The long and short of it
by Sharon Ashwood on June 24th, 2009

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I don’t necessarily need 365 pages to come to the point, but it helps.

My stories ramble along, turning problems over and over because that’s how I think. Our books are only as smart as we are. All the wisdom and brilliance contained therein have to be supplied by us. Hence, our hero can’t find his way out of a jam unless we solve the problem first, nor can our tales conclude with neatly wrapped gems of insight unless we got ‘em in stock. I ponder; ergo my books ponder.

I admire short fiction enormously, because it tends to be crammed with clever ah-hah moments. The best stuff is like a little puzzle box that springs open in the end to reveal the prize. And, the difference between short and long fiction isn’t just in the plot. The writing skills involved vary. Communicating entire lives, entire emotional histories in a few paragraphs without sounding like you’re doing it–wow.

There are also purely practical issues to consider – if you’re writing with alternate realities, you’ve got some ‘splaining to do. By the time you’ve mapped out the rules about your were-terriers and evil raptor finches, you’ve already reached the word limit for a short. If you’re talking to readers who already know the universe, it’s a lot simpler. If you’re not, it’s better to pick a setting where more is automatically understood or plan on a novella.

I could go on, but Annette did a great job covering this aspect of the topic yesterday. Let me sum it up like this: Long versus short writing is like hand embroidery versus machine quilting. There are similarities, but knowing one doesn’t automatically grant expertise in the other. Some very accomplished authors stick strictly to one format.

I do write short stories, but they aren’t my natural stride. I treat them like exploratory jaunts, exercises in precision, and holidays from what I’m supposed to be doing at the time. Some of my shorts are good. Others are weird. Perhaps I’m most daring when writing small stories, because they’re a low-risk venue to try out new techniques. I haven’t wasted 50,000 words by the time I pull the plug on a dumb idea.

I aspire to be one of those wonderful authors who can do both with ease. I was delighted when I read Strange Candy, Laurell K. Hamilton’s short story collection. It really showed off her range as a writer and gave a glimpse of the many directions she could have taken her talent.

Who can you think of who is every bit as good in short fiction as they are in long?

4 comments to “The long and short of it”

  1. 1

    Nothing at all wrong with weird! I always enjoy Stephen King’s short stories.


  2. 2

    That’s a terrific way to think of short stories, Sharon–as a place to experiment and try new ideas. I’ve had a couple of stories that never blossomed into novels–maybe I should try them as novellas.


  3. 3

    I totally want an evil raptor finch! Ooh, the devastation we could wreak. The garden moles would shriek in terror. The slugs would flee…

    I think Bradbury does an excellent job of short and long. When he does short with a science fiction bent, he gets around the trouble of explaining by not. Not explaining, I mean. He extrapolates just enough from “real life,” then you, the reader, are on the hook for the rest.


  4. 4

    Charlaine Harris does a good short story, and P.N. Elrod. Oh, and Toni Kelner, MaryJanice Davidson, Jim Butcher, and Ilona Andrews. I bet you can guess the kind of books I read…


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