Friday, 2 September 2016

Theme and Volume

It is often said that the regimen of writing short stories and the regimen of writing novels are worlds apart. As a writer of both I can certainly agree, and say that each is a technique and approach governed by the very space one has to work in.

A novel has room to move – none to waste, for sure, “padding” is a dubious commodity in this day and age, as attention spans grow ever shorter. While it may be necessary to do so if a publisher has specified a novel, already contracted, must be a certain length, publishers are also just as likely to set a short work in a type size for the visually impaired and fill the book with whitespace to force enough pages to make the work impressive on the sales shelf. None of this has anything to do with the craft of writing the book, of course, and the writer of novels expects to be able to adequately develop characters, situations and back-stories to extract maximum entertainment value from the project. Nothing need be omitted.

Short stories are a whole other universe, especially in this age of flash. Magazine marketplaces specify their length range and many are very strict about it, some even have auto-rejection of electronic submissions with lengths outside the declared range. This fosters the skill of writing to length, and encourages conciseness, the truncation of events, focus on specifics, and how to craft a character in the minimum number of words. Often one finds oneself omitting description of people – especially in the currently very popular first person narrative – how is a character supposed to describe him or herself? It’s not natural and tends to subtract itself.

When lengths become very constrained, 1000 words, say, or even 500, the art of conciseness is foregrounded. A competent story can be told in 1000 words – memorable, with rich details, atmosphere, a strong character or two, but nothing can be said more than once and adjectives are at a premium. It’s an artform, yes, and plays to the short attention span of the age, but there is a bone in the writer’s head which is reluctant to expend great ideas on blink-and-you’ll-miss-it length fiction. Magazines only want your best ideas, and they want them condensed to the minimum number of words for which they will be paying (drop out words like “that” and “had” and excise the passive voice with religious zeal), but the writer may well far rather expand upon great ideas, do them full justice and be paid accordingly. Unfortunately, this is a rare situation and writers cannot expect magazines to pay them a professional rate for being verbose. The definition of verbosity has become tighter with time, resulting in a more economical wage bill for magazines and inevitably freeing up space to include more writers on average, while the writer is obliged to work more conscientiously in order to compete.

But, as a writer, how should one prioritise which idea makes a great short story and which should be a novel? A single pivotal event from a novel can be dramatised as a short story, while here and there one finds inspired short stories with plots which would make great novels. Is a short story more immediately saleable than a novel? Yes, and that alone counsels brevity – commit that idea to bytes, submit it and get on with the next. Novels are a protracted affair involving many long hours of writing, rewriting, editing and proofing, agency representation and potentially years of submission time, for statistically low odds of a placement. Perhaps this is why the impulse is to funnel all ideas into short story format, even if it means brutal simplification of what could have been lush and expansive.

Of course, if the short story is placed, and especially if it is appreciated by readers and/or critics, the writer has the option to expand upon it. This is by no means unknown, an example which comes easily to mind is David Brin’s The Tides of Kithrup, first published in Analog (May, 1981) and which was expanded into the award-winning novels Sundiver and Startide Rising. Aspiring professionals must always be on the lookout for such potential, and the placement of a work is not necessarily the end of its development.

The short story format also lends itself to the writer with limited time to devote to the craft – a project can be conceived and completed, at least the first draft, in one sitting, and a writer can amass a canon of work with which to tackle the market relatively quickly. Is one obliged to fire off cherished ideas in short, machine-gun-like bursts? In the end, yes, it is more than likely a necessary evil of writing today.

But for the born storyteller there is always another idea forthcoming – ten seconds of daydreaming, which can strike anywhere, anytime, can see the notes for a new piece being frantically typed, and dreams, due perhaps to their vivid nature, are another valuable wellspring of inspiration – this is a theme to return to. Suffice to say, while some ideas may very well have made grand novels, and the short story writer is justified in feeling he or she is, quite often, too often, trying to force a camel through the eye of a needle, the short story is an artform all its own, and great ideas are not singular: there will always be another – and another, and another.

Cheers, Mike Adamson

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