Monday, October 5, 2009

Short or Long Fiction?

I’ve often told non-fiction writers who want to be published to start by crafting articles. That way they can build up both credibility and credits. Then, when they’ve gained an audience and the trust of editors, they can begin to think about writing a book-length work.

I assumed that one should take the same tack with writing novels: Start with short stories and then write a novel. I must admit that every short story I’ve ever written was literarily flabby and unsatisfying, even (or especially!) to me. I thought I was a failure because if I couldn’t write short fiction, who would ever want me to write something longer?

Imagine my relief and gratitude when I began reading what one of the best short story writers now living said:

“One of the most often asked questions when I’m playing professor is this: Should I start writing short stories and then work my way up to novels? My answer is no. It’s not like starting to ride a tricycle and then graduating to a bike. Forgive my clumsy mixing of metaphors, but short stories and novels aren’t even apples and oranges; they’re apples and potatoes. Novels seek to emotionally engage readers on all levels, and, to achieve that goal, authors must develop characters in depth, create realistic settings, do extensive research and come up with a structured pacing that alternates between the thoughtful and the rip-roaring. . .

“The payoff in the case of short stories isn’t a roller coaster of plot reversals involving characters they’ve spent lots of time learning about and loving or hating, set in places with atmosphere carefully described. Short stories are like a sniper’s bullet. Fast and shocking. In a story, I can make good bad and bad badder and the most fun of all, really bad seem good.”

--Jeffery Deaver, from the introduction to More Twisted: Collected Stories, Vol. II (Pocket Books, 2006.)

How about you, novel writers? Any of you been able to get paid for publishing both short stories and novels?


Nicole said...

Ironic I should attempt to answer this since I haven't been PAID to publish anything!

However, just because I have an opinion, I will say I've never liked or enjoyed short stories. As your quote aptly describes it, they're different animals. I admire the best in short story writers, but since I prefer reading sagas over even short novels, there is no connection between the two for me, and it would be torture to assign me a short story to write over a novel. Having written seven novels, there are only two of them at 115,000 words or under.

My shortest works are blog posts. ;) said...

I haven't been paid to write either. But I've noticed that my long pieces are read more eagerly than my short ones. And that some will even read my long pieces more than once.

I spent way too many years caught up in that old saw about starting with short stories.

Patti Hill said...

Forgive me, Latayne, for not answering your posted question. I'm too struck by Deaver's sniper bullet metaphor. That's it! Every short story I can think of was exactly that. I've read plenty of short stories, and many of them are disturbing to the point they caused a physiological response. You know, sweaty palms and rapid heartbeats. Joyce Carol Oates, Flannery O'Connor, and Frank Kafka top my heart-pounding list. Still, I love them for their power.

I've got my Short Story text book down from the bookcase now. It's time to revisit some favorites.

Pat Jeanne Davis said...

I really enjoyed this post. I've written both short stories and a novel and yet to be published. I was given the same advice to start with a short. I enjoy the short stories in the UK woman's magazines, especially in the Fiction Feast specials. In the US we have no pub that compare to those. Except for the literary stories the market is almost non-existent.

Karen Schravemade said...

I love the genre of the short story. I've had some published, although many more have been entered into competitions and sunk without a trace. Nevertheless I'm grateful for all the time I've spent crafting short stories, because I believe it's made me a better fiction writer. Yes, short fiction is an entirely different animal, but writing it has taught me some important skills that translate to longer fiction, such as economic choice of words and using fresh, original figurative language.

Kathleen Popa said...

No, I haven't done any short stories yet, but I love them. Many of my favorites come from Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. He's the master.

Anonymous said...

I've never been a reader of short stories. I don't really even like short novels, with a few exceptions. Not that I'm comparing short stories and novels, especially after Latayne's explanation about their differences. I just happen to like settling into a thick book with lots of pages where I can stay awhile in the story world.

word verification: ablyspin -- what we all try to do with a good story.

Lori Benton said...

I'm the same, Sharon. I don't read short fiction much at all. I will read novellas now and then. My true love is the epic historical. I just finished a nearly 1000 page historical that felt like a feast. Wish there were more of them.

Latayne C Scott said...

I appreciate all the comments, especially from those of you who write short stories.

One of the best short stories I've read recently was "The Other Woman" by Sherwood Anderson. It was part of a collection called Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike.

It's one I'll never forget. Another I remember details from -- but not the title --was one in which two mothers are talking about their daughters and through the dialogue the reader realizes that the most haughty of the speakers does not know that her own husband had fathered the other woman's daughter.

Anybody know this one? I think it was from the 1920s or 1930s.


Pat Jeanne Davis said...

Latayne, I think you're thinking of the short story by Edith Wharton called Roman Fever. I enjoyed this one, but my son who was required to read it in 9th grade for English/Literature class hated it.
I can't think of any boy who'd enjoy it. I love The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike and the short The Other Woman, too.

Latayne C Scott said...

Yay, Pat! You are right. It was "Roman Fever." I kept trying to find it on the Internet under the title, "Roman Holiday."

Guess you and I have similar tastes!

Unknown said...

I confess my literary snobbishness - I adore short fiction. Truly love the stuff. I read it, have read it for years, like a glutton in a cave made of chocolate.

I've written two short fictions - both published (how nice!) and am terrified to try again. Ever notice how the thing you admire most is the same thing you believe yourself incapable of? Me too.

Okay! Favorites!
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (read it here:
Vision by Alistair Macleod
A Clean, Well-Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway
Once More to the Lake by E.B. White
Meneseteung by Alice Munro
Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self, by Alice Walker
Last Rites by M.G. Vassanji
Lunch Conversation by Michael Ondaatje and another one of his called Aunts.

I could go on. Would love to go on...but my writing is calling.

One thing I've found about short fiction. While I am writing my own novel, I don't read long fiction. But I turn to short fiction often for inspiration and respite while I am writing my own long novel.

Love chatting about all this grand stuff!