A Love-Hate Affair With Writing Short Stories
See? I even dressed it up with bows. Hang on for this ride. I’m going to spill all about my torrid love-hate affair with writing short stories… and with the short story itself.
It took me over ten years of writing every day — millions of words, mind you — to turn out a single short story.
During those ten years, I slogged away on novel project after novel project, filling notebook after notebook, hammering keystroke after keystroke to fill Google document after Google document, printing page after endless page of revision after endless revision. People would ask me what I was working on, and I’d give them the skinny on my latest novel project. I used to absolutely hate when people asked what I was working on, because it meant I had to make up an elevator pitch on the spot. And then, sometimes, the hated question.
“What about short stories? Have you written any short stories?”
Now, I’m sure they meant well. They were asking, “Do you have anything short I can read?” They were trying to express their interest in my writing.
I would turn up my nose. “No. I don’t write short stories. I’ve never been able to write them, probably never will. Some writers are like that, you know. They only write novels. No short stories.”
And then I’d go on to extol the virtues of the short story writer. “They’re so talented. They can produce a story in…” Nervous laughter. “Five or ten pages. Amazing. It takes me a whole novel.”
Really, I was trying to say, “Look at me! I write novels!” I was trying to outrun the short story.
But, truth be told, my struggles writing short stories really irked me. There were two main reasons for this.
First, I had heard many writers say that writing a good short story was harder — infinitely harder, it seemed — than writing a novel. They had thus come to the conclusion that writing short stories was the true measure of a writer’s talent.
This led me to believe that, second, a truly talented writer ought to be able to turn out a good short story with ease.
There are a lot of things wrong with these two statements. First of all, writing short stories is only perhaps a quarter about writing, and three-quarters or more about storytelling. In a short story, there’s nowhere to hide your lackluster storytelling skills. No deeper characterization than what you can get done in five or ten pages. No sparkling, well-built setting. No purple prose. Just the story, and I mean the bare bones of the story. And a short, pithy story, not a novel-sized story. (I’ll talk more about this in a moment.)
During the years I struggled with the short story, I grew more and more bitter about it. If I was ever to consider myself a good writer, wouldn’t I have to master the short story? That single sentence should give you the idea that I approached everything from the wrong angle. Writing a good short story isn’t about mastering anything. If anything, writing a good short story is letting the words speak for themselves. Because there aren’t very many of them.
Anyway, short stories and I eventually reached an understanding, in the spring of 2019. Since then, I’ve written probably about ten short stories. Still only a handful, but many more than I ever imagined myself writing. And I have a combined short story and poetry collection planned for release in mid-August 2020! Wow. We’ve come a long way. And while the art of the short story has remained constant, I’ve learned a lot. Feel free to take the following as advice or reflection — whichever you please. Either way, here are three reasons why I struggled with writing short stories — which, conversely, stand for three reasons why short stories and I have at last come to an understanding.
1. My writing hadn’t caught up to my taste.
So I know I said short story writing isn’t all about writing. But it is partly about writing. Like I said before, there’s nowhere to hide in a short story. You can’t hide bad storytelling and you can’t hide bad or even mediocre writing. I’m very critical of my writing. And up to about a year ago, I had never written anything that I could read and think, “Wow, that’s really good. That’s on par with the things I’ve read from the greats.”
All that seemed to change very suddenly, when I wrote my first short story. It’s titled “Metamorphosis” and will be the headliner of my upcoming collection (also titled Metamorphosis). I can’t wait to hear what people think of it! Anyway, it seemed as if my prose had finally attained a new level of clarity and finesse, the level I’d been seeking for a long time. How had I gotten there? By writing okay novels instead of mediocre short stories, since okay novels were easier for me to re-read than mediocre short stories. Because there are plenty of hiding spots in novels. Not so many in short stories.
2. I had a love-hate relationship with editing.
On the one hand, I was critical of my writing — overly critical, maybe — but on the other hand I wanted everything to turn out perfect the first time around. Or I wanted to redraft over and over again until something close to perfection emerged, without ever pausing to tool with the stuff I’d already written. I didn’t like editing and I didn’t like revising. But bringing a novel project to the querying stage changed all of that. I was forced to edit and revise. Not long after, I began writing short stories for the first time. And I edited them and revised them and made them better.
3. I tried to squeeze novel-sized plots into short stories.
This comes back to the storytelling aspect. Storytelling isn’t just about storytelling, it’s also about picking the right story for the right medium. The story behind a poem might be able to fit in a short story, and vice versa. But a novel-sized story is unlikely to fit gracefully into a 2,000 word short story. A novel excerpt, maybe, but not a novel itself. Many of my early short story attempts were ill-fated because I attempted to squeeze novel-sized plots into the short story medium. Most of my ideas were novel-sized because I wrote novels, but also because I read novels. I hadn’t read very many short stories. Finally, I picked up some of Hemingway’s… and not long after, I wrote “Metamorphosis,” which happens to be inspired by a Hemingway short story (“Hills Like White Elephants”).
Short stories don’t have lengthy plots. They’re more often moments in time, caught by the writer. Bite-sized conflicts with plenty of teeth. Memorable characters, neatly described.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little reflection of mine on writing short stories. Have you written any yourself? Link your favorite in the comments for me, whether it’s by you or by someone else! Let me know what you think about the short story medium. Give me some short story writing advice that you find particularly sage. Talk to me about anything!
If you liked this reflection, you’d probably also like my tips for writing poetry that sings, inspired by the brief amount of time I’ve been writing poetry. (If you’re worried about my qualifications there, just read any of my poems and then decide whether you can trust me or not!) You can also read one of my short stories as a guest post on Experiments in Fiction. It’s titled “Labor of Love.”
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