It has been my (admittedly limited) experience that the primary mistake that new or student writers make is that they don’t write enough. They rush through the story, giving us mealy bones instead of meat.
It makes sense in this day and age of instant messages and phone texts. We abbreviate whenever we can, we take the short cuts if there are any, often at the expense of spelling and grammar. Our attention span suffers, and it’s hard to be patient while engaging in an exercise that demands patience. Especially if you’re writing a novella or novel. The average high school essay is between 700-1500 words. The average college essay is around 3000-5000 words. Novels can be anywhere between 60,000-120,000 words. In comparison, the essay seems puny. But although writing short stories and novels is very different in terms of how much to reveal and how much fairly trivial things to include, they both have to be approached with the same kind of patience.
The truth is, length is immaterial. A story should be written until it’s finished. It should feel complete, whether it’s a thousand words or a hundred thousand words. Do not confuse my advice to make your story meaty as advice to make your story wordy. Ernest Hemingway can hardly be accused of being wordy, but his stories had substance and depth – everything he wrote was meant. You shouldn’t add things on in order to add quantity. You’ve probably heard this enough, but it bears repeating: quality over quantity.
While in my Fiction Writing classes, the most common critique I heard was that the story we read wasn’t enough – it was too much surface, there wasn’t enough backstory, there wasn’t enough explanation in this section here, the ending wasn’t an ending at all but a beginning. Heeding the advice when it was my turn to be workshopped, I decided to begin with too much material instead. So I wrote “Open Point,” a ghost town story, and it reached a word count of around 13K before it was finished. Even though I sometimes wanted to rush through certain parts of it (having a deadline can make you impatient even when you don’t want to be), I forced myself to take my time. Just as an experiment, mind you, to see if that changed the critique.
Needless to say, I was not accused of the story missing pieces necessary to make it full. I was told that there were parts to cut due to repetition, but otherwise, it was a solid, meaty story (with a little too much seasoning).
I learned the technique while participating in NaNoWriMo – writing 50K words just to reach a high word count leads to a great deal of overwriting. But what I’ve found is that scenes and histories and character twists that you added to fill space end up becoming crucial to the story without you even realizing it. It does lead to some repetition on my part, but that’s easily remedied. I’ve found it’s much easier for me to cut out the unimportant stuff than to try and add the important stuff in. After the workshop, I cut out all the unimportant or repetitive bits over the course of the last six months and came up with a word count a little over 10K. That’s still a high word count for a short story, but the important thing is that the story was full and finished.
I used the same principle on my other story I had workshopped that semester, “In Circles,” which ended up around 7500 words. The entire voice was different – there was more tension in “In Circles,” so more happened in a shorter time. But the story was patient even through the rush of tension so that everything that had to be told was told, even if it was told quickly. So you see, it’s not a matter of voice or length – it’s a matter of being complete.
When you feel the need to rush, take a deep breath, and pull on your mental reins. You can type as fast as you want, but be patient with the story. Let it unfold, don’t rip it open. Let the story tell itself; have patience. Your stories deserve it.