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.

No comments:

Post a Comment