Thursday, November 11, 2010

Short stories vs novels.

Well, I'm back to writing. Hooray! Life has been rather busy, what with two children and earthquakes to deal with. My spare time has been taken up over the last few months by a project involving the writings of my father, which has been very exciting, but I am glad that for now my part is over, at least until there are proofs to look at. Watch this space.

For the second time this year, I have been commissioned to write a short story. People wrongly assume that short stories are easier than novels. They often think shorts are what you write while you're 'learning' to write a novel. Certainly my novelist apprenticeship involved a lot of short story writing, but the reason I don't write them very often is that they are hard. Much harder than novels in my opinion.

Of course, the main reason I don't write shorts is the same reason I don't really like reading them these days: I prefer to really lose myself in a story, over a long period of time. But at least with a novel, you only have to come up with a good idea every few years, which is about how often I come up with good ideas for short stories. I realised yesterday why I find them difficult, too: it's because the most important part of writing a novel for me is finding the voice or voices of the narrators. Once you have established them, the writing often takes care of itself. So with a novel, it might take me months to get the voice right, a slow process of writing and rewriting the first few chapters. I also get hundreds of pages to explore an idea, or many ideas, to follow it to all its possible conclusions.

But when you're asked to write a short story, and given a few weeks to do it, you think - oh, a few weeks, that's a few hundred words a week, that's easy. But that doesn't take into account the time it takes to establish that voice, not to mention that single, powerful idea that is central to the story. It's worth mentioning at this point that I am compelled to write short stories about once every three years, when a voice pops into my head. So, as you can imagine, trying to find that voice can be quite frustrating when there is a time limit and when you have a few precious hours a week away from family commitments.

As an example, earlier this year I was commissioned to write a story for the Scape biennial at the Christchurch City Gallery. It was to go into the programme, and I was given the theme of the exhibition - Christchurch in the future - and asked to come up with whatever I wanted. Scape was to have taken place in September but a certain seismic event not only meant that it couldn't go ahead to plan, it also meant that many of the works were, well, a little obsolete, since they were dealing with cityscapes and where Christchurch as a city might be headed. In fact, the house I imagined my character living in, on Madras St, now has yellow tape around it and a red sticker on the door, and in reality, all her preoccupations would have heavily shifted after the quake.

But back to the writing of the story: I had very little time to myself at that point, but I really wanted to be involved as it was such an exciting project, and I was actually quite flattered to be asked. So it wasn't just a matter of handing the kids over to hubby for a couple of hours in the weekend and sitting down at my desk to let the words flow dutifully from my fingers: I had to actually come up with an idea. And that took weeks. It took a lot of walking around the city, listening to music, picking up books to read - basically everything except writing. I had a couple of false starts too. I was getting quite desperate. Then, after the deadline had passed and I as starting to feel quite queasy - boom! - up jumped the idea and the voice followed soon after. I was saved. It was a breeze after that.

What I'm getting at though, is that the initial work that went into massaging that idea out of my head was as arduous as it is for any novel. So I prefer to write novels because by the time I have finished one, the next idea has already come along - well, you'd hope so, wouldn't you, when it's usually three years between novels? But those shorts... to write them, to write them well, is a damn sight harder. Maybe if I went back to reading shorts I would get more into the swing of them, take pleasure in the crafting of something so small. But I do love novels. And anyone who thinks the short story is the poorer, littler cousin of the novel... think again.


Anonymous said...

Well I for one am very glad you are writing shorts stories because I LOVE short stories and I LOVE your writing. So double whammy for Mary.

Rachel Fenton said...

Brilliantly put. Thanks for that.

I find my short stories tumble out on a heap like a bus load of school kids. Then I have a quiet period while they're in school and I work on longer projects.

You used to have a link to a short story on your blog I think - I read one when I first "found" you. It was very quiet and moving.

Beattie's Book Blog said...

In my publishing days I always believed that the fewer words a story had the more difficult it was to write.