Reading a novel is kind of like having a long-term relationship. You begin with a commitment to carry through to the end, though it may take days or weeks or even months to get there (some are more committed than others). In a novel you grow to know the main characters quite well. You identify with them. You love or hate them. It happens over time.
Writing a novel is like that but on a much greater scale. The author lives with the characters behind the scenes, so to speak. If we could say that readers have a friendship with the characters in a novel, then the author has a blood bond. It begins long before the reader meets the characters and continues long after the reader has bid them goodbye. Long-term relationships are a good thing. But sometimes an author just wants to meet someone new, to find someone else to hang out with and see if a friendship develops. That is where short stories can be just the ticket.
Classically speaking, short stories have a different bone structure than novels. They are supposed to adhere to certain conventions about rising action, falling action, pacing, theme, etc. that do not apply to novels in the strictest sense. For my purposes–to get to know new characters–I don’t necessarily focus on classic short story architecture. I do not mean to minimize the literary significance of proper short story structure. I simply choose to deviate from it slightly for this type of story (so shoot me). As my friend Farthingsworth says, “Before you can think outside the box, you have to be smart enough to know that there is a box.”
I am not suggesting that this approach originated in my head. I’m sure most novelists have written stories to get to know new characters. Some of those characters find their way into future novels. Some are fine where they are.
Elmore Leonard wrote more than 40 novels and as many short stories. Many of his books were adapted for the big screen. One of his short stories focused on a character that had appeared in a much earlier novel. It spawned a successful television series: Justified. I can’t say that Mr. Leonard wrote any of his stories for the purpose of developing potential long-term (character) relationships, but I’d be surprised if not–and it did happen.
I can claim nothing in common with the highly successful Mr. Leonard beyond a nickname, but it was while reading some of his short stories that I decided I should spend more time “hanging out” with new characters. Taking time to write short stories not only helps in finding new characters, short stories provide a place to develop a voice, perhaps to experiment with different voices, styles and settings that may find their way into future novels. The only writing that is wasted is that which never gets written.
Don’t get me wrong. Just because I may derive some utility from writing stories, I place no less value on the end result and put in no less effort than when writing a novel. But approaching the story with the idea of meeting someone new makes the process more inviting and in some cases leads to a lasting relationship.
I was asked recently to give my observations about writing–particularly writing fiction. I decided to adapt my notes into an article aimed at those who are contemplating writing as a hobby or vocation. Let me begin by stating that I’m no expert. I have no significant credentials other than a couple of novels and several essays. But I believe my experience is not atypical when it comes to getting started as a writer.
What I know about writing I have learned mostly by doing it–and then re-doing it–and then changing it–and then hitting the delete key and starting over. I suspect that’s how most people do it. That is not to say I haven’t read a lot about writing, talked to other writers, attended workshops and endured many humbling critiques along the way, but that’s where to start–you write something.
Writing is a lot like other disciplines. It’s part art and part science. The thing that attracts us to writing–and to reading for that matter–is the art part. Art is creation, expression, style and voice.
I think part of what it means to be created in God’s image is that we have been equipped to create–on a much smaller scale, of course. Writing is one way to create. A story is a kind of creation. Even in non-fiction the writer is conveying some kind of story to the reader, whether it’s the biography of someone’s life or a roadmap to success in business. In fiction we might create a whole world and then create people to walk around in it. We create events and conversations. There is something naturally gratifying about that creative process, that art.
On the other hand, good writing has an element of science. By science, I mean that technical aspect we might refer to as skill. Talent may be innate, but skill is learned. I play the guitar a little. I was actually accused once of being a musician, but they never could come up with enough evidence to convict me. Nevertheless, I can listen to Eric Clapton play a blues song and then learn to play all the same notes, but it never sounds the same when I play it. I figured out why. It isn’t the notes he plays, it’s the way he transitions between them, how he starts and finishes the notes with a bend or vibrato–emphasizing some and blending others. It isn’t something that is really noticeable unless it’s missing. It’s a skill; it’s science added to his art. And it makes all the difference in the end result. Both the art and the science have to be developed. Those with natural talent may need to work more on the skill than on the art. Some are more technically proficient and need to work more on the creation than on the structure. But every writer has to address both.
One of the most important things a person must do if he or she wants to be a writer is to first be a reader. Reading is the best way to develop both the art and science of writing. Read–and then read some more. Why is reading so important? On the art side, reading helps us learn to recognize good writing–or bad. We read to “HEAR” how other people write. We read to get a feel for language use, description and dialog. Writers have a voice. Some, like Hemingway, are known for short sentences and terse dialog. Some, like Faulkner, are known for very long, descriptive sentences. Some are known for expressing detail or witty dialog. Reading other voices helps us recognize and develop our own.
On the science or skill side, we read to learn the subject matter, for research, for writing techniques and do’s and don’ts. We read for structure, grammar, vocabulary, use of active or passive voice, even punctuation. Read the rest of this entry »