The Long & the Short of It

I’m sitting here this morning, a week and a half from the debut of The Curse Merchant, overwhelmed with equal parts anticipation and anxiety. I’ve had some of my Facebook author’s page followers take me up on my offer for a free digital ARC, and thus far the feedback has been very positive!

I have several special blog events planned for the first weeks of the book release, one of which is a free bonus short story set prior to the events of The Curse Merchant. It’s a bite-sized narrative in the same universe, offering all of my potential readers a chance to sample something more than just a portion of the novel.

Returning to short format fiction has been something of a homecoming for me. When I first dabbled in writing, everything was a short story. It took years before I attempted my first novel length work… uncharted territory for sure! It wasn’t long until all of my projects began to expand into novels. Every idea compounded into something wider and more sweeping, requiring a more thorough narrative structure. I was creating worlds, not just stories.

Writing a short story is different experience than writing a novel. Fundamentally, storytelling is storytelling. A short story should have the same recognizable rise and fall as a novel. There should be a protagonist, an antagonist, a recognizable conflict, and a resolution. The point of view should be limited at some level so that the reader feels immersed. There should be a point to the story… some single take-away that justifies the story’s existence.

So, what’s different?

Whereas novels and short stories outline a rising and falling of action, a short story does this in one single motion. A novel can chart its plot arc in several individual narrative “peaks.” A short story is a single movement of a symphony, standing alone, interesting in its own right. A novel is the whole symphony, often composed of individual movements, each one a conflict and resolution in its own right, the sum of which creating a grand crescendo to the climax.

A short story has to be concise. A novel has the luxury of taking its time with character development, introducing more aspects of the greater supersetting, perhaps even lacing in elements of future novels. A short story has to get right to the point. It’s vital to choose when to start the short story. One must strive to begin the story as close to the climax as possible. The throw from opening to climax needs to be brief. Granted, one can’t simply begin with “Arturo pulled his gun exclaiming ‘That’s right! I did it! I killed the nuns!'”

I take it back. That would be a great way to open a short story.

The point is that there is precious little room for exposition in a short story. It must be all story, all the time. The short story must be a single-sitting experience. It’s an individually wrapped slice of narrative cheese, meant to be consumed in one literary lunch break.

Another difference between a short story and a novel is that, while a novel has the option of multiple points of view, a short story must have exactly one protagonist. There is simply no room for POV play in a short story. I state this dogmatically, and it’ll fall apart the second someone points out a brilliant piece of experimental fiction. It’s a rule that may be (rarely) broken, but a good rule nonetheless.

What is most eye-opening about this experience is how very damned difficult it is to write a short story when I’ve grown accustomed to long format fiction. My mind wanders down the history of each character. I feel compelled to paint a more detailed setting. The implications of the plot call to me, and I want to explore how this affects the novel itself.

But I can’t.

It’s a story. One story. And it must stand on its own legs.

This isn’t easy. It takes a razor-sharp editing sensibility, and a tight focus on the tale that I’m telling. And a tale is all about conflict. One central discrete conflict. As Blaise Pascal once wrote, “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter.” Good point there. Writing a novel is like pouring out the entire bucket of paint, then mopping up everything you don’t need on the canvas. Writing a short story is an exercise in short, intentional, calculated strokes.

That said, be sure to watch this blog in the month of November, when I give details on the release of the short story “Good Fences.” It’s a prequel to The Curse Merchant, and a fine introduction to the mind of Dorian Lake.

One response to “The Long & the Short of It

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