Like most wannabe writers, I intend to write a novel at some point.
It’s all planned out – mostly in my head, but some parts on paper too – and I’ve already knocked out a few chapters here and there. The problem is, I don’t have any time to commit to writing it. At least, that’s what I tell myself and anyone who asks about it. The real problem is, I’m lazy and impatient. I love writing, I love my someday-novel, but I’m easily distracted and have a tendency to not finish things (see last post on ‘The first bad idea I ever had’).
This is the main reason why I decided to try my hand at writing short stories.
I can usually bang out a thousand words or so before my mind starts to wander, so short stories seemed like the perfect way for me to work within the bounds of my short attention span and actually maybe someday possibly finish something. All I would have to do is come up with a concept for a story and I would be golden.
Now, I know that there is a huge difference between writing a novel and writing a short story; when you’re trying to fit a whole narrative into 2000 words every single one of those words has to be doing something. What you can take a chapter to say in your epic sprawling trilogy, you can only afford a few words in your magazine piece. The technical aspect of writing a shorter piece of fiction is something which I went off and tried to learn through a summer a flash fics and Asimov’s SF magazine, and I found that it suited me. I’ll write the novel someday, but for now short stories are to be my children!
Short stories are awesome.
In theory, anyway. The problem I find myself running into is this: where do you start? Coming up with an idea that you can fit into 2000 words is difficult, especially when you’re used to breaking out the A2 paper and developing the shit out of everything. From reading the short stories of other writers it seems that shorter fiction can, at its best, convey a huge amount of poignancy and emotion in the most efficient way possible. Edgar Allan Poe only needs a couple of pages to spook you, and J. G. Ballard can turn your brain inside-out in only a couple hundred words.
I want to write something which is meaningful or thought-provoking in someway, but it feels inorganic to start with the thought and build a narrative around it. On the other hand, when I come up with what I think would be an interesting story or plot I feel compelled to try and drag a ‘point’ out of it, whether the point is there or not. The situation is made more difficult by the fact that on any of the writing forums I use the general feeling is anti-thought, pro-plot: writers should be concentrating on telling interesting and exciting stories, not trying to say anything in particular. I don’t mean to suggest that anyone is saying that stories shouldn’t have a message or a meaning behind them – just that admitting to thinking about this message is not the done thing. It’s not cool. You seem like a pretentious asshole if you’re putting meaning before storytelling.
Of course the best stories are those in which the meaning is subtle and emerges from the story effortlessly, but how the hell are you supposed to create meaning consistently if you’re not allowed to think about it? At the same time, however, ‘I want to illustrate the dangers of reading too much Philip K. Dick’ is not the easiest of starting points, and can require the same sort of mental exhaustion to pull a story out of as… well, reading too much Philip K. Dick.
So where do we start?
With the creative ignition or the resulting thought? Is starting with a message like going outside before you’re fully dressed? Is not thinking about the message like trying to make your breakfast with your eyes closed?
I’m probably over thinking this. Who says you can’t come up with both simultaneously? No one. Both story and message evolve together, along side each other, to eventually become a coherent whole.
But it’s a frustrating process. Sometimes you have a point to want to convey, but you can’t figure out how. And that sucks. Sometimes you have a story you want to tell but you can’t help feeling it’s a bit pointless or vapid. That sucks too. Do all stories need to convey a message? No. But as a reader the stories I enjoy most are those which force me to put down the book and just think about that for a minute. Page-turners are brilliant, but I’m a fan of the thinkers. Those are the kind of stories I want to write.
Basically, I wish I was Philip K. Dick.