Thursday, 18 August 2011

Writing Novels and Things #8: Short Stories (Part 1)

Me and my novel have parted ways, for a while. It's a trial separation, at least that's what we're saying right now; we have every intention of getting back together some day and making it work. We just need some time apart, some distance, so we can learn to appreciate each other some more. It'll be better, eventually, when we reunite, whenever that is.

I don't even miss it.

But I do miss the writing, so I have been doing the odd bit of non-novel, non-blog writing in the meantime. I have a little piece (and possibly some artwork) coming out in the next issue of Paraxis, about my love of libraries. I have had a super-short story published today at Paragraph Planet (if you want to find it after today, go to the archive and search for today's date). And it's kind of, technically, Science Fiction, so that's a first. Also, I have finished my first proper short story since my masters, and it feels good. It is currently being read my oldest friend (and most adoring reader) Leila, before I consider what else to do with it.

The question is though... what do you do with it? I was looking at a short story journal's submissions page recently and they said something along the lines of:

'If a fifth of the people who submitted to our magazine, actually bought one, we'd be rich.'

Sadly, I totally believe that. Newspapers may do one short fiction supplement annually, few magazines feature them (maybe some of the women's weeklies), there are no mainstream magazines or journals devoted to them and even Radio 4 is trying to cut back on their short story output (or is it?). Weirdly, in our crazy bite-size-loving world, the popularity of short stories is still on the downturn.

Granta 115: The F Word (Feminism) (Granta: The Magazine of New Writing)I have to confess, my Granta magazine subscription aside, I have read only one short story collection this year, and none by a specific author. I love Raymond Carver, obviously, but, well, reading a whole book of his short stories is so much harder than just reading a novel! There are so many endings, and so many characters to invest in from scratch, and then there's more endings and all these new characters and just when they're starting to mean something to you... it ends! Basically, you just can't immerse yourself in a short story the way you can with a novel.

I think, though I may be wrong, that it would be almost impossible to make a living as a short story writer. The only person I can think who might have a chance is Tobias Wolff, though they are undoubtedly a few others. [The only book of his I've read, I have to confess, is his novel Old School - though it is about short stories, at least.] It's exceptionally difficult to get publish (relative to, say, a feature article), and almost nobody will read it. And yet every writer, and especially a new one, wants to write them!

Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories (Vintage Contemporaries)They're shorter, I suppose, than a novel, so that's easier. You won't get bored. If it's rubbish, there's less shame in giving up and walking away. If you make mistakes, there won't be too many people that notice. And who cares, anyway, because you'll be on to the next one by the time anyone says anything. Writing a novel is a huge commitment, writing a short story is, like, whatever. You know?

Well, in theory. For me, writing and editing a short story is every bit as difficult and painful as my novel has been. Except it's worse, because you don't have 80,000 words to get someone invested, you need to keep them riveted with each word. With a short story, by necessity, you have to rip apart and rewrite every sentence until it is perfect and exists solely to serve the story. If you're anything like me, you will start out thinking this is a fun, worthwhile experience that will result in your own personal growth. Moments later, you hate yourself, your loved ones and the fact that language was ever invented.

[If this doesn't happen to you, and you like the editing phase, I don't think we could be friends.]

The point of this post was to lay out my ideas, and findings, about how to approach writing a short story, but have slightly detoured. In summary though, people who write short stories do not have it easy. Writing a good short story is extremely difficult and I'm not entirely sure I ever will. So I am in awe of those who do, and I am going to make more of an effort to actually read them.

So... you know what that means? Two-parter!

1 comment:

  1. I have a hard time reading short stories, so writing them has always seemed like a bit of a chore. When I read them I always feel like maybe I've missed something, like maybe I don't "get" the story. I think I feel like the story (or the author) is laughing at me. When I write them I feel like just as I'm starting to get into the story, it has to end. So I definitely agree that writing and editing a short story is as - if not more - difficult as writing and editing a novel.