longer than that.

Still, there is a reason why a novel is 300 pages and not 300 words. Actually there are a lot of reasons, if the book is any good. And writers really squirm and suffer when they have to sum up a book in a 300 word query letter to an agent. To be fair, a query letter is not a story, it’s kind of an ad for a story, close kin to a jacket flap synopsis.

But what I’ve learned from using the songwriting part of my brain to try and master the art of the query letter with its catchy hook and stark alluring voice, is that all stories are collapsible.

Think of someone you love. Writing a query letter for your novel can feel like trying to sum up all that you love about that person in a three-sentence classified ad. But if you could write a three-chord rock song about what makes them beautiful and compelling… that’s a query letter.


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