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Monday, 16 January 2012

BREVITY. SUMS IT UP NICELY.

Posted by RLL for REPORT FROM A FUGITIVE. © RLL, 2012.

Yes, I suppose I should say something about the impending release of my uncollected short story collection. I vacillated over whether STORIES should be in the title. As I decided to put my pre-publication blogs in the book, I couldn’t class those as fiction. WORKS replaced STORIES.
   You gather scraps, as a writer. Stories with no home to go to. Wayward tales seek shelter under a log. Suddenly, this ragtag band of orphans becomes something more. Or so you like to tell yourself. I could have put every scrap in the volume. But no. I had a long think, about the short story.
   Why write short stories? Well, that was the done thing in school. We were exposed to the concept of writing fiction and not taking all day at it. Now I devote myself to writing fiction and taking all day at it, for money.
   There is a view that it’s important to progress from writing the short story to writing the novel. A contrary view is that you can just jump in and write the novel if you want to. (Third view. Devoting yourself to short stories is no crime.) I feel that chapters of novels are short stories, or should be. Something meaningful goes on in a chapter. That’s the point of isolating part of the story in a chunk.
   What is something meaningful? I’ve read chapters of books that had nothing plot-related go on across the pages. Atmosphere can provide something meaningful in a chapter of that stripe. Perhaps all the action is happening elsewhere, and having nothing plot-related going on inside a chapter is simply the author’s way of stoking tension or interest in what must, inevitably, follow.
   In the short story itself, there’s no follow-on. Unless you come up with a sequel. You will see that happen inside my book. It’s not against the rules, for there are few rules in fiction. What are those rules? Avoid boredom. Be consistent within the confines of any fictional world you create.
   Creating a world across fifteen pages or fifteen-hundred becomes a question of how much space you wish to cover. The short story, in school, often hovered around 300 words. Translated to print, that’s a single page of A4, double-spaced, in a 10 pt font. More or less.
   A page.
   Would I write a short story that short now? If I felt like it. I don’t generally feel like it. If I want to write a short story, I’ll scribble a few thousand words rather than a few hundred. This blog has a minimum limit of 1,500 words. Enough space in which to say what I feel like saying. If I were to write a short story as a blog entry, then, yes, the story would meet that minimum requirement. And some vague maximum limit.
   How long can a short story be, before it is no longer a short story? I’d still call a piece of fiction a short story at 15,000 words. That’s something I could write in a day. We’d have to draw on other terms, from the wilderness, to help define a sense of scale. A novel hovers around the 75,000 limit.
   Do we simply apply labels on the basis of the 25,000-sized chunk? Novel, 75,000. The novella, 50,000. Extended short story, 25,000. Short story? Everything beneath that lowered limbo-bar, down to the pub joke or fortune cookie declaration.
   Short stories. Do they sell? How do they sell? This is the digital age, and there are many options available. A story could be released into the wild on its lonesome. That serves as a taster. Would I charge for that? Perhaps if I put out a series of single tales.
   You can read a free taster on my Hallowe’en page. One day, I’ll edit The Chalice in the Snow for inclusion in a collection. There won’t be much editing done to it – I have very few alterations to make to the piece. When it is released, it’ll be the collection you’re paying for rather than that story. (I’ve now edited The Chalice in the Snow. Tidied a few sentences. That was all. The version on the blog remains unchanged.)
   How would I package my short stories? Single release? Collection in a group of six? Another flock, in a group of a dozen? Some overlapping, from one collection to the next? Bumper gathering of 20+ tales? Overlapping again? No, I don’t think I’m going to duplicate tales across collections.
   I see advantages in the notion. A collection of rocket ship stories. Another gathering of horror tales. One piece of fiction is a rocket ship story and a horror tale. So that appears in both volumes. Transparency is important if you are going to offer customers your stories in that way.
   Mark the collections clearly. Itemise and advertise the inventory for the benefit of your would-be readers. Don’t short-change customers, and don’t leave them feeling short-changed either. Otherwise resentment creeps in, when having to pay for the same mutant-monster tale five times in a row.
   On a side-note, I’ll add that naming a collection of short stories WORLD’S BEST TRICK-ENDING TALES is not a great ploy. Unless you have a greater ploy in mind. Similarly, your HERO UNMASKED AS THE VILLAIN COLLECTION, and ORDINARY STORIES FEATURING THE UNEXPECTED ARRIVAL OF ZOMBIES, may alert readers to some of the surprise twists you have in store. On the flip-side, WEREWOLF TALES better have werewolves in there. Or be tales told by a werewolf, at the very least.
   The appeal of the short story takes on a new lease of life in our digital age. Readers of this blog could be reading the blog on a phone, on a train. (How did the phone come to land on the train?) We may define the shortness of a short story by whether or not it is consumed at a single sitting on a train journey.
   It would be uncharitable of me to suppose that you could chomp through the complete works of Tolstoy on a single train journey in this part of the world. I am here to talk about writing, not about interminable train trips in the Wild West of Scotland.
   Brevity, as Dorothy Parker has it, is the soul of lingerie. It is also the spine of the short story. Get in, write what you have to, and get out. The exact number of words involved is unimportant. Atmosphere is what you are after.
   I don’t think I ever read a Mark Twain book that felt like a book. Tom Sawyer and his rascally pal Huck Finn will always inhabit the landscape of the short tale, to my mind. Drifting along the river, chapter by chapter. Maybe it’s the way Twain wrote. Well.
   There are countless forgotten novels whose only impact on my life was the removal of hours that could have been spent more profitably. Over the course of a few pages, using a curious mix of mist and words, Akutagawa gave the world a short story that ranks as one of the most atmospheric I’ve ever read. And that, filtered to me through the Japanese-to-English translation. In a Grove. You may have encountered the story as a movie called Rashomon.
   In a Grove is such a short short story, that I pause (briefly, how else) to consider editing short pieces. How to edit a short story? The same way a large story is edited. Electronically, using features of the word processor to iron out the few rough spots on the shorts.
   Microsoft Word has many features to it. A few are even considered useful. I vaguely recall OVERTYPE mode being something you could switch off FOR ALL TIME™. In one of Microsoft Word’s previous lives, at any rate. That handy ability, of permanently dispensing with the bloody annoying thing, no longer appears to be available in this particular incarnation. For the sake of brevity, we’ll pretend my 95-page rant on this topic never existed.
   My rant must have been edited from the blog, but how? Swallowed by the red circle, obviously. An esoteric cabal, set up in the era of your choice. If you want to concoct stories about a covert society, that is. THE ADVENTURE OF THE RED CIRCLE.
   I use a Microsoft Word circle, filled red, to mark a point in my work. This electronic bookmark serves one purpose. To note the progress of my editing. On the off-chance that I’m torn away from my writing to deal with the drains, or other world-shattering events, I mark the latest edited point with that red circle.
   As I move down pages, I drag the red circle with me. When I reach the finish, I delete the red circle. Whether I’m writing a novel or short story, the red circle crawls across the pages in search of matters that require fixing. Mistakes do not quite fall into the red circle’s gaping maw. A fair bit of prodding goes into that circus act.
   I see, by the enchanted bean counter attached to this machine, that I am at the finish. Though, in drawing attention to that fact, I have, miraculously, padded out another paragraph. Consequence? In going back to tidy some typing, I accidentally activated OVERTYPE mode. Not, I fear, for the last time.

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