I received my first print publication of a short story last month—six months after my debut novel came out. Read “The Opening of a New Spy Novel by an Author You Love” online at Calliope on the Web. Fans of post-modernism, especially the work of Italo Calvino, will find much to enjoy.
I was always told to focus on the short form before venturing into writing a novel. However, the short story has frequently eluded me. While novels and feature films feel intuitive, with their large and climactic narrative arcs, their dynamic and wide-open characters, short stories have felt less straight-forward. Where should one start a story? Where should one end it?
I recently read an Oulipo piece, “How to Tell a Story,” by Jacques Bens. In it, a writer character named Matthew fails to teach a class of college students the art of story telling. Afterward, he wanders around Paris contemplating what he should’ve said and as he does so, he concocts an “example” story, featuring a young and beautiful barrel organist. At the end of his wandering, the organist, now flesh and blood, visits him in his office, telling him, the author, that the hero of his story now wants to marry her, which seems a bit fast. Then she adds, “I must be missing an element somewhere.” Matthew responds, “Yes, something is missing, that much is clear. But where? And what?”
I often feel just as Matthew does after finishing writing my own stories, and even more often after reading those of the greats. While some of my favorites wrote primarily short stories—Amy Hempel, Flannery O’Connor, and Donald Barthelme among them—I invariably turn to a guide of some sort, be it critics or the authors themselves. Whereas with novels I almost never do. I read it. I comprehend it. I move on. Even when I do turn to a guide for the purposes of teaching a novel, the guide does not suddenly reveal the meaning I missed. Usually, it merely helps me form the right question or locate the proper page number. What is left out of the story is almost always included in the novel. Why is this? I do not know.
Some things I’ve found helpful over the years are the writing exercises in 3AM Epiphany, George Saunders’ wonderful analysis of Russian stories, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, and a recent series of instructional videos from Reedsy, entitled “Short Fiction Deep Dive.” I hope these help you in your own journey and that they save you some of the time I spent puzzling and shaking my head.