Wednesday, October 26, 2011

“It should be a novel.” The bane of the short story.

“It should be a novel.”

“Is this the first chapter of a novel?”

“Is this supposed to be a novel? It’s like, short.”

Poor short story. No one understands you.

It seems absurd to me at times that non-writers whom I give stories to for feedback generally don’t get the point of the short story. Most of the time, the most feedback that I’ll get is that they wanted more and I should consider turning it into a novel. Oy.

At first I thought that maybe this was a mistake on my part – that I was leaving something out, not conveying my point, not being descriptive enough. That if I had genuinely written a good short story then the feedback I would receive would be aimed at the work instead of the form. But when a majority of lit journals have a maximum word count of 2,000 on short stories, I couldn’t be doing absolutely terrible, could I? Eventually I decided that most avid readers read novels and, unless they were English students or writers themselves, wouldn’t be used to the short story. It’s like giving an amuse-bouche to someone expecting an eight course dinner.

Of course if you’re a writer or an English/language/literature student, you are probably quite intimate with the short story. Unless you strictly write poetry, there’s no way to get published in lit journals writing only novellas or novels. Sure, some journals do publish novel excerpts, but they usually have to be self-contained. You know. Like a short story. And since a short story is only 20 pages instead of 200, they are ideal to use in textbooks.

My first upper level literature course was English 320: The Short Story. Later I took Seminar in the Modern Novel. Two great, but very different classes.

But what is the difference, besides length? I mean, I remember in short story the James Joyce epiphany and the idea that short stories can pack a harder moral punch. But novels contain the same concepts, there’s just a lot more to work with. But is there, really? I mean, look at this checklist for writing a short story: First paragraph, developing characters, point of view, dialogue, setting and context, plot, tension, climax, and the list goes on. It’s like a sprint runner and a marathon runner. You’re using the same muscles, but in different ways.

I don’t think that a short story is merely a condensed novel, or that a short story can easily be turned into one scene in a novel. There’s a little of both in each. I don’t see how I could turn most of my short stories into novels, at all. But a few provide a great setting and interesting characters that could carry the structure of a novel.

Ultimately, I think that since you have to be a little pickier with what you choose to highlight in 2,000 words than 80,000, it can be harder to engage readers that are used to reading novels. There’s less time to introduce other characters, or aspects of the main character that readers can relate to. And since a lot of plot structure for general readers has been influenced by movies, there’s a bit of an expected buildup that doesn’t always play out in short stories. Of course, there are many types of readers, but this is my general observation.

I’m not sure why the novel has so much weight, or is at times considered the only “real” form of prose an author can write. I know that a great deal more traditional publishers publish novels over short story collections. But I have bought short story collections in chain book stores. And I know readers who read mostly novels that also own short story collections by HP Lovecraft, Stephen King and Anne Rice. (Even though I just realized that all those authors could be categorized in the horror genre. Interesting.)

Perhaps the short story is viewed like literary training wheels. Something you read to learn about writing when you’re in school and time is limited, and something you write to get published because reader time is limited, and after you’ve proved you can write in small doses, readers (and editors) can invest in the longer work, the novel.

I’ve certainly had a decrease in my short story writing since I’ve been concentrating on writing a novel. Another aspect that I find discouraging is that all of my short stories are very different from each other. Even if I were to write enough short stories to have a collection, I fear that the collection would not be very cohesive. I know that not every short story collection is all that cohesive and that it does serve to high light many facets of a writer’s style and process, which is why I enjoy reading short story collections of my favorite authors.

In short (badum-chink), the short story has all the ingredients of an effective novel, but uses them to a purpose entirely unique to its own form.

Summary? No, I’m not turning it into a novel. It’s a short story.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

My take on NaNoWriMo. Jeopardy and all.

I can tell you now that most of the material on this blog will be stuff that happens to be right in front of my face the day I sit down to post. Right in front of my face currently:NaNoWriMo. Oh no. Oh, yes.

As a backdrop, I’ll share my first acquaintance with the NaNoWriMo.

I was watching Jeopardy.

One of the special kid contest ones with middle schoolers or high schoolers, I don’t remember, I was just a middle schooler or high schooler myself. One of the contestants in her little “get to know you” segment in between rounds said that she’d “won” NaNoWriMo by writing 50,000 words in a month.

I was astounded that anyone could write a novel in a month. I’d been messing around with writing a book and I had no clue how anyone my age could ever get passed the chemical spill that was teenagery to write five good pages in a month let alone a whole book. I was inspired. I thought I’d found a magical writing key and unlocked some serious business. It was about accuracy AND speed. I rethought my writing process and made some real improvements. It was great. And I decided that one day, maybe I’d enter, and out of all the books, mine might come close to winning the contest. That would be pretty sweet.

Years later I find out that “winning” is anyone who meets the word requirement, even if it means having a character recite Twinkle Twinkle Little Star seventeen times to make the word count. (Which is honestly totally fine by me; I have come to despise competition poetry slams, so I can respect a contest that doesn’t have one set winner. It’s a goal. A big goal and it’s really groovy if you can meet said goal.) I was just really confused as to what all the hype would be about typing 50,000 words in a month. After all, a lot goes into writing a book besides sheer word count. How would you quantify editing if it meant you had -324 word count for the day?

So, I carried on and never really gave it much thought, until recently when nearly everyone in my writer’s circle (all four of us!) asked if I was going to do NaNoWriMo. And with the importance the internet plays in writing books nowadays (especially the self-publishers like I’m aiming at) I can’t get very far researching book trends and writing philosophies without getting barraged by OMGNANOWRIMOISNEXTMONTH!

That being said, this is my blog and this is my take on NaNoWriMo. It’s a list.
First, something like NaNoWriMo can be awesome if you need a community support. I’ve been pretty fortunate that a lot of people who are close to me support my writing and I can get great feedback from fellow writers and stretch my own editing muscles on their work. Not everyone has such an environment, so that aspect can be crucial for many participants.

Second, I’m not going to bash the balls to the wall approach of pumping out 50,000 words in 30 days. Everyone has different writing processes and this may very well be a great method for a lot of writers. Not to mention that I personally want to try to do it because it’s a method I’ve never tried before and I’d be limiting myself if I just tossed the idea away without attempting. I might get two weeks in and find the method useless for me. Or it might end up being like crack and I’ll have another 50,000 words by January. Never know.

Third, I’m not going to go all epic self-righteous or insecure about NaNoWriMo encouraging already bad writers to make even worse books and flood the reading pool with a few thousand more terrible examples of what not to do in a matter of 30 days. It’s a whole other blog post, but really, writing a book is an opportunity for me, you, and everyone else in the world. Bad books don’t ruin good ones. The end.

Fourth, there are, however, things I don’t like about the idea. Mainly, that there are all these forums, and status updates, and sign-ins, and a bunch of blog posts (like this one) philosophosizing over NaNoWriMo. Who has time to write if you’re so involved in the superfluous aspect of the competition? I mean, I’m almost halfway done with the daily word count for NaNoWriMo with this blog post alone. People that use the internet, especially social networking sites and blogs type a ridiculous amount every day, and on top of that they work on their books. A lot of writers already have set word counts they try to meet in a day. If they don’t, they try to catch up later. To me, if you set your own limits, meeting your own goals should be much more rewarding and productive then following one set by NaNoWriMo.

Summary: Honestly, I just feel like NaNoWriMo is hardcore writing with some light bulbs stuck on it. A novel is a lot of words. Putting all those words together is a lot of work. It’s no different if you do it in July or November.

When it comes down to it, the attention you give your book when no one else gives a goat is where the real success is. What you do with your work before the book launch, the spine-tingling sensation of seeing the final cover design, the potential good and bad reviews, the publicity, the promotion, the giving away of business cards, or the climactic moment when a reader asks you to sign their book – before all of that – is what will make all those aspects fly or flunk.

There’s nothing wrong with participating in NaNoWriMo, if it’s a fun challenge or a kick in the ass for you to get some typing done. After all, you can’t edit a book if there’s nothing there. But just like writing in general, don’t take yourself too seriously. Take what you’re doing seriously, but know that 50,000 words in a row can be brilliance or bullshit. Don’t get the two confused.

Further reading: A pro-NaNoWriMo article and an anti-NaNoWriMo blog post. Cheers!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

So sorry, Mr. Keats

Who are you and why do you have a blog on writing?

Why, I’m AJ. And I’m a writer. And writers have blogs about writing.

But I guess if you want credentials, I do have a B.S. in language arts (I took literature and theatre classes for five years, yay!) with a psychology minor (I know I did it backwards). I’ve had several short stories and poems published in online literary journals and a few print anthologies. If you want to check out my fancy pants press kit with my bio and works, you can do so here. My mother is a professional editor and she taught me a lot, but I’m still learning. I still read linguistics texts and books on literary criticism and take notes. Just because I graduated doesn’t mean I’ve magically been turned into an expert. But I’ve come a long way and though I’m still figuring things out, so I hope this can serve as a decent outlet for all my random philosophy and/or rants on writing and the publishing industry.

What do you write?

Mostly prose with a fantasy or sci-fi element thrown in somewhere. All my poetry is prose-poetry. I’m also focusing a project in the various ways disability and body identity is conveyed in literature.

List some examples of good writing according to you.

Anything by Ursula Le Guin. Anything by Ted Kooser. Anything by John Keats. And South Park. For starters, anyway.

What do you think of self-publishing?

Seeing as I want to take the self-pub route – you’ll find out.

What’s your day job?

I am a part time library clerk with a focus on genealogy research. I also help run the writer's group sponsored by the library.

I also work at a grocery store. The PLU for bananas is 4011. And now you know.

What will readers find on this blog?

Mostly random topics that come up as a result of me researching the publishing industry and the vast community of writers on the internet, which I will try to provide links and resources. Also some things that I have found to be helpful, valuable or insightful. Maybe some book reviews. And shameless self-promotion when I get stuff published.

Why are you apologizing to John Keats?


Thanks for reading!