Sunday, October 2, 2011

Short Stuff - A reprint

The following is an article first published in The Window, the Panhandle Professional Writers' newsletter:

“Smallness is the realm of elegance and grace. It’s also the realm of perfection. The short story … is inherently selective. By excluding almost everything, it can give perfect shape to what remains.” – Steven Milhauser, The New York Times October 5, 2008

Short stories are like a spread of hors d’oeuvres--spare, but deliciously varied. What a perfect combination for novice writers striving to improve their craft. They can taste a dozen or more masters at one sitting, and they need not leave the house to enjoy the buffet.

Offerings of meaty classics pepper the Internet. Not keen on the classics? Why not take another taste? After all, the sampling is free. Besides, instructors encourage budding authors to not only study the classics, but immerse themselves in works of previous centuries. Paul Saevig of Author Network says “Tolstoy will teach you more about writing than Dean Koontz.”

Mike Akins doesn’t necessarily agree. Which writer better exemplifies today’s publishing rule: “write tight?” He makes a good point. What a relief that we don’t need to read War and Peace to appreciate Tolstoy. The Russian also wrote short stories.

In fact, so many eminent authors, both past and present, have written short stories that after choosing a plateful, there’s little room for dessert. Read the greats of yesteryear—Sinclair Lewis, Ruth Suckow, William Faulkner, and hundreds more completely free. A list is online at Then, for a special treat, go to Random House’s Website and read The Ceiling by Kevin Brockmeier.

Look at Mr. Brockmeier’s use of language and then decide on the value of short stories. They’re not buckets of fried chicken, but delectable truffles.

 Read such literary nuggets for the simple pleasure of relaxing with a book. Then chew on them again, digesting more slowly. Despite their austerity, they have much to teach. Compare authors. Study their characters, plots and narration styles. Look up unfamiliar words.

Reading will teach you what to do, but only by actually writing will you learn how to write. You may not have the expertise to write a novel, but you must start somewhere. The short story “is a great way to develop ideas when you don’t have time to write a book,” said Diane Mowery, a member of Panhandle Professional Writers. She added, “The short story gets the idea down. It can stand on its own, and still be developed into a longer piece later. It can also help you discover how much you like the idea as you make a ‘trial run’ with the short story.”

Paul Saevig says to “swing into this with the enthusiasm that you had when you first learned to dance. You knew you weren’t Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers, but you were still having fun.”

You just might dance your way into the pages of Houghton Mifflin’s The Best American Short Stories. The 2008 collection included a story, “Man and Wife,” discovered in The Missouri Review. This perfectly shaped gem was Katie Chase’s first published story. 

 (c) 2011, Bernice Simpson

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