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.


Joan Emerson said...

I really enjoy reading short stories . . . and I am definitely adding “Dead Drift” to my staggering to-be-read pile . . . .

S.W. Hubbard said...

Thanks, Joan--I hope you enjoy it. Tell the doubters more--what makes short stories enjoyable to you?

Kristopher said...

Seems like great minds think alike Lucy. I just interviewed award-winning short story author Barb Goffman over at BOLO Books because I realized that I was neglecting this area of the crime fiction reading.

And now, you bring us S.W. Hubbard. I know that I will soon be finding out "why Joseph, not Mary or Jesus."

Many of my comments yesterday indicated that readers were gun-shy about short stories because they didn't enjoy the literary ones we are all forced to read in school. But it does seem that genre short stories can be just as engaging (and fun to read) as full length novels.

Thanks for bringing S.W. to our attention.

(Could you add a few more hours to each day as well?) :)

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

I'll try Kristopher:). But you'll be happy you spent time on susan's stories--they are not the least bit stodgy!

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Love the metaphor of the Fabragé egg.... Definitely adding "Dead Drift" to my to-read stack!

Ramona said...

I consider the short story a beautiful art form, but I will set that aside for a more practical statement about why a smart writer will appreciate and master the short story form.

There are many publishing opportunities for short work, but a short story can do more for you as a professional writer than simply give you a publishing credit.

It is true that good paying markets for short work are not plentiful, but that is only one consideration. A first story in an anthology opens a door. A prize winning story at a conference contest opens a bigger door.

(Hang on, I'm going to get braggy ahead.) In addition to payment and publishing credits, writing short stories has earned me 3 literary grants from state arts agencies, a free two week residency at an artist colony, a free full writing conference package, a free week-long writing retreat at a college. If you want to supplement your writing income with teaching, appearing at conferences, speaking at libraries, etc., these credits look good on a CV.

I'm sorry if my pitch seems crass or self-serving, but the short story opened a lot of doors for me. I want to cheerlead on its behalf. Be smart, and master the short story. Love it, learn it, use it for your career.

Susan, I'm always happy to see more Frank Bennett. I've had a crush on him for years!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hey Susan! Thanks for being here..I always think it's so fascinating--how a person can have an idea and think: "it's a perfect short story."

That's such a "blink" reflex, isn't it? You know it's a great story--not enough of a novel, but just right for a revealing, surprising, and thought-provoking 10,000 words.

Do you know the ending before you get there?

It's funny--in my novels I never know the endings.But I've written--ah, three, I think, short stories, and in each one, I BEGAN with knowing the end.


Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hey Susan! Thanks for being here..I always think it's so fascinating--how a person can have an idea and think: "it's a perfect short story."

That's such a "blink" reflex, isn't it? You know it's a great story--not enough of a novel, but just right for a revealing, surprising, and thought-provoking 10,000 words.

Do you know the ending before you get there?

It's funny--in my novels I never know the endings.But I've written--ah, three, I think, short stories, and in each one, I BEGAN with knowing the end.


Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Wow, Ramona, congrats to you! that's wonderful advice...

Hank, I know what you mean with the "blink" response. I haven't written a lot of short stories, but I know a ss idea when I see them--and I grab it and hold on!

S.W. Hubbard said...

You're right, Kristopher. I hate the term "literary" short stories term because it implies that anyone who hasn't been published in Glimmertrain or some other obscure journal is a cultural yokel. But anyway, "literary" short stories often seem to just stop, not end. I don't think a good story needs to be tied up with a ribbon at the end--I like morally ambiguous endings--but I DO think the protag has to have changed in some way from beginning to end.

S.W. Hubbard said...

Wow, Ramona--good for you with all those contest wins! I should do more with contests, but as Kristophers says, I'd need and extra 12 hours in the day.

Hi Hank--Nice to be here. No, I don't think I had the end in mind for any of the stories in DEAD DRIFT (or any of my other short stories, for that matter). I think I start with an image or a line that won't let me go, and then figure out what happens from there. In "mad Blood," my story in the MWA anthology, THE MYSTERY BOX, I started with a line I read in a NYTIMES crime article, "I only poked her a little bit, but there was mad blood everywhere." What a statement! I had to write the story to discover who said it and why, and I created Fredo--definitely the most despicable character in any of my work. But he gets justice in the end :)

Kathy Reel said...

Although I don't seem to read a lot of short stories, I do enjoy them and love certain anthologies that include a variety of authors. After reading your article here, Susan, I'm eager to add a single author compilation to my shelves in Dead Drift. Julia hooked me on the Adirondacks, and your Frank Bennett sounds like something too good to miss.

Barb Ross said...

Being a co-editor of an annual anthology of short crime stories (Level Best Books--submissions are open!) ensures that I read 100s of short stories every year. But I wouldn't do it if I didn't love them.

I actually jumped up and down alone in my study when I read that Alice Munro had won the Nobel Prize.

I always buy the Best American series, both "literary" and crime. And I do dip in and out, though the most satisfying stories engage me like a novel.

Junot Diaz says writing a novel is an act of faith--faith that you can finish, faith that the end will somehow make sense with a beginning you barely remember. He says writing a short story is an act of control. Because you can keep the whole thing in your head, you have the chance to get every word right.

S.W. Hubbard said...

Thanks, Kathy--I hope you will enjoy DEAD DRIFT and the Frank Bennett novels. Julia and I are great fans of each other's work, and great fans of the Adirondacks. Her series takes place a little further south than mine, but I think we both capture that ADK ruggedness.

Wow, Barb--great quote from Junot Diaz. So true that's it's hard to hold every detail of your novel in your head, and to effectively connect the end to the beginning. But in a short story, it's all about making that circle complete. And I too was elated that Alice Munro won the Nobel. She's such a great navigator of the human condition, with no affectations whatsoever. Just great writing.

Lisa Alber said...

I find the short story form incredibly challenging. A great crime short stories? Harder still! It's hard enough to write a quiet literary story -- add in crime, suspense, mystery. Man, I often end up with something's that's closer to a treatment for a novel or novella. :-)

Wow, Ramona, congrats on all your short story successes! And I concur:

The few short stories I've had published helped me get an Elizabeth George Foundation writing grant and one was nominated for a Pushcart Prize -- so there's definitely something to what you say!

Deb said...

Susan, I am in awe of those of you who write short stories. Even though I started out writing poetry, it's an art I've never mastered.

Barb Ross, I love the Diaz quote. I might even be inspired to try my hand at the short story again... And, Susan, I love hearing what things inspired you.

Ramona, you're a star!

Mar (aka mar annabelle jacob) said...

Depends on type of story - I mainly read Brit mysteries and have found some good short stories

Ramona said...

Eek, I really didn't mean to be boasty. I just aggressively sought out and applied when I saw an opportunity. There are many out there for short story writers. Crime Bake, for instance, does a short story contest. Even if you don't win the contest, you'll have written a short story you can submit.

Gerald So said...

Hi, Susan and all.

Short stories were my first love as a reader, and that love endures. Everything matters more in the short space of a story. After all, we may never see these particular characters again.

S.W. Hubbard said...

Yes, Gerald, I often find I'm not ready to let certain story characters go, both when I'm reading and when I'm writing. But as an author, I have the power to resurrect them. Sean Coughlin, a character I created for a story, "Blind Eye", which was published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, later made his way into my novel, ANOTHER MAN'S TREASURE.