Tuesday, January 24, 2012

On Length

Actually they say it's the girth of a story that determines how satisfying it is.

Right then, penis jokes aside, I've been thinking quite a bit about the length of stories recently.

I am a woman who deeply enjoys a good bit of flash fiction (under 1000 words). I've had folk who are more oriented toward long fiction express to me that they can't imagine what kind of story you can tell in 1000 words or less. After all, it's not room for a complex plot, it's not enough space to develop characters, not much can really happen. That's sort of true, but the other side of it is that 1000 words is just about the amount of time it takes to set up an expectation in the reader and then confound it. It's the length of a surprise. It's the tipping point where a really good joke becomes a story. It's the time it takes to survey an iceberg and realize 90% of it is under the water. When you already know the characters because they're stocks, archetypes, or allusions, it's the amount of time you need to get the other side of a story you've heard before. It's the time you need to establish a mood, whether it's paranoia, sadness, terror, joy. It's about the length of time a reader will put up with something daring and experimental.

Bruce Holland Rogers has some great articles on flash and the different ways to write it, and he does far more credit to it than I can here. I like flash in part because I have trouble sitting down and committing to big projects. I get ideas quickly, and if I'm doing something longer I get them mid-project, so flash is a length I can finish without distraction. I'm always amazed when I write something very short, and people tell me they think I could really expand it out. Often I don't want to. All the interesting bits of the story are there- the parts from the point where the characters resolve that the problem can no longer be avoided to the point where the solution becomes inevitable. Everything outside of that is just set-up and clean-up, and not the real show. And if you're just there for the guitar solos, why watch the roadies?

I suppose I read more short stories than anything. I didn't use to so much, when I was a teenager, but around the time I got my first job I realized how much I love fiction you can finish in one sitting. If there's any single person to whom I owe the largest part of the writer I am now, it's probably Ellen Datlow, who was the horror editor for about 20 years of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror (though honestly the line between Horror and Fantasy was always very fluid in these books). Shorts don't have the attention-deficit, pure sugar rush of good flash, but on the other hand they give you time to develop at least one world-changing idea, one interesting character, or one poigniant relationship. You can still do very good iceberg work in short form- New Yorker style literary fiction is really good for condensing a person's entire life into 5000 words or less. Or you can tell one decent adventure or detective story- you have room for clues and minibosses if you're good at pacing. It's enough time to explain and explore the main different thing about your alien world. It's long enough that you get invested, but not so long that a surprise at the end feels like you've been had. It's enough time for somebody to have one epiphany.

Still, it's very easy to feel like shorts are stalling and puffing out their word count. The margin of error is smaller (though not as small as flash). Lately I've been writing more of my stories at around the 7000 word mark. There's a couple of reasons for this- the main one is putting in more characters and concentrating on a changing relationship. I enjoy the type of stories I'm getting out of it, but at the same time I'm still learning how to make a story that size not feel overburdened and unfocused. It feels like a weird place for pacing, but I'm convinced with practice I'll get more comfortable with it.

Novels. Oy vey novels. I really do understand that if I ever want to make money, I need to write novels, and I promise I do get the allure of following a set of characters through something complex, weaving in little subplots, giving everything weight and complexity, having the space to develop multiple in jokes and expectations, having space to luxuriate in scene-setting tangents, motif action, and other relevant and buttressing digressions. And the rate at which you can parcel out information, not to mention the ultimate amount you can disperse across the length of the work, is pretty appealing; you can deliberately bury quite a bit and dig it up later. All that is awesome, but... It's frightening to think of having that many moving parts, that many potential loci of failure. I've had friends stop me brainstorming the novels that I've worked on to go "...really, relax. It's okay to have a scene that only does one thing. You've got time. Just chill out and enjoy it". And I looked at the computer screen through which we were communicating like it had grown first, second, and third heads. It's a hard mindset to get into.

Series. Series. I admit, I resent series. I know so many people who want to write seven and more book series, and it boggles my mind in the same way that people on the other side, I imagine, look at me like I'm a lunatic when I say all the interesting parts of a story can be done in 1000 words or less. I can't imagine working on the same story for five, ten, fifteen years. I think I would break my teeth in frustration if I had to try to stall the development of characters and steer them away from epiphanies so that they would be recognizably the same person seven books down the road from where they started. I like to read a good fast paced trilogy, but even as a consumer I get annoyed when the situation doesn't seem to be advancing toward a resolution within 200 pages. Nevermind 1000. And that's without the problem that series' beginnings are likely to be already published and fixed in the reader's mind as you're writing the middle and ending parts, so you can't go back and add the foreshadowing for something huge you just thought of- no, if it's going in it has to go in as a giant, potentially shark-jumping ret-con (I'm looking at you, Mr. Martin). I have never read a series of four or more books that didn't feel in some ways padded, even in the type of series that are not a single linear narrative, but rather recurrent episodic works.

Then again, there's the strong point of series, and why I think we like reading them at all, and that's the real relationship that readers build with the characters. Enough so that you never want to let them go, even past the point where they should legitimately not be main characters anymore. I've done this. It's repeatedly ended in tragedy for me, but more than once I have picked up the next book in the series because I just could not say goodbye to a character I'd loved. Even when the stories were no longer my favorite, I'd hang in out of loyalty to the imaginary person at the center of it, because I knew them, and somewhere in the back of my mind I thought of us as friends.

Yeah, I get the appeal of that as a medium. The rest of it, though is intimidating as all hell.

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