A short while back Vanessa Gebbie posed a question to our writers in conversation, and now it is time for her to answer her own question. Vanessa?
I do get a bit tired of hearing that the short story is a ‘training ground’ for the novel? Is it?
I posed this question initially without really thinking, expecting my own response to be ‘of course not’… but after consideration I’m now not so sure. Quite apart from the fact that any piece of creative writing surely has some small bearing on the next, being a step on a journey, I thought short fiction and novels were so different, that the one would have little direct influence on the other.
But I have just spent the last five years writing a longer work – at the same time as producing enough short stories to fill two collections and plenty over. And I am now convinced that the answer to the question is not as simple as a straight ‘yes, it is’ or ‘no, it isn’t’. At least, for this writer – the only one I can speak for.
In some ways, being comfortable with creating short fiction has not helped me make a coherent piece of long fiction. I am avoiding the word ‘novel’ now – because that conjures ideas of lengthy narratives with several side alley explorations. Side alley explorations that are not actually vital, but which help to pad out the page count. Don’t they? No? How many novels have you read (as a writer yourself) without wanting to reach for the red pen – ‘Why is this here? What’s it got to do with…?’ And I must admit, I would not at this point, consider writing one of those single main narrative works, because I don’t enjoy reading so many of them for the very reason outlined, so why would I?!
As an aside – I have just re-read a very well known novel written within the last few decades. A novel studied for ‘A’ level English by one of my sons not that long ago. And one I thoroughly enjoyed on first reading – already a modern classic. Reading with a writer’s eye, I wonder if it could easily be 25% shorter, and be better for it? So says I, the short story writer! And thank the lord for subjective opinions.
However. Inasmuch that successful short fiction has no room for extraneous material, my skills as a writer of shorts, such as they are, did not exactly help when I wanted to produce something they call a novel. And although it might have been perfectly possible to go in depth into each deliberate gap, (those gaps that render short fiction successful reading experiences as far as I’m concerned) to fill them with matter, flesh out the prose, add lengthy descriptions where naturally, I might have given a single word or phrase or even nothing – this was not right for anything that had my name on it.
My response to the problem was to create the only sort of long work I can imagine I will ever do – one that could be approached in the creation stage as individual short stories. Sure, the settings were the same, and all the characters wandered in and out of each other’s stories at will, gate-crashing their parties. In this way I made twelve facets of the same thing. And just as working on a stand-alone short, where I would go deeper but sharpen at the same time, I split them again, each one becoming either two, or three distinct stories – until I ended up with over thirty in all. Two timelines, same setting, different generations of the same families.
So far so uninteresting – another writer blathering about their process, which may or may not have relevance to yours. But. The point for me is this – it was this approach that actually led the project in more ways than one. Not just structural issues emerged.
I do not plot when I write a short story. I start with a character who fascinates me enough to want to spend time with him/her and a problem, and the story finds its own direction and shape, after time. Careful revision sharpens the whole. I couldn’t imagine approaching a longer piece of work, say 100,000 words, in the same way, without there being a lot of meaningless meandering, and one helluva lot of pruning as the thicket was tamed. However. As I wrote The Coward’s Tale each story informed the next, in more ways than one. It was not just the characters who appeared again – it was the distinct shape of each story – the rhythms in the bigger sense. And, most importantly, the theme.
Joan Didion is credited with saying, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” I have to say I never understood that. Of course we know what we think! But we only know what we think if we are addressing an issue consciously. Each of my stories, as they appeared, was singing the same song in a different key. Of course, there needed to berestructuring, to undo the story arcs – I was in danger of leaving it as a series, not a coherent whole…but it was only when I was able to look back at the almost finished first draft that I could see what I’d been doing. The minor and more accessible themes were rising and falling fine – but the overarching one only became clear after Id finished the first draft – during the year I spent polishing and shaping the final structure with the help of the wonderful and perceptive writer Maggie Gee, thanks to an Arts Council Grant for the Arts. I needed to have it pointed out to me.
That structure was the hardest thing to get right – so that no longer would each section be stand-alone as well as part of a whole. So that the main threads of the narrative were sharpened here, moved there, echoed, and echoed – and the tapestry that started full of holes ended up good and whole.
So what are the understandings and craft skills I think helped The Coward’s Tale along, learned at the knee of the short story? I think I will start with a nebulous one – the real respect that the short form has for the reader – not requiring them to spend a long time on a voyage without at least giving them the confidence up front that the voyage will be worthwhile. Delivering the goods, on time, and in time. It works both ways – a short story creates a need for a careful reader, not, as is so often trumpeted, one who wants to charge through a short narrative in a grabbed twenty-minute space between train rides, on a busy station. If anything, a worthwhile short story is LESS suited to today’s freneticism and short attention spans than other forms… (but maybe that is another topic?!)
Perhaps the most important direct craft skills for my novel, learned in short fiction, are as follows: characterisation, wrought by a word, a glance, a single attribute – where lengthy descriptions are so often de trop, best left to the reader’s imagination. Allied, the use of dialogue, which works so hard and so effectively on many levels. Constant awareness of pace and weight, of each and every word, sentence, paragraph, scene, and their effects on the reader. Awareness of thematic coherence – aiming for a holistic creation in which everything fits, matches, sings the same song. I could go on – the importance of a strong and intriguing opener. And a hundred thousand words later, an ending that lifts, makes the heart beat a little faster – an ending that seems the only ending possible.
What am I doing, listing some craft issues?! You know them all, and plenty more. My point is, I relied on those, and The Coward’s Tale is OK. And I answered my own question [in and earlier post] instinctively, without thinking.
“I wonder if a successful writer of short fiction may find it hard to write a novel, because they need to unlearn so much. However, when they finally do, I wonder if they might write a better novel than they would if they were not short story writers first.”
So actually – not a very good training ground, as that assumes a natural effortless slide from one to the other. The slide from short fiction to long fiction, in my case, was definitely not easy, but I am happy to put my name to the end product. I tip my hat to writers who are able to create successful long single narratives – and I celebrate our differences. And I can’t wait to get back into writing a stand-alone short story!
→Why The Short Story, a Conversation Among Writers continues tomorrow with thoughts on Flash Fiction and the Continuous Dream. Thanks for reading! ←