If you want to be a great writer, you have to learn to write well.
On that advice, beginning writers often spend more of their time studying the craft of writing instead of creating the stories.
Or, at least I do. Still attempting to crank out my first novel, I assume that how-to books on writing (successful) 80,000+ word stories should find permanent space on my bookshelf and time in my hands. But, I’m discovering that techniques for crafting longer works can be found from other sources that don’t focus on the novel specifically.
Back in March, Lydia Sharp (from The Sharp Angle) published a post where she explains that “[a] good way to improve your skills as a novelist is to write short fiction.” Short stories require structure the same as novels — clear plot points and solid character development. And, short stories have less time (and word count) to accomplish these goals.
If you can master the techniques in short fiction, you can master them in novels.
But even with Sharp’s convincing post, it’s easy to minimize the benefits of short story writing, because Oh…a whole novel gives me plenty of word count to fill in plot points and work in characterization. Yet, under the protection of more space to “fill,” each word must have a strong purpose or the reader will lose interest. And, fast.
Tom Bailey’s A Short Story Writer’s Companion* offers plenty of lessons on characterization, dialogue, and voice. But it was Andre Dubus’s essay – filed under the category of Rewriting – that solidified the translation of short story techniques to novels.
In “The Habit of Writing,” Dubus speaks about character development and draws on a technique he calls “vertical writing.” After pushing through a story and still feeling a strong disconnect from the character, Anna (in his novella, Adultery), Dubus decides to dig deeper into her psyche and to find out exactly what Anna was feeling.
“…[F]or years I had been writing horizontally, trying to move forward (those five pages); now I would try to move down, as deeply as I could. Very slowly, I worked on feeling all of her physical sensations. Following her through her day [thinking]: “Just follow the dots: become the character and follow; there will be a story” p. 137.
I’ve heard of character journals, and there are several great worksheets online that help characters come to life. But, Dubus’s words “vertical writing” and “follow the dots” give me a much better visual. And, it’s a technique that complements my tendency to write a story more organically. For me, character worksheets act like lists, which can be confining (in writing, anyway…everyday life is a different story), and I always stray from outlines.
I know, some writers cringe at the thought of organic writing – No outline, No peace! – but Dubus makes a good case when he talks about his own process:
“I try never to think about where a story will go…I want to know what the story will do and how it will end and whether or not I can write it; but I must not know, or I will kill the story by controlling it; I work to surrender” p. 136.
Larry Brooks, in his essay (posted on WriteToDone), “SOLVED: The Outlining vs. Organic Writing Debate,” also supports organic writing. He says, in comparing premeditated with by-the-seat-of-your-pants, neither process is better than the other. Both can work as long as certain protocol is followed:
“[S]tory architecture is universal. If a writer understands basic story architecture, organic drafting becomes an efficient and joyful process.”
Short story techniques – like Dubus’s ideas of organic and vertical writing – offer me more ideas on how to tackle that novel. If the story is moving forward but feeling flat, I can pause and then write downward instead: follow the dots of the character that alludes me — an organic writing technique that doesn’t ignore the structure of the story, but enhances it.
* Bailey, Tom. A Short Story Writer’s Companion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print. (check citation format)