by Elizabeth Zelvin
I have writer Mike Orenduff’s permission to quote something he said on the DorothyL e-list a few weeks back:
I’m often asked at talks and signings about how to write short stories. My answer is if you want to write books, don’t write short stories. A short story is to a book what a sprint is to a marathon. Both are worthwhile and fun, but you need to choose just one because training for one actually harms your ability to do the other.
With due respect to Mike, I couldn't disagree more with his statement that training for short stories harms your ability to write novels and vice versa. After all, they’re both storytelling.
Learning the fiction writing skill set (which builds on and differs from the general writing and editing skills I'd been honing all my life) started with the first novel. Creating a coherent structure, pacing, starting and ending scenes in the right place, developing and differentiating character, sharpening dialogue, avoiding information dumps and excessive backstory, and killing my darlings in revision in the first and subsequent novels were all essential in writing short stories.
Writing short stories taught me when to stop, how to tighten structure and pace to the max, literary contraception so darlings that might need killing were never born, and how to end with a twist and a bang, which in turn enhanced my scene, chapter, and novel endings. Writing short stories also showed me that my series character's voice was not the only voice I had in me, and further, that beyond writing the straight whodunit from the detective's point of view, I could explore my dark side, switch subgenres to write historical, paranormal, and flash fiction, and even find the voice of a killer or two. Both of my series, one a series set in today’s New York and featuring a recovering alcoholic and the other, set on the voyages of Columbus, with a young Marrano sailor as protagonist, consist of both novels and short stories. If I may say so myself, both formats work for me.
When I surprised myself by writing my first short story, I was amazed to find how spacious 4,000 or even 3,000 words can be, and that impression has been sustained through a dozen published stories, three of them Agatha nominees. I’ve never had a sense of having to cut description, character, or dialogue. That insight has helped me see when enough is enough in drafting and revising each 70,000-word novel. Just as novelists who used to be journalists find it easier to produce a set number of words every day and take critique better than the rest of us because they’re used to being edited and even deleted, short story writers bring to their novel manuscripts a keen understanding of when enough is enough.
When I first heard of flash fiction, I was astounded that some writers could tell a story in 1,000 words or less.