Despite a strong desire from the beginning of my writing days to write novels, for many years I found myself unconsciously kowtowing to what now seems the tyrannical pedagogical assertion that writers “learn by writing short stories” and only then can “graduate” to the realm of novels. Or the even more fussy cliché: “First you must learn to write a word, then a sentence, then a paragraph,” and so on. As if writing were a finishing school with rigid levels and tests to pass and certification to be obtained. Not only are stories supposedly easier to write, but they’re easier for teachers and editors to make sense out of–in other words, to grade them.
Couldn’t you learn just as easily by starting a novel and seeing where it leads? Can’t you write for yourself first, pick up what you need as you go along, and ignore the certifiers?
I don’t devalue the short story; there are excellent short story writers and excellent stories, and I admire writers who’ve made the story their art form. What I’m opposed to is the idea that stories must be considered as training wheels for novels, that they’re somehow “easy,” “amateur,” and “safe,” that we must pass muster with stories before we’re “allowed” to write novels.
You’re to write stories, you’re to get five, ten, fifteen published and obtain recognition and “credits” before daring to embark on a novel. There will be a serious apprenticeship to endure, validated in mysterious ways by unseen authorities. So many rules seem to be applied to the process of writers’ development that, as long as you’re trying to follow the prescribed path, you may learn little about your real impetus to write. I do recall, especially in college writing classes, that the novel was seen to be such dangerous business that we really ought not to fool with it just yet.
But as soon as I did dare to write my first two “student” novels I realized that I’d found my deep energy. By the time I spent two years and fifteen hundred highly educational pages on my first serious novel, I’d left the concept of short story training wheels far behind. After publishing my first story in 1977, I responded to the magazine editor’s flattering plea for “another masterpiece” with the comment that I was too busy writing a monster novel to think about sending a story–definitely the antithesis of smart writer career move, and in spite of the fact that I had another story I could have easily mailed off that very day. And as it happens, “Space, Time, and Tania” was somewhere on the frontier between story and novella, and like most of my stories was yearning to be a novel. Even my childhood stories, modeled on 1950’s science fiction movies, tried to emulate the sweep of a long narrative in six scrawled pencil pages.
There’s also the concept that the urge to write novels is a sort of literary diarrhea. Supposedly you can’t stop blathering and you have no focus. There’s also the old saw that “novels are padded short stories.” But I really don’t think that explains anything. I may waste a lot of words in a rough draft, but I’ve learned that attachment to anything yields a poor result, and I can be happy with having written passages that at least expressed something at the time, and then I can cut them in service of the force of the final work. I’m not into meandering, any more than I’m into brevity for brevity’s sake. “Whatever is appropriate” is my guideline.
When I spoke a few months ago to the Frisco (Texas) Public Library teen writer’s club and asked the ten kids which of them wanted to write novels, to my surprise all ten raised their hands. I really don’t think my high school classmates or even everyone in my college class would have done so. I think at that time we were conditioned to regard aspiring to a novel as ego-tripping, that we were too young to handle the responsibility. Today, armed with all manner of gadgets, word processing systems, access to PubIt, Kindle Direct Publishing, and other self-publishing venues, inspired by Japanese teens writing cell phone novels and the knowledge that other seventeen year-olds are publishing bestsellers, these kids, I think, may be reevaluating the old pedagogical formula.
And more power to them! If your soul envisions the long narrative arc, go for it, write the first draft of that raw soul rough draft novel and then see where you stand. You can’t help but learn along the way. Maybe there’s some complex personal karma to grapple with. Maybe there are vast inner empires which demand a lengthy look, while attempts to produce a body of “correct” stories may leave you scattered, constantly scrounging to start over from scratch, or feeling that you must describe trivialities in an attempt to achieve poetic-sounding transcendence. I myself wrote a lot of this latter type in college!
A long narrative develops characters over time and allows a complex plot and space for investigation and experimentation. True, some novels get away from the author and wander through all sorts of nonsense. Then again, some stories seem suspiciously dumbed down and oversimplified.
A novel does take more time and effort for another reader to evaluate. But surely we can see from perusing Chapter One, and then inviting the author to tell us the best chapter and perusing that, whether the given novel is working at all, whether it’s capable of being rewritten or should be mothballed as a practice effort.
It can only be good energy to move beyond the expectations of the publishing world and its academic cousin, the creative writing teaching profession. The idea that you must build up credits in “the little literary magazines,” just as Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald did, oppresses me greatly, despite it being vastly easier these days to use web forms to submit dozens of times a month to numberless online magazines. But whenever I’ve tried to follow this dictum, I’ve lost energy and left the whole process feeling resentful—cursing the darkness instead of lighting my own candle. It was only when I bade farewell to the story career path, and concentrated on revising my best novels as publishable works, and sending those out, that I found any kindred spirits or success.
Would I ever consider trying to publish some of my best stories as a book? I do have a few I like. I’ve considered it, more from the standpoint of self-publishing on Amazon or Barnes and Noble, but then again, what’s the point? I’m really not a short story writer even though I don’t rule pushing one out if it seems the appropriate route. The fact that my story “Perpetual Starlit Night” was recently accepted for publication seems to answer that urge. It’s ironic too in that “Perpetual Starlit Night” was originally conceived as a novel and I spent hundreds of pages of notes on it until I realized that all I really wanted was the thirty pages which essentially would’ve been Chapter One of the projected novel.
A collection of a writer’s stories intrigues me if I sense that these stories are real artworks and not just student contest pieces the writer and publisher seem eager to cash in on. I don’t denigrate any story that is art. I’m just tired of the assumption that stories are for students and desperate careerists. To read a book of stories by a “fresh new author” is chancing a lot of boredom and disconnected consciousness. (And why do so many of these stories sound like “A Mule for Billy”?)
I was greatly surprised and impressed to find, during my early attempts to send out typewritten story manuscripts and my first typewritten novel manuscript, that the rejection letters of my stories sent to “little literary magazines” were uniformly snotty, whereas the rejections from the novel publishers were, surprisingly, much more cordial in tone. Explain that. It was the first clue that I was on the right track for being a novelist—that there seemed to be a resonance with the world not present in my stories. Of course it may well be that my stories-aching-to-be-novels were obviously inferior to my novel attempts.
As for the photo accompanying this post, it doesn’t really concern short stories, but does reflect the liberating moment when I realized I needed and wanted to concentrate on pushing my best-effort novels out into the world.
copyright 2012 by Michael D. Smith