No Small Achievement

Every writer or editor has a few favourite nuggets of writing wisdom or sayings relating to the craft. One of mine is from Blaise Pascal, who famously wrote in a letter, “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” (I have always translated this loosely as: “I’m sorry this is so long, but I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”)

There are certain unmistakable signs of October: The days become shorter. Leaves turn awe-inspiring colours. Every food, it seems, is suddenly available in pumpkin flavour. And in the way that I find myself pondering New Year’s resolutions in December, in October I think about starting big writing projects. It is my mental calendar telling me we are on the cusp of NaNoWriMo.

National Novel Writing Month (although it’s always been ambiguous which nation it’s referring to) is entering its twelfth year of frenzied fiction production. You’ve probably heard of the premise — write a 50,000-word work of fiction during the month of November. Experienced Wrimos know that this translates to a daily quota of 1,667 words for thirty consecutive days, which may strike you as a daunting challenge, a sensible habit or a trivial task, depending on who you are.

Early on in AE’s existence, we ran a contest with a different kind of challenge: Tell a complete story in no more than 200 words. This was not because we wanted something easier to do than NaNoWriMo but because, after all, we’re a short story magazine. The novel has a lot of fans, and deservedly so — we understand the appeal of losing yourself in a sprawling world and travelling for miles (or light years) in a character’s shoes. But we at AE are of the tribe who love short fiction with a passion. We wanted to throw a spotlight on the challenges and advantages of being concise.

Every writer or editor has a few favourite nuggets of writing wisdom or sayings relating to the craft. One of mine is from Blaise Pascal, who famously wrote in a letter, “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” (I have always translated this loosely as: “I’m sorry this is so long, but I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”)

NaNoWriMo is this tension embodied. There’s not enough time in the month to deliberate, so it encourages writers to expostulate like Hamlet’s Polonius, who habitually ignored what is perhaps his best-remembered aphorism, “brevity is the soul of wit.” Once a NaNo gets rolling, it’s easy to let the words pile up. They congregate in seedy bars, in chilly classrooms and by cozy fireplaces — adjectives and adverbs are always welcome to the party (interjections and conjunctions, too). They travel together in unruly packs where the right word ought to strike out alone. Sentences, having fulfilled their narrative need, are then cruelly bent toward a secondary purpose, weighed down with embellishments until they swell into paragraphs of their own, while the word count ticks upward, ever upward. It’s enough to make one throw one’s lot in with Queen Gertrude and cry, “More matter, with less art.”

But brevity takes time. It requires clarity, focus, and ruthlessness.

And it takes work. Of the thousands of writers who cross NaNoWriMo’s finish line, a tiny fraction of their number make it through its editing counterpart, NaNoEdMo, where you are charged with taking your November masterpiece and making it worthy of the name. I count myself among the guilty. Editing is often invisible and fiendishly difficult to measure. Getting words on the page is a laudable accomplishment, but the goal of every subsequent revision is always more elusive than the first draft: not more, but better. And the shorter the form, the more crucial the editing eye.

Our inaugural story, written by Damon Shaw, began its life as an entry to AE Micro. Although there was much about it that we admired, we felt it may have been cut too severely to meet the restrictions of the contest. And so we thought it might be rewarding to see what it would look like with a little more room to breathe. The current incarnation is almost twice as long as the original, but it is a finely honed piece without a single word wasted. It also shows that even within the confines of the very brief, there is a place for the evocative phrase, for the arresting image.

In the end, “A Little Thing” is still shorter than the stories we’ll typically run in AE, but it’s the right length for the tale. And this is ultimately what we’re looking to include in our magazine. Sure, we can be thrilled by inventive ideas and dazzled by deft use of language. But the stories we most want to publish are the ones that are a perfect fit for the form, whose compactness belies the depth of their impact. We want to showcase the best of what separates short fiction from its longer brethren, stories that are concentrated and concise — but no more than they need to be.

If this has given you a thirst for potent, distilled short stories, check out the AE Micro microzine, available for download as a single page PDF.

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