Sunday, February 1, 2015

Short Fiction is Strange

Over the past few months, I’ve taken a break from editing House of Mirrors, so that I could work on getting together a collection of short stories. I chose what I felt like were my seven best stories and I’m editing and polishing them to reflect my current writing style. Since some of them were written as many as seven years ago, this has been an interesting undertaking. I don’t want to lose the original tone and approach entirely, but at the same time I’ve become a better writer since then, so I want the stories to reflect that.

However, while the process is going quite well (I have about one story left), I have only confirmed in my mind that I’m not really a proper short-story writer.

When I was in high school, my favorite literature teacher was deeply interested in the works of Flannery O’Connor. I myself enjoy her stories very much, though I’ve only read about eight, plus one of her two novels (Wise Blood). What I’ve noticed in reading her, along with other short fiction from writers such as Rudyard Kipling, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Eudora Welty – to name a few – is that a proper short story has in itself a very small scope, which nonetheless reflects a very wide reality, and in that scope it completes an entire action. These actions often are surprising, even shocking, because the brevity requires a certain intensity of events in order to give them weight.

I do not have the knack for this. Perhaps I could practice my way into the technique, but my short fiction tends to be more like a vignette – a small window upon a world of characters. If I cared to open that window, I could probably develop the vignette into an entire novel.

A young friend of mine just sent me a little Christmas poem recently. It was more like a work of micro-fiction, actually, since in about 50 words she perfectly narrated the story of some shepherds who are suddenly overwhelmed by the appearance of a thunderous choir of angels. It had a plot, a turn, a resolution…I couldn’t do the same if I tried for weeks. My mind just doesn’t work the same way.

I’m not giving up on my little collection of short fiction, since I think some of the vignettes are interesting in their own right. One of the stories even succeeds completely as a stand-alone short story (I hope, at least!). However, it has been a good experience to face my own limitations as a writer. I don’t know if I’m a particularly good novelist according to anyone else’s standards, but for my own purposes, novels just work in my mind. I understand instinctually how to sustain a plot for a long period of time. It’s unraveling it from beginning to end in just a few pages which overwhelms me.

It has been a while since I worked actively on a new novel, and it probably will be a while longer (I fully intend to finish editing these stories, followed by House of Mirrors, followed by my NaNoWriMo novel from a couple years ago). One novel idea has been taking shape a little in the back of my mind, though, and I have to say that it’s a good feeling.

Perhaps the difference between short fiction and novels is perspective. When I think of a novel, I often think of the resolution first: I see the character in terms of achieving his or her proper fulfillment. Once I understand where the (imaginary) person is going, I want to explain the entire process of getting there, which usually means a narrative involving at least few months, if not many years of human experience. After all, human beings usually take quite a long time to reach fulfillment!

I’ve noticed in reading short stories, though, that they often involve characters already hovering on the brink of their fulfillment (or destruction, as the case may be). The story presents them as their lives are resolved, with just enough references to their history to show from where and how far they have come. Just writing that makes me understand better the appeal of short stories – reading along with the full process of human growth can be a challenge in its own way – and even want to become better at them. I’ll probably always write a short story here and there, just to see if I can get the technique down.

In the end novels are my comfort zone, though. Even in reading, I prefer the long, thoroughly developed narrative, to the quick, startling turn of events. Perhaps it’s because I have an analytical turn of mind, so I want to know the whys and wherefores of events and persons, instead of just seeing them for a flash and marveling at how wonderful they then appear.

I get the impression from talking to friends and reading blogs that many people now prefer short fiction, even micro-fiction. I can understand that: it’s a busy world we live in, and it’s better to read something than nothing, so very short stories can be ideal. I may have chosen the unpopular route in heading down the path of a novelist. However, one can’t completely toss out one’s own inclinations. I think frustration and possible failure can be the result of overriding instinct in such a way, so I’ll stick with what comes to me and try to perfect my skills there.

I’m curious, though. Does anyone have any strong feelings about reading or writing short vs. long fiction? What is it about one or the other which appeals to you? If you have a chance to let me know in the comments, I’d love to read about it.

1 comment:

  1. I seem to be a good short story teller - so I have been told. I get lost when there are too many characters especially with names I can't pronounce. The drawn out saga of several books can leave me drained. That happened with the Harry Potter books. You really have to remember who is who and who did what from one very long book to another.

    I think I'm good at shorter fiction because it is just a step up from poems which are to me short stories too. We all have to write in our own comfort zones. And I do think there is a place for everyone.

    Just think of all the 'Baby Boomers' who will be retiring if they haven't already and would like to enjoy a good novel. So keep up your courage and write how you like. You'll find the right fit :)