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.

Characters and space

Nope, we’re not actually going sci fi this week dear reader (maybe soon, but not this week). Actually, what I’m writing about has to do with your characters and the length of your story…

Between November’s NANOWRIMO adventure and now (where I’m engaging in editing and finishing Jamie’s Sacrifice) I’ve been thinking about the differences between long and short fiction. I’ve been thinking about how the length of story really does impact the things that you can, and should, do.

One area that really gets impacted is your characters. In longer fiction you have a lot more space to describe and develop characters. You have the opportunity to add more details (which might or might not be a good thing…). In shorter fiction you kind of need to get on with things and tell the story. You don’t have time to detail every detail of the heroine’s bedroom (unless that is the story…).

Need to know

Whether you’re doing a long or short story there is information about your character that the reader needs to know, and that’s the information to worry most about; both providing it and when to provide it.

In a long story you can take time to provide more information. And you can hide those key details that lead your reader to gasp “I should have seen that” among the other information you give them.  But you do need to play fair: give them the information and don’t just pump out filler.

In shorter fiction you may have to leave out those cool but extraneous details you’ve worked up. If you’re only doing a ten page story you don’t have the extra room to waste on the hero’s stamp collection, unless it’s actually relevant.

But what if I really want to give that detail (or, how do I control the information fire hose?)

Well… If you are going to do short stories and really want to use that bit of information which doesn’t quite fit into this story, why not write another story where the detail matters?

If you think about it the chapters of a long story are a sequence of short stories, just a sequence with one big plot running through it all. It is just as fair to do multiple short stories with a character that the reader can get to know over time. It worked for Conan the Barbarian and it can work for you.

While we’re at it, even in long fiction you might want to take some time in revealing information. Let your reader get to know the character through action and story not just “reading the character’s baseball card” somewhere on page three. In real life and real friendships our knowledge of our friends develops over time. You can do that in your fiction too.

Your secondary characters (and tertiary characters, and quaternary characters, and that guy over on the corner…)

Here’s another other big difference dear reader, in long fiction you have time to introduce more characters. But, you still need to think about how much information you’re giving. We really don’t need to know the life story of the ‘counter guy’ at the local fast food joint if he’s only going to be showing up in that one scene. Remember, your readers can only keep up with so many characters at one time. And having too much or too little information can impact your reader’s ability to keep track of who is who.

If you’re doing a short story stick to a couple of characters and write them well. In longer fiction you can add more, but remember it’s a story not a telephone directory! In any case you need to think about the descriptions and information you’re giving about your characters. We want to know who they are but we don’t need to be overwhelmed with extraneous drama.

That’s it for this one dear reader. I’d tell you what we’re doing next week, but my characters haven’t told me yet…