Monday, May 16, 2011

The thing about a short story is...

"A good short-story writer has an instinct for sketching in just enough background to ground the specific story... Short-story writing requires an exquisite sense of balance. Novelists, frankly, can get away with more. A novel can have a dull spot or two, because the reader has made a different commitment." -Lynn Abbey

It wasn't intentional. I didn't set out to write short stories and I certainly didn't read them with any sort of regularity. Sure, once in a while, I'd pick up a periodical or journal and find gold, but for the most part, I found spending my money on short stories rather than a big novel really something of a rip-off; a novel was clearly better value for your money, right?

Then I set out to write with a degree of seriousness. Not the articles and sidebars that paid the bills. Not the diary entries that stretched on for a dozen pages and made me feel all Nin-like. Not the beginnings of anything that I didn't intent to finish. I set out to write my book. And, without warning or intention, I wrote a book of short stories.

Red Rooms is a collection of linked short stories, but short stories they remain- linked or no. Each one can be taken individually, away from the whole, and survive on its own. Together they make a nice mean, but individually, you can still be satisfied at the end.

How did this happen? Well, for starters, I had a collection of characters living in my head in good old fashioned literary schizophrenic style. And they all demanded attention. The good thing was, while all being very different and coming form different areas and experiences, they were all headed to the same place, and I collected them together in a common setting- the urban hotel where they occupied the rooms for a couple night.

Now, I've heard that there is a specific structure for short stories, and that it varies from novel or play structures and formats. I won't list them here. Do a Google search and I'm sure you will find a plethora of guidelines and great examples. What I am offering you here is a bunch of observations and some experience.

The thing about a short story is, you need to have skill and precision. Not that a novelist doesn't have skill, but I am suggesting that a lesser-skilled novelist can hide their inadequacies in a bundle of pages better than an unskilled short story writer. There simply are just not enough bushes to hide behind. You need to be selective to the point of mercilessness with your words. You need to develop character and story pretty damn quick and imprecise words and imagery will set the story off-kilter.

A short story should always move forward and present a setting and character(s) that sing when they speak. A short story demands opera.

A short story is a photograph that presents a specific time and place but that allows you to see how the image got there and what is coming down the road next. It should be like one of those awesome pictures from Harry Potter- the ones that move and gesticulate. You need to see forwards and backwards while watching a small, specific piece of time unfold.

Sound daunting? It can be. But really, what could be more natural than telling a story in this form? Its how we communicate on a daily basis really. Its how we converse and take in our news. Its akin to the way we develop opinion and recognize gut feelings- its a whole world on the head of a pin.

"The short story form is better suited to the demands of modern life than the novel." -Simon Prosser Publishing Director, Hamish Hamilton

How did I end up writing (and reading and appreciating) short stories? Well, I really did nothing more than sat down one Monday and stood back up on a Friday and that is what had happened. Sounds pretentious, I know, but sometimes the stories know best and you just need to type.

Check out work from these writers:

  • Anais Nin (Little Birds is a great place to start- warning: NSFW)- thats her at the top of the post

  • Alice Munro (of course)

  • Eden Robinson (Traplines!)

    • Add your own reccomendations to the list. Clearly, I need another coffee, becasue I can't populate a proper list of writers for the subject I just dedicated a blog spot too. Yeesh....

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