The Writers Circle

creative writing community, craft and inspiration

The Discipline of Short Work

In our last post, we invited all our students to submit short stories about our crazy new characters, Amelia, Maurice and Felix. But here, I want to take a minute to speak to many of you who – like me – like to write A LOT.

2349630839_894519ed95I’m not talking about passion for words, I’m talking about volume. Many of the young writers I work with are natural novelists. They enjoy following their characters for pages and chapters, endlessly. We sympathize with that tendency. Most of TWC’s instructors are novelists, too. But there’s value in the discipline of writing a complete story – beginning, middle and end, character, conflict, choice, consequence and transformation – all in a finite space. To do this, you might end up writing more than you need in the first draft, then painfully “killing your darlings” as you revise what you’ve written to fit into the allotted length.

Magazine writers particularly and writing professionals of all ilks inevitably face this challenge. It stems from the limitations of old-fashioned print: publishers could only allot a certain amount of space to a particular article, whether a feature of several thousand words or a short article of a few hundred in one of their regular columns. Writers had to learn to fit their work into these constraints or find their stories regularly rejected. (That happens anyway, but better for reasons other than unreasonable length!)

Even in the digital age where space is much less a premium, shorter has its advantages. People are distracted. They might read a quick article or story, but any more and they might just skip out before the end.

In fact, from the point of view of discipline, learning to focus and control your work is tremendously valuable.

1) It invites you to write something to completion. Because most of us have to develop the stamina to finish a long work, practicing on shorter works can give you a better sense of how to weave all the story threads together without getting tangled. Trust me, it’s easier to manage two or three main characters with a single central conflict than a half-dozen intertwined plots along with a cast of characters that rivals operatic! Once you’ve done the small a handful of times, the large will feel slightly less overwhelming.

2) It teaches you how to trim the fat. Long works can be unintentionally self-indulgent. A good editor (whether it’s someone else or just you with a big red pen) knows where to cut to improve pacing, character, language and more.

3) It challenges you to shape your vision to the requirements. This is a discipline that every writer must learn. Even novels have their length-limits, unless your publisher really believes your epic tome is worth the cost of producing all those extra pages.

Most amazing of all, when you’re finished killing those darlings, you’ll almost certainly discover that they weren’t so vital and dear as you’d originally thought.

So, go for it. Read the submission guidelines for our story challenge and let your imagination go wild. Once you’ve done that, go back and tame the beast. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

About Judith

Judith Lindbergh's latest novel, Pasture of Heaven, is about a nomad woman warrior on the Central Asian steppes in the 5th century BCE. (And there really were!) Her first novel, The Thrall's Tale, is a literary historical novel about three women in the first Viking Age settlement in 10th century Greenland. The Thrall's Tale was a Booksense Pick and a Borders Original Voices selection. Judith is also the founder and director of The Writers Circle, a creative writing program offering workshops for children and adults.

2 comments on “The Discipline of Short Work

  1. Chris
    October 10, 2013

    Good advice, especially in light of today’s announcement about the Nobel prize for Alice Munro, a master of all of the above.

  2. Judith
    October 10, 2013

    Thanks, Chris. I thought the timing was a bit uncanny!

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