What is the hardest part of writing short fiction? Or more to the point, what is the most difficult adjustment a novelist needs to make when writing a short story?
These are questions I’ve been grappling with for the past couple of weeks as I work on a series of short stories that I’m writing in the Thieftaker universe. Before I address those questions, though, maybe I should address a different question: With one Thieftaker novel already written and in production, and a second finished and in revisions, why am I bothering with short stories?
Well, for one thing, it’s fun. I’m playing with story lines, experimenting with descriptive passages and stylistic approaches, polishing the series voice. Writing the stories is also giving me a fresh perspective on my lead character, his past, and his relationship with other characters. More to the point, the stories will help me promote the series as the July 2012 release date draws closer. Some of the stories I will submit for publication; others I’ll make available for free on the D.B. Jackson website. (http://www.dbjackson-author.com) And finally, I believe that writing short fiction improves my craft by forcing me out of my comfort zone.
And that brings me back to those first questions: What are the challenges for a novelist in writing short stories, and what am I doing to overcome those challenges?
1. Length: Yeah, I guess this one is kind of obvious. I’m used to writing 100,000+ word manuscripts. Telling a complete story in 6,000-8,000 words is a totally different creative experience, right?
Well, actually, no. What I’m finding is that writing to short story length is actually similar to planning out a chapter or two in a novel. My novels might be fifteen times longer than the short pieces, but each chapter is somewhat shorter — about 4,500-5,000 words. I try to give each chapter a rhythm and arc; I want a chapter to build to an ending that keeps my reader turning the pages. And so when I turn to short stories, I already know how to pace that shorter work. It’s not exactly the same, of course — if a chapter in a novel simply can’t accommodate all it needs to, I can find an ending point and pick up the action in another chapter — but still, it is analogous.
When writing a short story, I watch my word count far more closely than I do when writing a novel. If I’m 3,000 words into the story and have yet to introduce the key characters and set up my conflict, I know that I’m working too slowly. If I reach 5,000 words and I’m nowhere near the story’s climax, I need to adjust my pace.
2. Narrative Aim: A short story is, by definition, a less ambitious work. This is not to say that short fiction needs to focus on smaller issues, or that short pieces are somehow less significant than longer ones. Some of the most weighty and thought-provoking tales in our genre have come in the form of short stories. By less ambitious I mean simply that, in most cases, a short story is going to cover a more limited time frame; it’s going to involve fewer characters; it’s going to have only one (or perhaps two) point of view characters. And rather than covering a complete story arc, it will often describe a vignette that points to something of larger narrative significance.
Consider, for instance, one of the most famous short stories ever written, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” The story begins on the morning of the lottery; it explains precious little about what is going to happen, but instead allows the horror to unfold without preamble, without set-up. The power of the story, the brilliance of it, lies in that shock value. Had “The Lottery” been written as a novel, it wouldn’t have worked that way. We would have gotten far more background; and the story wouldn’t have — couldn’t have — ended the way Jackson’s does. There would be ramifications beyond that one day. There might have been a character who resisted and sought to stop the lottery from ever happening again. In a way, the novel version of “The Lottery” probably would have looked a lot like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, which, thematically speaking, is a direct literary descendant of Jackson’s classic.
I’m not passing any sort of value judgment. Truly I’m not. Stories like “The Lottery” or Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder,” manage to do so much in such a limited framework. Reading these stories, one can’t help but be struck by the power and economy of a fine short story. And yet, my favorite novels in the genre — Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, Tim Powers’ Expiration Date, to name a few — have a richness and texture that no short story can replicate. My point is simply this: In making the transition from writing novels to writing short pieces, I have had to frame my narrative goals differently; I have tried to accomplish more with less.
3. Description: My brother paints for a living, and recently he has been experimenting with larger canvasses. He likes working on big pieces, because he feels that they give him the opportunity to be bolder and more aggressive with his brushwork. The larger the piece, the broader the strokes. I like to use painting analogies when I talk about writing, but this is one case where the similarities simply don’t hold. When I write short stories, I paint with a broader brush; I leave the more detailed work, the smaller brushwork, for my novels.
Why? Simple: word count. When I’m writing novels, I can take the time and space to describe certain things in elaborate detail. I can make my setting and my characters come alive by lavishing attention on a few choice aspects of history or tradition or appearance. When I’m trying to fit my story into 7,000 words, I don’t have that luxury. Here my search for economy means creating impressions rather than polishing details.
4. Method: We’ve been on something of a “Write Fast” kick here at MW, and I think that for novels it’s sound advice. But when I write short fiction, I slow down a bit. I take between seven and ten days to write a short story. Working at my novel pace, that would be 14,000 to 20,000 words. So essentially, I write my short fiction at about half the pace I’m used to. In part this is because I am trying to be as economical as I can be, and so my word choice is more deliberate.
Also, while I may be writing with that “broad brush” I just described, I am also working with finer tools; I’m trying to make certain that I hit every narrative marker, that I fit every piece into this tiny puzzle I’m putting together. Whatever metaphor you wish to use, the result is the same. The minute details might not be there, but still this is delicate work I’m doing, and so I feel more comfortable going at a slower pace, constructing it all with greater care. Yes, I will go back and revise, probably several times. But I want that first draft to be as polished as possible. This might be a product of my own creative predilections. I feel more comfortable in the larger medium; I’m familiar with the revision process as it relates to novels. I’m still relatively new to short fiction, and like a new driver who is intimidated by highway speeds, I prefer to take these tales slowly. Writing short stories more slowly has made the transition easier.
When was the last time you wrote a short story? When was the last time you read one? There are some truly outstanding short fiction collections out there: The Starlight books from Tor are terrific. Andy Duncan, one of the best writers in SF/Fantasy, writes almost exclusively in the short format. His collection Beluthahatchie, is one of the best you’ll find anywhere. There are also terrific short pieces published every month at Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show (edited by our own Edmund Schubert), in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, in Analog and Azimov’s. Some of the best work in our genre is being done in short format; you owe it to yourself to read some it.
But more than that, you owe it to yourself to write short pieces. I can’t tell you how often I hear novelists — professional and aspiring alike — say “Oh, I can’t write short stories.” Bull. The fact it you can. Is it challenging? Absolutely. Does it force you to approach your storytelling differently? Of course it does. But if you’re interested in improving your craft, then doing the same thing again and again can only take you so far. Step out of your comfort zone. Try something different. It’s fun. Really.
So what are you waiting for?David B. Coe http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://magicalwords.net