Short Form

I was talking with my brother over the weekend, and independently we both mentioned that we’d been considering working on more short-form projects. I’m editing an oversize fantasy novel right now, and my brother’s finishing his dissertation, and we each described how we’re feeling a little bogged down and overwhelmed with our writing.

I’ve written essays and short stories before, and published a couple of poems, but I’ve always thought of myself as a long-form person. Novels give characters space to breathe, to develop and grow on readers over a longer period of time. Series can be even better, their plots going beyond that one story problem or crisis as characters enter new life stages and deepen their relationships and friendships or discover new ones.

But I’ve never felt like I’ve gotten the knack for writing short stories. In college, I read my share of short fiction by Raymond Carver and Katherine Anne Porter and Leo Tolstoy, and I think I recognize a well-written short story, or one that sticks with me and makes me think, or one that’s both. But they still feel, well, short. Like a window into a person or a situation or a concept—but I shouldn’t get too comfortable because there won’t really be time to sit with these characters. The Joycean school of thought that there should be a reveal or epiphany at the end of the story also feels like a lot of pressure, and I’ve never to my own satisfaction struck that balance between a surprising ending and an ending that feels foreshadowed and appropriate.

And yet, despite my ambivalence, I’m feeling like it might be time to work on my short game. Where I’m at in life right now, I don’t have a lot of time for writing, and to slog away at a developmental edit of a 120,000-word novel isn’t very fast or rewarding work. I have another novel I’m shopping with agents, and a complete manuscript that needs a second edit, but both of those also sound daunting. Something that’s manageable, that I can finish with half an hour here and half an hour there, may be just what I need these days to keep some momentum going.

One of the problems of tackling something new, of course, is that there are so many different avenues or ideas I could pursue. Do I want to write short stories featuring characters I’ve already developed, or do I want to explore different worlds and possibilities? Do I want to stick in speculative fiction or do something more literary or contemporary? Or I could work on my poetry—but again the question is whether to revisit a known project, like my sonnet collection, or try my hand at something more open-ended. And there’s something so immediate and satisfying about researching for a crisp nonfiction essay, but finding that unique angle to an ever-green topic doesn’t just happen on its own.

I suppose having options is a good problem. I’ll just need to make sure that this well-intentioned plan to build writing momentum actually leads to writing—and momentum.


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