Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Guest Blogger Lydia Sharp on The Long and the Short of it
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, 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, , , and .
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 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 , 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 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?