Thursday, January 9, 2014
Wall vs. Egg: The pleasure and pain of short stories
LUCY BURDETTE: It's always a pleasure to welcome my friend and fabulous writer Susan (aka SW) Hubbard to JRW. And this time she's written a wonderful essay about writing short stories versus novels. And Frank Bennett, one of my favorite protagonists of all time--is back. Thanks for visiting Susan, and take it away...
S.W. (Susan) HUBBARD: My inspiration for this blog post was a quote by Anton Chekhov I’d heard somewhere, “A novelist is someone who has failed at writing short stories.” I Googled it just to make sure I had the wording right, and lo and behold, I couldn’t find it anywhere on the Internet. So maybe Chekhov didn’t say it, but if he didn’t, he sure should have!
Writing a short story is damn hard work.
Saying something significant in a much smaller space presents the writer with a tantalizing, sometimes maddening, challenge. A novel is like a mural—the success lies in the epic scope, the sweep, of the picture. A muralist, and a novelist, needs a big vision, and a lot of stamina. But a mural is best viewed from a distance, so the accuracy of every single brush stroke is not so crucial. Similarly, as long as a novel’s plot keeps ripping forward, the reader is likely to overlook a few unnecessary words, happy to be swept along on the ride.
A short story, on the other hand, is more like a Faberge egg. The success lies in the details, the intricacy. We study it so closely, marveling at the craftsmanship, that if there were a flaw, surely it would jump right out at us. Because the scope of a short story is smaller, every single word counts for more.
Just as writing a short story is challenging, so is reading one. Many reader reviews of short story anthologies contain sentences like, “Just when I got interested in the story, it was over…” or “I wanted this to be longer…” These readers feel that they’d like the short story a lot better if only it were a novel. But no one looks at a Faberge egg and says, “I’d like this egg more if it covered a whole wall.”
Short stories place different demands on the reader. They ask us to consider closely the protagonist and how he or she is changed by the events of the story. The spotlight is almost always on the relationship of two people, without the big cast of supporting characters that give a novel its scope. For readers of mystery stories, this can mean giving up some of the fun of subplots, clues, and red herrings to focus more intently on motivation. Why is often more important than who. The satisfaction of the ending often lies in asking yourself, “What would I have done in this situation?”I had three mystery novels in print before I finally screwed up my courage to tackle a short story.
The story began with a scene I cut from a novel because it didn’t move the narrative forward. But an image from that scene—a statue of St. Joseph, stolen from a Nativity tableau—wouldn’t leave me alone. Why had the statue been stolen? And why Joseph, not Mary or Jesus? I had to write the story to find out. The answer was significant although not epic enough to carry an entire novel.
That story, “Chainsaw Nativity,” first appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and it is one of three short stories included in my new anthology, Dead Drift. All three are set in the small Adirondack mountain town of Trout Run, NY and feature police chief Frank Bennett. In each story, Frank’s struggle to unravel his own emotions is as complicated as his quest to solve the crime.
Writing short stories has given me a new appreciation for reading them. I don’t read an anthology straight through—that would be like eating a dozen eggs in a row! I like to keep a collection of short stories handy to dip into from time to time. Reading a short story or two between novels gives me a better appreciation of both forms. What about you? How do you read short stories?
To learn more about Dead Drift, and the other anthologies in which her short stories have appeared, please visit Susan's website.