The compression of time.

I’ve been a novel-writer for as along as I can remember.

I devoured fantasy books as a kid, even in kindergarten. It wasn’t an uncommon weekend where I’d knock off a 300-page book. (Took slightly longer when Robert Jordan reinvented the genre as doorstops.) So when I made the leap from reader to writer, from consumer to maker, it was a natural thing that I’d try my hand at long-form.

Short stories, not so much. I read them in school, but they were blips on the radar. Things over which I tripped, perhaps, on my way to the next novel. Un amuse-bouche seulement.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been a kid, though, and as a grown-up it’s way easier for me to find the time to read a short story than a novel. (I still read the latter, in what I hope is an omnivorous fashion.) And, perhaps reflecting that shift, I haven’t done much* with novel-writing this year. I’ve been working on short stories instead. “It’s the same thing but smaller, right?” I thought to myself.

… you can hear the invisible “What could possibly go wrong?” that followed that thought, I’m sure.

As of this year, I can say I’ve written more short stories than novels. The hardest bit was learning the difference between a “story” and “a bunch of things that happened” or a “scene.” In a novel, of course there’s a five act progression: you start out, you build tension over time, you weave multiple threads together into a single turning point, then there’s the fall-out and denouement. Doing that in 75,000 words: piece of cake. Having a meaningful story with character development in the face of external threat in the space of 2,500 words: a lot more challenging.

  • Extra words had to go. Perhaps stemming from National Novel Writing Month, my first drafts are filled with footnotes, asides, internal monologues … a bunch of stuff that helps me shape the story but isn’t actually story. The stuff eventually is cut in a future draft, around the same time I’m adding new scenes. When you’re working in a small space, you don’t have a lot of room to be gabby.
  • Time is short. You have to get where you’re going a lot more quickly. See first point.
  • You can’t have as many threads. Every story I start feels like part of its own universe. It’s not uncommon for me to spend time working on backstory and the internal logic of the universe in question as part of shorts, even flash: even fantasy needs to be believeable. The downside is that there are so many cool things left on the cutting room floor! There’s “murder your darlings,” and then there’s having a miniature French Revolution in your text editor.

There’s a story about The Windows Sound that comes to mind here. Brian Eno was approached by Microsoft to make the Windows booting noise. He had a list of emotions to convey and only 1.5 seconds with which to evoke them. And every song he wrote after that, he said, was having an entire ocean of time with which to play. That’s where I am — I came from an ocean of words, and I’m trying to figure out how to make a pond.

I’ll get there eventually. I’m not sure if it’ll ever feel as natural for me, personally, as novel-writing, but I’m learning something new, and that’s a pretty neat thing after 30 years of writing.

If you’re like me (and trying to go “tiny fiction”), I’d recommend the following:

  • Read shorts. Obviously. The genre market is awash with them. For sci-fi and fantasy, I’ve been reading a lot of Strange Horizons, Apex, Uncanny, and Clarkesworld. Gamut on off-days. Daily Science Fiction every morning while I’m walking the dog. There’s plenty more. But to paraphrase Stephen King: if you aren’t reading, you won’t have the tools to write. This is true when heading between forms, too.
  • Check out the Writing Excuses podcast. I may have been the last person on the planet to find out about it, but their discussions on form have been fantastically enlightening. Plus, each episode comes with homework assignments.
  • Practice. It sounds obvious, but it never is. It may take you a while. (It sure is for me.) But unless you give it a go, over and over, you’re not going to develop the understanding of form and function that’s distinct between shorts and every other format.

On that note: back to writing.

(And, if you’re good, I’ll try not to wait multiple years before posting again.)

*I’m editing the fourth draft of a 120,000 word manuscript. It’s slow-going. The stories have made for good relaxation exercises, in a way.

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