Thursday, April 17, 2008

Short fiction made long

I'm writing these days. It feels good.

I've been editing for so long, I feared I forgotten how to write. I've completed my novel Talking to the Dead and am shopping it around (yes, the same novel that was rejected by the publishing house I most wanted to accept it - sigh... genre is everything?).

I thought I would be starting on its sequel I'll Walk From Here, but I'm not. Nope. Not me. My brain flew off in a different direction and I'm running to catch up.

As you know Hot Apple Cider is out - most book stores will have it on order, or, if you are in the East, may have them on the shelves by now- and my short story The Stuckville Cafe is the anchor of the anthology (last story in the book).

The response I've gotten from the story has been an unanimous "MORE!!"

Flattering.
Humbling.

Cool.

So, I'm undertaking the task of turning a short story into a novella (trying to come in between 45,000 and 50,000 words). It's been an interesting exercise getting started. I thought I had my first chapter last week, but, as it turns out, what I had was just another version of a short story.

The "rules" of short story writing is different from those of novels. I know this. I feel it. I understand it on some basic level, but, like so many things about the craft of writing, I find it difficult to articulate the difference.

I suppose I could say that a short story needs to be concise, gripping, and move the reader through the beginning, middle, and end quickly. But, the same could be said for the novel, you just get to take your time a bit.

Yet, you don't. You still need to move the reader through the story with precision and timeliness. There are exceptions, but long gone are the days when writers could spend six pages describing the trees in the valley, the farmer's gnarled hands, or the shades of green found in the canopy.

For both short and long fiction the writer must engage the reader quickly, and hold their attention. And for both, you need to cover a lot of ground in a short time.

When I cracked open Jamie Langston Turner's novel Suncatchers I was swept up in a story that moved so quickly and covered so much ground I wondered what material she had left for the rest of the novel. And that's a good thing. She caught my attention and held it, sweeping my up in the tide of story.

So, I turned my attention back to my short story made long and re-wrote the first chapter. I've said before that while I seem to have a grasp of how this writing stuff is done, I suffer a great lack in explaining how it's done. Thus, I'm left with the favorite tool of any writer: showing.

Here is the original first few paragraphs of the novella At the Stuckville Cafe:

The town has a real name, but I call it Stuckville. Because, boy oh boy, I'm stuck here.

I own a cafe in this town of 2,300 people. Of course there's a sub-division going up right this minute, so that'll add forty new families. New customers. I sell ice cream, espresso drinks and Mexican food. I know the combination sounds cock-eyed, but most everything about this town is cock-eyed. Just take a look at the building my cafe is in, for instance. A giant two story slab of concrete rising up from its rickety foundation. The place was built in 1907, and the windows in my cafe are original. When you look through them everything outside is wavy and has a bluish tinge. Like looking through the bottom of a coke bottle.

The owner of the building painted the outside of it last summer, but I guess he used the wrong kind of paint, or something, because it's peeling off the walls in great strips and littering the street like a ticker tape parade everyone forgot to attend.


And here is the revised opening, the one that feels like a novel as opposed to a short story:

The town has a real name, but I call it Stuckville. ‘Cause, boy, oh, boy, I'm stuck here.

I accidentally bought a café here in Stuckville. I didn’t mean to, really, it just sort of happened. That’s what I’m going to have engraved on my tombstone; “It just sort of happened”. The sum total of my life so far. Not that I’m old. Not really. I’m thirty, which is an age I’ve always considered to be “old”, but now I see is very young. Youthful. Almost infantile, really. I can see the years stretched ahead of me that I still have to live. Vast spans of time to fill with. . . something. I just don’t know what yet.

At the moment I’m filling them with ice cream, espresso drinks and Mexican food. That’s what I sell in my café. I know the combination sounds cock-eyed, but most everything about this town is cock-eyed. I used to fill my years with other things, other people, but I don’t anymore. You could say I’m in the market for a new life. But new lives are hard to come by in a small town. How small? 2,300 people small. Most of them work in the big city that’s only about an hour drive from here. On weekdays you can fire a canon down Main Street and not worry too much about hitting anyone.
***
In the novel you have more room to tell your story, more time to let it unfold, but that's no excuse to be long winded. Novels aren't just short stories with descriptive padding. Each form has a distinctive feel.
Try taking one of your own short pieces and writing a chapter of it as if it were a novel.
I'd love to hear the results!

2 comments:

The Koala Bear Writer said...

Aaah... I seem to have the opposite problem - keeping it short and concise enough to be a short story! Making it longer isn't difficult. :)

Colleen Taylor said...

Bonnie, hon, this has nothing to do with writing ... I love this picture of you. :)