Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The long and the short of it

I finished a short story yesterday. I write a lot of short stories. In fact, a big chunk of my writing time is devoted to short fiction and finding venues that might publish each individual piece. As I whipped through the story I finished yesterday, cutting out superfluous words, I wondered if perhaps I should not be spending so much time on my shorts.

I have three novels at various stages of completion. Maybe rather than writing new shorts, I should be focusing on them. My list of published work is growing, and I'm actually quite proud of it, but does that mean anything? Does that little paragraph in my query letter make an agent more interested in looking at my manuscript, or does she just skip over it?

I never used to write short stories. My writing time was always about the books. When I did start writing shorts, I realized I had to completely adjust my style or every story would ramble on forever. Writing short fiction, especially when guided by a word limit, is extremely challenging. In a novel you have the freedom to explore side streets, go on tangents and go into great detail describing anything and everything you feel is worthy of it. If you're working within a 2000 word limit, you need to make each and every word count. There is no room to follow interesting side routes. You have to have a clear idea where the story is going, and just find the most direct way to it.

It is important not to try and introduce too many characters too, which in a novel is not a problem at all. In a novel, you can spend an entire chapter on a character who may only show up one time in the book; in a short story, if they're not integral to the plot, cut them out.

Short stories give me the opportunity to explore different genres too, without making too big a commitment to them. For instance, I doubt I'll ever write a sci-fi novel, but I had terrific fun writing a short story called After the Rains, which sits firmly within the parameters of the genre.

I can explore different styles of writing too, experiment with form. I recently wrote a story called The Light in which the protagonist is in shock. The present reality and her memories of the events that brought her there weave in and out of each other in a way that makes both surreal. I would never experiment in this way in a novel, but by doing so in my stories, I think I'm extending myself, learning and growing as a writer.

So the next time I feel guilty about writing a story instead of editing a chapter of Prayer and Prey, I'm going to give myself a break. It's all in the name of education and doing what I can to become the best writer I can be.

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