Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Shorts Weather

by Matt Sinclair

Have you noticed the sun setting earlier? Are leaves already starting to turn color in your neck of the woods? It's hard to believe the summer has crept into its final weeks. Soon the seasons will change from baseball to football. Good gravy, it's almost time for NaNoWriMo! But as far as I'm concerned, any time can be shorts weather.

No, I'm not one of those crazy polar bears who swims half naked on New Year's Day. Rather, I'm talking about short stories. I've spent much of my summer vacationing from my work-in-progress by taking week-long trips with new characters. And when I haven't been writing them, I've reading them.

If you haven't written a short story since your high school or college days, do your novel-in-progress a favor and revisit them when you've finished the first draft. They're a great way to hone your character development tools and shape your settings. Indeed, they can make your sentences so sharp, you might get a paper cut.

Of course, there's a difference between writing short stories and writing novels. They're kinda like beer and single malt scotch. They both start from the same basic ingredients, but scotch and short stories are distilled down to their very essence. A short story takes a character, hands him a razor and forces him to shave his beard close. And sometimes the water's dirty from hurricane damage, so he has to boil it first!

Do you suffer from the occasional POV shift? It's a lot harder to get away with when your entire story is only fifteen pages long! Give it a try.

Pacing in short stories is much different, too. Say what you will about the attention span of a twenty-first century novel reader, but she probably allows for fewer mistakes with a short. It's too easy for a reader to decide after fifty words that the story simply isn't worth spending her time reading. I just finished a collection of shorts by Donald Barthelme, who's often regarded as one of the masters of the form, but there were some I just couldn't care less about. I realize that not every story is as good as James Joyce's "The Dead," but when I'm reading shorts these days, I want character and story, not post-modernism. But that's me at this moment in my life. Your existence will likely be different.

I find that a well-crafted sentence or a perfectly placed adjective—careful, not too much!—can serve as the subtle note that arouses a reader's taste buds. Of course, such crafting can take a while. Those week-long trips I mentioned just a few paragraphs ago? Those are first drafts. The hard work is still to come, as I need to shape and polish the stories into something worth reading. But when I'm done with them, I'll be in even better shape to return to that new series of chapters in the new novel that was going nowhere back in the spring. I don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to reaping a strong harvest this fall!

How about you? Do you use short stories to keep in shape? Feel free to share!


JeffO said...

I walked out of the house the morning after Irene and said, "Feels just like Fall!"

I haven't really sat down with the intention of writing a short story in while, but I do have a couple from earlier in the year that need attention. Next time I need a break from the novel I may pull them out and give them a work out. It is definitely good to change the pace every once in a while.

jmarierundquist said...

Love the timing of this post as I have just finished a draft of my novel and need a bridge to carry me over the distance between now and re-opening it again.

More specifically, I had a comment on a blog post of mine a while back that asked about short stories. She wanted to know - why write them? Who reads them? And I think this is a good question... outside of school and well, fellow writers, who does read them?

I do not mean to downplay or criticize short stories, because there are some really great ones out there. But, I do think it is useful to know who my audience is before I return to writing them.

I am still doing informal, anecdotal research on this one. :-)

Christopher Hudson said...

Not my favorite form, but shorts actually make some of the best movie scripts ... the plots are concise and the characters can be expanded, rather than contracted, as often happens when novels are converted to scripts.

Matt Sinclair said...

Chris helped answer JMarie's question: shorts can be turned into scripts, which offers a broad audience. I got past my "Stephen King is a hack" phase when I saw the movie Stand By Me, which I loved. As I watched the credits roll, I saw that it was based on King's novella The Body, and I realized I needed to give him another chance.

But it's still a good question: The audience is limited, but I've read many times that agents like finding writers in journals that carry short stories, because a writer who can master the short form might be able to do wonders with the long form.

I also think you're going to see an increase in short story anthologies as more writers experiment with e-publishing.

Matt Sinclair said...

And thanks, Jeff and Christopher, for your comments.

Sophie Perinot said...

I have great respect for those who can write short stories. It is not a form I am personally comfortable writing.

Jemi Fraser said...

I enoyed writing shorts as a teen, but I really haven't done any since. One of these days... :)

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks, Lit and Jemi, for your comments.

Carol Fragale Brill said...

love the razor analogy. I'm not a big fan of shorts - they feel like affairs and I'm more the in for the long haul type. Still, I've had some success taking a scene or chapter from one of my novels and rewriting into a short story. Amazing how that lazer view can reveal a whole new aspect of the character

Jeremy Bates said...

great writing info! followed u over from karen's bbq... brought whiskey and steak! enjoy! and great blog--following!

Charmaine Clancy said...

So excited about NaNoWriMo!
Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks for your comments! Carol, I know what you mean about affairs vs. long-term relationships. I find that to be the case at times too. But I also love that when I've found a writer who totally captivates me in such a short time, I also look for what else she or he has written. I'm in for the long haul even if it starts with a quickie!

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks Jeremy. Gotta love BBQ.
Thanks, too, Charmaine, I'm starting to get ready for NaNoAlSo