Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Napolean Complex

Short stories can be fun to write.  They offer a break from the work we do writing novels, and they force us to be more compact in our prose in order to convey a complete story the reader will understand.  The flip side, however, is that the short story format can be frustrating - there's so much to say and so little format to do it in that I often feel I'm trying to cram in too much stuff.
(How much stuff do you really need in one meal?)
For the longest time, I didn't understand the parameters of a short story.  Sure, I'd read my share - or maybe more than my share - but I didn't write one until July of 2011.  The only reason I figured out the length to use at that time was because I was entering it in a contest, and the magazine gave specific word counts beyond which my story couldn't go.

I've since entered several more, and although the parameters vary, the usual seems to be between 1,500 and 3,500 words.  Even the "longer" versions present challenges since I have to get a story I could use 25,000 words to flesh out in about an eighth of that size.  For that reason, I have to be careful to be complete without being too in-your-face.  A stark story that shoves too much shit down your throat turns off readers, and that doesn't garner an audience.  So what to do?

For starters, I've learned to simplify my story ideas.  Most of what pops out of my imagination is pretty complex, from a 2nd American Civil War to a story about a ghost trying to avenge himself on the person who killed him.  Unfortunately, there's no way to do these ideas justice in the constrained format of a short story, so I have to pare down what I want to talk about.  That usually means taking one aspect from a fantasy world I've created and presenting just that slice.  Even then, the idea has to be further simplified since it's easy to take certain story elements for granted.

Jumping between novels and short stories can be challenging, but it helps keep us nimble, the same way doing both sprints and long distance slow runs can keep our bodies guessing and help us get in shape.  I'm not a fan of being confined to the smaller format, but even short formats bring out skills we might otherwise never develop, and doesn't that make us better in the end?

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