The Challenge of Short

I often hear students freak out about the length of assignments.  I rarely assign papers as a rule because most students can’t write worth a damn, and given that I have rather high standards that include correct grammar and punctuation, I’d rather not punish myself by having to grade them.  But it always amuses me that they think a 5 page paper is long and have trouble filling the length.  Filling UP length has never been a problem.  Verbose might as well be my middle name.  Since I started writing seriously at the age of 12 (I took those spiral notebooks VERY seriously), it was always novels for me.  My brain naturally comes up with these long, complicated plots that can’t be narrowed down.  I attribute my handful of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place wins on my high school short stories in a local arts competition to the fact that, by and large,  high school students can’t write.  My best friend was my only true competition and she and I traded first place every year from 9th through 12th grade.  But other than those few stories, which made me cringe to think about even then, I’ve never felt any pull or attraction toward short.   I didn’t like to write it, and I generally didn’t read much of it either.  I’ve always been all about the novel.

So you must understand that when I made the decision last year to try to plot out and write a novella (a genre which I rarely used to read and tended to not like because many people do them very badly), it was a big deal.  Writing a tight narrative, tight plot without all the branching tangents of subplot or whatever was a serious challenge.  You see, writing short is HARD.  Frankly, in many ways, I think it is harder than writing long.  Because you have less room to pack all the same elements in.  There’s no meandering, no beating around the bush.  You have to get it right the first time in a very brief span of words.

I managed to pull off that novella (and I’m getting closer and closer to releasing it).  Then lo and behold, I plotted out and started writing another one.  These were conceived of entirely as a means to build an audience.  The bulk of my traffic here up to now has been other writers and a passel of people who find me through my opinions about lower back tattoos.  In order to expand that to actual READERS, I have to have something to offer them to, you know, READ.  Novellas were the first step.  And if I make a wee bit of money off them by selling them for a buck at the assorted e-retailers, all the better.

But I really want to have something to offer up for FREE.  I hate to do that with novellas because even though they are shorter, they do take several months for me to plot, write, format, and release, so I’d like to get a little bit of compensation for my time on those.  That leaves short stories.  Something I should, in theory, be able to crank out in a week or two, that I can put up as free reads here and over at Scribd, to hopefully pull in more fans to the novellas, and in the future (hopefully) my full length, traditionally published novels.  Hear that hypothetical future agent/publisher people? I have a sort of business plan to build my platform!

I confess, I have always hated short stories.  I feel so…limited.  Because, again, short is really really HARD.  Every single word counts in a short story.   And frankly, though I know on an academic level that the same principles of story structure apply to short stories the same way they apply to novels, I haven’t got the first clue how to write a good one.

But I’m going to learn.  Because the thing is, if you manage to master story telling in short fiction–be it through short stories or novellas, you will be stronger when you come back to your long fiction.  Seeing as shorter fiction (novella or short novels or short stories) may be all I really have time to write over the next few years, I want to learn as much about craft from it as I am able.

3 thoughts on “The Challenge of Short

  1. I used to feel exactly like you did. I didn’t get short stories, or how to get something meaningful into such a short amount of words.

    My writing course changed that. As part of it, I had to start writing them. And now I’m getting a little addicted to them – I can’t stop writing them. I haven’t touched either of my novels for months, for many reasons, but I think mainly because when I write I want to write something short!

    Good luck with it. I look forward to reading some of them!

  2. “Crank out in a week or two”? Arghhhhh! Good thing I can’t get my hands on you, dear!

    Okay, sorry. I’m grousing my way through a Short Story class this semester, mixed undergrad and grad. They do 4 stories, three with limitations like time specific, myth and stream of consciousness. We do 6 stories, those three and three more “open” slots. But that comes to a story every two weeks, with revisions on the last one every other.

    There is NO WAY that someone who is serious about the craft of writing, who understands the need for revision and rewriting can possibly turn out a decent, unhumiliatingly awful short story in two weeks. These qualify as my first drafts, things that only ever see the inside of a trash can. My mama was stunned to learn that even SHE does not see my first drafts, but closer to the third, typically. And we have to turn them in for Peer Review – by people who wouldn’t know a plot if it slapped them upside the head. They’ve read far to much “literary” fiction, full of detailed, intelligence numbing description that has nothing to do with advancing a story. It’s all atmosphere and nothing ever happens, but they read mine and ask why I haven’t described everything that is sitting on a character’s mantle!

    Short is far tougher, requires much much more time and revision than the novel form. I needed this discipline, but I do HATE it! Don’t think that you are somehow lacking because you don’t “crank” these out. If you did, they wouldn’t be worth the time wasted reading them!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.