Does Length Matter?

November 13, 2007

I’m talking about story length, guys.  Sheesh!  Such minds…..

I’m wrestling with a short story right now.  I like what I’ve got, but it’s coming slowly and I find it a struggle to write at this length.  I’m a novelist by choice.  I do much better writing 120,000 words than I do writing 7,500.  I like to play with multistrand plotlines, to braid together the tales of several characters.  I love the complexity of long works.  That’s why I write novels.  That’s why, more often than not, I write in story arcs that stretch over several books.

But I also recognize that writing short fiction is something I need to do, something that will make me a better writer in any medium.  I’ve said as much before, in other venues, including my web site.  But it bears repeating.  Some of the finest prose being written today in fantasy and science fiction is being done by people who specialize in short fiction.  Andy Duncan comes to mind as a great example of this.

A successful novel can meander, it can follow subplots and digress for a time into descriptive passages (so long as they further plot and character development).  Short stories are, by definition, leaner, more directed, and when done correctly, incredibly powerful.  I have great admiration for people who write successful short fiction.  In my career, I’ve only published two short pieces, and though I’m proud of both stories, I know that I still have a long, long way to go before I can claim to have mastered the form.

So I struggle with this short story of mine.  I’m getting to know the characters, listening to what they tell me about themselves and their lives, and filtering that information as I put it into the piece I’m writing.  It’s a finer filter than I’m used to, which may be the problem I’m having. 

I could say more about all of this, but I realize that I’m using this post as an excuse not to write the story, and I can’t allow myself to get away with that.  More as it develops….

Today’s music:  Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Mike Marshall (Uncommon Ritual)

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2 Responses to “Does Length Matter?”

  1. I think that short fiction and novels are different beasts, requiring different approaches and fictional skills. Short stories need to focus on “the top of the character arc” rather than the entire arc of a character’s life — what is the specific moment that changes the protagonist? They need to have (far) fewer characters. They (generally) need to focus on a single protagonist.

    That’s the short answer. Here’s an even shorter one: the short story is to the novel as poetry is to the short story. Or how about a photography metaphor? A novel uses a wide angle lens. A short story uses a standard lens. A poem uses a close-up lens.

    But… as I generally tell my students: write the story to the length it needs to go and with the complexity it needs to have, and worry about what it is afterward. However, that’s not advice a professional can follow when you’ve agreed to write a short story for a market. 🙂

  2. davidbcoe said

    I generally agree with what Steve has written here — and given his experience as both a writer and an instructor, I’m not inclined to argue. But…. 🙂

    I agree with the comparisons between the two prose forms, particularly as they relate to story arc and character. I like and appreciate the photography metaphor, too. But I really believe that poetry is entirely different. Short fiction and novels may be different beasts, but they are at least in the same genus. Poetry, to me at least, is of another family.

    It may be that I’ve written so little poetry (and what I have written is so very, very bad) that I can’t relate my prose experience to it at all. But that’s just me. As I say, I should probably just defer to Steve on this one.

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