I earned an MFA from Wayne State University in Detroit. I've published over a dozen short stories in various magazines and e-zines. My novel, "The Dragons of Hazlett", is now out, and I have two new novels which will be published by Mundania Press, LLC this year and in 2011.
Whenever I look at short story markets, I tend to cringe at their limits on word count. I am seldom able to keep my stories under 5,500 words; even 6k can seem a bit snug. Yet many of the short markets demand word counts of 4k and less and, of course, in the flash fiction
But, over the years, I've come to see that learning to write within these limits can be a very important exercise. Like a pianist practicing scales, writing shorter fiction makes a writer more disciplined. It makes him pay attention to what words he uses and how those words are used. Novel writers, it seems to me, can be too proliferate with their words; they're like millionaires handing out pennies. But we short story writers need to be smarter with our language. We need to dole it out carefully, paying attention to how it's spent.
So how is that done?
One major waste of words is the infodump. Sometimes called 'backstory', an infodump occurs whenever a narrator gives a lengthy account of everything he thinks the reader needs to know. This might be the history of a certain place or the background of a character's love life or even a detailed description of a certain activity. These kinds of things will bog down the plot like a heavy backpack will slow down a runner. In a short story, you want your plot to fly!
A skillful writer doesn't need to rely on infodumps. Instead, he can weave important bits of information seamlessly into a story. A paragraph on Susan's benighted lovelife can be condensed into a sentence that simply says, "Susan had never been lucky in love" or "Susan knew that, just like her other relationships, this one was doomed as well."
Using well-chosen words and combinations of words can also bring down a word count. Instead of writing, "The boy ran very quickly up the hill", why not try, "The boy sprinted uphill." Sprinted, of course, is much more incisive than ran very quickly. Lessening a word count by a two might not seem like a lot, but not only will several of these changes bring the overall number of words down, using more precise words will strengthen your writing.
Almost always, when I go back to edit a story I've written months earlier, I find that I need to trim the fat. If a piece is 7,000 words, I try to bring it down to 6,500 or 6,000. If a story is 6,000, I'll back it up to 5,500 or fewer. The important part of writing fiction (any fiction) is the impact of your words, not the number of them. After all, the shortest verse in the Christian Bible, "Jesus wept", is perhaps the most poignant.
Recently, Jason Sanford in the online zine, The Fix, also commented noted how writing short stories can discipline a writer. Short story writers, he said, "learn to balance description, narrative, plot, characterization, and insight against the need for the story to both make sense and be beautifully told. To do otherwise is to guarantee that a short story will fail."
Novel writers may have the ability to use words more freely than the short story writer. But many times, just because you can do something, doesn't mean that you should. markets, the restrictions are even greater.