Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Merits of Short Story Writing (Waw)

There are a lot of people in the wide, wide world who dream of writing a novel. One day, they'll wake up, sit down to their computer, typewriter, notebook, dictaphone :), and they'll just pound out a novel, which they'll sell in 2 weeks, and then they'll be famous.

They dream of writing a novel. Dream.

For those of us who would like to do more than just dream, the short story can be very useful on the path to a great novel. Now I'm not saying a novel is just a stretched out short story. It's not. Nor can all novels be condensed into short stories. But the short story can be a step on the path to the title "novelist".

Let's use a quick analogy. (Cuz I LAVZ analogies!)

Kim dreams of running a marathon. She's fairly fit, and has run the 100m sprint all through high school. So she runs the Boston marathon. How do you think she does? Well, she doesn't win for sure. And if she even finishes, it would be nothing short of a miracle!

Here's what Kim should do. She should give herself a couple months beforehand. Run a little every day. Occasionally she should do longer distances. She should condition her body so that it's ready for the torture that is a marathon. Maybe she should even enter a 5 or 10 K. While it's very different from a marathon, she'll get to practice some of the skills she needs in the marathon: like conserving energy, endurance, pacing, strategy.

It's the same thing for the novelist. A novelist doesn't have to write short stories. But the jump from 1000 word essays to 80,000 words in a novel is a doozy, and an aspiring novelist can use the short story as a tool.

Voice is the sum of a writer's style. That "je ne sais quoi" which differentiates one writer from another and makes a piece more than just the sum of each word. It's the thing that makes you get comfortable with authors even though characters, storylines and sometimes even genres change from book to book.

As an aspiring writer, your voice is inside you. Somewhere. You just have to dig it out. Writing is your shovel. The more you write, the more you discover your voice. You may not want to try this sort of experimentation in a novel, because you may find yourself trapped in a voice that doesn't feel right or you may change voice midway. A short story gives you 3 or 4 thousand words to explore a voice. If you don't like it, shelve it the next time around.

Some people are really lucky. They've always known exactly what they wanted. If that's you, great! If not, welcome to the club! Since I decided to embrace my inner novelista, I am bombarded with story ideas once a week, at the very least. I keep a word document just for them, but I can't help noticing, these ideas are all over the place. Some are Sci-Fi, some fantasy, some slice-of-life dramas, some Young Adult, some Middle Grade/ children, some literary. An author with a well developed voice may have an audience who buys whatever they write, whatever the genre, but many authors seem to stick to one genre. I don't want to have to write a novel in each of 10 genres to figure out what works for me. By writing short stories, I can explore genres on a short-term basis. It's like the difference between getting married straight outta school and having a few girlfriends or boyfriends before you tie the knot. You can work it either way, but if you're not sure, you shouldn't be getting married. Either you end up stuck in an unhappy marriage or divorced. There's nothing as joyous as writing something you're not passionate about. And taking your following with you when you switch genres is always a cake-walk! (Just in case you missed the sarcasm, have an extra helping :)

Writing short stories can help you practise "economies of words". In a short story, every word should serve a purpose. Every single word illustrates the conflict or the character or the motivations, etc. You can't afford to have a two-paragraph lull (or worse, a 2-page one) because a reader will just stop reading. Short stories are never published on their own. They are a part of a magazine or newspaper or a collection. If you lose the reader, they won't plog on through, like they might with a novel, they'll just flip to a different story or read this week's beauty tips. Developing this skill can help you keep your novel tight.

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Editing is the part of writing most writers seem to hate/put up with/drag themselves through. You're a creative person, you want to create and create, you don't want to go around fixing the kinks in existing work. Short stories can help you get into the habit of editing because they're much shorter and less intimidating.

Many people say because of the sheer volume of short stories, that it's easier to get a novel published these days, than a short story. Even if it is, it must be more economical (effortwise), considering the number of steps you can skip and how quickly you know whether or not you've been successful. And at the end of the process you get to say, "Published in SUPERREALLYUPSTANDING magazine", which, unless you're on the New York Times Bestseller list, might actually make you more highly regarded than publishing a novel. (Please note, always pay special attention when you type 'regarded'. Ask Marsha about highy RETARDED agents. lol.)

Writing short stories can help you get practised with some of the steps to publishing. For example, rejections. I've never queried so I don't know first-hand, but my novels are my babies. I can't even bring myself to let my neighbours (who pester me about them constantly) see a page. A single page! For fear they won't like it, and will ask me if I'm crazy to try to be a writer. Short stories aren't your babies. They're kinda like your sister's kids. They're sweet and you cry if something mad happened to them, but you'd soon get over it. If you practise getting rejected on short stories, you won't feel quite as bad when your queries, partials or fulls don't get the response you want. You can avoid the arson charge for setting your flamethrower lose on the offices of Megaloth Publishing! Isn't that great news?

Time to wrap up though. Looks like I need to go write some short stories and practise my Economy. lol.

This has been another Write Away Wednesday!


Neil Alvin said...

I agree, I dream of writing a novel, I actually started... a 3 book series with the basic overall direction theme and the role each book plays but I can't seem to find the time. I know I am going to write this before I die though. I'll take your advice though... write some short stories, you saw the short stories I had to do for university on my blog? msg me on fb for the links so you dont go browsing through hay looking for needles.

P.S. i like your blog

Claire Dawn said...

Thanks Neil.

And you never find time, you have to make it. :)