Call me disloyal to the great American literary form, but I’ve somehow never been one for the short story — at least on the creating end. I’ve enjoyed reading my fair share of them.
It’s just that when it comes to getting my head around the beginning and end of a story, to write it, my tendency is to go macro rather than micro. The little stories contained in the hours that make up our days and years, these are not my strength as a storyteller. It might have something to do with the way my mind continuously looks for patterns whether I want it to or not. All events lead to other events, and it’s my inclination to follow that train of thought for the long haul. So when it comes to picking out just one moment and encapsulating within it the full scope of the dramatic arc in miniature, I struggle to see beginning and end. To me, it’s all middle.
There is much to be said for the short story, as a writer and not just as a consumer of words. As much as I might flail when forced to be brief, it’s a useful exercise. It’s no less true that every word has to count in a novel than it is in short story, but somehow, knowing that you mean not to break ten thousand makes you look at every word with a different kind of scrutiny. You want each and every one of those evocative bastards to be telling a story all by itself, not just pulling its own weight. (Unrealistic? Sure, whatever. It’s not a writer’s job to approach things in terms of what’s realistic. Our work is with the substance of dreams.) The story has to introduce the protagonist and his conflict, show action toward the resolution of that conflict, present a climax, and tie up any loose ends on short rations; no word of dialogue, no line of description that does not aid in this is welcome to the show. Shrinking novel mentality down to sitcom-episode size takes constant vigilance, and that’s good for someone like me who tends to be wordy (in real life as much as on the page.)
From the perspective of a serial novelist, short story is like a working vacation. You can put aside, for a moment, everything you’ve had to hold within your mind regarding the big picture. And believe me, holding the pieces of an unwritten novel together in your brain is no easy task. For most people, it’s too daunting a prospect even to take seriously. We novelists are an eccentric bunch in that we know what a scary job it is but we decide to do it anyway. But when writing short, you get to step away from that crazy internal almost-chaos and just take a moment to explore character. Or setting. Or tone. Visit techniques or genres or ideas you don’t know well enough to give your attention for the full length of a novel.
Then you have a lovely finished product to sit back and admire after an effort that can be measured in hours rather than weeks, months, or even years. There’s no denying the appeal of the immediacy of the gratification. And once you’ve completed the exercise and patted yourself on the back, you get to return to the scary, more complicated world of the novel with the reassurance that you do in fact have it in you to get things done.
Yes, this is my dreadfully windbaggy way of saying I wrote a short story last week and that I liked doing it. And that it helped me want to get on with the novel.