Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Importance of Being Brief

One of the best parts of getting into the pulp era of writing has been diving deeper into short stories. This is speaking as someone who had treated them as lesser for most of my life. From my experience most people don't see short stories as anything more than tiny fragments of fables centered on teaching a moral with a shocking twist ending, and little else. Most of this is taught in school, and very rarely has the form escaped this impression in the current age.

But I'm not going to be talking about that. The fact of the matter is that if you're a reader or writer and refuse to read or write short stories you are limiting yourself. As author Misha Burnett has said many times, the form of the short story has been where every literary movement has started from before rolling out into novels and then other mediums afterwards. That's self-evident. What I want to bring up is a whole other problem, this one is on the writers themselves. This is about the importance of content.

Without naming names (partially due to memory lapses, I'll admit) there are authors that simply treat anything other than novels as quaint or, at worst, a complete waste of time. So many writers will buckle down to write a 100,000+ word novel but can not be bothered to craft a 20k novella or 6k short story and in the process are limiting the type of tales that can tell. And if they do, the tiny piece they crank out is usually little more than a throwaway. But stories need to be important, not quaint or pointless.

Do not confuse this with ideology. Stories do not need to be about Important Things or Current Year social issues which end up dating it out of the box to scratch the itch I am describing. When I mean importance, I mean that the plot needs to be important to the main character in it.

It needs to be life or death critical. The story should be a snapshot in a wider landscape where everything that occurs is of deathly importance.

I've seen stories that are anecdotes from larger universe series. A multi-book epic pauses for a short story about how the protagonist got a zombie dog. This is what character X was doing during moment Y in book Z. On his day off the main character deals with a problem far below what he usually does and faster at that which sucks the drama right out. None of these are using the format to its full potential.

And outside of those, a lot of authors simply never write short stories at all. It's disconcerting, but nothing new. There's not much in the way of short story audiences, never mind novellas or novelettes. Many writers simply don't have the incentive to do it.

So this is for those who do.

Every word you write is the difference between life and death, Heaven and Hell. It doesn't matter the length. Editors and writers will tell you to trim the fat in novels all the time. This is to sharpen the prose and the plot to make it easier to pierce the heart of readers. The shorter the word count, the closer the ideal. It only stands to reason that story contents should be just as deadly as the prose. A short story shouldn't be frivolous for the same reason a novel shouldn't. The reader deserves better.

Short stories need to be important because those that read them are, as is their time. They, and the medium, deserve better than cast offs and busy work.

Make them want more. They deserve at least that much.

Speaking of which, I apologize for the lack of a post last week. I will try not to miss one again. I've been trying to get myself back on track again after some recent blunders. That aside, as a reminder, the Heroes Unleashed kickstarter campaign is still going and it has doubled its initial goal! If you haven't thrown in yet, you have less than a week. I promise you that it will be worth your time, as I follow the very same rules above.

That's simply the way writing should be, short stories or not. Sharp and direct. Just like this post.


  1. A piece of advice I often tell my clients is, "Writing prose isn't painting a picture. It's polishing a window."

    The writer's job is to give readers a clear view of the story. Unnecessary words obstruct that view.

    Re: short stories, a major reason why authors shy away from them is shorts are harder to write than novels. It's the difference between painting in oils with a brush on a canvas and drawing dot-by-dot on the back of a stamp with a pin.

    Shorts definitely have their place, though. Many of the big indie authors use shorts and novellas as magnets to drive newsletter subs. These stories are mainly of the "Here's the answer to a compelling question that was left dangling in the first book" variety. Full disclosure: I'm taking that approach with XSeed.

    1. Practice does make perfect. I'm hoping for a large return of the format within the next few years.

  2. I find in general I find myself reading compilations of short stories more frequently then full novels.

    I still read full novels, but short story collections, especially when by different authors, is often a lot of fun, especially when they jump around story to story, but stay on a common topic.

    God, Robot. Calexit. 2113. And my endless pile of horror short story collections leap to mind immediately when I say this.

    I can't imagine stuff like A Shadow In Time by Lovecraft being a full novel instead of a novella.

    And I've read a few novels where an idea that belonged in a short story gets dragged out too far. They weren't very good.

    1. There are a lot of pieces, including shorter novels, that feel much too padded. Sometimes a story is really as short as it seems and the author should let it be what it is. The bigger is better mentality has hurt more stories than the opposite ever has.

    2. I have seen a lot of manuscripts that authors have sent me for advice in finishing their novel when what they need is help in editing their short story.

      And many of them get upset when I tell them what they have is a good story that needs to be tightened up rather than expanded to novel length.