Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Musings On Writing Short Stories

Some musings on writing short stories and the difficulties inherent therein.

The short story genre though suffering a set back of sorts over the past twenty years is far from dead. While it is true it is far more difficult today to become a recognized voice and author in writing short stories they still seem to pave the path for many a new novelist. Of course one can point to O'Henry and other great American writers who did manage to make their name and become recognized for their command of the short story. Making the point that short stories do remain part of the heritage of good writers everywhere. "The Gift Of The Magi", to my mind is one of the greatest, most poignant short stories ever written. And certainly EA Poe was a master of the short story and novella. Isaac Bashevis Singer, an unknown writer in Yiddish who published short story after short story in the New York Yiddish newspapers and journals, and went on to write "The Slave" and win the Noble Lit. Prize also is an example of how short stories slowly but surely can build a career for the writer. Eli Weisel, whose first novel, "Night", was in essence a lengthy short story, and followed it with volumes of other short stories, is another fine example. We can go on and on with examples, though it certainly remains true that the art of short story writing has given way to the finely tuned Novel.

Thirty years ago, if you wanted to enter the short story arena, there were the few "great" magazine names. That list has not changed much. From the Paris Review to Harpers to Atlantic Monthly to the New Yorker and all others whose names are familiar with authors and agents and publishers - the list of good short story writing outlets has remained stable.

Certainly with the advent of the Internet short story writing, much of it absolutely atrocious to be honest, has taken on even more interest by those who would like to try to their hand at writing. Everyone is an expert these days on what should and should not be contained in short stories. Years ago the trend was to write touchy-feely flowery short stories which seemed to meander into the pathways of the soul without any meaning or message. They used metaphor and images to portray some type of loss or experience leaving the reader with no real beginning or end. These stories were reflections of a life philosophy that screamed out to society "live and let live".

Today no matter where I turn the trend seems to have been totally and completely turned on its head. There is nary a place one can go reading, learning or practicing the art of short story writing, where one is not told "the short story must have a beginning, middle and end" - preferably with a twist. Surprise the reader, draw him in, kick him in the stomach. All excellent advice by the way all elements which I attempt to have in my own short stories.

However, in a mood of let us say "having fun", I recently wrote a short story called "Love In A Cafe". It does contain a twist but not a huge "hit-em-over-the-head" one. It is simply a story about falling in love. Nothing catastrophic, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing with angst or hand wringing emotions. Just a very simple story of unexpected love.

And I have had such widely differing opinions from friends whom I let read the story, (it is scheduled for publication at The Deepening in Feb. 2007), that it made me think about short stories and their nature. Some wanted more, others less. Some said "the story really made me smile"; "you caught the truth there"; others said nope, don't work for me - never happens. Of course as usual others gave critique on the writing itself.

Which made me realize that when we read short stories (and novels possibly) we are looking to really identify with the protags. We invest the 20-30 mins. to read that story we need to walk away with something "real". Tell me a story, the reader says, "but tell me something I will get scared at, cry at, laugh at, get angry about. I must relate to it."

Not all short stories can relate to all people. That is obviously a law in all writing. But since short stories are the snapshots of but a moment in time, they tend to be judged must more carefully and severely I think. We tend to say "do I want this story in my life?"

As all the rest of what I write is not like this story it does not bother me much. I know I like it. I know for me it is real. I know that there are people out there who do and will like it. No it does not pack a punch. No I don't try to kick the reader and make him cry with it. No, I don't try to give the reader some hidden message deep within the words with this specific story. I just want to make the reader smile.

I may not succeed with 100% of those who read the story. But I will take a 70% rate of smiles any day of the week. For once, in what I wrote, I just wanted a smile from the reader. "Love In A Cafe" was my contribution to those smiles.

Short story writing is difficult. It can be frustrating. It certainly is for me. Agents do not usually want to see short story anthologies hit their desks unless your stories have been published in the famous print mags. That is not an easy route to take and it is the work of years and years.

Still, presented in a book store with a choice of a novel or an anthology - both by authors I may want to read - both given good reviews - I would probably pick the anthology. For a novel I just may not like and that is that. But in an anthology I will have a chance at the very least, through a varying of beginnings, to start all over again trying to enter in a world created especially for me by the author with a snapshot of existence painted on its pages - and maybe even walk away from one with a smile.

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Categories: short stories, writing, on writing series
Getting Wasted - Writing & Editing & Publishing Short Stories

Edited With Qumana


Ayilir said...

I once read a quote from someone (can't recall who it was): "if you try to write something everybody likes, no one will like it."

When you mentioned that you'd take 70% rate of smiles any day of the week, that was the first thing that popped up in my mind. It's impossible to make something everyone likes. Nice blog you have here ^^ think I'll put the link on my blog.

Teddy said...

Thanks ayilir...
appreciate the comment and link..
but it is true..you cannot please everyone .. and should not try to do so in writing...
I just wanted to, one time, write a short story that would just leave a smile on a few readers faces....
with no angst, no message, no anger, no great awe-inspiring idea...just plain easy smiles...