Competition word limits — I can tell you firsthand they have an effect on a fictional character. As to whether that effect is good or bad, let’s just say there’s room for argument.
A few months ago I wrote here about how happy I was that a story featuring myself — an excerpt of the novel L is writing about me – appeared on the longlist for the CBC Writing Award. I also went on about the trauma of having my story boiled down and down and down in order that L could meet the draconian CBC word limit of 15oo.
To add insult to injury, my fictional cousin Sylvie, who features in a different novel L is working on, now has the pleasure of appearing on the longlist of a competition where the word limit was a very generous 10,000 words. With a word limit like that, a character has an enviable amount of room — space for layers of complexity and telling detail and, even more important, telling contradiction. Oh, you’ve no idea! She even has time for sex on a hot afternoon on mattress on a stranger’s cool basement floor. Go ahead, ask me if I would have liked to have time for that, or something like it, in my own story.
The piece that’s on the longlist for the Vanderbilt-Exile Short Fiction Award is called “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga,” and it’s both a chapter of a novel-in-progress and a complete story in its own right. All 6,291 words of it.
When that slim, 1500-word slice of my life appeared a few months ago on the CBC list, my author L told me that the extreme edit she’d put me through had been a salutary exercise in getting at the essentials, an exercise in making sure every single word was both necessary and carefully chosen.
And then she turns around and sends off a blousy six thousand–plus piece of work about Sylvie, and I catch her talking about things like ‘freedom to explore’ and ‘expanded possibilities for resonance.’ Nuance, that sort of thing.
Is it the habit of writers to think up, ex post facto, justifications for anything that seems to have worked in their favour? Or is it just the habit of my writer to do that?
Writers often talk about the differences between the short story and the novel as art forms. Let me tell you, there are short stories, and then there are short-shorts, and they are two different art forms as well. I, for one, would rather live in a ‘short’ than in a ‘short-short.’ I’m just saying, L, in case you’re paying attention.
Always Under Revision is a series of posts in the voice of Kate Mueller, the protagonist of a novel-in-progress by Leona Theis. Kate is also narrator of the first and last stories in Leona’s first published book, Sightlines.