The Long and the Short of It

I could talk about my novel Spell Games and how awesome it is and how much fun it was to write and about all the great caper and con artist and heist stories that inspired it, but I think I’ll save that for a couple of weeks, when the thing actually comes out, and you can respond to my enthusiasm by rushing out and buying a copy. (I got my author copies a few days ago. It’s pretty.)

Instead I’ll talk about writing short stories after not writing short stories for a couple of years.

I’ve always been a short story kind of guy. Don’t get me wrong — I love novels, the great baggy imperfect dawdling glorious things — but short fiction is my first love, and I’ve written hundreds of the things (and published… a fraction of them. They weren’t all good, after all). A few years ago, though, I got lucky and sold four books in an open-ended series. The publisher wanted to release the books at six-month intervals. Cool, right? Except only the first one was written, which meant I had to write three novels in two years.

This rather deeply enmeshed me in the world of novels. A world of long-arc plotting. A world of breadcrumb-dropping foreshadowing. A world of gradual character development. A world where pace and rhythm could be both more complex and more languid. A world where the accumulation of detail over a hundred thousand words or so was more important than coming up with just one single perfect detail. A world, in short, very different from the more focused, sharp-edged, compressed world of short stories.

I didn’t entirely abandon short fiction — I wrote a couple in the weeks between novel projects — but I fell out of my usual short fiction rhythm. And last year, when I turned in my last book under contract, and tried to go back to short stories… I couldn’t remember how. Fortunately I had an idea for a middle grade science fantasy adventure novel, so I wrote that instead. But this past December I decided I needed to start writing stories again, lest those muscles of brevity permanently atrophy.

I started working on a novelette called “Troublesolving” about an omnicompetent woman who doesn’t do violence (as a conscious break from my novel series, about a very violent woman — I wanted to force myself to solve plot problems differently). It was rough. I initially had way too many characters. I had subplots. I had to pare down, pare down, and ended up with a novelette anyway! (The story will be coming out in Subterranean magazine sometime in the future, so you can see how I did.) I was still thinking like a novelist. The result works, but it was rough going.

So I decided to aim for greater brevity. In January I wrote an epic fantasy — in about 4,000 words — called “Another End of the Empire.” That was more like it — I had a cast of five major characters, and a whole invented world, but I concentrated on telling details for characterization, on brief illuminating moments to convey crucial information. (That story will be in Strange Horizons this summer.)

Not bad, but by then I was on a compression kick, so I wrote “A Programmatic Approach to Perfect Happiness,” about brain-altering plagues and kinky robot sex and a vast secret conspiracy… all in under 3,000 words. (That one’s not sold yet, but I’ll let you know.)

I couldn’t help but note that, if my trend continued, my next short story would be shorter than a greeting card, so I took a little break. By then I felt like I’d gotten my mojo back, though, and I revised a couple of older deeply flawed stories, and managed to fix them — “Over There,” my epic fantasy infidelity story (which will be in Intergalactic Medicine Show later this year), and “Origin Story,” a superhero monologue (which will be done as an audio original on Escape Pod soon). Suddenly I feel like a short story writer again, and the pump is primed; ideas keep coming, more than I can keep up with. Which is great.

Until the time comes in a few months to write another novel, at which point, I’m sure I won’t remember how to produce long-form work anymore. You learn lots of things as a writer. Some of them, you have to learn over and over again.


1 Response to “The Long and the Short of It”

  1. February 19, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    Am having the same problem now myself — writing a trilogy, trying to get it down fast while my love of the material is still strong, and as a result I haven’t written a short story in months. I don’t mind this much; I’ve never been that good at short stories, and novels are my true love. But I often wonder if it’s possible to forget how to write short stories if you stop doing it for awhile. Stephen King mentioned this (he thinks it is) in the intro to his latest short story collection, JUST AFTER SUNSET. But reading what you’ve posted here makes me think that you never forget, you just wobble a little and maybe fall off a couple of times before you get back into smooth riding.

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