The Incredible Shrinking Word Count

When I began writing seriously, I was a poet. My level was the line. Then, somehow, I was writing prose poems that went on a little too long--like uncomfortable elevator conversations. But I had trouble calling myself a fiction writer. I only gradually worked my way up to 10-page stories and even then they were always lyrical and weird, like voicey fugue states. Somewhere along the line, I received the advice that plot would be handy and my stories began to fall into the 20- to 25-page range. "Real" stories. And that's when I finally "got" it. When asked by other writers, I called myself a fiction writer; when asked by nonwriters, I called myself an editor, because there is always too much explaining to do. And I wrote about a bazillion stories in this range.

But, once I began playing around with novels, my stories became novelesque, like the shrinkydink versions of full-length books. I began hitting the 30-page range. Novellas started happening! It was like the "The Red Shoes," only with literary fiction, instead of cursed footwear! And then I came up for air and realized that journals were not all that interested in long ass stories. In fact, most of the chatter seemed aimed in the opposite direction: at short shorts, pieces that read to me like shrinkydink versions of voicey fugue states. And I felt semi-alienated by the change.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not here bemoaning the ascendance of flash. I am 100% down with voicey and weird. It's where I started, after all, and I have an appetite for it as a reader and as an editor. I do, however, want to bemoan the loss of real estate for longer short stories in the post-financial collapse, digital publishing era. Whyso the word counts that don't extend beyond 3,000 words y'all? I love that I can send a short piece off and place it within a month; the fact that many of my longer pieces have been sitting "in progress" for a year (or more!) makes me want to eat all of the croutons.

I realize that few venues can offer space to 30-page stories. (It's possible the short story becomes something else when it hits that range anyway, and I don't even really want to get into novellas.) But, stories that fall in that 10- to 25- page range are always going to feel like "real" short stories to me in a vital and meaningful way. And I worry about losing that form in this era of publishing. Not just because I write it (I still do, it's true), but because I so enjoy the opportunity to fall into the world of a writer's storytelling for just long enough to forget I'm reading. It's kind of why I'm still in this game. So, that's my little fight and I'm fighting it by blogging. Stayed tuned to find out if I win in the end.