Writing Short, Writing Long

I decided to post the occasional short story here (new Short Stories page), and that got me thinking about writing short fiction as opposed to novels.

I began writing in 2000 with a novel (The Friendship of Mortals). In fact, I was compelled to write it, something I still don’t understand. The characters (Herbert West and the narrator, Charles Milburn) came alive in my imagination to the point that the novel almost wrote itself. With many of the scenes I felt as though I was transcribing rather than creating the dialogue. The hardest thing was to realize the plot and fill in the action between those compelling scenes.

When I joined a critique group a few years later, it became evident that novels do not lend themselves well to review by such groups. It takes too long. If you contribute 3,000 words once per month, it would take 30 months to work through a 90,000 word novel. During that time, the membership of the group changes. People who join the group well into your novel can’t critique it the way someone would who has read it from the beginning.

Short stories are much better fodder for the critique group. Moreover, writers who are shopping a novel around to publishers are often advised to get some short stories published first. So I’ve written a few, even though I had little inclination to do so. To me they were an “ought to,” like eating broccoli, while novel writing was a “want to,” like chocolate. Writing stories was work, work, work. Writing novels was magic.

Some writers are simply not meant to write short fiction. Look at artists — for the most part, they choose a medium and stick with it.  Someone who paints big, splashy canvases or murals isn’t likely to do miniature portraits, and that’s OK. A sculptor who prefers to work with metal doesn’t feel guilty for ignoring stone.

My rule now is not to write anything, long or short, unless it wants to be written.

A few of my short stories have been published in Island Writer, the literary magazine of the Victoria Writers’ Society. But I thought I would make a few of the others available here. Critiques are welcome. It will be interesting to see if there are different reactions to stories I think of as written from the head versus those that were written from the heart.

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