A new fiction writing workshop began for me this week. I’m a bit sad because it’s the last workshop I need towards my B.A. in creative writing. On the other hand, just like all the other writing workshops, I’m tasked with writing a short story each week for six weeks. This is a great thing, but the challenge is that I’m under strict word counts for each story. This week’s story is limited to 1,500 words. If I go over that limit, I’ll automatically lose 15% off of my grade. On one hand, having word limits is a great way to make me choose every word carefully. It also ensures that each word drives the story forward.
On the other hand, it’s difficult for me to write a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and which includes a strong character who faces conflicts, who then comes to a resolution — all within 1,500 words. And since I write historical fiction, I do a lot of research for my stories and want to incorporate my findings in order to embellish the characters, plot, and setting. Needless to say, my weakness with these very short stories is that my endings are rushed. I feel like I’m making my poor characters run as fast as they can, only to have them slam into walls. Even though I move the conflict and action up in the story to be early on in the beginning, there’s still a setting to create, at least two rich characters to develop, and dialogue that needs to be exchanged between them.
The instructor of the workshop acknowledged the struggle over word count and provided some tips:
1) Write a story with no more than three locations. Try to start the course with just one location in your stories (often, that number increases, but the attempt will harness you).
2) Have no more than three characters. You can briefly mention a character in dialogue, but in a story this short, your best bet will be to keep it simple. A conversation between two characters, an interchange, even just a reflection from one person, is going to be stronger as you can really go in depth with your work.
3) There’s usually no need for an extensive vocabulary in short stories. Too many large words often make writers sound pompous, even if that’s not intent. It’s actually considerably harder to write a story with a limited vocabulary.
4) Vary sentence length: General rule of thumb is to never have a sentence longer than 10 words. There are some exceptions (maybe one sentence is very long), but you lose the reader in those sentences, and losing the reader is the worst thing that can happen to a writer! As well, make sure to have some VERY short sentences for variety.
5) Dialogue tags (s/he said) can sometimes be cut altogether. I often see people for variety writing a different thing each time: mumbled, proclaimed, mused, murmured, spoke, inquired, exclaimed, etc. If you’re going to use dialogue tags, honestly it’s MUCH stronger to stick with “s/he said.” The others are distracting. When used in major moderation, a particular line of dialogue can be emphasized. If done too often, the words lose meaning.
These are valid tips. But Number 4, a sentence never being longer than ten words is doesn’t seem realistic. That’s where my focus lies with this week’s short story. My goal is to keep my sentences simple within my story. When writing under strict word counts in the past, I watched the word counter on my document as I typed. But this time I’m going to try a different approach. I’m going to write the first draft and include everything and anything I want. After that draft, I’ll take out my hatchet and trim and cut and cut some more.