Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Long and the Short of it

By Lydia Sharp

Part of the How They Do It Series 

JH: Something a bit different today. I talk about novels all the time, so I thought it would be fun to hear from short story writer Lydia Sharp and learn a little about the skill sets needed for shorts vs longs.

Lydia Sharp is an author of science fiction, fantasy, and women's fiction. Her fantasy short story "The Keeper of Secrets" was published in the anthology Shadows & Light: Tales of Lost Kingdoms (Pill Hill Press, 2009), available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. She also blogs from time to time (as in, every Monday through Friday), at The Sharp Angle.

Take it away Lydia...

Myth: Short story writing is a waste of time and skills. Better to devote all your efforts to a novel.

Fact: There is little financial advantage to selling short fiction, and while it does take time away from your "big" projects, the writerly benefits are far-reaching.

Many big-time SF/F novelists got their start in short fiction, including three of my favorites, Orson Scott Card, Stephen King, and Joe Haldeman.

Although I'd been writing short stories since I was a kid, I didn't put serious effort into honing the craft until after I'd completed my first novel as an adult, and it was one of the best things I've ever done to improve my writing overall.

The following skills learned by writing short fiction can be applied to your novels:

Tension on every page.

In short fiction, you don't have room to mess around with long summary, or over-detailed description, or explanation of backstory. Everything must focus on advancing the characters through the natural course of the plot. Any well-paced story has highs and lows, but in a short story, you have to miniaturize every part of your structure. If you find yourself going on for a page, or more, without tension (also known as, a good reason to turn the page), it's time to rethink the specifics of that particular scene.

And anything that doesn't move the plot forward can be cut. Period.

Focus on the finish line.

In novel-writing, even if you outline everything ahead of time, you may still occasionally stray to the wayside, either within a single scene (it just won't seem to end!) or the story as a whole (how did we end up here?). When you have a word count limit of, for example, only four-thousand words, you have no choice but to stay focused. Your ending is only a few pages from your beginning, not a few hundred pages. The challenge of getting your character from point A to point B takes on a whole new meaning.

Less is more.

The fewer words you have to work with, the more your words have to work. You're forced to become a master of effective word choice, and devise how to say the same thing in fewer words.

The concept of "less is more" has some key subcategories that emphasize efficient word choice:

Don't describe something in a paragraph that you can show in a few choice words.

I've never been one of those overly stylistic fantasy authors who gets some kind of fix by using big fancy words to describe a flower petal the character passes on his/her path to wherever. I'm a minimalist, but even so, I still have to put a concerted effort into shortening descriptions. Especially physical traits. Those tend to have little impact on a reader unless it is somehow relevant to the scene.

One of my favorite examples of this comes from Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, where he paints a perfect image of one of the female soldiers in a single sentence.

McCoy was the littlest one in the company, a wasp-waist doll barely five feet high.

That was all it took for me to see her in my head. Who cares if her hair color, eye color, nose shape, skin tone, etc were the same as the author's idea of her. Those aren't important. Her overall size was the only thing that mattered because it was relevant to the scene. They were freezing their you-know-whats off, and the smaller you are, the more quickly the cold affects you. Point made, Mr. Haldeman. Good work.

All redundancies get the axe.

A character should never "run quickly", or "think silent thoughts". They run. They think. Trust your reader to know the basic meaning of human functions. If they can read, chances are high that they can also figure out what you're conveying without you spelling it out for them.

Hang up the Captain Obvious cape.

If an action can be rightly assumed, let the reader assume it. For example, if Billy hears the doorbell ring, then sets down his coffee, then stands, then walks to the door, then opens the door, then goes into pleasantries with his neighbor, zzzzzzzzzz…

Sorry. Fell asleep for a minute there. What was I saying? Oh, right.

Billy answered the door. It was his neighbor. (And the story moves on.)

Easy peezy lemony squeezy. Don't make it more than it should be.

Summarize dialogue and passage of time whenever possible.

The best way to learn how to do this is to read published works and analyze how the author used this technique. It's not as simple as it looks, but when done well, it makes a huge difference in the quality of your writing, presentation, and pacing.

When I finished the first draft of my first novel over a year ago, I didn't think I'd enjoy writing any other type of fiction. But a short story contest on the critique forum I had joined sparked my competitive spirit, so I gave it a go. I soon learned that writing a well-crafted short story is not easier simply because it is shorter than a novel. It requires some of the same skills, and some different. Now I write all lengths of stories, everything from flash fiction to novels, and I love the challenge.

Does anyone else write both short stories and novels? What kind of benefits have you derived from doing so?


  1. You are absolutely right on! Writing short stories has taught me a great deal about the craft of writing. Another benefit is that it is usually easier to get people to critique short fiction. Feedback for novels is oftentimes harder to come by.

  2. I also believe that a short story, like a novel, is just a chunk of time. More can come before, and the story can continue after. Since this is true of short stories, a good bit of them can be expanded into novels more easily than one may think.

  3. I started writing short stories but now I'm trying my hand at novels. I think, at times, I'm still in short story mode and tend to have a hard time drawing out my novels. It's something I need to work on.

  4. I write both short stories and novels (and Janice knows this). I learned a TON about story structure and how to keep it under control from writing short stories. The other thing that short stories have done is get me published, and create a name for me in sf/f circles, while novels are taking a bit longer.

    Great post, Lydia! Good to see you here!

  5. Lydia, IMHO the short story form is the hardest to master. I've never pulled it off. But a complete, satisfactory story arc with realistic characters in limited space is extremely difficult.

    And to the people who dismiss the genre I offer Poe, O'Connor, and Melville. I also think in the dawn of e-Reading we will see a resurgence of interest in short stories. Something like a $1.99 download from iBooks, for example. Perfect for a business traveler with a two hour layover who doesn't want to look at one more spreadsheet. For a novelist, this could be a fantastic way to introduce people to your work. I know we aren't there yet but with people finding such small chunks of time for reading short stories are perfect.

    I "discovered" flash fiction last year at The Clarity of Night, where Jason Evans offers a flash fiction contest twice a year. The entries are phenomenal and must be 250 words or less. I cannot believe the difference it has made in tightening my prose, which drifts toward purple with distressing frequency.

    I've wanted to try my hand at this for a while and after getting my copy of Shadows and Light I feel sort of inspired!

    Also, to host Janice: Thanks! And. Shifter? How did I miss this? I will rectify the situation this week since that looks right up my alley!

  6. Ah, short stories. I've never actually managed to complete one. I've drafted plent of novels, but shorts are darn tough. Still, I think I've learned just a bit in each of the areas mentioned, and I hope to learn a lot more.

  7. @Michelle:
    You're absolutely right about the crits. It's easier to see a complete story and character arc in a short, whereas you lose those things when you can only see a portion of a novel. And critting an entire novel is a lot of work.

    Totally agree. But there still has to be a feeling of completeness, and that's not always easy to do with a short.

    I sometimes have to switch gears too, and tell myself it's okay to go into a little more depth in certain parts of my novels as long as its still relevant. Good luck to you!

    Absolutely! My only credit right now is in short fiction. If you're good at it, I don't see any reason not take that little extra effort to pursue publication. Not that getting published in short fiction is any easier, because it's still quite difficult, but they *can* be produced much more quickly, once you get into a groove. And the more you get out, the more you become recognized. Great comment! Thanks for bringing up that point.

    Yes, it is extremely difficult. Some writers can only do short stories, and some can only do novels. Doesn't mean either is better than the other. But I'm glad I'm able to do both because it gives me so many more options in the career field. So if anyone is not sure, just try it. You never know.

    Regarding e-readers, I'm definitely keeping that in mind as a future option for expanding my readership.

    As long as you never quit trying, you never truly fail. And none of us ever stop learning, no matter how long we've been doing this. Good luck to you!

  8. My short stories usually are said to read like chapters ripped out of books. You know how a lot of writers say they finished their third or fifth novel before they had one publishable? I got most of that dross out in short stories (and fan fiction). I think.

    I've no short story credits yet (other than one not-for-pay for a now-defunct e-zine that I hated because I wrote it specifically for that publication), but I'm working on it.

    In the least, writing short stories is helping me learn to see when I have actual plots and not merely situations.

  9. Good points, Carradee. And good luck to you, too! :)

  10. Well said, Lydia. I write short fiction because I love the art form, and continue to learn with every word.

  11. I've never been able to crank out a short story, personally...they always end up being either a treatment for a music video (don't ask me how) or a novella. That being said, I do think it's a valuable skill to practice, as it does help you reexamine your writing.

    I'd also recommend writers take a stab at writing a screenplay. They can be pretty easily fleshed back out into a novel (as I've done in the past), but they force you to focus on different aspects of writing, like short story writing does.

    In a screenplay you have at max 90 pages (equivalent to 90 minutes) for most stories (historical epics can be up to 120, heavy dramas about 100) so, like with short fiction, you have to know EXACTLY what you want to say. Adjectives get left by the wayside. You can't put a bunch of description in the action text because it won't translate on screen. All description has to come out of the mouths of your characters. And you learn to never use "he thought about this" unless you can find a way to show him thinking. You have to get really good at describing action, because if you can't explain it then it won't get shot in the way you want it to. You have to find a way to tell the director and actors what is happening without coming right out but not getting lost in subtly either.

  12. Thanks. I write novels and articles, I used to do a lot of short stories. I believe you're very right.

  13. Thanks, Brad and Cher'ley!

    Well said. I use a beat sheet to structure my novels *and* my short stories, actually, and it has worked wonders for me. Good comments!

  14. These are great tips for any length or type of story. Thanks!

  15. Thanks Lydia, for a great post and answering commenter questions :)

  16. @Laurel:
    I just read an interview of Truman Capote and he, too, said that short storires are harder to write.

  17. Great points. I especially liked "Hang up the Captain Obvious cape." Done!

    Condensing really is a big thing in stories - knowing just how much to leave out and how much a simple phrase can infer. Bradbury is a master at this - some of his stories are like poetry, or Picasso sketches, where each line is so simple but carries so much.

    Also, I can't remember who said it, but an author once put it this way: "I like short stories because when I finish one I'm the same person I was when I started."