Monday, October 4, 2010

Fear and Loathing of the Short Story

I’m one of those writers who loves the novel. It’s my preferred reading, and for the most part if I read something else--nonfiction or a short story-- it has to be exceptional for me to pick it up (or else required). That isn’t to say I haven’t read lots of nonfiction and short stories; but my love for both reading and writing has always firmly been in the novel camp.

And -- and I admit this in the smallest, pinkest of voices -- I don’t like the whole short story genre. It’s a prejudice grounded in absolutely nothing, probably fear. I have never written a serious short story and have pooh-poohed the format as one I wouldn’t write. This despite that one of my favorite authors, Marian Keyes, is a great short story writer and in fact says she started writing short stories when she started out. I read one of hers in a collection recently (obtained because hers was in it) and hers was well-crafted, clever, quick, and awesome in every way. In fact, it blew my mind and I thought if I could write a story like THAT, then it would be okay indeed.

But still, I stuck dutifully to my usual 85,000 word count novels. I like to draw the story out, I proclaimed. I like room to grow and tell, I said. I like to ignore the possibility of submitting a short story for publication somewhere, because that is a whole other game and I’m not prepared for it, I convinced myself.

And then last week I had a dream and insomnia, in that order. I woke up at 3:30 am and thought a moment on the vividness of the dreams I’d just had. I’ve always told myself fantastic stories in my dreams, and more than one has been the basis for a later story. But this night I was astounded to realize that I remembered the three dreams in detail and that they featured a a common thread while still being quite different. And I realized, I have a short story triptych on my hands! Yes! My short story writing fear can be conquered NOW! And then I fell back asleep and remembered nothing. Always. Always this is the way.

In the morning, I remembered the last of the three dreams very well. The second one I recall not so well, but enough to make up. The first is gone completely. So one evening, I sat down and wrote down the third one, with the goal of 1500 words. And it worked. I couldn’t believe it. It worked! I had a real short story on my hands! I did it and it’s there in first putrid draft state, without being edited and with problems, but ripe for revision into something viable.

Do you write short stories? Where do they fit in with your overall writing preferences? How do you approach them -- by genre, by theme, by word count? If you prefer writing novels, where does the short story fit in with your writing? As for me, although I still love the novel, I clearly need to know more about short stories, and I'm really glad I tackled this format!


Tabitha Bird said...

This is so honest :) I am smiling as I type, because I too hated short stories. But my real hate was based in the fear that perhaps I couldn't write one good enough and then what would that say about me as a writer?

So I wrote my first short story a while back. It wasn't great. But it was there. I still haven't published any short story, but I have developed a love of writing short or flash memoir pieces. And I have had a heap of those published. My goal is to also publish short story just to prove to myself that I can :)

Linda Leszczuk said...

I never gave much thought to writing short stories until this year. I never read them, except in college or in the occasional waiting room. I read novels so I wrote novels. But this year I decided to enter a couple short story contests - not with any expectations - but just as a way of forcing myself to try something different. I wrote two, sent them in, and since these were winner notification only, received no response. But I did learn something...I really would rather write novels.

demery bader-saye said...

I wrote two short stories as part of a writing workshop about ten years ago when I first entered the world of writing. Just recently dusted them off in hopes of revising and sending them out. I'm with you in feeling intimidated by the genre... so much to communicate in the framework of a small word count. Yours sounds absolutely fascinating - based on a sequence of dreams... be sure to let us know if/where/when we can read it :)

Elisabeth said...

I once hated writing short stories because I couldn't keep myself within the usual prescribed wordcounts. But recently I've gotten back into writing them and had some pretty good success. I think it may have been partly because I fell in love with the writing of O. Henry, one of the greatest short story writers ever. Maybe partly because I learned to be a little more concise? :) And I have written at least one based on an idea from a dream! As a matter of fact I'm currently revising it.

Finding markets for short stories, though...that's another story (no pun intended). More like a nightmare. :)

Anonymous said...

I wrote my first short story in '09 for a contest. I chose to do a contest because I wanted to experience writing with a word limit, a deadline, and they offered a literary agents critique. It was hard work, as there was a 750 word limit. I must have redrafted twenty times, and in the end rewrote the entire thing from scratch (a week before deadline) and sent it in before I lost my nerve. In the end it won honorable mention. That was a great feeling, but it wasn't near as great as meeting the challenge of such a small word count.

I prefer novel length stories to short stories (in reading and writing), but the challenge of writing one sure is fun!

Anne R. Allen said...

My condolences on losing those dreams. I HATE that. I used to keep a voice-activated tape recorder near my bed, but even when I managed to say something, it would turn out to be incoherent garbage.

Add me to the list of short-fiction phobics. I wrote quite a few bad short stories when I was a student, but mostly I kind of hated the genre because I grew up with the New Yorker in the house and those stories usually end with a (very literary) "huh?"

But recently I've been getting better at the form. Mostly because I had these great scenes I had to take out of my novel and I wanted to do something with them. When I get one published, it feels like a real triumph.

Good luck!

Sierra Godfrey said...

I'm so glad I'm not alone in this!

Tabitha, you're so right that it's rooted in fear of not writing a good one. I think I am intimidated by the short story form because it's, well, so SHORT. How can you tell an interesting story in such a small space!

I confess that one of the reasons I wrote my short story is because I saw a contest for them. But normally I avoid those, so when I had the dream, I felt inspired.

If nothing ever happens to it, then I will definitely post it here for you. (Thanks Demery!)

Linda, it is indeed about challenging yourself and I really think I was missing out on that by avoiding them.

Elisabeth, I haven't read O Henry since I was a kid, but I think I'll check one out again.

Posey - I hear you on the word limit being a challenge.

Anne-- using cut scenes is a very interesting idea for short stories!! I like that, since so much of what ends up getting cut are my darlings.

Anonymous said...

I love to read good short stories. I've never managed to finish [i[writing[/i] a short story of any caliber. But I want to... :(

DL Hammons said...

I've written two short stories and have a third in progress. I write them for three reasons, first and foremost, I use them to enter contests with the end-goal earning a writing credit to put on my resume, should I ever place high enough in one. Secondly, I use them to maintain my goal of writing something everyday. If I'm not working on a book, or don't have anything particularly interesting to blog about, I'll work on a short story. My final reason is that I use them to experiment in different genre's.

Lt. Cccyxx said...

I'm late to the party but this is a great question. Like you, Sierra, my short story ideas tend to come quickly, in a flash. And they either compel me to write them right away, or they fade. I wrote some short stories 7 or 8 years ago when I was getting back into writing. But the literary journal world is opaque enough to make one pine for the good old days of querying agents. Those "easy writing credits" - at least any that counted - weren't going to come easy. So, with limited time, and finding myself much more interested in the complexities of the novel, that's the way I've gone. I still appreciate reading good short stories, though. It's cool to see how some writers do so much better at one form than the other.

olugbemisola said...

Congratulations on the dream story! I've never written a true short story, I have a hard time even thinking in short story...I've read some really wonderful ones and wished-I-could-do-that. This post makes me want to try.

Sierra Godfrey said...

I think it's so interesting that many of use short stories as contest entries, and therefore writing credits. Kudos to those of you who enter contests -- Don and Lt.

I'm with Atsiko that I WANT to write a short story (well I did!).

And Bemi, I love that you might try a short story! Keep me posted on the progress :)

Meghan Ward said...

I love short stories, but I don't read many because I'm not writing in them. I used to subscribe to The New Yorker and several literary journals and canceled them all because I wasn't taking the time to read any of the stories. An AMAZING short story writer, though, is Yiyun Li. Jumpha Lahiri is great, too. There are quite a few wonderful short story writers that may change your mind about the genre.

As for my own experience, I took a fiction workshop in grad school and wrote the first draft of three short stories there and have never revised them. Some day I plan to do that!

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