This is one of those writing posts where I work shit out for myself, so feel free to skip this one. Or read it and disagree and fight with me. Whatever.
Over at Miss Snark's blog someone mentioned wondered where they could sell their short story to further their career. This is a diversion from the usual since Miss Snark is an anonymous literary agent and most of her blog centers on writing and selling novels. The post caught my eye because the esteemed Miss Snark mentioned Spinetingler, the zine I just sold my story to. (Ick, sorry about the prep, but I'm in drafting mode.)
Not just blowing sunshine here, but I agree that Spinetingler is a great zine, or I wouldn't have submitted there. Even I have some moral standards, at least when it comes to writing. However, as you no doubt realize by now, I'll whore myself out for junk food or beer any day.
Most of these novelists who read her are unpublished, and my guess is most don't write short stories. Why? 1. It's more socially acceptable to call yourself a "novelist." 2. Cuz they're so damned difficult to write.
Only the basest of amatuers don't recognise this Truth: A decent short story is the epitome of fine writing. Anyone can produce 150,000 words of drivel, even fairly readable drivel. Every writer worth their salt has a few hundred thousand words of "novel" languishing on some hard-drive somewhere. Hell, even Hinterland, my FIFTH novel, currently rests at 110,000 words. It's called "doing your time." An aside: Which author lost all the copies of his early works on a train and said it was the best thing that ever happened to his writing? Hemmingway? Really, I want to know.
Anyway, it ain't every writer who can tell an entire story in 3500 words.
The demands for a short story are as stringent as for a novel. My reader must love or loathe my character. To have that, they must have more than a passing acquaintance, which can be tough when we're in such a hurry. Novels are much more lenient. For instance: some novelists blow 1000 words describing their character's wardrobe, which is something I can fathom pretty well just by passing some Chester on the street. In a short story I might spare twenty-five words to give you an idea how my character dresses, and it had better be damn relevant to character development or the story.
Try to describe what you're wearing in twenty-five words. Yeah, yeah, I know. What are you wearing? I just scored fifty hits today off that.
My on-the-fly example: I'm wearing off-white cotton shorts, a brown tank top, anklets, orange tennies and real underwear cuz I hate working out in a thong. Oh, and no jewelry except for the stuff that doesn't come out.
See? I read that kind of lengthy description in novels all the time, except they're more along the lines of doeskin breeches and a rough tunic cuz I read fantasy. And I don't mind. I'm in it for the long haul. In a novel, I want to know what my girl is wearing; all the gory details, please. But for a short story, cut my example to:
"She wore real underwear because she hated working out in a thong, and no jewelry except for earrings that required tools to remove."
Still not shining, but every sentence in a short story must do double duty: further the story and build character. What do you know about me now? Less words than the previous example, but you have a better picture of me in your head, I reckon.
Clothes notwithstanding, fewer words requires relevance, economy, and strenuous editing, something many novels sorely lack, and it demands the author show rather than tell. We must stick to action and behavior and dialogue and let our story emerge from that. My character must speak every word with care, and more importantly, he must listen. No, not to the reader. That's just stupid. But he must listen to hisstory and show it succinctly. As well, we're forced to let go of some control. The short story writer must allow the reader the freedom to fill in the details within a solid framework of deliberate construction. Not enough novelists practice the lessons a short story teaches us, in my opinion.
I use my short stories to explore, in more tolerable doses, my larger themes for novels. In a novel it's just too damn easy to get sidetracked, and my short stories remind me where I'm headed. Sometimes I'm answering my own questions as to how to treat a certain type of scene or character. For instance, I often write major characters who are not so likeable. It's just the way I write. Art imitates life. Who do you know besides your dog that you like all the time? Well, it's much easier to live with a reprehensible character, or at least one who does reprehesible things, for a few thousand words vs. a few HUNDRED thousand words.
I've got approximately a million words tied up in novels, to the tune of about three hundred characters, a few sex scenes, and a whole lot of blood. But I didn't really start writing until I took up short stories again.