This past summer I worked on my new novel, and there were times when I felt like I was fighting it. This isn't normal for me. But I'm wrestling with some heavy themes that require delicate handling. At times, each paragraph felt overwrought and yet trite and underwhelming. I know when this happens, it means I need to step away and clear my head.
Hiking helps. Also, knitting. No joke, I'm like the mad hatter these days, knitting all these beanies. I need to make some more friends, so I have people to give them to!
Sometimes I step away by writing short essays and blog posts, and I've done a few this summer. One of them, on the tension between truth and verisimilitude in historical fiction, is HERE on Debra Goldstein's wonderful blog.
But this summer I decided to step away from that knotty novel by dipping my toe into the waters of short stories. Not because they're easy -- in many ways, they're more difficult. I tend to lean into historical context and backstory ... and there's not a lot of room for those in shorter fiction. Not to mention, if it's a mystery, fitting in all those twists can make the whole thing feel like a mutant pretzel.
Some years ago at the Tucson Book Festival I went to a panel on short stories, with four writers. And when an audience member asked, what's the difference between a novel and a short story, one of the panelists (I wish I could remember her name) responded with a story. She'd been a ranger in a national forest for some years. She patrolled a certain section and she knew every path, every tree, every waterhole, every animal track. One day she rounded a corner and saw a mountain lion. It growled, and she growled back; it showed its teeth, and she shouted, waving her pickaxe over her head; it took a step forward, and she held her ground, and eventually it turned and left. She concluded by saying that writing a novel is like patrolling a piece of ground, and a short story is like an encounter with a mountain lion.
I thought this was a fantastic metaphor for short stories -- brief, intense, and challenging, with very little back story! -- and it stuck with me. This summer, I wrote three short stories, exploring one of the themes from my novel in each one ... although of course I didn't figure that out until later. As usual, my writing shows me what I'm wrestling with better than I can see it myself.
To me, the short story is also akin to a playpen. Small, square, padded. With toys. Overhead mobiles with small, sparkly objects.
If you've written a short story you'd like to tell me about -- or if you have a good way to step back from your manuscript -- please share! email me at firstname.lastname@example.org I'll share your tips (anonymously, if you like) in a future Tips column.
Karen Odden is a USA Today bestselling author; her latest book is Under A Veiled Moon, an Inspector Corravan mystery. For more writer’s tips and other news, subscribe to Karen’s newsletter or visit her website: https://karenOdden.com.