Some people are good at tweet-length writing. I’m not. Some people are good at 500 word or 1000 word “flash fiction.” That’s usually not me either. I had a class once where each week we wrote from a prompt and the limit was 800 words. That was fun. But later, when I went back to turn the exercises into actual stories, they landed more in the 3000-word range. This was okay. 3000 words is about 10-12 printed pages, and even in a world with ever-shortening attention spans, most people can manage ten pages.
My last story that earned some accolades was about 3000 words and there’s a good chance that its contest performance had to do with its abbreviated length. This is not me trying to be self-deprecating. I’m pretty sure that when a reader has an obligation to read a hundred stories for a contest, they are going appreciate the stories with a lower page count! The people running the contest were traditionally screenplay contest people, and readers for screenplay contests can tell you it’s usually a job that pays by the script, not by the page, and it usually doesn’t pay enough to work out to more than minimum wage if you actually take time to read every page. Thus there is often a rule for readers — official or less so — that if the work doesn’t grab them in the first ten or 20 pages, they don’t need to keep reading. (While I’m sure other variables were at play, in was my 10-page story that won, while my 32-page story stalled out in the semi-finals.)
Literary journals also tend to appreciate stories around 3000 words or less — they can print three or four stories instead of one long-ass story. In the last eight or so months, I’ve worked on four short stories. I hoped in the beginning they might end up being about 3000 words.
They have not.
They have turned into long-ass stories. Each one is between 8000-10,000 words. This is like the no-man’s land of fiction. Too long for most journals, almost-but-not-quite in “novella” territory. Technically, I think they qualify as “novellettes, ” which most people haven’t heard of, much less read.
There are things called “chapbooks” which are like fancy, high quality ‘zines of between 16-32 pages. The majority of calls for chapbook submissions are for poetry— I think traditionally, a chapbook has been a mini-collection of poems — but a few places publish chapbooks of fiction. The artsy-craftsy part of me thinks maybe I could commission some illustrations and make a chapbook myself, I guess just for fun, since after I gave a dozen away as Xmas gifts I’m not sure what I’d do next… sell them on Etsy maybe?
The question is not pressing yet, because none of the stories are finished. They are so long that when I reached the end of the second draft of each, I was overwhelmed by the idea of going back and revising right away. They are long, weird, and strangely episodic — I’ve begun giving them miniature “chapters” as an organizational feature. I’m worried they might be boring. And bad. Bad and boring. They might be stuff like people write during a pandemic and then wake up and realize is terrible.
But the truth is, I won’t know if these stories work until they have gone through all the layers and permutations still to come. I am a messy maker. In my high school drawing class the teacher once came by, looked at something I was working on and paid me a sort-of compliment, saying that at some point my art always looked like a hot mess that he would secretly think was irretrievable, but then at a later point he would walk by and be pleasantly surprised because it actually came together. (He also noted that he didn’t really understand the mechanics of how this happened.)
This was a helpful observation to think about when I’m at the hot mess stage in my writing and feeling depressed and fearful it’s not going to get better. I remind myself that the mess is only a stage in the journey, and if I just apply myself, with patience and persistence, I might end up with something good. (It also reminds me that even if people I look up to don’t see my path, that doesn’t mean it’s not there.)
Thinking this helps some, but it certainly doesn’t immunize me against being depressed. With each project, I reach a point where I’m fearful that I’ll never get it to where I want it to be, artistically. On top of this, certain people ask what I’m working on, and in an attempt to show them that I’m not a complete wastrel, I tell them. They, in turn, in the nicest, gentlest way, are like, “What the fuck are you doing? It’s taking you forever, and that is not something we can sell.” When this happens, I often stop working on the unsellable project in order to work on a project that I think is going to be better / faster / more commercial, only to have that project arrive in the same place as project before it — the same place all the older projects are, because even though I set them aside to work on something else, I’m always planning to come back for them, like Rambo First Blood Part II. *
So right now I have four stories and two screenplays that are all in this purgatory, waiting for me to come in, guns blazing, and break them out. But I’m not really a guns-blazing type girl, so it’s more likely I’m going to have to half-carry, half-drag them out. One. At. A. Time.
And it’s going to take too long, because it’s not fast, and the results may be long, though I’d prefer something short, and though I wish the path was straight, it’s circuitous. That’s just the way it is.
*Full disclosure, Rambo First Blood Part II is not actually a movie I have seen, but I believe he goes back for the POWs who have been left behind. That’s the intended metaphor.