Watson likely stories

Make a new mistake! Run long.

The unfortunate people I've beta-read for know all too well that I mostly agree with this post by fairestcat wailing that stories are often too short.

We've all read the hundred-chapter epics that go on and on and progress at a rate of about half a plot inch per chapter. (HP fandom seems to have more of these than the corner of Buffy fandom I love best.) But more often I read stories that are much shorter than I think they need to be to achieve their goals as story.

A good drabble is a wonderful thing. It sets out to send you to the mat with a right cross to your jaw, and it does so.

A good short story has a different ambition. It has a plot to work out. Some characters to show in action. Some moment of change to visit. And so often I read stories that give me the basic idea of a story, without satisfying me. The writer pointed in the direction of the story, but didn't lead me all the way there. They gave me the pencils for a comic page, without the inking and the coloring.

Okay, that's enough with the metaphors. You've had an idea! Okay, great. Now the work starts. And please, do the work.

What's missing? It varies by story, but here are a few specific things I find myself pining for.

Description, both interior and exterior. Of anything. Physical scene-setting. The moment-by-moment authenticating detail John Gardner pleads for.

I have referred to this as the "spotlight on a bare stage" problem. The characters are in a restaurant. What kind of restaurant? What's the lighting? How many people are in it? Chain or family-owned? Can they hear themselves talk, or do they have to lean forward and shout to be heard over the din from the group of a dozen or so people celebrating a coworker's birthday? C'mon! Convince me!

Physical movement beyond the grossly important items. The characters don't have bodies, don't fidget, don't scratch, don't betray emotion through gesture. One symptom is a long stretch of dialog unbroken by action of any kind.

Incident given as summary without being rendered, even when it's important and worthy of being shown in glorious detail.

Plot complication and rising action. So many stories are single hares set running on the track that are straightforwardly chased and killed by the greyhound-scrawny story. The initial setup is the entirety of the problem the characters have to solve. Everything they try works. Done!

An interior life for the characters. What goes on inside their little heads?

I want to spend more time in these story worlds. I love the characters and the settings. I long to be with them and soak them in. Please let me! Please slow down and give me more. You know secrets about these characters and what happened. You do! That's why you're writing. Tell me all the secrets. Everything. I want all the juicy details, please!
Tags: ,
I wouldn't consider myself unfortunate to have you as my beta reader. So often in the earlier works that I sent you, you pointed this out that more often these days I find myself with that little voice in my head saying, "More!" That's a good thing because I think it's made me a better writer. And for that, I will be forever greatful.
Your discussion is really interesting -- largely because although I share your aesthetic preference, I see a lot of fandom preference for bare-bones storytelling over long, elaborated fics expressed through recs, referrals, and comment tallies.

As the comments to the original post to which you linked suggest, some readers really do respond more strongly to that v. spare one-telling-detail-and-no-more narrative style -- I hear from folk like them that my longer stories lose them because I elaborate too much, or because they don't *like* description of place. Some readers really DO prefer Hemingway. I would not be one of them, but to each her own.

And of course the *really* long stories often have much less feedback (I'm thinking not just of my own longer work, where this is ALWAYS true, but of Heron Pose's "Gethsemane," where she's getting maybe two or three pieces of feedback per chapter) and, possibly, fewer readers. It's disheartening, but to write longer is often to lose audience. :-(

Still, even as a person who writes short bits all too often, I agree that I prefer depth of narrative.


We are the opposite--I think at least 3/4 of the stories I read are entirely too long and would do with a lot of judicious trimming. *g*
But but but... I want more Giles!

I've definitely read stuff I wanted to take the scissors to, yeah. In really long serials especially. (But not, I hasten to add, in cross-country travel stories involving barely-running cars with poking springs in the seat.)
As a reader and not a writer, I'm going to disagree. It's a rare story that I think is too short, while a great many of them are too long. Much too long. They're not too long in that there are too many words, but in that there is too much verbiage that doesn't serve the story. Sometimes it's self indulgent stylistic or plotting decisions that satisfy a need of the writer without moving the story forward. Sometimes it's over-description that repeatedly kills forward momentum. Sometimes it's adding subplots that are no more than a distraction. Sometimes it's a stylistic problem with serial format WIP posting that encourages unnecessary repetition which is not edited out of the final version. I've seen all of these problems in stories by writers who have produced at least one story I've enjoyed immensely, and almost without exception I find their shorter works more successful than their longer ones.
Hmm! I think I'm in agreement with you on the problems of the serial WIP. I am finding it scarily hard to do, and it's taking me ages between sections of them. Even with the ones I did advance planning on. I definitely have read the self-indulgent repetitious going-nowhere thing. And I have committed this error. (My goal is to make every mistake possible at least once. Preferably spectacularly and publicly.)

Hmm, but I think we secretly agree about the underlying problem: people need to be ruthless in pursuing what the story needs, and willing to sweat in whatever way it takes to achieve that. Sometimes it's writing more; sometimes it's editing out the excess to stay focused. You think more stories need the editor; this morning I was all grumpy about stuff being too short.

I've noticed I'm hungering for more plotty stuff than for short mood pieces recently, which probably biases my viewpoint here.
Hmm. I've noticed the 'too short' issue coming up lately. How short it too short? I know you've said the missing sorts of things, description, interior life etc., but in word count? now I'm wondering if my stories are too short. I've written few long fics and the longest I've managed is 12 chapters, I think. Don't have the writing stamina for a long fic. The 1 chapter ones seem to come in at about 3,000 - 5,000 words.
There is no objective standard here. A 100-word drabble that leaves me reeling is exactly as long as it needs to be. A 1000-word short story that does what it sets out to do doesn't need any more words. The four-hundred-grillion-chapter Harry/Draco epic I got bored with and wandered away from a while back had too darn many. Snore.

I think maybe I'm complaining about skeletal stories more than specific word counts. The problem is gesturing in the direction of a story instead of telling it. Hmm. Let's see if I can come up with an example without offending anybody likely to read this...
Heh. Guilty as charged. ;)

This is really a problem area for me. I'm always worried about cluttering up the story by over detailing. What I need to learn is what the important details are that need to be expanded on, what gives the story life, how to make it full without having it feel fat.
I agree to an extent. Details are important at times, but sometimes they muddle things.

Describing the surroundings as the characters go to an unfamiliar setting (new restaurant, new city, etc) is a wonderful way to add spice to the writing. However, you don't need to describe it in all the fine detail when they go back a second time, unless something has drastically changed. Example: the cafe suffered major damage from a demon attack and the new look of the place needs describing.

Also, some authors try to write every detail of every minute of the characters' lives. Some things are best left to the reader's imagination. There really is a fine line between telling too much and not telling enough.
I completely agree that there's a time & a place for detail, yeah. Sometimes the reader just doesn't need it. And documentary can be boring, total agreement there too!
Heh. It's an entirely subjective desire, isn't it though? With a truly talented writer - especially for fanfic, one who can draw a sniper's bead on erotic tension - one does want more. Much, much more. In the most aching of ways.

And when a reader comes across a poorly written fic but rich in Idea or Characterization - one wants much less.

There's several factors at work influencing this, I think. If the above-mentioned gifted writer is spending THAT much time on fanfic then I'm left feeling terribly guilty after one or two fics - it's time for that writer to GO OUT AND WRITE ORIGINAL. And I've left concrit saying just that very thing. Leave this - go. Let me buy your original fic at a brick-and-mortar. So, as much as I would selfishly and with much chara-longing want longer and truly topnotch fanfics, I really don't. I want original brilliance.

The second point is one of postmodern modernism. The novel form is becoming short, sharp chapters stitched together. Maguire writes like that and it's magnificent. Of course, he manages to take these short pieces and create a virtual quilt of a novel out of them and for that I'm entirely grateful. Because he satisfies.

Sometimes, I will find a fic that doesn't "satisfy" because of the shorter length and I do think that it "deserved" to be hammered away at more. And that circular thinking gets me right back to the place where I then think the author should, perhaps!, abandon the fic and take those ideas into original.

Great post!
If the above-mentioned gifted writer is spending THAT much time on fanfic then I'm left feeling terribly guilty after one or two fics - it's time for that writer to GO OUT AND WRITE ORIGINAL.

Except that there are a great deal of fanfic writers who have *no* desire to write original fiction whatsoever. And some of us (please note: I hate being presumptuous, because you've never read any of my fic as far as I know, and I know, therefore, that you aren't talking about me--but I *have* received that comment from other people) really resent being told to do something that we don't want to do.

There's no rule that says that fanfiction must be a training ground for original fic. Some writers do use it that way. Others write both types of fiction at the same time (I can name at least a dozen without stopping to think very hard, and could probably think of a few more if I racked my brain for a moment). Others are writing fanfic as a fun hobby, and do not wish to make writing a job.

And telling people (especially if these are not people you know very well and know really do want to write original fiction, but lack confidence in their abilities to do so) that they should stop doing something they apparently love to do, and should do something they may have no desire to do, isn't always the best tactic.

Being one of your unfortunate victims those for whom you've beta read, I don't consider it to be a bad thing at all. Exposure to you has always made my fics exponentially better. :)
I can't believe anyone thought your comments were mean
(Anonymous)
It's funny in fairestcat's comments and elsewhere noticing a distinct and almost uninhibited subset that know they are just reading fanfic as porn (the meaning of fiction _is_ attributed by the reader), and that any word spent on character development or plot is a word wasted. Where that group exists there is always the slightly larger group that wants enough art-toast under their porn-jelly that it doesn't ruin their blouse, or at least that they aren't embarassed to be seen eating it.

I'm not sure your argument speaks to these people.

We definitely need a fanficcerfan-fic community that writes fanficcers into these situations: antennapedia in a miniskirt slinking up to penwiper at a bar... hey, the subtext's there, we're just wallowing in it! er...oh yeah, that was LambdaMOO, there are books about it. Speaking of meta-commentary about the community, it can't be done from within the community, or even in its presence. And there's an extent to which some people have to take these essays as meta-commentary and come up offended. To talk about good and bad fiction is to imply there exists bad fiction which surely must mean...
Re: I can't believe anyone thought your comments were mean
I will wait for you to refill your coffee before I tell you about the "LOTRIPS" fandom. Or popslash. Fanslash is inevitable...