The short (and the long) of it…

Years ago a writer I really respect told me I should start with short stories before I go to long fiction, that there was nothing I could learn in long fiction that couldn’t be learned in a short story. Well, over the years I’ve found that there are a few things about long fiction that are hard to learn in a short story, and a few things about short stories you can’t learn in long fiction…

Long fiction is something I love, there are lots of things you can do with it. But, a 50,000-word story doesn’t teach you how to get to the point, or how to have a complete story arc in two pages. A 50,000-word story is about as helpful in learning to write efficiently, and short, as running marathons is for learning how to sprint.

On the other hand, a two-page short piece will never teach you how to tell the long story. You can’t practice what to do on page 158 if you end on page two; that’s like thinking you’re ready for the marathon because you sprinted twice. Sure, you can think of chapters as individual stories or story arcs (and in some ways you should). But, in novel the stuff that happened in chapter two matters in Chapter 14. The magic reset button isn’t something to press between chapters (if you press it at all!).

Even larger short stories, even the big 20-30 pagers, don’t have room for the cast of characters a novel needs. You just don’t have space for all of those characters in the shorter story. But your long story might have several of them in different places doing different things and expect all those lines to link up somewhere around page 250 (or 350, or 475, or…).

Long and short stories have different requirements and are useful for different things. You may not fully understand the differences until you’ve finished a few (or at least one) of each. That said, there are some valid reasons for starting with short stories (or doing short stories if you’re struggling with that first big story…).

There are many things in common between the story types. You (usually) need characters, settings, a plot, and the other ‘usual’ pieces of a story (you just have more space to play with them in the larger story (and (usually) more characters and locations to worry about)). Working on short stories allows you to practice working on these before you try to assemble the 50,000-piece set.

Short stories also have the advantage of being shorter to write (again usually). It’s just less work to write 2,500 words than it is to write 50,000. This means it’s easier to finish the whole writing process in a relatively short time. You will probably go through the whole process in less time than it would take to write a 50,000-word first draft. And, that overview of the whole process is helpful in finishing that big story (trust me, you can get lost in there if you don’t know where you’re going).

Short stories also make a great ‘experimental space’. In Statistics we learn about a t-test, a simple two group test that allows you to determine if there is a difference between groups. Short stories are like t-tests. They don’t handle the big complicated things very well, but as a ‘quick and dirty’ test for a writing technique or a character interaction they work pretty well. Short stories can be helpful in developing the characters, places and things you need for your big story. In model building/construction terms short stories can be a way of ‘dry fitting’ parts before you get into the more complicated work.

I think my teacher of years ago was wrong, there are things you can learn in long fiction that you can’t in a short story. But, that doesn’t mean that we should abandon the short story. Our short stories are useful for practicing a lot of things we need in our bigger stories. They give us a relatively cheap and easy place to experiment. They can serve as parts and models in the big picture. They give us ‘taster’ pieces we can hand out, put in our blogs, and enter contests with, without having to do the work necessary on that one big piece.

And, not every idea needs 50,000 words! There are some stories that just don’t need, and shouldn’t have, that much of our time.

Ultimately, I think we should write both long and short fiction. And, it’s probably worth starting with short stuff (maybe build a 1/700 scale kit before trying to build a full-scale, working aircraft carrier….).

That’s my thoughts. What do you say? If you disagree (or agree!) with me, leave a comment.

Either way, I’ll see you next post.

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