Monday, November 3, 2014

Short Is Too Short for Me

"Which do you prefer writing; short stories, standalone novels or series? Why?"

- from Susan

Since I’ve written one short story and four novels, I’ll go with novels. I didn’t know my first novel would launch a series until I got an agent, although by then I’d fallen in love with my main characters, so it was a relief to hear I wasn’t alone in wanting them to blunder on for at least another book. I just finished my first standalone and it’s not a murder mystery. The topic came to me rather suddenly. I don’t know if I’ll get struck by that particular lightening again, but I hope so.

I mostly enjoy reading novels, which may be a holdover from childhood when I never wanted the book to end. But I recently read a lot of crime fiction short stories, 134 to be exact, for a competition, and I learned a few things about them:

  • -       “Short” is a relative term. These ranged from about 1,500 words to 50,000 and no one length had an aesthetic edge over another. Historicals tended to be longer and no wonder; there’s a lot of scene setting to do.

  • -       They use all of crime fiction’s sub-genres and a lot of the clichés, perhaps because they have to move into action so quickly that shortcuts are useful.

  • -       The crimes were major, and felt particularly brutal, and I wondered if that was because there’s less space to hint, tease, lead the reader slowly into the darkest places in the story.

  • -       There was very little, almost no, humor in the submissions. They tended to be dark, twisty, and lacking the kinds of endings where justice is meted out.

I had thought, when I agreed to participate in the panel, that I might find myself inspired to write more short stories by reading so many. What I learned, though, is that writing good short stories is hard. Give me an 80,000-word book any day! We have some wonderful short story writers on the Minds panel, and I can't wait to hear how they pull it off.


RJ Harlick said...

Like you, Susan, I greatly admire those who can write short stories. I'm afraid I too need 80,000 or more words to bring my story to a close. Some of the most compelling stories I have read have been short stories, particularly those written by Nobel winner Alice Munro.

Art Taylor said...

Hi, Susan --
I'm sorry to hear about your experiences with the short story competition and the impressions you were left with. It sounds kind of distasteful overall.

I'll agree that short story writers face challenges by having to work within a shorter space, but resorting to cliches seems less a characteristic of this particular form or length than just the mark of some bad writers trying their hands at it. Finding the best and sharpest detail or action or bit of dialogue is a key step—-and knowing what's extraneous, what can be cut away, is a complementary move. If done right, those sharp details can and should hint toward a greater fullness of character, a greater complexity of plot, a larger world (and borrowing on what RJ said in her comment, I'd dare say that Alice Munro's stories have a lot more character and world in them than the majority of the novels being published today). Taking shortcuts in that whole process--the kind of shortcuts you were talking about--is probably just laziness.

I was also surprised at the word lengths that you mentioned. I'd probably have cut off the maximum length at around 35,000 words--40,000 tops--and I'd likely classify those as novellas more than short stories, though the definition there is about more than just word count, of course. As for 50,000 words, though: Some very well-known novels would fall under that maximum that you mention here, including Fahrenheit 451 (46,118 words), The Great Gatsby (47,094 words), and The Red Badge of Courage (47,180), among others--and James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice barely tops 35,000! These are books that few people would classify even as novellas, much less as short stories.

Certainly don't mean to cast any aspersions on the competition you're judging or the writers who submitted there (or are being considered there), but just reflecting on my own experiences as a short story reader and some differences I've seen and experienced.

Would love to hear what others have to say, of course.


Susan C Shea said...

See, Art, I knew someone would have a lot more insight than I where short stories are good. I didn't mean to malign the authors in that competition - many, and indeed the ultimate winners, wrote wonderful stories. And I agree, 50,000 words is way too long - we all mentioned a lower word count cut off for the future. At its best, I think the short story is a bit like a good poem - every word has to count, to be the most precise way to express something.