19 February 2009

Launch of new short story collection

Sherryl and I have just been to the launch of Scribe's New Australian stories (ed. Aviva Tuffield), mainly because one of our past students, Demet Divaroven has a story in it. And isn't that a fantastic thing for a teacher: going to see your student successes!

Aviva spoke about the health of the short story, which is always a concern for short story writers. I have to admit that before I started writing seriously, I hardly ever read short stories. I've learnt, over time, to appreciate them -- and perhaps part of the problem for me, originally, was that most times when I'd encountered them it was in buying science fiction books that I thought were novels. I'd be all set, engrossed in a story, and then it would end. (Truth be told, many of these were probably novellas rather than short stories.) I'd always be so disappointed when they finished, and felt ripped off. I'd become emotionally engaged with these characters and was ready for the long haul, only there was none, and I do love the long haul! I thought I hated short stories. Really, I don't think I did -- what I hated was not having my expectations met. This is a concern for all writers, or should be. But that's for another post.

These days when I read short stories, my expectations are for a different type of experience. I love the short story form. Many believe they're easier to write than novels, but I don't think so. Shorter, yes. Don't take as long. But not easier. 

They're often talked about as the training ground for a novel, and they really can be this. This is not to say that all novelists write short stories. They don't. Nor do they need to. Nor is it any kind of slight against the short story or implying that the short story is, in any way, inferior. It's not. It's just that the short story form, because it is shorter, can teach you a lot about structuring fiction. In the time that you write one 80,000 word novel, you can write many short stories, learning how to get in and get out of the story, how to show rising tension, a whole host of factors. This gives you time to improve, experience. To get that same amount of experience in structure, you'd need to write several novels. Many novels. That's going to take longer. So the short story is like a short cut to gaining useful writing experience.

One thing Aviva spoke about, which I'd never really thought about, was how the publishing of short stories has changed. In the past, new writers often began with a short story collection and then graduated to novels, whereas these days most short story writers need a successful novel or, better, a few successful novels published before they can get a short story collection published. I knew both of these things, but somehow I'd never quite juxtaposed the ideas and thought about that change. (And of course there are exceptions to this, particularly with small press publishers, but there are also publishing houses that never seem to touch the short story.)

These days, we're more likely to read our short stories in literary (or genre) magazines. The mass market magazines do publish a few, but some will only take these through agents. But if we all do want to see more short stories published then we have to let the publishers know this in the one way they really care about: book sales.

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