The Perfect Short Story

On Writing

Whenever we teach workshops with new students, I get reminded of a myth that exists among writers: There is such a thing as a perfect short story.

To the beginning writer, the perfect short story is a story that will sell to every editor every time.

To the sparsely published writer, the idea is a bit more complicated. Someday the sparsely published writer will achieve such a level of perfection that every story will sell on the first time in the mail.

To the established writer, the perfect short story will win every award in the field and will be universally loved.

Or if you’re a novelist, then the perfect novel will be the Great American Novel, discussed in every “important” venue. Or it will win the Pulitzer. Or it will hit the New York Times Bestseller List.

You see the pattern.

And there’s a bit more to that pattern: the writer can achieve the perfect short story if only he learns “the secret.” Once learned, the writer will never go back. Each story will achieve perfection.

Well, sorry to tell you, there is no such thing as a perfect short story.

Let’s hit the myths one by one.

No story will sell to every editor every time. If that were the case, then editors could be interchangeable or robots could buy stories. An editor brings her taste to the magazine or anthology, and that editor may love one story and hate others. Both types may be equally good, and both may be award winners. But the editor will not like them all.

That is also why magazines and anthologies have different slants and different voices. No story will sell everywhere to everyone.

As a reader, you already know that. You’ve read Year’s Best collections which have some real dogs in them–from your point of view, anyway. The editor truly believes those stories are the best of the year.

If you look at the New York Times Bestseller list for this week, you’ll see books that you will love, books you might like, and books you will hate. And that list will vary for every other reader on the planet.

Or if you read every single story published this calendar year by the New Yorker–supposedly the gold standard of short fiction–you’ll find some stories that you can’t forget, others that someone in your creative writing class in college could have written better, and some that don’t seem like stories at all.

There is no such thing as a perfect short story.

So where does this myth come from? It comes from life experience. With enough practice, we have all achieved our goals. Especially in school. If you work hard enough, you can learn biology or write an acceptable essay or ace a math test.

But apply that to sports now. If you practice and practice and practice, can you play golf as well as Tiger Woods? Of course not. Does Tiger win every tournament he plays? No. Perfection, while it seems achievable in school, is not possible in life.

And it’s worse in the writing profession than it is in most others. Because there are times that we writers write horrible, terrible, awful drafts of stories as we strive to figure out what it is we’re trying to do. The best writers see those drafts as practice, toss them, and try that story again.

Writers who believe in perfection think that those drafts can be tweaked into something good. These writers clearly don’t understand the process.

And writing is a process. It’s something that happens day to day, week to week, year to year. Sometimes writers try for a concept, a story, an idea that’s beyond their skill level. So they fail. And many writers never try to reach beyond their skill level. Their stories get tiresome over time, never really improving and never saying anything new.

Does this mean a writer will never write a perfect short story? Sorry to say, yes. But that writer, if she keeps striving, will eventually write something so amazing that it becomes the talk of her genre. And maybe it’ll even break out of genre, like Michael Chabon’s book, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union did earlier this year.

As a writer, keep learning. Strive to write the best story you can write each and every time you write something. Then release it into the world (mail it in other words), and start all over again–striving for an excellent story and doing your best to achieve it.

Free yourself from the myth of perfection, and you’ll become a better writer. I guarantee it.