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Saturday, 9 April 2011
Most of what I know in terms of writing comes from reading, and most of what I read are short stories. This isn't to say I don't read novels, but I usually read about 1 novel to 10 or 20 short stories. Many writers who are most famous for their novels, ie., Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye), Vonnegut (Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five), and Tolstoy (War and Peace, Anne Karenina), also have an impressive collection of short stories that I have had the opportunity to pour through.
In almost all of these short stories, you can see commonly followed rules and a distinctive style. Kurt Vonnegut, at the beginning of his short story anthology Bagombo Snuffbox, gives eight rules, as follows:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Now, these are all great rules to write by and occasionally ignore. But for now, I'd like to focus on numbers one and five, which address something which often gets de-prioritized in short stories: making them short.
I know, it kinda sounds odd of me to insinuate that people don't know how to keep their short stories short, but there is a difference between a story that happens to lack length and a good short story. Every sentence and every word costs time and space, and if your reader lacks the first or your publisher lacks the second, you'll never even get your story out of the notebook. Besides that, people want their time to be used efficiently, and if you take five pages to say something you could have done in the space and time of four, your reader will know it, and won't be above holding it against you.
This is a rule that, while Vonnegut wrote it for short fiction, can be made to apply to any writing. It holds just as, if not more, true in poetry, for example. Here, word are counted and unnecessary lines can not only waste time and space, but also tend to majorly obstruct flow and style. Journalism also benefits from the use of brevity. If you can keep your reports concentrated and focused, you not only hold a piece that will read and inform better, but one which will take up less space, a trait that, especially in print journalism, can be the difference between the writer who gets printed and praised, and the one who goes hungry.
Before you all take a proverbial (or non-proverbial) weed whacker to your story, I should probably let you know that almost as soon as he wrote these rules, Vonnegut mentioned that they get broken. It's important to keep in mind that there is a time for everything, and a thing for every time... or something to that effect. JD Salinger spent days agonizing over a single word, and has wonderful stories to show for his effort, but that is not the only way to do things. Rambling is never advisable, but some topics require a bit of a rant, some things need to be repeated, and some stories are downright painful to end. Only the individual writer can make the final call on just how long is too long or long enough, but it's important to keep in mind that what you are willing to write isn't always what another is willing to read.
I'll probably address a few more of these rules next week, and look forward to writing at you again.