Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Story on the Short Story

I used to inhale short stories growing up. Not the nice, chipper, fairy-tale kind, but the dark, warped stories written by depressed people who fixated on death. I'm not sure who I have to thank for this, although it probably has something to do with my mom's obsession with Edgar Allan Poe. Her favorite story of his was always The Tell-Tale Heart, and things kind of spiraled downward from there. No ten-year-old kid likes to read about hearts beating beneath the floorboards.

All damaging childhoods aside, I think there is something to be said for the short story. They aren't very lucrative these days, and people rarely wander into a bookstore looking for a collection of short stories. I do think, though, that the skill of a good short story writer is vastly underrated. Novels weave in and out of subplots, characters come and go, climaxes eventually happen somewhere towards the end. But short stories are short, sweet, and economical. Beginning, middle, end. Characters are rich, but not overdeveloped. It's easy, right? Just 10,000 words and you have yourself a dinky little story.

Well, no. I've read many of the famous quotes out there about the gift of brevity, which always serves a good short story. Less is more. Always. And yet the characters in short stories require the same depth that characters in novels do. Otherwise who cares. I won't read five sentences about a dull, simplified character. I'm not sure who would, but that's another topic for another day.

And so, here I have proclaimed my love and admiration for the short story. If you can do in 10,000 words or less what a novelist does in 80,000, then you've already mastered pacing, editing, and cutting unnecessary details. And that, I think, is quite a skill.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Joy of the Rewrite

After my eighth revision, I'm still quite fond of my manuscript. I feel like this is a good thing. Rewrites, after all, have been known to drive even the most dedicated writers toward madness. Or something close to it. I absolutely know the feeling of looking at something you've seen 489 times, and thinking, wow, my brain feels nauseous. I get that feeling a lot in medical school. Then again, the only thing that seems to come up again and again and again in med school is this: smoking is bad for you. So is pregnancy.

In any case, I'm the type of person who savors criticism, not because I like getting burned, but because I simply don't see what other people see. I need someone to tell me what I'm doing wrong. I need a reader to step in and say, "Yeah, so...this doesn't make sense." I tend to overthink everything. I wrote one manuscript that made no sense at all. I finally saw the light when someone came right out and said it, and it was probably the best feedback I've ever received. Simplification is a good thing.

My favorite source of feedback/inspiration/confusion, though, is definitely my mother. She doesn't read manuscripts. I've tried. I've sent her every single one of them, hoping she'll read them and tell me how much she embraces her daughter's talent. But she's never read a single one, at least not beyond the first 30 pages. I used to feel slighted by this, but no more. My mom is always there to listen to my ideas, to tell me to keep a scene or throw it out (regardless of the fact she has no clue about the context), and she reminds me to limit the curse words and sex scenes. Note that my mom gets the PG-13 version of everything I've ever written. It was a relief for us both when I started writing YA.

Tonight I talked to my mom about a certain scene, an emotional climax of sorts when two characters finally make out. I dropped it from the final rewrite, and she told me to put it back in. "You write kisses well, Kathleen," she said. Huh?

So we'll see. I'm just happy Rewrite #8 is finished, and it's a thousand times better than Rewrite #2. At least I hope so. The kiss is back in, the curse words are gone, the sex scenes are non-existent. So according to my mom, at least, I've created a masterpiece.