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.
The word amateur carries several meanings–some positive, some negative. To some an amateur is an unskilled participant. To others amateur connotes an unpaid participant. An amateur may be a hobbyist. The term could reflect an avocation as opposed to a vocation. Is amateur the opposite of professional? Perhaps it is in some uses, but not in this case.
The word amateur comes from the French, ultimately from Latin and means “lover of.” In its most basic sense, it captures the motivation for an endeavor. I suppose most writers at least begin as amateurs. It is difficult to imagine someone’s sacrificing his time, energy, fingertips or pencil lead for something he does not care about. The ability to endure the frustrations and (in many cases) the rejection a writer experiences goes beyond the professional pursuit. It takes the spirit of the amateur.
I heard an interview of a successful professional author once. He confessed that he hated to write. I suppose the monetary benefits of the successful, published author can motivate that person to continue to write, but I suspect it wasn’t the writing he hated so much as the requirement to write, to fulfill publisher commitments. Becoming a professional author doesn’t mean giving up true amateur status–a lover of writing.
There are things about writing that I could say I hate. I hate the effort I have to make to get started, and I hate the effort I have to make to stop. As for the actual writing part–I am all amateur. The writing is its own reward. I think the most successful, the most published, the most skilled writers have reached that level because of one thing–they are all a bunch of amateurs. God bless ’em.
Writing is just reading before it’s written to be read…. As a writer, I am concerned with what makes good writing. As a reader, you (and I) are also interested and affected by the quality of writing. While people will have different opinions about what represents good writing, most would likely agree that the quality of the writing–and therefore its effect on the reading– depends on good description. Even non-fiction suffers if it fails to bring the reader’s mind to some visual association with the subject. I have written for technical manuals and I have written fiction, stories. Each has its challenges and rewards. One thing they have in common, as far as I am concerned, is the need for good description.
My hand copies the pages that are turning in my head… Description in a technical manual does not carry the same purpose as description in a novel, as you can imagine. In a technical manual one might say something like Remove the red wire from the positive terminal by loosening the terminal lug (counter-clockwise) with a small Phillips head screwdriver. In a novel one might say something like Phillip rubbed shaky fingers across his damp forehead as he stared at the red wire. The screwdriver slipped in the grease and grit that covered his hands and now smeared his forehead like war paint. The smell of hot metal and plastic warned him to hurry. They did tell him it was the red wire, didn’t they? The former describes the steps in a process. The latter describes details for the purpose of drawing the reader’s senses into the scene. The task for a writer is to develop the appropriate type and amount of description without over doing or under doing it. Read the rest of this entry »