In the Arts, Shorter ≠ Easier

When I did graduate work in business in the mid-1990’s, I treated myself to a semester-long undergraduate course in 16mm filmmaking. That this class, along with a doctoral seminar in English literature, was by far the most pleasurable of my two years in upstate New York should have told me something right away about the wisdom of my pursuing a business degree. After I had shot all the footage for my 12-minute magnum opus, I went to the editing room one morning at 8:00 AM, the time that the building opened, and didn’t get up from the Moviola flatbed editing machine until 3:00 that afternoon, when a classmate had reserved the device. Only then, after a blissful seven hours of editing and re-editing and playing thirty different pieces of music to choose my soundtrack, did I realize that I had forgotten to break for lunch. I was starving, but invigorated.

And exhausted. I gained a lot of technical knowledge about filmmaking in that class—how to use an incident light meter to measure foot-candles, how to distinguish among tungsten-balanced film stocks—but an equally important lesson was to learn how much time and effort are required to produce even a short film. The only difference between a 12-minute short and a two-hour feature is that, for the latter, you shoot many more rolls of film. Other than that, the process is the same. The choices you have to make—sound, lighting, editing, camera movement, character motivation—are equally difficult and take the same amount of time no matter the length of the finished product.

Anyone who has tried to write short stories as well as novels will probably make a similar claim. I’ve known young, inexperienced writers who finished a draft of a novel and then said they were going to take a break, kick back a bit, and write a short story, only to discover that the shorter form presented as many technical obstacles, if not more, than the longer work. One young man I met in a writing class, upon finding out that the process of writing short stories wasn’t the holiday in Tuscany he thought it would be, put aside his half-finished story and set about attempting to write poetry. The result was the poor fellow’s second rude awakening in as many genres.

I finished my sixth draft of a novel in late December. Based on comments from kind readers, I corrected the manuscript before sending it on its way to agents. As I am the sort of person who can’t relax unless he’s working, I decided to fill the (endless) waiting time by writing a couple of stories. Now I’m in front of another type of editing machine: my laptop. I’m writing and editing and re-editing, making false start after false start, pacing the floor, tapping a pen that ran out of ink long before my son was born—the same slow, grueling, wonderful process I put myself through when I wrote the novel.

There are differences between writing stories and novels, of course. Although you want every part of a novel to interest the reader, you have room for digressions, flights of fancy, asides that don’t move the plot along in a conventional way. You don’t have that freedom in stories. You need to get to your point and never stray from it. Stories shouldn’t be simplistic, but they don’t demand the level of complexity that novels do. An agent once advised me to “add another wheel” to a draft of a novel. Have multiple characters with multiple, interlocking conflicts, this agent said. In a short story, your focus has to be narrower. You don’t have the time to mine every nuance of a dozen characters. And one big difference between the forms is, of course, the time needed to complete the work. It takes me a month to finish a draft of a story, compared to six for a draft of a novel, which, depending on your perspective, may mean that short stories are less dolorous than their longer counterparts.

Yet I’m working just as hard now as I did back in December. And that’s how it should be, isn’t it? What is the creative life if it isn’t the constant search for interesting stories and inventive ways to tell them? That’s what it is for me, anyway. It’s the thrill of discovery that keeps me going. And the beauty of short stories is that the best ones provide just as much insight and richness as a novel.

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