Size Matters

In a conversation via some comments on this post, Weirdwriter asked me if I wrote many short stories before diving into the novel form.

Um, not exactly.

I know there’s this conventional wisdom that you start small and work your way up to the big stuff, right? In fact, every creative writing class I ever took in my early years was structured just that way – some simple word play exercises, then you started writing poetry, and, inevitably, the climax of the class would be… the short story. It’s like you have to start small and then build those muscles up before moving on to something bigger.

But that might not necessarily be the easiest way to do it.

For example, I just gave a writing tip to one of the interns at the ad agency where I work. She was working on writing 30- and 60-second versions of the same commercial for a client, and I said, “Write the 60 first, then cut it down to make the 30.”

Why? Because it’s easier to write a 60-second spot than it is to write one only 30 seconds long. You get better story value, and more time to tell your client’s story (yeah, I know, big conglomorate-owned radio stations are pushing 30’s as the new 60, but there’s a complicated math lesson behind it that I won’t go into right now1).

I know this belies all of our notions of bigger is better, but bigger is also harder, but that’s the way it works with writing. Bigger is easier because the smaller you get, the more important each word becomes. It has to bear a greater weight, a greater burden, and must be sufficiently powerful to contribute in the most efficient way possible.

Therefore, at one end of the spectrum you have the novel, which allows you to stretch out with words, with story, with subplots and characters and place and theme. It’s a leisurely walk in the park. Wordwise, then, a novel is easier to write than a play, which is easier than a short story, which is easier than poetry, which I suppose is easier to write than something like a tombstone epitaph. And note that by the time you get down to writing poems, you’re the watchmaker, sweating over every word with a pair of tweezers and a jeweler’s loupe, praying that what you’re assembling will keep time and have the desired impact.

It does seem kind of backwards. But that’s the way it’s taught because in most of the rest of the world, that’s the way it works. If I’m going to build a mansion for myself, I’m going to start with something like a dog house first to make sure I can get the angles cut right.

I suppose if we educated people, this whole notion would change. I can just hear it being said in classrooms across the nation – “All right, students, get out your pens and a stack of notebooks. We’re going to start our novels today! And if you’re lucky, by the end of the school year, we’ll have worked our way up to limericks!”

No, I don’t think so.

I think another reason for this concentration on the short works is because at one time, there was a huge market for that kind of stuff. Once upon a time, selling short stories was an excellent way to get your name out there – a literary apprenticeship of sorts. And once your reputation started to grow, then you cracked your knuckles and sat down at the old Underwood and typed “Chapter One.”

Sadly, that’s no longer the case. There’s not much mass market short fiction out there anymore, with the exception of the Science Fiction genre, where agents still prowl the pages of Asimov’s and Fantasy and Science Fiction looking for new talent. But I didn’t go that route, so when A Death of Honor was published, some critics noted that the author Joe Clifford Faust seemed to have come out of nowhere. That was kind of a cool thing to have said about me.

Coming back at last to Weirdwriter’s question, as for the actual sequencing of my writer’s apprenticeship, it went something like this: Over the course of my early schooling, I wrote the required number of short stories for whatever class I happened to be in at the time. But when I started writing projects on my own, they were always novels. It was as if I had some kind of internal instinct for concocting the kind of story that took place on a big stage.

When I was in high school, I wrote a play during study hall. And one short story, for my creative writing teacher. It was so ghastly that the next year she changed the parameters of what could be acceptably turned in. Made a couple of false starts on projects that were novels.

In college I got wicked turned on to the possibilities of the short story form by a high school literature class where we read everything from Faulkner to Barthelme. Did one short story for a class and a bunch for myself. I wrote another play. I finished it when I had mononucleosis, and looking for something else to do, started yet another novel. Got fifty pages into it and quit.

The next year I started yet another novel. Four-and-a-half years later, it would finish under the title Desperate Measures, although it would be a while (after some serious editing) before it actually got published.

Out of school and married, I took writing seriously. I found a publisher for the play I’d written in college. I found my way into the small press community and discovered I could turn out Stephen King-like urban creepshow short stories and sell them to horror zines for copies, and sometimes, a small check for five or ten bucks. Between stories I wrote a novel called Amendment XXXI, and when Shelley Shapiro at Del Rey asked for another title, it became A Death of Honor and I was off and running.

As you can see, I didn’t serve the traditional literary apprenticeship of writing short fiction. Short fiction was always secondary to my interest in writing longer works. At this point in my career, the number of novels I have published outnumbers the short fiction – and the total number of novel manuscripts I have is probably pretty close to the number of short fictions I have written. And I haven’t written a short story in a long time – the mid-1990’s was the last time I was sufficiently motivated (and inspired) to write one.

So, did I write a lot of short fiction before I started in on novels? No. Are they important to writers? Only in the sense that it’s something you can start and finish in a relatively short time – which means relatively fast feedback on your writing. Should a lack of short story experience stop you from writing a novel? No – but remember, you’re not exactly looking at instant gratification with the novel form – another advantage of shorter stuff.

Of course, endorsing the novel form like this opens all other kinds of worm cans – like learning how to edit yourself, and the sad state of a publishing industry that has become too nervous to make writers like Stephen King and Tom Clancy edit themselves into manageable manuscript lengths, and how you know what to cut and when, not to mention the courage it takes to go back to that finished novel manuscript and start hacking it to bits.

I’d go there now, but then this post would run long. Yeah, it’s that easy.

Listening: Marillion, Incommunicado (Clutching at Straws)


1 Okay, you talked me into it. Spots that are :30’s generally sell for 60 – 75% the price of a :60. So let’s say you charge a base rate of $100 for a 60. What would you rather get out of that sixty-second bit of dead air – $100 or $120 – $150? Take some time to think it over if you need it.

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