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

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Short Stories vs. Novels for Learning (Mailbox)

Where should I go for feedback? 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will try to answer a couple each week. I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name, first initial only, or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  Hey don't forget to resubmit any questions I promised I'd answer because I lost them in a tragical tale of tragedy.]

Benny asks:  

I'm not entirely sure how the mailbox works, and it's late at night, but I really want to get this question out. I heard (or, more likely, read) somewhere that writing 10 6000-word short stories will teach you exponentially more about writing than writing a 60,000 word novel. What's your take on this?

My reply: 

I don't know if there's an exact mathematical formula for this. ("The square of the novel is equal to the sum of the square of the ten short stories") However, there is a reason that almost every author you've ever known (even the ones these days starting out in non-traditional publishing) have cut their teeth on shorter works.

If this were a question twenty, even fifteen years ago, the answer would be deceptively simple. It's really hard to get a book deal without a cover letter of short story accolades. It's not unheard of, but agents will pay more attention if you're a writer with a handful of accolades. You'd probably be in the slush pile without. Agents who took an unknown's first books would be the equivalent of ambulance chasers. It was just sort of The Way It Was Done™.

These days there's a lot of self-published novels complicating the equation, and a lot of it from writers who wanted to "jump the queue" of this more traditional route. However, if you go through these lists of self published books and pull out the ones that have done quite well or received critical acclaim, you'll find the same thing: the authors almost universally wrote a lot of short stories first. The reason publishers and agents give this group of practiced writers preference and the reason so many non-traditional writers still start with short stories is actually still the same, even in the non-traditional publishing world.

A lot writers don't like to hear this. They want to author BOOKS. They want to be Paperback Writers. They get lost in the world of their own writing and quickly have a trilogy in the works. I'm no exception to this, by the way if you're thinking I'm trying to tell you my shit doesn't stink. I sat down every day after school and wrote for hours on my "NOVEL."  I had the seven or eight book fantasy series plotted out and no one–absolutely no one–was going to tell me that I should write short stories for a while.

I didn't want to hear that fucking crap.

Many writers keep bucking this advice long after they are quite serious about being Real Writers™. I ran into several of them in my writing program in college. They would turn in chapters as their "short stories" for workshop classes against the explicit directions of the instructor (and then verbally explain missing back story to us when the workshop turned into a trainwreck–while our eyes glazed over) . They bucked against any mandates to write something creative, unexplored, and UNDER TEN PAGES for the class.

If we were very lucky we would see a little vignette they had slapped together with one of the characters from their novels. Less lucky and they would keep submitting it in class after class after class. One of the guys used the same short story in every class I shared with him for two years. It was about two of his high fantasy novel's nemesis characters having a civil conversation on the BART train about how they would destroy each other. I had to sit through this fucking thing like five or six times. He would tell us, every single time he went to read: "This is something I tried. I'm not really a short story writer. I'm going to write books. But I wrote this to fit in with the class.) And then I had to sit there while 90% of the story was dedicated to the absurdity of a barbarian with a claymore and a wizard sporting a full on robe and staff heading from Millbrae to Civic Center station.

Like that would actually give anyone in San Francisco even a moment's pause.

These people didn't want to be short story writers. They wanted to be novelists. And no one was going to tell them that learning to write is a hell of a lot easier in bite sized pieces. For all the fucking good it will do to tell a stubborn would-be novelist that somewhere around 99.9% of working authors started out writing short stories, I could probably do another five articles cautioning them about Nanowrimo or suggesting they write every day if they can.

Image description: "So you're telling me there's a chance" meme with 
Jim Carrey from Dumb and Dumber

So let's get this party started, and maybe I'll just stick with why.

Why do so many working writers start with short stories? It's not just because those fit snuggly into a classroom setting of a writing program or because all the Creative Writing teachers got fucking sick of critiquing the first chapter of their students' novels. It's not even to haze out shitty writers. Though all of these things are totes true.

It's CERTAINLY not because short stories sell well or are well regarded. (They don't and generally they're not.) It's not because a publisher can get any real sense of how a book is going to do by looking at short story sales. (They can't.) And it's not because all short story writers always make good novelists. (They don't.)

Actually, it turns out short stories just make for a really good way to learn to write.

First let me hip check these numbers just a bit. Sixty thousand words is pretty light for a novel. A Separate Peace clocks in at 57k and change, but even The Catcher in the Rye is 73k+. The trend toward longer and longer books would probably make a 60k work a tough sell in today's market, so that's a little short for a novel.  And 6000 words is a little long for a short story–about 15-20 pages unless it was pretty dense. Both are skirting on the upper and lower limits respectively of what would actually be considered a novella.

I mention this bit of pedantry not just to show off, but actually for a couple of pragmatic reasons that relate to your question.

First of all, this length is a hard sell. Just know that going in. Novellas rarely sell except in anthologies of very famous authors–they are harder to get published than novels (which are pretty hard to get published outside of non-traditional means). So your ease of publication is actually flash fiction, short stories, novels, novellas in most cases.

"Why is that, Chris?" you inquire. So glad you asked. Let me tell you!

If you're the editor of an anthology or a literary periodical anything over ten pages is going to start to make you nervous just because of how much space it'll take up. That could be two, three, even four more authors in that space instead. (Which means a lot more sold copies to friends and family.) Trust me as a former managing editor of a literary review when I assure you of this undeniable fact of fitting-in-submissions Tetris: a lot more mediocre flash fiction and very short stories have seen publication than longer works.

You can trust your cute and loveable two-bit blogger on that one.

Getting published and rejected, as opposed to almost always rejected because your shit is just too long to take a chance on, is IN AND OF ITSELF a kind of feedback. This process of acceptance and rejection starts to give a writer a more intuitive sense of what is writing that will get picked up and what isn't and how to craft something that people will want to read. And that is to say nothing of a lot more direct feedback either in the form of personal rejections with suggestions for improvement (rather than form letters for just being too long), editors who will take on a piece if certain changes are made, or post-publication reader response. You're just getting a lot more input into your writing if you're putting out lots of little stories instead of buried behind a closed door working on something for years without feedback. Years that might involve stilted prose or wooden characters, but you never even know because you spent years doing it wrong without any course corrections.

The second reason is perhaps more important though. The benefits (below) of learning to write short stories may not necessarily be fully realized in a VERY long short story. Twenty pages doesn't necessarily mean you're crafting a tight narrative–it may just mean you just have a very small plot.

Just because someone only ate chicken and mashed potatoes doesn't mean they ordered off the menu; they may have gone to the buffet and just not been very hungry.

Okay, that was a really forced metaphor. Let's pretend the reason I wrote it was to give you an example of the kind of writing that someone who wanted to publish your short story would tell you to take out.

Here's the thing though, when a writer really has limited space (like, say, 2500 words), they have to start being a writer. They have to start being economical with their language. Languid prose becomes a deliberate choice rather than an unexamined style. They have to decide what scene (or what IN a scene) isn't really isn't helping. They have to start pulling out paragraphs where they rambled a little. They have to focus on a narrative arc. They have to generate tension that jumps off the page right away rather than taking ten or fifteen pages to really have a sense of what's even happening. They don't have five pages to introduce a character (that's half the story); they have to have characterization come through in a few sentences. They tighten their prose. Cut cut cut–and as a result trim everything that's not working.

In short, they learn to write much, much better.

Short stories are like playing a single song before starting to work on a three hour concerto. They're like doing practice scenes or bit parts to learn to act before deciding that you have to be the lead in a three and a half hour production of Hamlet or you're going home. They're like artists drawing and sketching before just buying a canvas as big as themselves and just getting to work on "their masterpiece." They are the short films a director does to cement their aesthetic and style before simply starting right off with a feature length movie that they are just certain will be their debut on the radars of Hollywood filmmakers. They are learning short dances of a few minutes before going and simply starting to dig into Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty (a four hour ballet). They are game designers who learn the basics of AI and graphics with little quick games and maybe 8 bit side scrollers instead of making their first project a fully immersive FPS.  It's why sculptors learn to do little cats out of clay before ordering a five ton block of marble and getting to work on their Orc Riding a Warg sculpture.

And frankly, they give a writer a place to fuck up and try something that really doesn't work without blowing a year's worth of effort.


*Text of image below.

Want to know what the most common advice experienced writers, agents, editors and publishers give to young, hopeful writers who hand them sample chapters (or full manuscripts) and ask them what they need to do to get it published?

Go on. Guess.

It's to put it in a drawer, write some short stories and learn a ton of lessons that are going to translate almost directly into better prose on their novel. Then rewrite the whole thing from scratch. (Add to that "Read a lot" because it's painfully obvious that a lot of writers haven't, but that's another post for another day.)

For my next trick, see if you can guess how many writers actually
take that advice instead of getting pissed off at the messenger.....

Short stories are where writers learn to craft instead of what sort of amounts to a rambling linguistic version of imaginative play. Believe it or not, a trained reader can actually tell when they're reading a book that is a writer's first real crack at writing because the quality of prose is SO much better at the end than at the beginning. They were literally learning as they went along, and it shows. Problem being, all that practice should have been done before the book even started. And while it is so easy to see in other arts why simply starting with the apex projects (without that background in bite sized chunks first) would be foolhardy, for some reason, writers think they're above such stepping stones and want to jump right into their novels.

Fetishization of the physical book maybe? I dunno. Certainly most of us READ novels rather than short stories, and probably those who wanted to write dreamed of crafting their own book some day. I can remember distinctly telling my mom "I'm writing a book," when she asked what I was doing as young as six or seven, and that dream hasn't really changed.

Even for novelists who write some short stories, get a book deal, and never look back, short stories are still a stepping stone. They're like the minor leagues or semi-pro–a place where a few amateur mistakes are still okay and where they're not quite ready to go pro. They are training for the big event.

Do you absolutely positively have to write short stories? No, and especially not in the age of non-traditional publishing. A few notable exceptions have not. They have learned their lessons on longer timelines, spending years churning out novels with unpublished works  (or self published works with incredibly lackluster sales) before starting to hit quality pacing and tighter prose somewhere around their fourth to seventh book. Others have gutted out cult followings through compelling aspects of craft other than prose.  Self-publishing has, in many ways, brought back the art of storytelling as something separate from higher quality prose. (Let me tell you about a little piece of shit book called Fifty Shades of Grey.....)  Many go the fanfic route, where readers are already fans of the world and characters and not only will forgive rougher prose, but hunger for those longer works, so the writers write several longer works for a MASSIVELY forgiving audience, and develop in that time a much better sense of what good characterization is or how to pace rising tension.

Learning to write isn't a formula, but there are reasons for why certain things work so well, and I'd council any writer to think long and hard about insisting they were an exception.

However, Benny, your question wasn't about what you have to do, but had more to do with how to learn faster or what you can learn more from, and in that there is no doubt (even though I'm not sure about your exact numbers) that you have heard some good advice. Even though they are separate genres, short stories are great for learning a lot of lessons that can be carried into writing novels and will improve your novel-writing ability.
Let me emphasize this then as a final thought: in a manner analogous to learning grammar so that you can break the rules (as opposed to simply never really learning the rules), or learning to draw realistically before abstraction (as opposed to simply splattering paint on a canvas willy nilly), it is clearly, painfully obvious the difference between the writer who has learned the lessons short stories teach and employs them with practiced skill where appropriate, but also bends them and breaks them in order to craft a longer, more languid narrative, and the writer who is sloppy and prolix because they don't know how else to be.

*The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. 

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pound of pots rated an "A", forty pounds a "B", and so on. Those being graded on "quality", however, needed to produce only one pot - albeit a perfect one - to get an "A".

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes - the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

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