The Stupid 365 Project, Day 21: Does Length Matter?

October 22nd, 2010

So what’s the difference between short and long?

This question has impressed itself on me with increasing force as I battle to salvage something (anything) from “Spirit House,” the three-part Halloween story I so blithely promised would close out the first month of this project, which began at the end of September.

The thing is, I have to remember, when I sink into the Slough of Despond, that “Spirit House” is very different from all the other writing I’ve done over the decades.  To hammer on the obvious, “Spirit House” is a short story, and it’s in a genre — ghost/horror — that I don’t really read much and have never written.  And I undertook it for purely external reasons: to hang a Halloween lantern on the site for three days.

For me, short stories are a whole new challenge.  I find my way into a novel (Pulped, for example, or any of the Pokes) by coming up with a few people in a situation in which the stakes are reasonably high and the potential exists for things to get more complicated rather than less.  Then I let the characters loose on the page and allow them flail around for 10,000-20,000 words, listening for their voices to begin to sound authentic and seeing how they relate to the situation — and, most important, how the way they react to the situation (and to each other) reveals character.  Once character begins to be challenged and to emerge, I forget all about the situation and just essentially follow the people.

Well, that method is a lot better-suited to a novel of 100,000 words than it is to a story of, let’s say 4500 words.  “Spirit House” is 2600 words long right now and the midsection is kind of sparse and the final act doesn’t yet exist on the page (although it’s a real window-rattler in my imagination).   There’s only one actual (read: living) character in the story, so it’s mainly about being a camera following along right behind his head as things go very wrong.  And the thing is, that whether it works or not, I only have to go so far with it: 4500 words is a short enough piece to get away with a couple of good ideas, some okay lines, and maybe a cheat or two.  I hope.

(I know — none of this is making you eager to read the story.)

But I can’t help it.  It’s true.  The sheer length of a novel makes it impossible to get by on tricks.  If you try, you’ll run out a third of the way through, and the only way to keep going is to go deeper.  Sooner or later, working at novel length, you’ll use everything you think you know, feel, or can imagine about the story and the characters, and that’s the point at which you reach wayyyyy down and come up with whatever it is that you actually mean.  For me, that moment usually comes about 30,000 words in, and it’s when the real writing begins.  At that point I just hold on and keep hammering away, knowing I’m going to have to go back and rewrite the first part because I was just circling the drain when I wrote it, trying to figure out what the book is about.

Obviously, a short story has to be written differently.

None of this is meant as a knock on the short-story form.  There are lots of extraordinary short stories, and I’m sure they were written by artists who arrive at the first page with their imaginations already wide open, who see to the center of an issue or a character much more quickly than I do.  It’s like the difference between a sprinter and a distance runner: one is right there from the moment the starting gun sounds, while the other takes time to develop his or her race.

As much grief as “Spirit House” has given me, I’m glad I’m writing it.  (Confession: to get the 2600 words I’ve got now, I’ve written probably 10,000.)  This is a whole new kind of challenge.  Even if it fails spectacularly, I’ll keep working in the short-story form.  We all need to do, on a daily basis, things we don’t know how to do.  Nothing is deadlier for a creative person than staying in the comfort zone.  It feels so good there and it stretches us so little.

Oh, and I’m sorry about that headline; I was under the influence of the Huffington Post.

18 Responses to “The Stupid 365 Project, Day 21: Does Length Matter?”

  1. Bonnie Says:

    Whew! I was afraid you were talking about something like this: http://lafamilylaw.typepad.com/
    Seriously, it astonishes me when a good full-lenth novelist can also crank out decent short stories. Lawrence Block comes to mind. And Marcia Muller/Bill Pronzoni. I think you are right that it is a different beast entirely.

  2. Larissa Says:

    So granted you’re not knocking the short story genre exactly but I don’t know if you’re really taking all there is to them into consideration…ahem. If I may be so bold. (c:

    The real gem about a short story is exactly the fact that the author only has 25 pages or 10 pages or hell, 1 page to tell you *exactly* what they want to say, choosing not just the best word but the “only” words to say what they mean and how the characters are feeling…without the luxury of the reader having a chance to get to know the characters for the first 200 pages, or the chance to figure out for themselves how the environment is actually a character. A short story is the equivalent, I think, of a really stellar PSA. (Yes, they exist, I swear)…when they’re good, they’ll actually make you think before you text and drive again, and when they’re bad, well, they fade from memory and you never think about them again. The same may be true of a novel in the general terms but with a short story, the stakes are higher-most people will finish a short story because well, hell, it’s only 15 pages. Anyone can read that. But will they remember it…that’s the tough part.

    Not to get all high-horsey here but I’ve read some seriously stellar short stories that left me with more of a lasting impression than some (daresay, most) novels I’ve read.

    The pain about short stories is that you can really really tell when the author is trying waaaay too hard. Every word sounds like it was picked out of a thesaurus because it means “Big” and “Round” (!) Or something.

    reCaptcha: ponbuxea clad

    If that ain’t the name of a novel or a short story, I dunno what is (c;

    I’ll take my soapbox now.

  3. EverettK Says:

    Jeez, Tim, now besides using up 3 days of the blog with the short story itself, you’ve spent about 2 1/2 days talking about WRITING the short story. Just man-up and write the damn thing already.

    If you’re long enough. Er.. big enough… um, I mean… where’s that reCaptcha?

  4. Gary Says:

    They say the great thing about country music is that you can tell a whole story in four stanzas. (OK, so “El Paso” goes on forever, but surely you’re not a Marty Robbins fan.)

    Shorting is a whole different craft, isn’t it? Even harder if you write one featuring the characters from your full-length novels.

  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    For those of you who didn’t click on Bonnie’s link, it led to a news account about the refusal of a divorce court in Taiwan to order a doctor to measure the husband’s penis. His wife complained that it was so long it made sex painful for her. In a ruling that will be applauded by men the world over, the court formally denied the request, saying that “the length of a man’s intimate part is very subjective.” Thanks, Bonnie — this was the most reassuring thing I’ve read all day.

    Riss — I stand before you, ponbuxea clad (and in my best ponbuxea, too), to say that I wasn’t in any way attempting to knock short stories, just to say that I lack the skill set to write them. They are, as Bonnie says, a different beast entirely. I admire them. I just don’t know how to write them.

    Jeez, Everett, who handed you the whip? “Take up three days” with the story? Do you have any idea how much easier it is for me to just set the spigot to natter and let it drip until I’ve got 300-400 words, instead of actually trying to make something good? And where’s all the praise for the fact that ALMOST ALL of these have been 500 words or so. I get no credit. Just carping, carping carping.

    reCatptcha: recente, imbetely Let’s hear one of you smarty-pants use it in a sentence.

  6. EverettK Says:

    re: whining about writing 500 word blog entries instead of 300-400.

    You’re a NOVELIST, we EXPECT you to run long. Big. Whatever…

    But okay, as long as you stick with your Stupid Blog commitment, I SUPPOSE I can back off for now. 🙂

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Gary, shorting is indeed different, and (for me) much harder. I was in agony over the one that will be in “Bangkok Noir” but Chris Moore has been very nice about it, so we’ll see. I used to love “El Paso,” but my current favorite long song in the world is Dylan’s “Brownsville Girl.” It begins, “I saw this movie one time, and it starred Gregory Peck . . . ” and goes into one of the great musical narratives ever. And the background singers, three African-American women, are playing with him (musically, I mean) and the whole thing just works.

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Everett, you’re just mad because I can’t figure out how to do the group novel. I think it’s a great idea, but it would require a new, dedicated area on the site and my web guy has apparently been disintegrated into subatomic particles because he hasn’t answered an e-mail or a phone call in forever. Go look at the home page. Do you see THE QUEEN OF PATPONG on it? It’s my latest book, isn’t it, and you’d think it would be there, but . . .

    I could probably figure out how to change things myself, but I’d have to back out of the 365 challenge. Hmm . ..

  9. EverettK Says:

    Nope, no Queen on your home page. Your site (in terms of home page and individual book pages) doesn’t look too complex, and I could probably help (or, at least, mess it up royally), but unfortunately I’m deep in the depths of trying to get my new game put together in time for the Christmas rush. So I’m afraid I can’t offer to help with that one. But yeah, you really need to get your latest novel on there! I think maybe you need to get a new “web guy!”

    And no, we will accept NO excuse for backing out of 365!

  10. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Gee, I saw a crack of light there for a few seconds.

  11. Gary Says:

    But the home page distinctly says “A Message from Tim,” not “A Message from Tim’s Web Guy.” If you use a ghost writer shouldn’t you at least mention him in the acknowledgements?

    And, while we’re on the subject, “A Message from Tim” falls far short of 300 words!

  12. Bonnie Says:

    Tim, I was wondering why Queen was missing, too. If you need some help, I’d be happy to give you a couple of hours–only fair in exchange for the hours of reading pleasure you’ve given me. This assumes you have the info on logging into your website; a frightening number of people don’t have any idea, or where their domain name is registered, etc. — and what if your web developer gets hit by a bus?

  13. fairyhedgehog Says:

    I find short stories much easier, especially flash fiction. So writing my first-draft-of-a-novella in a month for Nano is always a challenge. And I’ve yet to work out how to edit something that size!

    Recaptcha didn’t like me and lost my comment. Luckily I’d Ctrl+Cd it. Then it didn’t like me posting the same comment again, even though it hadn’t actually posted. Argh!

  14. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Gary, have you met Everett? I’d be happy to supply each of you with the other’s address, and you could collaborate on new ways to attack me as I work my fingers to the bone to provide you with a fleeting instant of pallid entertainment. And by the way, I actually wrote the blog credited to Everett.

    Bonnie, that’s a really sweet offer but ehr admin password, etc., are in the hands of the missing. I am, in fact, among the frightening twits who don’t know anything about anything. And he may already have been hit by a bus, for all I’ve heard from him.

    FHH — that makes you very different from me. I could dither around with “Spirit House” for the rest of 2010 and still be reluctant to loose it upon others. And whenever that happens — Captch doing that duplicate mention thing — just add a new first word –“Tim,” for example. Then, no problem.

  15. EverettK Says:

    Tim said: …as I work my fingers to the bone to provide you with a fleeting instant of pallid entertainment.

    ‘pallid’, huh? Well… you said it, not me. But that seems to indicate some amount of lack of self-confidence, doesn’t it?

    Tim said: And by the way, I actually wrote the blog credited to Everett.

    Whew, thank GOD! That takes ME off the hook for any idiocies and inaccuracies in that piece of fluff! Tell you what: you take credit for my writing and I’ll take credit for your “pallid entertainments,” and we’ll call it even. Talk about the “Deal of the Century!”

  16. Sarah Says:

    No one was more scared than me while reading when Kwan had just walked her teacher and the man out to their motorcycle. I was right there on that road and the bushes and the motorcycle coming up the road … everything … just scared me. I can only imagine that this Halloween writing you are doing will produce something great. This book is my favorite of all time. It is the best. Nobody gets females talking to each other better … I know .. I go on and on but I really am going slow because I do not want Queen of Patpong to end. This book has got to be talked about more. It is JUST GREAT! Please do not thank me for writing this. It is just the truth. It is now linked with being the only reason I feel like going to the gym. And that USED to be about the music … but now I have Queen of Patpong to look forward to so it gets me there. Thanks again for it.

  17. Larissa Says:

    Wow. Everett and Tim…you two are killin’ me over here…and if we’re not careful, ya’ll might kill each other too! (c: It’s great.

    Now then, do we need to step in and put you both back in your corners before starting the next round?

  18. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thank you, Sarah — I like that part of the book, too. In fact, the center section of QUEEN might be the best thing I ever wrote, and it’s not even really a thriller.

    Riss, I’m fighting manfully (Everett’s implied phrase when he ordered me to “man-up”). Everett’s just sulking.

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