I have long agreed with James Macdonald’s assessment that writing a short story is like making a lime pie (at least, the way he describes the baking of said pie–I’ve never tried it myself). He writes:
In the same way, a short story either works or it doesn’t. Once prepared, using all your skill, you can’t go back and revise it into something that isn’t lime-flavored runny glop.
This is consistent with my experience. For every short story of mine worth submitting, there is at least one other that didn’t make the cut languishing on my hard drive. Some stories are partially written; I lost interest partway through, kind of like wandering off in the middle of baking a pie, except that eventually you have to come back to clean up the mess in the kitchen. Other stories I wrote till The End but they just feel “meh”. Many of these stories are purely experimental; short fiction is where I try out new techniques like second person POV, present tense and decidedly unlikeable protagonists. Some stories are based on a weird (in a cool kind of way) premise too slight for a novel to carry. Others revolve around some startling image that is, again, too thin for a novel. Since my time and emotional investment in a short story has always been small (compared to a novel!), I’ve always had the “Either it works, or it doesn’t” attitude towards them. Re-re-re-revising (squared) a short story is not worth it–for all that investment I could write a few new ones.
I’m working on a short story right now: two first-person POVs, both unreliable narrators, linear narrative structure of the one POV broken up by the scattered scraps of the other POV. It’s a hard slog and the story is slowly giving up it’s secrets to me (like, one at a time, always during a shower. I may have to get very very clean if this story is going to be done any time soon). I wouldn’t call my efforts a first draft; it’s more like a zero draft, as in version 0.39. The point is, even as I’m cooking it, I know that this story needs a lot of fixing.
So, even though I know I measured some ingredients incorrrectly and that I forgot to keep an eye on that pot on the stove and now something is burning, is there any hope for this poor story? Or is it doomed to be an instructive failure?
Will my pie turn out? Stay tuned…