Wednesday 23 January 2013

The value of short

Sometimes, I write short stories. Short stories, as described by a writer friend of mine are like little shards of glass lodged in our brain that you can only pull out by writing them down. Remembering her saying that, I try to remember whether she was talking about poems or short stories. For me, that's kind of the same thing. I can't write poems worth shit, though I've written a few until I realised I'm very much a prose writer and I'll never be anything more than a dabbler in poetry.

Still, sometimes that sense of urgency (or: bleeding in your brain) comes over me. A thought. A voice I can't shake. An image. ONE image. My Muse is being stingy - it's NOT a novella, it has no real plot (just an arch, because short stories still have a structure), it's not a novel, it's not a seven-volume fantasy saga. I won't spend the next 2.5 years of my life pumping out words. I'll ... just end up bleeding quietly on a page for a weekend, or a day, or a week.

Short stories come to me as perfectly formed pebbles of ancient glass washed onto a shore. There's almost no point to ask what they were - they are perfect in the shape that they are. (Usually, they are glass bottle bottoms, I've learned, but that's neither here nor there.) I accept them in their shape. My mind has dealt with stories for twenty-five years. It can tell the difference between a short story and a novella and a novel. I sometimes go wrong - Deliverance was actually a small series, Burn could easily be a novella, but that's me trying to write to specs, which usually goes hilariously wrong anyway.

Maybe it's like digging up a dinosaur. You find a bone. After some more digging, you can tell whether it's T-Rex's pinky or the leg bone of something much smaller. The work of digging remains absolutely the same. There's no difference for me in writing shorts or novels. If anything, it's much easier to fuck up a short story than a novel.

As my very wise friend said: "One weak word ruins a poem, one weak sentence ruins a short story, one weak chapter ruins a novel."

The margin of error is the difference. A gap of a centimeter might mean nothing when you're building a ship, but means everything when you're making jewelry.

Ships and necklaces are different things. Both take different skills. They are both desirable, in both cases you're making something to a purpose. Sometimes I have crazy ideas and can't push the Muse away, and then, I assure you, the same brain that wrote Skybound wrote Quid Pro Quo (my parts of the latter, anyway). I embrace the variety. I literally cannot say what I'll be writing next, because the Muse is like a high-speed train and I seem to ALWAYS stand on the rails, back turned towards it. It's not always coming; sometimes I stand there for days and weeks (busying myself editing, usually, going about my life). But when it comes, there's no negotiation.

Short stories happen to me. I don't ask for them, and very often, I don't get to negotiate how much of it I want. For example, I'm not withholding the novel "Skybound" from my readers, because it doesn't exist, not in my reality, it doesn't. (If it exists in YOUR reality, you have my blessing to dig out those bones...  they weren't in the ground I covered.)

There's no competition. I'm not "wasting my time" on shorts when I "should be" writing a novel. If the novel rolls over me, it will. I can carve diligently for months and years on a novel, if that's its natural speed. I'm not going to ruin my T-Rex skeleton with hastily blowing it out of the rock with TNT.

Sometimes, I can hold two or three different things in my head at the same time. Sometimes, I get sidetracked by TEH SHINY. That's fine. I'm allowed to enjoy my work and follow my joy every now and then. I'm not a stone-grinding slave somewhere, I'm not a worker screwing in little monitors all day, seven days a week. My brain is allowed to play, because that's part of the joy of my work. I get assembly line-style work at my day job, but they pay me for it and I get pension and medical.

And I love the little things I build as much as the big things. It might sound like sacrilege, but if all of my work burned in a fire on the internet, I'd hope to save Skybound, of all things. (Silvio can fend for himself in that fire. There's no fire strong enough to exorcise that little demon.) There's no competition for me between Skybound and Special Forces. One has given me nothing but joy. The other - much less so.

I do wonder when small forms (poems, short stories) have become "less valuable" than novels. I've never before encountered the attitude of, put bluntly, and so common on Goodreads: "I loved this, but it was only a short story, so I'm only giving it 3 stars." (No, this post has not been brought on by a review of one of my shorter works - I've seen this for a long time and I remain flabbergasted by it.) Since when is quantity = quality?

Similarly reviewers who write things like: "This is badly flawed and needs 500 pages cut out if it, but it's so big, it's a five-star read."

Is it the emotional attachment you build while reading a gazillion pages? Is it an attempt to slap the author ("stop selling me short things, I want a novel, and if I keep griping over the shortness, you'll write one, won't you? Why aren't you at your desk yet?")? Is it an inability to appreciate small things for what they are? Or is it a desire to reward novel-length work for length alone? The logic goes like this: Only novels can be 5-star reads, and even a very good short story can only get three stars, because I can't possibly give a short story five stars AND a novel five stars, because I just prefer novels?

(And I agree, short stories are not novels, but personally, I rate anything I rate on its own merits. I rate a poem as a poem, and not as a "not-novel", which would mean it can't help but fall short anyway, because I do tend to enjoy reading novels more than poems. However, few novels have punched me in the brain like some poems. For delivering that famous two-inch killing blow, no other form does it so well than a poem. Hell, a single sentence can do it, but it'll have that "concentration of force/intent" that makes a poem in the first place.)

Maybe it's even money, though personally I'd rather pay 2.99 for a very good short story than a dog's dinner of a 250k self-published novel. I wouldn't read the latter for free, because really the only irreplaceable thing you can spend on this planet is the time of your life it takes you to read.

It's difficult.

But when I feel the rails vibrate, feel that wave of energy cresting in my soul, I honestly don't care. I only hope, whatever's coming over me, that it'll be good and that I'll be able to do it justice with what powers I have, few as they may be. 


  1. This made me go and look at my LOVED shelf on Goodreads to see if I was guilty of short changing a work simply because it wasn't a novel. Although I do mention that I wanted MORE of a piece I don't think I rated something less because of it. I enjoy your 'no fluff' style very much. Some of my favorite reads are 'too short' for me but only due to how much I enjoyed being given the small glimpse into their lives. When I put that my only complaint is the length of a piece I mean it as a compliment, that I enjoyed it so much I wasn't ready for it to end. I did not even consider that an author might take it as a slap in the face, that I , as the reader, find fault with the story in any way.
    Thank you for the insight luv!!


  2. Ah, a man after my own heart! I love short stories - I wouldn't spend so much time reading or reviewing them if I didn't - and I agree wholeheartedly that there's a craft involved in producing a wonderful short story. It's a shame that too many times I find myself frustrated because so little actual crafting goes into them. Many authors think a short is a set up, followed by a sex scene, followed by a too-soon declaration of love but in fact this is not the case. The best short stories can take the tiniest word counts and make them soar, make every word count and produce something satisfying so that I never have to feel frustrated that there's something missing or I only get half a tale, or that the story would have been much better had it been a novella or novel, or even that I'm being fobbed off with the first chapter of a longer book.

    Thanks for this post, Aleks. I often commiserate with Tam about the number of mediocre short stories that are produced and it's nice to see an author appreciating the value of a well written short.

  3. There is so much to enjoy in this blog post and I thoroughly agree about the shining quality of the short story. I can think of several that pack more punch than many novels - one can be floored by something so small.

    And I like your wise friend's views "Short stories are little shards of glass lodged in the brain that you can only pull out by writing them down"
    "One weak word ruins a poem, one weak sentence ruins a short story, one weak chapter ruins a novel."
    Although weak sentences often make me grind my teeth when reading novels.

    And have you come across Tania Hershman - champion of the short story? She's also been writing about them on her blog today.
    She says
    But for me only the short story is actually capable of perfection, and I know that because I have read many stories I consider perfect. They cause me physical pain when I read them, and that's what I want from great writing. To be shaken up, to be a different person, when I finish reading a story, even if that story is half a page long. And the best short stories do that, again and again and again.