By being unclean and slovenly, as explained in this post, I have actually been getting some writing done lately. I’m putting the finishing touches on the editing in a few stories and trying to find somewhere with a submission period that’s still open in this summer dead-zone. This is the same thing that happened to me last year at this time. I suddenly got productive and then had all these stories ready to be sent out, and everything was closed and not open again till August or September. August or September?!! I am not that patient. Luckily, there are some publications that accept submissions until the end of May, so I better get cracking.
I am thinking of sending a story to McSweeney’s and Tin House, even though I know this is not only a shot in the dark, but a blind person shooting in the utter dark of the lightless caverns under the earth. But, as a former professor and also writer/sage, Tony Earley, once pointed out to me in regards to submitting to The New Yorker, “One hundred percent of people who don’t submit to The New Yorker, don’t get published in The New Yorker.” This is the same age-old “if you don’t try, you can’t succeed” wisdom in a different wrapper, but I like it better. It is now what I say to myself when I’m getting all psyched-out and fatalistic about submissions.
One hundred percent of people who don’t submit to The New Yorker, don’t get published in The New Yorker.
Side note: I submitted to The New Yorker. I still have not heard back. That was a year ago. I am not getting published in The New Yorker.
However, this post by some guys that read the slush pile for TNY gives me hope.
Another submissions difficulty I’m facing is that I have one story that clocks in at around 9,000 words, when most journals post their cutoff at 6,000, or in rare cases, 8,000, but would really prefer 4,500. It’s also the story that my thesis committee universally agreed was the strongest, but as of yet is one of only two stories from my thesis that hasn’t found publication–interestingly, the strongest and the weakest stories.
This whole 6k word cutoff thing mystifies me. Well, not really. I totally get it. In print journals, longer stories take up more space, either pushing out other content or pushing up the price for extra pages. In online journals, no one has the patience to read something much over 2,000 words (if that), and the online platform just isn’t as friendly to longer pieces, requiring multiple pages or infinite scrolling, which can be intimidating for the reader, and there’s just so many things to distract you in the meantime so you never finish the whole thing.
But here’s the thing. Open up a short story collection and you’ll find several stories that are well over 6,000 words. (Unless you’re cracking open, say, Lydia Davis. In which case you won’t find anything over 600.) It’s not unusual to find stories of 25-30 pages or more, which at the usual rate of 250 words per page, would be between 6,250 and 7,500 words. My aforementioned story must have something mysterious going on, because it’s 9k but only 27 pages, meaning it has around 333 words per page. WHICH IS HALF OF 666 AND IT’S A STORY ABOUT GHOSTS OH MY GOSH!!! No, but really, this leads me to wonder: am I just using lots and lots of small words in this story? Is it incredibly dense? Is there not enough dialogue? Perhaps to all three. Is this a problem? I don’t know. If so, why did it get two thumbs up from my thesis committee? Did they go easy on me? Well, Lorraine Lopez brought chocolates for all of us to share during my defense, and that was really lovely. But over all, I’d say no, they didn’t go easy. They brought refreshments, but then they got real.
This leads me to a struggle I’ve been having recently: Writing shorter stories. I have succeeded in this in a few cases, such as my stories at PANK and Annalemma, but those are very short, the two at PANK under 1k and the one at Annalemma around 2k. What I have trouble with is the space between over 3,000 words and under, say, 6,000. I can’t for the life of me write a good story that’s in the 12 to 18 page range. Once it passes about 8 pages, it starts to take on a life of its own and becomes this big, detailed monster. I become super attached to the characters and suddenly they have all this back story, all these significant moments that must be fleshed out, this human realness that sometimes requires an adjective. (Dum dum duuuuuummmm.)
Now, every writer who has ever read one of those awful lists of “creative writing rules” that writers for some reason like to make (even though the very phrase is oxymoronic: creative ≠ rules), will know that adjectives and adverbs are the worst possible thing you could do to your story/poem/novel/essay. I agree that over-use of either of these can ravage your readability and make you sound like a writer of Victorian-era romance novels, and adverbs are in most cases superfluous (ran quickly? Isn’t running always quick?), but I am a fan of the well-placed adjective. They can add subtle shades of meaning, contribute to voice and tone, and differentiate between the red hat and the blue hat. Unnecessary words are, well, unnecessary, and there’s nothing worse than flabby prose, but even Hemingway used an adjective every now and then. In “Hills like White Elephants,” what do you think the word “white” is?
Writers should worry less about adjectives and adverbs and more about necessary and unnecessary. When I get all excited because I think I’ve “finished” a story, there is without a doubt several hundred words of fat that need shaving off. Often, though, these come in the form of whole sentences or even paragraphs where I wax on and on about something that’s really, in the end, peripheral to the story. But I don’t go on a witch hunt for adjectives and adverbs–though many of those do get deleted–I just try to focus on what is contributing to the story in a meaningful, necessary way, and what is really super nice, but extra.
(I realize that a lot of you are probably now combing this post for unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, and there’s probably a lot of them. But whatever. This is a blog post, not high art.)
Another struggle I’m having in the Word Count Wars is that many of my strongest stories are the long ones, where you really get to know the characters, get invested, care deeply about what happens to them. Sometimes, shorter stories feel too minimal to me, like a skeleton with all the meat boiled off. You get the frame, the main ideas, but not the tasty tasty flesh. (Did that just verge on cannibalistic? Well, that’s writing, isn’t it. Cannibalizing our own lives and the lives of others.) This is not always the case, of course. There are some writers that use the short form incredibly well, somehow turning those bones into a skeleton you dress in the meat of your own empathy and experience (it puts the lotion on its skin?), making you feel it all the more because its strange universality taps into yourself. But that 12 to 18 page range–it seems to me an ungainly middle ground, an awkward adolescent with growing limbs it can’t quite fill out, can’t quite control yet. Too short for a long story and too long for a short story. I just haven’t found a way to occupy it yet.
And should I? Should I try to squeeze or stretch my writing into this form most favored by journals and magazines, all because it ups the chance of publication?
No! No, I say. I shall not bow to the semi-arbitrary whims of others. I shall not bend myself into a popular mold. Compromising your voice and style, second-guessing your writing intuition because of what you’re seeing mass-produced in magazines–that’s a great way to ensure that you maybe get published, but will certainly be forgotten in the blending with the general wallpaper of all the other stories just like yours. Hey, I believe that a story should be no shorter or longer than it needs to be. Sometimes, that will be three pages, sometimes thirty-three. Yes, you should be aware of what is widely considered “good writing,” you should listen to the advice that experienced and established authors generously choose to dispense–sure, you should even read those “writing rules”–but don’t follow them as law. Consider everything, try different styles, challenge yourself, cut out all the modifiers and put them back in and take them out again and put back in half of them and take back out half of those. Keep the advice that fits, and ignore everything that doesn’t. Every writer is a snowflake.
And if you end up making something really good that’s between 3,000 and 6,000 words in the process, good for you! The publication sweet spot is a nice bonus.
*Note: Since writing this yesterday, I shaved over 700 words off the story. It’s still a weirdly high 333 words per page, though. And difficult to submit anywhere. Alas.