Monday, October 23, 2017

Short Stories or Novels?

Short stories or novels? Which are best to write? Which are best and/or easiest for beginning writers? I've thought about these questions ever since I took my first writing class way back in Mission Viejo, California. As a new writer, I was drawn to the immediacy (and abbreviated length) of short stories, but our class instructor had different ideas. She believed one-hundred-percent that new fiction writers should begin their careers with novels. Her advice worked well for me--I wrote two novels right off the bat and learned so much about writing I then went on to teach writing classes of my own.

Since then I've experimented with many kinds of writing: screenplays, poetry, nonfiction, and even short stories which I rarely, if ever, thought about submitting for publication. To me short stories were exercises in freewriting, practice pieces for fun and entertainment. However, that all changed this past July when I participated in Camp NaNoWriMo and decided to write a sequence of short stories in lieu of a novel. It was time well spent, allowing me to both create a body of work while also discovering some important reasons why some people (including me) might like to consider short story writing as a serious publishing path. For instance:
  • Regardless of your initial enthusiasm for writing a novel, there eventually comes a day when the writing feels like more of a chore than a joy. One of the most difficult challenges for any writer is to muster the courage, strength, and willpower to stick with a book-length manuscript. Short stories are an excellent pick-me-up to provide some diversion and a fresh approach during the dark nights of novel-writing.
  • Writing a novel is a long-term relationship. Short stories are more like speed dating: Meet, write, move on! At best you might meet the story of a lifetime. And if you don't, well, it's all good life-experience.
  • With short stories, your time frame and cast of characters is much smaller than that of a novel, making everything much easier to keep track of. If your story starts out with a 36-year-old archaeologist working on a Saturday morning, chances are even if she quits her job she'll still be the same age when your story ends in the afternoon.
  • How often have you heard not to start your novel with too much information or back story? But with a short story, the back story IS the story! Tip: That juicy stuff you have to leave out of your novel? Turn it into short stories, the more the merrier.
  • For creative types who love starting projects but have trouble with completion, writing a short story a day or a week provides an endless wealth of new beginnings. Every writing session allows for a fresh start, a clean slate, and a chance to explore and experiment with voice, style, and subject matter.
  • Best of all, finishing a short story provides a wonderful sense of achievement and accomplishment. You did it!
  • And if by some terrible chance you don't like what you're writing or have written: End it. Toss it. Write the next one!
  • You can write short fiction on the go. Wherever you are: at work, on vacation, waiting in the car or for an appointment, you can write and finish a short story. And they're easier than ever to submit and publish thanks to the Internet.
November's NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is just around the corner. If you're thinking of signing up, here's a suggestion: How about bending the rules a bit and rather than going for the traditional novel, set a goal of writing 30 (one a day) short stories? Ray Bradbury famously said that writing a story a week for a year would give you 52, and out of 52 at least one of them had to be good. Same out of 30, I'd say!

Tip of the Day: In many ways short stories are the equivalent of poetry: succinct, metaphoric, and intended to leave a powerful impression. The best way to understand what goes into them is to read as many as you can. Your local library will have numerous anthologies categorized by individual author as well as genre. I've always been a big fan of the Ellen Datlow editions of horror stories--just right for Halloween!

Thursday, October 5, 2017

October Retreat, Refocus, Recharge

Warmest October wishes, all. It's a beautiful time of year and yet I'm feeling kind of down right now. There's been so much bad news lately: hurricanes, flooding, now a sickening tragedy in Las Vegas, a city I've never visited, yet one that holds such a legendary place in American culture and imagination. These last few weeks it's all I can do to keep drawing, writing, or even smile.

Yesterday during lunch I was at such a low point all I could think of was turning to my journal and making a list of ways to get out of the slump. It was a fairly productive session, and one I thought I would share with you. I hope I don't come across as some kind of Pollyanna, always on the lookout for kittens and rainbows in the midst of world chaos. Yet somehow as artists, writers, and crafters we have to maneuver our way through, seeking the good wherever it may be. Some of those ways could include:
  1. Start a new art journal of happy pictures, inspirational quotes, random acts of kindness, and motivational activities. Keep it by your bedside to review every night.
  2. Turn off the news. If you really need to know "what's happening" because you don't want to feel too isolated, limit viewership or airtime to around 15 minutes a day to catch the headlines. In reality, that's all you need. After that the stories are repeated without end and most of the "news" is simply anchors and pundits speculating and promoting their own opinions. None of it carries any genuine value.
  3. Take a break from social media, and when you return, limit your participation and go for the positive, e.g., congratulating an author on a book sale, encouraging a new artist worried about finding her style, liking a magnificent photograph. Stick to spreading helpful information or making someone laugh.
  4. Make a gratitude list--go for 100, or more! If you can read this post, your life is filled with blessings.
  5. Avoid complaining. Ironically, voicing that I don't like complaints is of course a complaint! Oops. But I'll say this and then move on: What does complaining actually achieve (especially when it comes to world and political events) other than to make yourself and everyone else miserable? One weird but very effective way to be aware of any tendency to (over) complain is to put a rubber band around your wrist and snap it every time you're tempted to vent.
  6. Paint abstract watercolors. If you've never considered yourself an artist and don't own any supplies, you can purchase a nice little set of Prang or Crayola watercolors, a pad of watercolor paper, and a packet of brushes for under $15, probably less depending on where you shop. But there's nothing more soothing and meditative than putting on some music and swirling color around to express your mood. Whether your feelings are joyful or sad, you'll be surprised at the beauty you can create by letting go for awhile, and how easily you can shift from a negative to a hopeful state.
  7. Take a rest from fiction, particularly at bedtime (and I LOVE fiction before I go to sleep) and replace it with inspirational literature. I realized I had to do this when I was reading a string of very exciting but also very graphic mysteries that a) kept me awake, and b) were giving me nightmares. It's bad enough to feel tense and anxious during the day, but to go through the same discomfort while sleeping is intolerable. 
  8. Wear some color. For the last few weeks I've been wearing a lot of black. Today I put on a pink shirt. I feel lighter. I feel like smiling. If your work environment prefers you to wear dark colors, you can always add a bright scarf, tie, or necklace.
  9. Go outside as much as possible. Today during my break I stepped outside and appreciated the clouds, the touch of rain in the air, the little weeds growing in the parking lot. It wasn't the best view in the world, but it was lovely in its own urban way. And it felt good.
  10. Ritual. I've often mentioned how important it is to my creative schedule to maintain tiny rituals: jasmine tea before I write, burning incense, using a favorite pen or journal. Lately I've come to welcome these activities more than ever, enjoying the peaceful and secure feelings they create. Over the next few weeks, experiment with some new or perhaps neglected rituals to ease the day.
  11. Good and simple food. Autumn is the start of soup weather and the perfect season for roasted vegetables, casseroles, and the slow-cooker. I like to add lots of chili, ginger, and garlic whenever possible; great for the immune system and the aroma alone can light up the darkest night. 
  12. Give your current creative project 110%. Rather than longing for it to be finished, or thinking, "What's the use?" now is the time to work with more dedication than ever. Someone, somewhere, needs what you're writing, painting, sewing, or beading. Stay focused. Stay generous. The work will carry you through.
So let's get busy and write those stories, paint those pictures. And like the song says: 
"Don't worry, be happy."

Tip of the Day: Before I started teaching creative writing, I was first a volunteer in the literacy programs at my local library. I always loved the "Each one, teach one" motto included in all the materials I used. Since then I've tried to put that same idea into my daily life, including this blog. It's good to volunteer and it's good to share, but keep in mind these are only suggestions. Take what you need, discard what doesn't work for you, and always know that these posts are just a small attempt to inspire your own creativity. Thank you for stopping  by!