Monday, August 24, 2009

Keeping It Contained--Why Writing Short Can Help You Write Long


Sometimes we have to get small to get big, with our books. But it can also feel like a sidetrack away from the "important" writing. A writer from one of my book-writing weekend workshops wondered about this. She wasn't sure if the short stories she was suddenly drawn to were valuable detours or derailments.

"I'm working on Week 7 toward a January 1 rough draft date," she wrote, referring to a goal-setting plan each writer sets up for herself in my workshop. "I have a nag buddy, which has been a great driver for me and for her. I'm doing well meeting my committment but I veered off into writing a short story, which will somehow end up as part of the book. I wonder if this has happened to you. Have you gone to something else just to keep writing? It irks me to have to ask this question, but I don't want to be diverting myself from the book writing, and I don't want to kid myself. On the other hand, all writing can go toward something, and I don't know where this book is going."

Are you a memoirist who's working on essays as a relief from The Book? Even publishing a few in advance of finishing your longer work? A novelist noodling around with short stories? Believe me, this is normal--and a lifeline during the book-writing journey. I began my writing career as a newspaper columnist. Columnist write each week, on deadline, and their output is intense but brief. When I slid into fiction, I started with short stories. They were also intense but brief. Short pieces of writing taught me so much--about pacing, dialogue, the tension arc, the beginnings and endings.
Lessons I learned for my novel Qualities of Light, which began as a series of short stories about the same group of characters. I was working from small to large, and an agent gave me timely feedback, pointing out the most compelling of the stories and saying the manuscript could become a novel centered around it. And so it did.

In the long years of writing my novel, I needed breaks of brief intensity. I consciously diverted to short stories each summer. It was too much during the hot weather to think about 350 pages, so I thought about 20. Each summer I'd come back from my "vacation" into short form fiction refreshed and ready for the long haul.

So short is good. It's not derailment, it's valid detour. Most writers need to write short in order to stay with the longer work. So I'll propose this writing exercise--which will seem to some like a total diversion. It's not. It's going to inform your book, I'm sure of it.

Poem Exercise
Create a haiku or short poem about your book, as it is now. Try to have the beginning, the ending, and the main conflict included in a few brief words. Then add a line about the main setting. And a line about the emotional container (see post below, two weeks ago).

Like short stories, poems are great ways to refresh yourself, get new perspective, take a much-needed break for the creative brain. Thanks to writer Stuart Dybek for the idea. And to answer my student's question: Yes, by all means write short stories. Dive into them for a month or two, then bring what you learn back to your book.