Monday, 20 November 2017

The Long and Short of It

On writing both novels and short stories, and learning the differences between them

Let's be real here.  A short story is not the practice form that you need to master before you can go on and write novels.

Sure, there are novelists out there who also write short stories.  And there are short story writers who also try their hands at novels.  Just look at George Saunders.  He's just published his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, and it went and won the Man Booker Prize.  Bravo, George, bravo.  (As a side note, it excites me that he's done this, because now maybe people who have discovered him through the prize will go and read his amazing short fiction.)  There are plenty of great writers who write both, and there are plenty of writers who stick to the one form.  But I can't think of a single one who cut their teeth on short stories, then worked up the courage to write a full-length novel and announced to themselves and the world "Okay, that's it-- I've hit the big time, now.  I've written a novel.  I don't need to work on short stories any more."

Firstly, anyone who does that, and whose name isn't JK Rowling would be a bit silly.  There is no 'Big Time' in writing.  The idea that our success is measured by the 'size' or the volume of sales we can achieve is a self-fulfilling prophecy for failure, because the publishing industry is one in which only a handful of authors ever make it 'big'.  Most authors, particularly in Australia, don't make enough money from book sales to support themselves.  If you want to know a bit more about how making money works as a writer, you can check out this excellent post by Annabel Smith about advances, the first part in a series about how authors make their money. 

Secondly, I wonder what would make them think they have any control over it?  As someone who writes both novels and short stories, in my experience the idea itself always suggests what form it would like to be written in.  I'm not a spiritual person, so I am not talking about muses or divine intervention here.  But some ideas are more powerful in longer pieces and some are more powerful in 3000 words or less.  Some ideas, you actually have to sit down and try to write them before you realise that you've started in the wrong form. 

Heck, maybe that idea you thought was going to be a novel was really an essay or a poem.  But you don't know until you start to play, and see the possibilities. 

I've heard it said by many writers that short stories can be harder to write than novels.  I say it depends on the short story.  When I write a short story, often it's about an idea that's been obsessing me, or it brings together a bunch of ideas that I've been ruminating on in the back of my mind for a long time.  When I finally sit down at the keyboard, it all just comes out, and I write until I get to the end of the reserves of words that have built up.  Because I've been doing it for a while, the stories that I write often come out at between 2000 and 3000 words now, but when I first started, sometimes it would take me a lot more words to get to the heart of what I was trying to say.  That's where the revision comes in.  What is definitely true about the short story form is that it takes a different skill set to writing a novel.  You need to have a sense of economy in your word use.  3000 words is not a lot and some publications and competitions will actually give you less than that, so you cannot waste a single word.  Whatever it is you're trying to say, try to say it in the most economical way, but also the most interesting way that you can.  This applies to character development too.  We don't need to know what happened to your narrator on a foggy night back in mid-July, unless what happened on that night led directly to their actions and reactions in the piece you are writing.  But hey, it's good that you, the writer, know all of that backstory.  It helps your character and their voice explode onto the page and start in media res

Short stories, like novels, have beginnings, middles and ends, but not necessarily in that order.  I once tried to write a short story completely backwards, scene by scene.  I never finished that piece -- it was about a disgruntled former employee throwing a rock through the window of a small business-- but that wasn't because it wasn't a good idea.  It was because I let the steam go out of my enthusiasm for the idea.  Maybe I'll try the backwards trick again some time.  I'm sure I wouldn't be the first person to. 

The thing about the short story form is, I think, that once you discover you love it, it never lets you go.  It always astounds me when people say they don't like short stories.  'Short stories' is not a genre in the same way 'romance' is-- it's a genre in the same way 'fiction' is.  There are fantasy and science fiction short stories, realist short stories, Westerns, historical short stories, and there are even some kinds of short stories that meld non-fiction and memoir into the mix.  For people who think they don't like the form, I think the issue is that they haven't liked what they've read so far.  Like poetry, the short story can seem from the outside like an exclusive club.  You must be this smart to read.  And some of them really are in that hyper-literary vein-- there are certain writers who enjoy making the reading of their work an act of engagement.  But there are other writers who just want to entertain.  This is what I love most about short stories.  There is something for everyone, and you can read an entire narrative in the time it takes to finish your lunch hour. 

When I work on longer pieces, compared to when I work on short stories, I feel like I am using my brain differently.  There is still an element of collecting ideas, bringing them together unconsciously until I am ready to write, but because the story arc must be a lot longer, I have to think more actively about the plot points I am going to use to get there.  The internal logic of a longer form piece has to be thought about.  The writer must keep track of multiple characters, multiple subplots, sometimes multiple timelines.  It takes a lot longer to finish that first draft.  For me, my first draft of a short story can take anywhere from an hour to a month.  For a novel, we're looking more at a year, but that could be because as an unpublished writer, I've never had to deliver a novel on a deadline. 

I don't plan my novels in the sense of plotting out every single scene, though I do have certain scenes I know I need to get to in order to tell the story that is begging to be told.  I do always know my ending, roughly.  But I never plan my short stories.  The ending will announce itself to me.  I will write a sentence, fully intending to write another one after it, but the sentence will say "Here I am.  Stop now."  This sense of performing a magic trick is another reason why I love short stories. 

Any form you write in, if you practice it enough and with the right intentions, will teach you things about who you are as a writer, and each draft you do will make you a better writer.  Writing short stories doesn't prepare you to publish your breakout novel, but what it will do is teach you to love the sound of language and to use it deliberately.  To notice pertinent things.  To create large than life characters.  And-- as I am finding, as I return to short stories now that my novel rewrite is in the hands of beta readers-- it will help you feel the magic that makes you rush to the keyboard each day, to see what your brain has in store.

A reading list for those wishing to pick up a short story collection this week:

* The Weight of a Human Heart by Ryan O'Neill
* Feet to the Stars by Susan Midalia
* That Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
* The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
* Bird Country by Claire Aman

Sunday, 12 November 2017

What I've Been Reading Lately

It's technically spring at the moment here in Australia, but I think it would be safe to say that summer is here.  It's been above 30 degrees celcius every day this week, and it stays warm and muggy until well after the sun goes down.  It's perfect weather for lazing around under the air conditioning, or outside in the shade with a good book, and that's certainly something I have been trying to do-- I am on track to reach my Goodreads target of 101 books in 2017 with a few extra books up my sleeve, but that's no reason to slow down!  Reading has sort of replaced writing in the last couple of weeks, but I am finding it hard to feel guilty about that.  Since finishing the rewrite of my novel and handing it over to my beta readers, I feel a little bit like a sponge that has been wrung out.  I have no more words for the moment, so I am soaking up other peoples'.

Here's what I have been reading lately:

Bird Country by Claire Aman-- reviewed here on the AU review.

The Liberation by Kate Furnivall

Controversial, but it was a real struggle for me to make myself finish this one.  The dialogue and the writing in general were really over stated and the plot was sensationalised and there was no real sense of time or place.  Plus, the main character was kind of bland and prickly.  I know this author is really popular but I would be hesitant to read her again after this book.  

The Little Book by Selden Edwards

I've read this before, but I can't for the life of me find my copy.  I doubt I would have got rid of it, because it was a book that came into my life at the right place and the right time.  When I saw it on the shelf at the library, I knew I had to take it home and reread it.  And so I did, and rereading was such a treat.  I rarely get to revisit books.  This is a really complicated novel and it's hard to explain without making it sound really ridiculous.  It was Edwards's first book and it took him 36 years to write (so keeping that in mind, I still have time, given that I am coming up on ten years since I started Between the Sleepers...) It follows a character named Wheeler Burden, who is this legendary rock star/ college baseball player/ writer, who suddenly finds himself in Vienna at the turn of the century and gets to witness all of the culture and unrest that are blooming there at that time, but he also has to work out how to get back to his own timeline-- if he even can-- without messing up his own history.  It's not a totally unflawed novel; Wheeler can tend towards being a bit of a male Mary-Sue at times, because he's so handsome and good at everything and women love him just by looking at him, and you can see the hand of the author at work sometimes, orchestrating the coincidences that give the plot its twists and turns, but it's just really good fun.  It sweeps you up in the march of time and you get to be a fly on the wall where people like Mark Twain and Freud etc. are at work.  I've recently discovered that there is a second book which got some absolutely terrible reviews, so I have requested it on inter library loan so that I can find out for myself.  

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

It's stunning.  There were moments when my heart was beating so fast with excitement, I thought I was going to explode.  It's Egan's first foray into historical fiction, but she does it so well.  This is the story of a young woman who works as one of the first female divers on the naval yards during the second world war, but it's also got love, and gangsters and missing fathers, and it's just so amazing.  I can't rate it any higher.  I read it in 24 hours and could not put it down.  Better go read A Visit From the Goon Squad  soon I think.

Soap by Charlotte Guest

Charlotte is a friend of mine, but she's also an exceptionally talented poet.  What I really like about Soap is that it's accessible and relateable, without being dumbed down.  A lot of people are put off by poetry because it's like some elite club that you have to have the secret codes to get, like poetry is only meant for reading by other poets.  But not this collection.  This collection is personal and universal at the same time.  It's moving and erudite and playful and it lets the reader in on the secret, which I really, really liked.  

In other news, I've started crocheting poppies after doing a workshop with the RSL poppy ladies at my local library.  They need 62 000 before next Remembrance Day to display in King's Park.  I'm going to keep making them for a while, I think.  

Friday, 3 November 2017

"What do we do now?"

You may have noticed that this month, I have completely re-branded this website.

I loved my old blog, and I loved my pseudonym, but a few people had pointed out to me lately that it was time to move on.  I'm starting to make a bit of headway in the world of writing, and that means time for a real, proper, grown-up author page.

I'm not going to say that much more about it, but I do find it interesting that this coincides with the completion of the latest draft of my novel, Between the Sleepers.  While I've been working on this book for what amounts to something like ten years (though there were gaps to work on other projects in between drafts), the draft that I've just completed felt different. 

That comes down, in large part, to the fact that I have been working with a local author who has mentored me through this stage of the project.  I had admitted to myself about a year ago that the book wasn't quite there yet, but that I didn't know how to push myself to that next level.  My female character was thoroughly unlikable to everyone but me, and there was so much melodrama in the storyline that it seemed a little bit like all of my characters were in bad need of an afternoon nap.  But I'd rewritten the thing ten times.  It was my "What do we do now?" moment, only it really felt like there was nothing I could do but shelve the project and move on to something else. 

I tried that for a while, but the knowledge that I was throwing away a story I'd cared about for such a long time, and pretty much undoing all of the good work that I had put into it, including a residency at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers' Centre in 2014 just ate at me.  I started looking for help.  I looked at residencies, competitions, and finally, decided on the Australian Society of Authors Mentoring program, where I felt sure that out of the hundreds (possibly thousands) of applicants who put their work forward every year, that I was going to be selected, that I would get to work with someone like Toni Jordan, that my book would be easy to fix and that I'd find myself in the awkward position of deciding which major publishing house to sell to. 

If that was the only reason I was in the writing game, perhaps giving up wouldn't have been such a bad idea...

I did not get the mentorship, but then again, neither did lots of other writers, all of whom probably were just as determined as I was.  They simply could not give a mentorship to every applicant. 

It was while talking to a local author whose work I have admired for a long time that I mentioned this recent disappointment.  This generous person turned around and said that she would be happy to look at my work and perhaps mentor me through the process of another draft.  We worked out a payment that would be fair for the process and negotiated a time to start work that wouldn't clash with the Perth Writers' Festival.  And in February 2017, I handed over my printed and bound manuscript.

It's November now, and last week, I wrote the last missing scene and corrected the last few mistakes in the book, as per my mentor's notes.  I expected to cry, or feel elated.  Instead, I felt sure that there was more work to be done that I was forgetting about.  I checked and double checked.  No.  Nothing.  There was nothing to do but send the book to some friends for a beta-read.

I'm still in that bizarre, twilight space now where I don't know whether to relax and read the hundreds of books I have stacked around the place waiting for me, or to launch myself into my next project.  I keep thinking that an extra lot of edits will come my way.  But all that's left to do is wait.  (And do the dreaded synopsis...) 

For now, it's done.  It's about 20 000 words longer than it used to be, and has some new sub-plots and character relationships which seemed to develop completely on their own, much to my pleasant surprise.  And I can say today, that I am very proud of the book I have created. 

So to my mentor, thank you-- you have helped me rediscover my love of this project, when I didn't even realise that I had lost it.