Tuesday, November 1, 2016

It's Perfect To Be A Messy Novelist

"I want to be decadent. I want to eat hot dogs and write novels instead of perfect short stories."

I remember writing this in my early twenties. I was a brand new writer, and I desperately wanted to get published. I worked as a volunteer for a literary magazine where my job was to organize the writers and prepare them to read at launch parties the magazine threw when they released each new issue. I'd also offered to emcee the events because I knew the publisher's girlfriend hated doing it. I'd never seen anyone as thrilled as she when she got the news she was off the hook! But even though I was official Emcee and named in the masthead, I couldn't actually get my own stories in the magazine! Each time I submitted, all I got were encouraging words to try again. I was a creative writing student, following advice from my teachers, and couldn't understand what I was doing wrong! Finally, I showed my brother my short stories, and he suggested I try a more traditional literary magazine, as he felt this one was wildly experimental.  I could have searched further, but instead, I decided to take a break from writing short stories and began work on my first novel. The thrill of seeing my own story in a magazine would have to wait.

When I sit down to write a short story, I often wind up writing something similar to a chapter of a novel. This is because I enjoy writing longer works where I can spend more quality time with my characters. I long to explore their needs, desires and growth. My characters' personal progress and evolution over time are what propel my books forward. However, when I write a short story, it is my "idea" that is first and foremost. This is difficult because I have to constantly come up with amazing ideas. Ray Bradbury did this better and more frequently than any other fiction writer. It is beyond me how he wrote so many short stories and came up with so many brilliant ideas. His mind was constantly filled with greatness! But when it came to his most famous novel, "Fahrenheit 451," I wasn't as impressed, and I feel he was better at the short story form.

In short stories, every single word must be carefully chosen to move the story forward. For me, that makes writing short stories feel more like business than fun!  In my literary novels, I can go wild. l can play with words, and I get to hang out with my characters because the length permits me to do so. I can go off on tangents and know that even if these tangents remain in the final edit, readers won't mind because they are in it for the long haul. My former writing teacher said that short stories are expected to be read in one sitting, but novels are read chapter by chapter, night after night. This permits more wandering around since readers expect that they will be putting the book down, then picking it up again, over and over, as opposed to everything being wrapped up neatly at the end of their sitting.

Maybe novels are truer to life than short stories are. Life is messy. Words aren't always perfectly chosen or perfectly executed. It's possible that novelists are more accepting of imperfection than short story writers. This could explain why certain writers prefer one format over the other. I've never expected life to be perfect, or rather, I've learned over the years that it is impossible to be perfect. My house, my writing, my cooking, and all aspects of my life, will never be perfect. I know others disagree with me. They're constantly gritting their teeth, comparing themselves to others who they assume are perfect. It's a disaster if they burn their cooking or have a less than pristine house when guests come over. I'd related to that kind of thinking when I was younger and when I was involved in the writing community, writing short stories that I expected to get published upon completion. But when I got frustrated with my pile of rejection letters that was getting closer and closer to 100, I sat down and expanded my favorite short stories into a novel. A few years later, I did the same thing and wrote another novel. Then years after that, with two independently-published novels under my belt, I began work on my current novel. I don't know why, but I am enjoying the process of writing this novel more than I have any of my others. People ask me, "So are you nearly done? When are you going to publish it?" But I'm not even thinking of that. "Not yet," I tell them. Because right now, I'm having way too much fun.

I've given up hot dogs since my twenties, but I still gel with the idea of being "decadent" and writing novels. I'm not saying I'm unambitious. Of course, I want to get my latest novel published. I'm also working on a couple of short stories (which started out as flash fiction stories but, of course, are now extending into longer pieces of fiction which may branch out into novels one day too), and I do want to submit them and try to get them published. But I feel the main reason to ever write fiction is to enjoy the process and not just what results at the end. Maybe that's the way life should be lived too.

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