Friday Writing Experiment No. 15: Tell Me A Short Story

Yesterday I read an interesting piece via Galley Cat that asked why so many fiction writers start by writing novels rather than short stories. The writer, a musician, notes that ‘no composition teacher would recommend that a beginning composer write a symphony’, then continues:

Why are writers encouraged to set themselves up for disappointment by beginning their journeys with a novel they will most likely not complete—or will most likely be of poor quality? Flash fiction, letters, writing prompts, short stories, why are these not the tools of a developing writer? Sure, you can artificially complete a large scale work by forcing yourself to write an absurd amount of words everyday. But if those words are riddled with redundant and idiotic prose, why bother? This is frustrating because these authors then feel the need to flood the market with their first effort, obscuring the visibility of accomplished writers using the same means. The ease of self publishing necessitates self control from the writers.

(Poor person seemed to get a bit of flak for that. Seems unfair, given the reasoned manner of the asking.)

Now, it is the case that there are many novelists who have never written or published short stories, or are not active in that field (e.g., one of my faves, Sarah Waters). And I also have to note my frustration with MFA workshops that focus on short fiction at the expense of novels, though of course it’s far more practical to be looking at short pieces of writing in a workshop.

To be honest, I am not sure if school-based workshops are always the ideal format for gathering feedback on a novel anyway; most novel-length projects require more time and input than a semester-long workshop can practically sustain, and no tutor or peer can really devote the necessary time to the depth of feedback that is usually required. And in fact, sometimes the sort of feedback you get in a workshop might actually get in the way of the actual writing of a novel; sometimes the writer just needs to hunker down and get that first draft done, and then seek out feedback. Maybe a good way to think about this is a workshop that gets you started on a novel. That is a more credible expectation for a course.

But there is some sense in this original question about fiction writers being set up to write these unwieldy things that don’t get finished. You can enjoy a greater feeling of accomplishment in producing a shorter, finished piece of writing, something you can put your arms around while you’re still finding your way. And you can successfully use techniques (point of view, character, setting, and so on) that can also be put to good use when you approach the longer work. Maybe we need to think about a NaShoStoWriMo. There really is much sense in beginning writers learning to write fiction through short stories. Walk before you can run, et cetera.

Let’s also note that a weakness of, e.g., the UK model of the MA in creative writing is that the usual outcome is a final project of about 15,000 words (50 or so pages), which can only ever be a fraction of a novel. Even if students are submitting a sample from a larger work, much about a novel only makes sense once a first draft is complete (to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, a first draft is often just the writer telling him/herself the story – so much of the work of figuring out how to tell that story might only come in later drafts). And very few students can complete a first draft during the period of an MA. It might make sense if MAs in creative writing encouraged students to write, revise, and polish short fiction some more (some do, in fact).

(And however much we evangelise about self-publishing, really, point taken about not flooding the market with half-cooked writing. Of course, we can just ignore it. But.)

Writers’ conferences and MAs and agents will always emphasise novels, because novels are a privileged form, and because that is where the obvious money is, and because that is the sort of publishing they want to put on their marquees. And because novels are great, too, of course.

When I hear agents or publishers say that short stories do not sell, I’ve often thought that what they really mean is that they do not know how to sell short stories, which is credible given that the only format they have really been using to sell short stories has been the hardback/paperback of at least 200 pages, which required a collection of short stories of a certain length. And maybe collections of eight or a dozen stories are not so easy a sell as selling them to be read one or two at a time, because readers don’t always finish longer collections; that unfinished experience, again. I love short stories, but I rarely read more than half a dozen from a collection at one go. As Mavis Gallant, one of the greatest practitioners of the form, says: ‘Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.’

I used to think the broadside might be the ideal form for a story: stand-alone. But now, thanks to digital publishing, short stories are suddenly viable again as publishable formats for singles or shorter collections. Perfect for an attention-deficit world, surely?

Anyway: this week let’s write a short story.

There are many theories about what constitutes a short story, and ideas about the appropriate form, length, and ingredients for a short story. This post is already long enough, and we don’t want to overcomplicate, so all that’s something for another time. And as in other areas of artistic practice there are no rules, really, other than those that get you to a piece of writing you’re pleased with.

One idea that often speaks to me, though, is the idea of something that can be read in one sitting. So: write a story that can be written in one sitting. You might want to think about the story in advance, which is fine. But see what sort of beginning, middle, and end you can accomplish for one story in one sitting (beginning, middle, end: whatever order you choose to reveal them, a story probably has those, too).

You might also like to think about the idea that a short story can often (but not always) turn on a single event or insight.

If you need a prompt, use one of the following words: fire, snow, tree, breath.

As with all things writing, reading the masters and mistresses of the form will help. I suggest: Ernest Hemingway (his short fiction is far more enduring for me than his novels). Alice Munro. Mavis Gallant. Annie Proulx. Raymond Carver. Brian Evenson. Evelyn Waugh. Ursula Le Guin. James Joyce’s Dubliners. Lydia Davis (very short, very excellent). Sherman Alexie. Truman Capote.

Finally, short stories are more than just staging posts towards writing a novel, and observations about the merits of using short stories for learning how to write fiction are a bit of a sideshow, really.

Because short stories are great. And that’s plenty good enough reason to write them.

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