Monday, June 10, 2013

Why I Write Short

Short stories are the  first thing I read in a magazine.  Always have.  Loved Brown's shorts as a kid but lukewarm otherwise.  Today I prefer a fat anthology of short stories over a long novel, although truthfully, I read both with the same enthusiasm.   This is probably why I've remained focused on the short form for most of my writing "career" - as if that meant more than dogged persistence and efficient use of spare time from working and family.

Economically speaking, writing short stories doesn't make a lot of sense.  The amount of work to conceptualize an idea, devise a credible plot, envision an environment --hell, a Universe!-- and then sweat each paragraph, sentence, and phrase down to its most elegant and economic form, takes a lot of work.  A good 5,000 work short story might be the result of over 30,000 words of draft, and many of those words repeated erasures, changes, and adjustments to an earlier draft. This repeated editing is necessary to get the prose just right, because in a short story every word has weight, every sentence is fraught with meaning, and every phrase has to move the story along.

A novelist, one of those garrulous bastards that churn out successive one hundred thousand word tomes, might deviate from the story to discuss some bit of ephemera, describe an object with exquisite prose, or characterize the protagonist with extensive backstory, each of these consuming pages and pages of words, words, words!  Such luxurious wasting of resources are denied the short story writer who must beat down anything that detracts from the momentum of the plot, that let's the reader's thoughts stray afield. No, the short story writer has to lash the reader ever forward lest they lose focus on the goal, a goal that much be achieved relatively quickly.  An editor once told me that the ideal story starts one microsecond before the epiphany and compresses that as much as possible.  Everything else, she said, is merely giving the reader enough information to understand the conclusion.

So what is the reward for churning out short stories? It certainly isn't the compensation: word rates haven't significantly changed in thirty years and, compared to inflation, have fallen to fractional increments of a penny. But there are other non-economic rewards for writing short. First and foremost,  believe that short stories are the yeast in the science fiction loaf, the little thoughtful bits that move the field forward by introducing modest ideas, variations on a theme, or even ploughing new stylistic or technologic ground.  Those writers who do this consistently and well gain prestige among other writers and fans, even if they never become the GoH at a con.

Truth to tell is that I can't NOT write short stories, not when there are so many fascinating ideas to write about!


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