I am excited to have author, artist and musician Al Sirois on today.
Al is talented writing across genres and media. He writes novels, short stories, flash fiction, white papers, newsletters, brochures, press releases, web content, book and music reviews, and song lyrics. Add ghost writing to his long skill set too. He’s been publishing since 1973 and has been nominated for the Nebula Award and the Pushcart Prize.
He also claims to be a decent drummer and cook! Plus he is great to have as a classmate in our Write a YA Novel in 9 Months class when sage advice is needed on the craft of writing.
I asked Al to tell us today about his process for writing short stories.
Targeting Story Length
By A.L. Sirois
Probably my favorite form of fiction – to write, at least – is the short story. I’ve written dozens and dozens of them over the years. The first story I sold was very short, about 450 words. Today it would be called “flash fiction”. Back in the day, it was called a short-short.
My second sale was about twice as long. Since then I’ve sold stories of all lengths from tweets of 140 characters up to novellas of 20,000 words. My average length seems to be just over 4,700 words.
When I started writing I had no concept of length insofar as planning a story. I simply wrote until I came to the end. After I started to sell, however, I decided to figure out the optimum length of a story. That is to say, what length would give me the best return for my effort? It so happened that at that time, the mid to late Seventies, when the magazine market was a good bit healthier than it is now, 7,000 words was pretty much in the “sweet spot.”
There were a couple of reasons for this. For one thing, that was a very good length for magazine editors, because they could run four or five stories of about 7,000 words each by different authors, whose names they could use on the magazine cover to attract buyers. Longer slots were reserved for the Big Names. So if you were a newbie, you stood a better chance of selling a 7,000-word piece than one of 10,000 words, let’s say.
For another thing, pay structures were such that a writer got a good pay day for a story of that length as opposed to one of 3,000 words (or 450).
So I started thinking in terms of 7,000 word stories. This meant paring down some ideas, or expanding others. It limited the number of characters and scenes, forcing me to be both precise and concise. Every word had to count… no more could I just spew the stuff out. I had to plan everything. In other words, I had to focus my writing.
So I suggest that when one plans a short story, one should keep a target length in mind. Turn the initial idea around this way and that, and decide how much story the idea can realistically bear. This protects one from sprawl and forces one to limit one’s staging.
I know ahead of time, then, how many characters the story will tolerate. I can plan where I have to put the various pieces of infrastructure such as plot points and pinch points. I know how long the set-up is, how long the third part “attack” is, and where the mid-point shift occurs.
I find that when I follow these rules, far from restricting my creativity, I am actually stimulating it because I have placed boundaries around it that ramp up the tension. Because I allow myself only so many words in which to create a scene, the action and emotional content of those scenes becomes distilled, refined.
Do you have to have all this in mind from your story’s initial concept? No… but it won’t hurt to give it some thought early in the process. It could be a valuable tool to add to your kit.
Thanks much Al for your advice and focused process in the making of a short story!
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