There are a number of differences between novels and short stories. Length, being the most obvious. Chaptering, being another. But the one that has intrigued me for the last couple years is a difference not in the way they are created but in how they are consumed.
Novels are more often read a bit at a time, sometime over weeks. Short stories, however, are usually — if fact should be — read in one sitting. They are of such a length that the reader is in a single place and frame of mind in most cases. So it is the writer’s responsibility to create and maintain a single consistent trance for their reader.
This is why writers hear another difference between the novel and the short story. In a novel, once has the luxury of dawdling in detail of character, concept and place. But that disappears in a short story. Every line — every word, some would say — must point to a single, well-defined and satisfying end.
Therefore, a short story writer must truly know his story, probably well better than the novelist.
I’ve heard fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writers and seasoned pros say they regularly write and only edit for spelling and punctuation. Enviable, but probably not applicable for most writers. I believe that most writers, even many other of the seasoned ones, write their stories only to have the real story revealed to them during that writing. Then it’s off to rewrite heaven.
I would suspect that the afore-mentioned one draft writers might even be missing something by allowing themselves the one write-through. How can one incorporate the ahas that I find during my writing, the moments of inspiration that MUST be paid attention to?
During the writing of any story, I think of a connection between two story elements, a unique turn, or the strange emergence from memory of a detail that I couldn’t possibly leave out. These usually not only make the story better but make the story that I really wanted to write possible. But these unexpected finds have to be added in and that almost always takes time.
Maybe that’s the secret of the faster writers’ success. Maybe they sense these ahas, just like I do, and they have the discipline to jot them down for later or ignore them altogether, continuing with numb focus on the path they started out on. Outside (or inside) influence be damned. I’m not sure I’d feel the same about the idea later on if I ended up keeping and referring back to that jot later on. I’m not even sure I’d know how to create a story similar enough in the way necessary to incorporate it.
If you run across your own ahas, my advice would be to listen to them. You decide whether to jot them down for later or incorporate them. But whatever you do, if you decide to pass them up, let your decision be based on something other than distaste for the work or time that it would require to include them. Ultimately — and I’m sure others would argue against this, that the deadline or the output over years supersedes this — the best story you can write is the only story you should write. I get that that can easily be abused and come out, “I never write a story,” or “I’m never actually done,” etc. but be logical. Of course, you would improve upon your story every time you read through it — at some point you have to stand away, allowing yourself to be done. I’m referring to the ahas that occur during the first crafting of the story.
If you’re too many ahas are arriving early on, you need to look at the concept a little closer. You’re not really writing, you’re outlining. If you’re running into none, however, you may not be listening for them or seeing them when they knock on your door.
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