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Monday, May 17, 2004

The Long and the Short of it 

On one of the many mailing lists I subscribe to, DetecToday, there's a spirited discussion happening of late about short fiction, and the pros and cons of writing and reading them. As someone who's written short stories and continues to do so (the next one goes up in a few weeks' time) it's a debate that never ceases to intrigue me, mostly because I seem to go against the grain of many a crime fiction writer and fan.

If there's a consensus opinion, it's as follows: writers tend to gravitate towards novel-writing because they have the room to fully develop characters, explore conflicts, make plots as complex as they like, and have a large canvas to work out their craft issues and flesh out hidden (or not so hidden) meanings. Short stories, on the other hand, meet with less approval because the writer doesn't have enough time and space to construct a solid mystery, deepen characterization, etc.--the limitations of the format are seen as a hindrance.

For fans, the consensus appears to be that they prefer reading novels so they can sink their teeth into a character they can grow to like, get immersed in plot and conflict, and have a (reasonably) satisfactory solution. Short stories don't meet these requirements because they skimp on character, the plot is rushed, and the ending tends to disappoint.

I can safely say that if the above two paragraphs are, indeed, the consensus opinion, I don't share it and never will.

First, I'll put on my reader hat. I love reading short fiction because, when done well, it takes an idea, maybe two, and runs with it. The best stories move fast (or at least, at a sustainable pace) and engage me with a strong main character, snappy dialogue, a great twist at the end, an illumination of a particular idea or premise. Whatever it is, if it works, I'm sold. And I don't have to invest as much time as I would a novel.

Short stories are a wonderful way to see a writer's true voice in action, and sustained throughout. The range of voices are so different, from Sherman Alexie's sadness-tinged humor in his collections (like the recent TEN LITTLE INDIANS) to Angela Carter's wondrously delicious redefinition of old fairy tales (THE BLOODY CHAMBER) to Jincy Willett's razor-sharp observations of human nature (JENNY AND THE JAWS OF LIFE) to Eugene McCabe's startlingly sad depictions of Ireland through many generations (HEAVEN LIES ABOUT US). Take P.G. Wodehouse's madcap shorts, or L.M. Montgomery's depictions of orphans struggling to find family against all odds. Alice Munro, who is quite simply one of the finest short fiction writers alive. And on and on.

That being said, maybe it's no accident that the writers who leap to my mind are not crime writers, although some of the genre stories I've read in the last couple of years have certainly stuck with me, like most of the entries in the TART NOIR anthology, the all-star issue of Plots With Guns last fall, Dave White's "Closure" (one of the best "9/11 aftermath" stories, period) and Dave Zeltserman's "More than a Scam," (which takes the Nigerian spam thing and mutates it into a chilling noir piece), to name just a select few. These stories fulfilled my internal criteria, and that's why I enjoyed them. But most are not "mystery" stories per se; crime stories certainly, but they don't necessarily adhere to the classic structure and construction...only to disappoint at the end. Rather, they take a theme, a character, a premise, mix them all up, and create something special in the process.

Which is what I try very hard to when I write them. So now I'll look at shorts from a writer's perspective.

Frankly, the idea of writing a novel terrifies me at this point, and it's in part because of the way my writing process works at the moment. It's sporadic, anarchic, and damned inconsistent, a combination of weeks of laziness and spurts of inspiration. For some reason, all the stories I've written that "worked" (i.e. that I've been reasonably satisfied with or have been published somewhere) involved me having a "eureka" moment of some sort, rushing home, and banging out a first draft in a matter of hours. Fast and furious, but I cannot stop till the draft's done. Then I leave it for a few days and start to tinker. But every time I've been methodical about a story, done a set word limit or thereabouts, the stories invariably disappoint me (and, unsurprisingly, are the ones that get rejected.)

This can't last, because it's really not a healthy way to write. I do want to write a novel someday, but I can't do an entire draft in a night, let alone a month. That's just far too taxing. But until I can learn how to manage my time, develop some stamina, if you will, I think I'm going to be writing short fiction for the forseeable future.

Which doesn't bother me in the least, because I love doing so. As Gerald said on the list, "For all they demand of the writer, finishing [a short story]--having written something that rings true to readers despite the constraints--is a great reward." And ultimately, whether writing a lengthy or short work, that's what it's about--writing something that rings true, and has some level of satisfaction for both the writer and the reader.

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