Saturday, March 8, 2014

Small, Great Packages

Last month, I talked about the great and magical act of transporting readers to a completely new world. Which, in novel-length form, is hard and impressive. In short-story form, seems almost miraculous. Short stories often get the short end of the stick when it comes to storytelling. Too often, they’re dismissed as things better left to English classes and people with short attention spans. They’re seen as stories too small to be novels.

But there is magic in this form. These small, contained stories hold within them every element of a novel in a much more condensed, much more refined form. A writing teacher of mine had told me that it takes discipline and a keen eye to write a really good short story. To know exactly what needs to be there and what needs to be heartlessly cut. To leave only that which serves the story and ruthlessly remove everything else.

In many ways, being able to write a really good short story makes one much more equipped to write a really good novel.

And, because they’re so small and limited, it actually allows them the freedom to do many things—to play with many elements—novels can’t. From strange POVs, like the rarely seen second-person, to turning tropes on their heads, short stories allow writers to really push boundaries because, while they may only have a few thousand words to sell the concept, they only have to maintain that sale for a limited time too. Often allowing the reader to suspend their disbelief just long enough for the ride.

Like “Hurt Me,” by M.L.N. Hanover, a story about an abused woman who buys a house so she can start over, begin again. But the house is haunted. The story begins like any other horror story, with strange sounds and blood dripping down walls. It’s creepy and eerie, but strangely none of it seems to bother the woman. She won’t be bullied. Not anymore. It’s a horror story—a haunted story
—where all the traditions and tropes that are meant to scare—that so often leave their victims beaten and dead by the end—instead showcase her strength allow her to grow and triumph.

But, of all the short stories that have influenced me, David Schickler’s Kissing In Manhattan collection has made the biggest impact. His collection of interconnected stories from a strange and seemingly random cast of characters center on a mythic Manhattan apartment complex called The Preemption. I love that each story is whole and complete, can stand entirely on its own, but is made so much better and makes so much more of an impact when pieced together as a whole. It’s a reminder that, like people in the real world, everyone has a story. Everyone is the star—the main character—of their own story as well as side characters in everyone else’s. We all make an impact. I wonder if Donovan’s Door would even exist without Schickler’s Preemption.

Another thing short stories get to do more often than novels is present voices not often heard in mainstream literature. Take, for instance, the erotica genre. Mainstream, popular erotica follows many of mainstream popular romance rules. And, I’ll admit, I don’t particularly see anything wrong with that. My own work follows those rules pretty consistently too. But a lot of the erotic short stories out there are freer to deviate from that norm. Where soulmates and happily-ever-after take a backseat to happily-right-after or pretty-fucking-happy-in-the-moment. Like Xaiver Acton’s “This Call May Be Monitored For Quality Assurance” that tells a brief fantasy about a telemarketing misdial gone erotically wrong.
Or Michael Hubbard’s “Fear of Heights” that takes acrophobia to a sexual peak. It can even go to darker, edgier places like Greta Christina’s “Craig’s List” or “The Shame Photos” that explore the more bad-idea realms of erotic fantasies.

But, like Schickler’s collection, Debra Boxer’s “Innocence in Extremis” has, as I’ve said before, had a big impact on my writing. Her memoir-esque story about being a virgin at twenty-eight presents an image—a vision—of virginity that I’d never really seen before. Her story lacks the denigration or fetishization of virginity that’s too often presented and just celebrates it. Its a look at sexuality, in general, that begs to be explored. That makes the journey—and not the destination—the point. That emphasizes experience over acts. I try to fill every story I write with that feeling of sexual joy and discovery that I felt reading Boxer’s story for the first time.

When I’d first begun writing, I hated short stories. Thought the confining word restrictions limiting and pointless. When I tried to write them, they too often sounded like excerpts of stories or setups to novels. Cut-off pieces that begged for a whole. I’d bought into the idea that bigger always meant better and that, if a story couldn’t fill the pages of a book, it must not be much worth telling.

But, the more I read them and wrote them, the more I realized that they’re just another way to tell stories. Another way of looking at the world. Of finding the heart of a tale and focusing on nothing but that. Of seeing deep into the soul of a story and sussing out its essence. These shorter tales often take larger, wilier stories that meander and wander too far and cut and condense and compress them into literary jewels, proving that great things can definitely come in small packages.  

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