Is short better?

NotebookAs part of their Short Fiction Week, 40kBooks invited a bunch of writers and editors to offer their thoughts on, well, short fiction. I was delighted when they asked me to participate – you can read my mini-interview here. Now that Short Fiction Week is coming to an end, I thought I’d blather on a little more on the subject.

All my early fiction was short. All right, I’ll be honest: most of my early fiction was unfinished novels. Not that I had anything against short stories – far from it. The tattiest (and therefore best-loved) volumes on my teenage bookshelf were Isaac Asimov’s robot stories and the sublime short fiction of Ray Bradbury. It’s just that I always wanted to be a novelist.

It was only after I’d had some novels published – and at the suggestion of my agent – that I took a serious stab at short fiction. It was then that I fell in love with the novelette. Definitions vary about exactly what a novelette is, but I tend to pitch mine in at around 10,000 words. It’s long enough to develop characters and setting, and short enough to work like the proverbial sucker punch.

So is short better?

The answer is no, of course not. But nor is it the poor man’s novel. I actually find a short story harder to write than a full-length manuscript. Oh, it’s not as tiring, in the same way that a hundred-yard dash is nowhere near as tiring as a marathon. But your muscles still ache at the end of it. And the stakes are just as high.

In any piece of writing, you should strive to make every word count. In a short story, every individual word represents a larger percentage of the total narrative than it does in a novel. Its importance is correspondingly elevated. Does that mean the novelist can afford to be lazy? No. But it does mean that, when you’re writing short fiction, everything’s more concentrated. It’s like breathing pure oxygen. You can’t do it for long, so you’d better make damn sure you get it right before you pass out.

The other thing short fiction lets you do is explore ideas that simply aren’t big enough to make a novel. Sometimes the high-concept idea is too good to let go, but not substantial enough to justify building 100,000 words around it. The trouble is, you don’t always know which it is until long after you’ve started writing. Recognising an idea’s true nature can be hard but, if you let the story tell itself, nine times out of ten it’ll end up exactly the length it needs to be.

Whatever the length, however, the fundamental rules still apply. Characters must breathe. Settings must shine. Stories must drive. Long or short, fiction must take you on a ride you weren’t expecting. One lap of the track or many, it doesn’t matter. Is short better? What do you think?

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