Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Essay: You’re Not Reading Enough Short Stories

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

I’m one of those people who’s been fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on how you perceive the entire incident) to pursue a degree in Creative Writing. My one criticism of my four year course is that I feel I didn’t read enough stories. Majority of my classes were focused on the craft of writing—and I had great teachers. However, little were the classes wherein we tackled either short stories or novels. Which is a big shame.

Now I don’t pretend to speak for everyone but I can only talk about my own writing process. What inspired me to write in the first place was by reading books. How I learned to truly write is by reading books. Aside from actually writing, one indirect way I strive to improve myself is by reading books. It seems like a simple formula yet it’s all too easy to take for granted.

One of my goals is to churn out well-written short stories. Yet the fact of the matter is, especially early on in life, I wasn’t reading short stories. I don’t know why but aside from children’s books, most readers get weaned on novels. I’ve talked to some aspiring writers of the short story format and many of their reading lists involves novels. Which isn’t bad (at least they’re reading) but a short story writer uses different tools (although some tools overlap) compared to a novelist. That’s not to say you can’t learn from novels, but I’d expect a short story author would learn more from other short stories.

A problem I think is that many aspiring authors really want to write novels but instead end up writing short stories. It could be the time and length constraint involved in writing a novel. Or perhaps an effect of the local writing scene where there’s greater chances of a short story being published as opposed to a novel. Or if you’re taking a writing class, the reality that your teacher will never ask you to submit a novel but instead require his or her students to submit short stories for evaluation.

Format however matters. Let’s take the genre horror. Now horror for me is unique because you can pin down one consistent intent among all horror writers: to scare the reader. It can elicit other emotions throughout the narrative such as pain, grief, or joy—but a good horror story needs at the very least to disturb the reader once you reach the end. How this horror is executed varies depending on whether you’re a novel or a short story. An author will use different techniques in scaring the reader in a novel where the suspense might be long and protracted. In a short story, there’s more room to experiment and one can deliver an impacting tale that might not have otherwise worked in a longer form.

Lately, I’ve been trying to immerse myself with short fiction, to learn what works and what doesn’t. I just find it peculiar that there is a lack of enthusiasm for reading short stories among aspiring short story writers in the Philippines, unless it is required reading for their classes.

Here’s one word of warning however. One pitfall an aspiring writer might fall into is to simply keep reading (or researching as the case may be) and never end up writing anything. I’m not saying reading is bad but if it’s your goal to become a writer, then you’d better pick up that pen and start writing. What you’ll eventually write might be horrible but that’s part and parcel of being a writer.

My other caveat is also to be wary of reading bad short stories. That’s not to say you shouldn’t—sometimes, the best way to learn how to write is to examine how a technique or method doesn’t work. But I’m the type of person who tends to absorb what they read and if you read too much horrible fiction, they might seep into your writing. I remember when I first started writing seriously, my stories were filled with needless adverbs drawn from reading too much Tom Swift.

So, to aspiring short story writers, what short stories have you read lately?


Anonymous said...

Lately it seems like I mostly read short fiction. The latest issue of Sybil's Garage has some good things in it. I'm also particularly fond of the stories in "The Surgeon's Tale and Other Stories" by Cat Rambo and Jeff Vandermeer.

Unknown said...

Well, this might sound self-centered, but most of the shorts I've been reading have been my own. But I have a good reason: I'm editing them for submission.
On a side note, I am a fan of the short form. I love it and when it is done especially well it always stick with me. I'm actually doing an independent study course on the works of Philip K. Dick and I intentionally put in a few of his short stories because I've never read his short fiction. It's going to be awesome!
I did also read a short story collection by Paul Melko called Ten Sigmas which I found to be amazing.

Charles said...

Mary: Will check out "The Sturgeon's Tale.... BTW just finished reading Twenty Epics and I enjoyed your story there.

SMD: Usually I need some distance from my own fiction (as opposed to reading them every single day) to edit them effectively but if it works for you...

Philip K. Dick in my opinion excels more in his short fiction work rather than his novels (although I did enjoy Ubik).

Anonymous said...

I'm the only one addicted to books in my family, so what readables my cousins do have are our Pinoy romance pocketbooks. I still have old typewritten manuscripts of me attempting to make my own Pinoy Taglish romance and I have a notebook filled with plot ideas!

The community of short story readers seems to be small. It's novels that can carry you in a conversation in forums and chatrooms. Perhaps this is why people pick up novels when they pick up books.

I didn't even finish high school, so I couldn't agree with you more that reading, more than classes, makes a writer.

Interesting that when I decided to submit to Mr Alfar's antho, I gobbled all the files in LitCritters and studied them along with the ones in Story.

Unknown said...

Charles: Oh, no I'm not reading it every day. Most of the stuff I've been reading has been sitting around on a break for a while. I very rarely write something, edit it, and send it out all in one go, unless it's especially short. Longer shorts tend to get written, sit around in a folder for a few weeks or a month, and then I go back and fix them up. The good news is that I've been able to do this rather consistently in the past, so I'm sending lots of things out.
But I get what you mean.

I really liked Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", which is why I'm doing a course on him. I'm really enjoying his nonfiction from "The Shifting Realities of PKD". He's one heck of a philosopher. I'm also reading "Lies, Inc.", "Ubik" and some shorts ("We Can Remember It For You Wholesale", "Minority Report", "The Golden Man" and a few others). So I'm getting a good dose of PKD at the moment. It's good stuff though.

banzai cat said...

Well, I finally finished reading Tales of Fantasy and Enchantment and I just realized that when I read a really good short story, I'm inspired to write one myself. But when I read an 'eh' short story, I just shake my head. Don't know why inspiration works for me than wanting to write a better story.

Anonymous said...

I see you enjoyed "Devil's Cape"; if you are interested in some short stories in that same vein (superheroes), check out A Thousand Faces at

New issue goes online at the end of April, so there's a couple weeks left of the current one.