Thursday, July 27, 2006

Short Stories

The English writer Kay Sexton wrote in a July 16th post on her blog, that “If you want to be a novelist … learn to write short stories.”

I don’t agree.  I believe they are two distinctly different forms and one has nothing to do with the other.  Not everyone can write a good short story.  It’s an art all it’s own.  And if you can’t write one that doesn’t mean you can’t write a novel.

Sexton says: “Yes, there are writers who manage to get a book published without working through the apprentice stages of short fiction, but believe me, they are rare.”

This can’t be true.  Naturally no one comes to mind at this moment so I shouldn’t be writing this now.  But I’ve started and maybe readers of this post can help me out.

I can talk about me, of course.  I’d written and published many novels before I tried a short story.  I’ve published two.  Both in crime anthologies.  They were anomalies for me.  I find the form incredibly difficult.  Especially a mystery short.

I don’t enjoy reading shorts.  Sorry.  I don’t want to take the time away from reading a novel which I feel will be more rewarding.  But there are always exceptions.  I’ve read and loved the Raymond Carver stories.  Also Amy Bloom.  A few Anne Beattie years ago.

I guess if you don’t like reading something you probably don’t want to write it.  I don’t read science fiction, fantasy or westerns and I’d never think of trying to write one of those.

So, Kay, I don’t think you have to write short stories to become a good novelist anymore than I believe you must write an outline before you write a novel.  I think it’s different for everyone.

Writing short stories won’t hurt you as a novelist, but it isn’t a requirement.


Gena said...

Kate Christensen, one of my favorite authors, and a critically aclaimed one, said once in an interview she never wrote a short story.

I think some short stories can be good, and I like reading them occasionally. Roald Dahl, for instance, was a master at the genre. But I'm not big on writing them because I don't think you can really get into a character's personality and head in 10-20 pages (or less).

Kay Sexton said...

Okay, I accept that there are many writers who don't write short stories - but for people learning their craft, it's a huge blow to write a novel of say 90,000 words, and only then find out they've missed some basic writing rule that means they must abandon the entire text or revise it. I'm not suggesting you MUST write short stories, but that if you are serious about making a living as a writer, you should at least give them a go. If you find out they aren't for you, that's fine, but I meet too many people who've spent a year or two on a novel, and become disheartened by discovering that basic skills like pacing and dialogue have passed them by.

Learning those skills in the short form is less labour intensive and gets you much more feedback, much more quickly than hoping an agent or publisher will guide you through Writing 101 when you send in your first three chapters.

That said, J K Rowling never wrote a short story apparently ....

Martha O'Connor said...

I've never published a short story. Poetry, yes, short story, no. That said, I have written a lot of them. I submitted them and got nice, personal replies from literary journals that did not want to publish them. My favorite short story writers are Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Carver, and Dan Chaon. :o)

Sarah said...

For the longest time I thought I could only write short stories and struggled with the idea of the novel's longer format. So I wrote a ton, especially in 2005. Now that I have one novel in a drawer and am about halfway through another work in progress, the short story output has gone down considerably. Haven't finished one since the spring and even then it was a struggle - because I had to remember that a story works when it's one idea, get in, get out. At least for me.

Maybe when I finish the first draft I can go back to writing short stories, b/c I do love the format and miss it.

Anonymous said...

I tried a few short stories before writing my first novel, but I don't think one prepared me at all for the other. I think the only way to learn how to write a novel is to jump in and do it.

Once I did finally finish that first novel though, I realized I had a problem writing good endings for my other novels so I wrote several short stories with an eye toward raising my ending skill level and I believe it helped immensely.

James Lincoln Warren said...

I don’t enjoy reading shorts. Sorry. I don’t want to take the time away from reading a novel which I feel will be more rewarding.

What's more rewarding? Twenty 5000 word short stories or one 100,000 word novel?

and Gena writes

... I don't think you can really get into a character's personality and head in 10-20 pages (or less).

The public's reading habits have changed. People used to read on the train and at bedtime. Now it seems the only time they read is on airplanes or at the beach.

Short stories are perfect for the morning commute and that time just before you put out the light. You can read a self-contained story in the time alotted. Novels you either have to read episodically or in large dedicated chunks of time.

I don't think that short stories are less pyschologically deep than novels are. The difference is that they only show the depth necessary to the story.

For mystery fiction, you should try Sherlock Holmes--there are 66 Holmes stories and only 4 novels. For science fiction, look at Isaac Asimov's robot short stories, most of which revolve around some point of psychology. For literary merit and depth of feeling, you might want to try reading Joyce's Dubliners, any of Chekhov's, or Turgenev's Hunter's Sketches and First Love.

Writing short stories is different from writing novels, like writing sonnets is different from writing five-act plays in blank verse. The basic skills required by each form are the same. The advanced skills are not.