My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Trouble With Writing Short Stories

One of the major difficulties I’m struggling with right now is my natural proclivities in writing longer works and that I’m currently in a place in my writing where only one form of fiction—the short story—really gets me much traction. I keep getting into a spiral where I feel like the only thing I should write ought to be “useful” short stories, but I’m almost never in the mood to write them, so I get a little stuck trying to force it, the creative engine stalls, I stare at blank screen a lot.

I once had an instructor--Janusprof--sneer at me. He asked me what I was “dying to write,” and my answer was “longer stuff.”

"That's not an answer!" he insisted.

Unfortunately, he didn’t really get how genuine that answer was for me. I’m pretty sure, even at the time, I knew what he was going for some touchy-feely internal conflict that has torn me apart and drawn me to the page, if only for the chance to express it. It’s born of this “high-art” ideal about the nature of art, and expression and what “counts” and what doesn’t (and seems to be the reason that most MFA programs produce a laughably huge outpouring of literature about the horror of middle class childhoods). It’s like he never read a Xanth novel or something… Somewhere along the line while the “high-art” instructors are wringing out their souls for inspiration, passing judgment on what isn’t art with the sly invective of “commercial,” they forget that most students are there for an actual, marketable skill set—not to be molded into a cookie cutting of the same bourgeoisie aesthetic.

The real bitch is that the question could possibly have been a valuable one from one in the position of mentor rather than merely teacher, but only if said mentor had not had a predetermined sort of answer in mind--which Janusprof obviously did.

The problem was I was being quite honest when I said it.

I was dying to get back to writing longer works. I really was. I was tired of the short story format that is most convenient both for reading and writing in college. It always felt a little artificial to me—not the way my creative mind naturally works. I was learning elements of craft and filling my writing toolbox in a bit of a contextual vacuum. I understand why we write short stories for college writing workshops or why they are convenient for teaching elements of literature. They fit tidily into the classroom structure. I also know that most people (including me) could stand to learn how to be concise rather than verbose. And I appreciate the short story as an art form probably more than the next guy—unless I happen to be standing next to a Pushcart editor or something. But what calls to me, what I yearn for—both in reading and in writing—is longer works.

I love reading novels. I can’t even remember a time when I would feel the girth of thick books and marvel at their potential to suspended me within another world for as long as possible. I read Gone With the Wind before I had acne, just because it was the thickest book I could find. I gathered cans from around town for two days to scrounge up the money to purchase Stephen King’s It, mostly because I was aware that it clocked in at over a thousand pages. I even tried my hand at War and Peace just because its heft felt so comforting to me—although I must admit that one never got finished. My principle complaint with my Kindle is that I can’t hold a book like 1Q84 and feel how deliciously hefty it is. I particularly enjoyed series books where I could stay in a world and with a character. More than once I blew months worth of savings on a run of novels because I’d enjoyed the first and I needed to be able to pick a new one up as soon as I was done with the old without any kind of interruption.

Unsurprisingly, I gravitate towards writing the same. I imagine full and developed arcs based on childhood books and movies, and sometimes even picture epic quests that I cannot tell outside of a trilogy (or more). One of my bucket list works (writers bucket lists don’t involve places they should go; they involve things they should write) is an epic high fantasy chronicle that sits firmly ensconced in my head that would be no less than five or six books if I wrote it. I was also always “writing books” from about nine or ten on. I sent more trees to their doom commandeering notebooks and legal pads in order to begin some opus or another on than I will ever admit to a nature conservationist. In high school, the successes and the failures in finishing manuscripts all began as novels I shared with my friends. It never even occurred to me to write a short story.

When I got into college, I wrote a lot of stuff I didn’t really want to write, but I did it as best I could because I figured every lesson that put a tool in my toolbox was a lesson worth having and a skill I wanted as a writer. I didn’t go to college on the this-is-how-you-win-at-life formula right out of high school, so I lacked most young people’s apathy and self-doubt.

I wanted to be there. Bad.

If I was going to stop working in my thirties to give that much time and effort to something, I was going to suck the marrow out of it, even if that meant writing what I didn’t personally care for. I wrote poetry and focused on my concrete imagery and word economy. I wrote drama and focused on dialogue and conflict. I wrote stories that were no more than two thousand words and did the best I could. I worked around the “no genre” pedagogy of the department. But even though I generated perhaps a dozen short stories (and three times that amount of single-page work with elements), writing those shorter works never felt completely un-forced.

Whenever I read some down to earth writing advice, after every last one of them gets done telling you to write a lot and read a lot, almost all say some variant of the following: write what you would want to read. Forget the snobby lit sommeliers that haunt the Humanities buildings of college campuses and concern themselves with how “literary” something isn’t, uttering phrases like “worthy of fiction” in a way that makes it clear they are imminently qualified to determine that your writing isn’t. Forget the promotional guru who has come up with a Vinn diagram outlining various demographics and where the most “accessible” story possible would be located. Ignore the well-intentioned family members who tell you should totally do a book just like Harry Potter/Twilight/Da Vinci Code/Whatever’s Selling Like Mad. Ignore them all. Write what you would want to read.

When I see that advice—write what you would want to read—I only think a little about speculative fiction, and a little about literary elements I appreciate the most like strong characters and plot. (Oh yes, my friends, I emerged unscathed by the “plot based fiction” naysayers of the literary world). But mostly what I think about when I hear that advice is “Write books. Write trilogies. Write epics. Create worlds. Make people regret turning that last page like they would regret saying good-bye to an old friend.”

Though my instructor found my reply to be uninspired, I found it enlightening, personally. My answer was firm and immediate. It came out of me almost before the question was finished. I didn’t even have time to mull it on a surface level. My gut knew something I didn’t. I don’t think until he asked me that, if I knew just how much I was really tired of being forced into the square pegs of short stories or how much I really yearned to get back to some of the unpolished and half-finished manuscripts that hide in the corners of my Dropbox folder like Tribbles.

The trouble is that right now, short stories are much more useful for me to be writing. In terms of a “career,” even though self publishing has changed the game for some (though mostly only people already well-known through blogging or journalism) and publishers and agents occasionally take a chance on a first-time writer’s longer works, the best way to get the attention of an agent or perhaps a publisher that will take unsolicited work is still to have a cover letter with accolades of short story publication on it. If you’ve been published, it shows them you are serious. It shows them that you have the skill to write. Mostly, it just sets you apart from the dozens—even hundreds—of trash manuscripts they get every year. They’ll pick up a manuscript with a cover letter sooner and give it a more considered read. So the best thing I could possibly be doing right now is churning out a body of short stories for publication and submitting the shit out them. Ironic that if I want to be a novelist, I should get cracking writing short stories, but true. While the publishing world is changing, keepers are still in front of many gates.

I also might like to take a crack at Clarion, but I know they too will to put me to work on short stories. 

The problem of “needing” to write what I don’t really feel inspired towards and feeling almost averse to the kind of writing that is that’s stymied a lot of my creativity. It’s the kind of thing I can do under external motivation like a school assignment or paid gig, but that is amazingly difficult to self-motivate when the effort to reward ratio tips below a certain point. Of course, every artistic process has parts that are less fun. Every artist has days they have to push through feeling less inspired. You work through them for the money shot—that bliss that comes from creation. However, right now this onus of career-advancing short stories and what I “ought” to be writing is messing me up. It’s REALLY messing me up. I’m starting to dread the coming of that time when I retreat to work. I’m making up excuses for why I should take a day off here or there. When I think “fuck it, I’ll write a short story later” and go to one of my long works, I churn away for four or five hours happily blissed out of my mind, and stumble into bed as the sun comes up with a goofy smile plastered across my face.

When I say “okay, tonight I need to start a short story” I just sit there and stare at a blank screen.

Maybe I'm trying to tell me something...

[A revised version of this article can be found here.]


  1. Have you thought about maybe trying to write an episode/event that would be part of the life of one of the characters in your longer works? It probably wouldn't work right off the bat as a short story, but I think it could be transformed into one with perhaps less pain than Setting Out To Write A Short Story.

    1. That's not a bad idea. I've done something similar quite often when an instructor or coach invites us to bring an existing character into a prompt. It's still a painful process, but you're right that it's not quite as disagreeable as a tabula rasa effort.

  2. Totes, yo. I feel you bro.

    1. You're a poet and you're not cognizant of that fact!

      Also, thanks. :)

  3. I always wondered why people wanted us to write short stories, since I never read short stories when I was young except at school, where they were in literature anthologies. I owned books. I wanted to write books. I don't know anyone who actually reads the magazines with the short stories in them except for aspiring writers.

    I wrote a book, but I wasn't done when the book was done. Now I'm on book 2 and I have ideas for book 3 and I don't think I'll even be done then. There's just too much story to tell, and I like the characters too much. But the idea that I have to crank out and sell some set of shorts just to be taken seriously leaves me unhappy.

    So, if that is what I actually have to do, I'll just write short stories set in the world I'm building - because at least then I'm still working on my series. :)