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!