Go get a cup of your preferred beverage. Let’s sit and chat for a moment.
Before I begin with my topic, I’d like to say thank you to all of you who recently downloaded my short story “Thread. Bare.” (see the below post). It’s received a rather warm reception with good feedback. Considering that even my daughter likes it, that’s a wonderful thing! If you liked it, please do me the honor of telling somebody else about it!
And now, on to our talk…
Now, this post is geared mostly for you other writers/authors out there, but even if you’re nothing more than an aficionado of good writing, please feel free to sit in on this talk and comment as well. Many voices make for interesting discussions.
I’d like to talk a little bit about the Art of the Short Story with you, and specifically about the preservation of that art.
You see, when you hear about bestselling fiction books, you generally associate those sales with novels. And that’s understandable: people like a well-developed story with well-developed characters, and a novel provides the perfect place to do that. After all, the greater amount of time, space, and words that an author has, the more easily those elements can be spread out and used in greater quantity. And if you’re one of the authors out there (like me) who likes to write novels, more power to you. Keep writing them.
But I’d also like you to think about diverting at least some of your energy to the short story.
You see, while the novel has the advantage of length, the short story, when properly crafted, possesses the opposite advantage: that of brevity. It’s a condensed segment of a larger world, much like the difference between a still photo and a full-length motion picture feature. Yet when properly written, the short story can tell just as complete a story as any novel, sometimes even more completely. A reader reading a well-penned short story can come away with as much developmental satisfaction as (s)he would with a full novel, and do so within a condensed portion of time.
To carry the snapshot vs. film analogy even further, consider the paintings of Norman Rockwell. If you’ve ever looked at his work, you don’t just see a still shot; you see a still shot of life happening. You see people who aren’t stopping for a portrait. Instead, they’re frozen while in the process of moving, talking, acting, interacting with each other and the environment. And your mind, whether or not it intends to, fills in the gaps of the situation with your own contrived stories.
For example, consider this Rockwell sample from The Saturday Evening Post. Look at it and tell me what’s happening. Who catches the boys in the middle of their swimming party? How long had they been there? Note the boys that are half-dressed: did they do that as soon as they got out of the lake (or was it a river? Who says it can’t be a river) or did they scramble ashore, snatch their clothing up, and stuff feet into shoes and arms into sleeves while in the process of running for their lives? What about the dog? Did the dog bark and give away their little getaway to a passer-by? Was the person who caught them somebody they knew? A parent? A policeman? A group of people? Is that person (or those people) standing there shouting, or chasing after them in hot pursuit?
Even as I write these questions and glance at the picture, my mind is putting together its own possible answers and sketching a story. And the beautiful thing is that Rockwell makes us do all of this with a single painted picture. We don’t need a movie, or even a short film clip, to put the story together. Rockwell put things in motion, and with our imaginations we gave those things our own imagined starting points and destinations.
And we can do the same thing with our short stories.
Another advantage about short stories is the “hit-and-miss” probability that works in our favor. One of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury, while addressing an audience at Point Loma Nazarene University in California (see video link below) made this excellent point, which I will now paraphrase: You can spend one year of your life writing a bad novel; but it’s hard to spend a year of your life writing a short story a week and write fifty-two bad short stories. The man is right, and I say that as somebody who likes writing novels as well. The more you write, and the more various things you write, the more likely you are to put something out there that people will like (unless you’re just outright not trying to write well).
I’d like to throw out a little challenge to those of us writers/authors out there who like our novels, and it’s something I put myself under as well. I challenge us to set aside a brief amount of time each day and try to craft a good short story. Make it deliberate; don’t let it blossom into a novel. Try to cap it, make it work within four pages or six thousand words, or whatever limit you want to place on it. Try to do with your short story what Norman Rockwell did with his pictures: capture a segment of life in motion, and let that segment become a world of its own.
Immerse yourself in short stories. Read Bradbury. Read Stephen King. Read Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman, Flannery O’Connor. Go to your library, or local bookstore, or go to Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Look up short story anthologies. Read them. Learn from the best and graft their techniques and styles into your own. As Bradbury said: good writers borrow. Great writers steal.
For myself, I doubt I could pull off Bradbury’s challenge of one short story per week. But, I think I can try one per month. Some of them I’ll post here for free; others I’ll make part of the Surrealities series on Smashwords, and will someday (soon I hope) compile them into a single unit of short stories for sale, like I did with Alternate Endings. I’ll probably write novels between now and the day I draw my final breath in this world. But I’m going to make the short stories a bit more deliberate and planned, too.
So give it some thought. And please feel free to send me some feedback.
Thanks for reading this. As a parting gift, I’ll leave you two links below. One is the aforementioned Ray Bradbury video. The other is a video interview with Stephen King about short stories, which I believe you will find to be interesting as well.
Okay, enough prattle from me. Can’t write when I’m writing… wait…. 😀
See you in the Vein!
Youtube: “An Evening with Ray Bradbury”
Youtube: “Stephen King on the craft of Short Story Writing”