Friday, June 1, 2007

The Long and Short of It

Weeks back, Whitney and I began a long-desired task: Project Novel. We’d both write one, leaving our usual short story voices behind. But even on page one, that voice was pestering me.

For years I’ve worked to make my short fiction sharper, cleaner, and punchier. Like Picasso’s sketches, it seemed that 3 precisely drawn lines were better than a hundred so-so ones. So I learned to make cuts. I snipped anything that felt redundant or irrelevant. I gave myself assignments in efficiency: Define a character in 7 words or less. Tell a house’s history in one paragraph. I like to believe it helped: my scenes popped to life, my verbs became stronger, my dialogue more honest and interesting.

Then came this novel. How different could it be? Writing a novel, I figured, looked like writing a short story except you didn't stop. I gathered my story collections around my desk, like a swarm of loyal cats, and flexed my writing hand. Here we go! Project Novel! I typed a first page in my practiced short story style. A character in 7 words? Done. A house in 3 sentences? Done and done.

After a break I read over my remarkably efficient first page, and frowned. Rather than roll beautifully, my prose clunked. It felt choppy and frantic. I began to wonder if my preferred short fiction style felt a bit like walking in stillettos. It was deliberate, swift, and maybe even thrilling, but you wouldn’t want to shlep like this all day.

And days, I’m realizing, is what novels require. Weeks, and even months. In asking readers to spend so much time reading, a writer must learn not to exhaust them. Readers need relief. They need comfortable— though not boring— shoes.

So what makes some voices work for novels, and others not?

The answer may lie in rhythm and pacing. Short fiction puts emphasis on the sentence, since there are so few of them, and a good one will reveal character, advance plot, set the scene, and establish voice— all at once. This speeds the story’s momentum and escalates readers toward the fast-approaching end. But such sentences in a novel may feel hurried or even out-of-touch. Novels have space to stretch out, so why not stretch? If a novel doesn’t do this, readers may actually feel cheated out of rich and available details.

The novel form turns my idea of efficiency on its head. Redundancies in short fiction become emphasis in a novel; irrelevancies become digressions. There’s just way more room to run around.

I'm not suggesting that a successful novel style is somehow more admirable. On the contrary, a great short story can contain more life and truth than 300 pages of a novel! Below are some invaluable writers known much better for their stories than for their novels. When I'm procrastinating on this novel, I like to think about what makes their writing work better in a shorter form.

Jorge Luis Borges
Raymond Carver
Lorrie Moore
Amy Hempel
Pamela Painter
Denis Johnson
Flannery O’Connor
Anton Chekhov
Andre Dubus
O. Henry

...and please, add your own!

Of course, good writing is good writing-- whatever form it comes in. That’s the long and short of it.

~Sonya Larson


The Writers' Group said...

Edith Pearlman. Her short stories are ethereal and completely honest. Paul Yoon. His settings and characters live with you for months. I adore Shirley Jackson. The list goes on.

Sonya, I love this post. I admire anyone capable of writing a short story. How to be economical?


Thieves said...

Denis Johnson's "Jesus' Son" is my favorite book, but I think that's his only book of short stories. Holy christ, "Resuscitation of a Hanged Man" is really good.