The Short and Long of It

by Alex Keegan

Recently on an internet board (I did do my 500 words of writing before logging on, honest!) someone wrote that novelists were different animals from the writers of short stories, that the arts were different, that "just because you can write a short-story, doesn't mean you can write a novel."

I've been here before, most noticeably when writing in an article "Get Lucky" pompously stating (with the certainty of the too-young) that I, Alex Keegan was a novelist who would never be able to write short-stories. Oops!

Now one hundred short stories later, with the prize certificates in the draw, the cheques in the bank, the anthologies on the shelf, I'm tempted to go along with Diana Gabaldon who wrote (pardon my quote) "You're a good novelist Alex, but you're an even better short story writer." I'm tempted, actually, to invert my original incorrect notion and say now that I will never write a great novel because "I am a short-story writer," a writer of short fiction, a guy who thinks in terms of two to five hour drafts and reads of less than an hour. More bunkum, of course.

Writing is an art. Sorry, writing is a craft; a craft that can be taught, a craft that can be learned. I believe, dammit I know, that any reasonably intelligent person with a decent command of language and the discipline and dedication to do the work can be taught to produce passably crafted stories, and yes they'll get published in small magazines. But the higher levels, where craft becomes art, they are something else, and something extra inherent in the life-spirit of the individual, the soul, the sensitivity, the desire to say something is required. But without the craft the soul cannot express itself. Art is always beautifully crafted.

I began (like many beginners) trying to write short stories. Of course I rarely read short stories. (I was too busy writing them!) And they didn't sell. Heck I didn't even collect rejections. My stories merely disappeared into a time warp, a black hole. (Any day now, due to a wrinkle in the outer time-dynamics of the second lunar phase of Beeblebrock I am due to get thirty-eight acceptances of stories I don't remember writing). My stories didn't sell. They didn't sell. They didn't sell!

The reason my stories didn't sell was because I wasn't really a short-story writer, right? I was a novelist, wasn't I? I was the "young" man destined to write five mysteries and then go on and write a great British novel. (Cough). I had a novelist's brain, did I not, a novelist's temperament? The short form was simply "not me". Why, there were simply loads of authors out there who wrote novels but could not hack the short form. There was, um, and there was uh. Oh well. There were loads, right?

Years later, after finally understanding theme (thank you James Frey) and having a small competition success with "The Card" I found, hey, I quite liked writing these smaller, shorter pieces. They pleased me, they satisfied me in a way quite, quite different from churning out a novel.

Oh, sure, I'd write some more novels (any day now) but meanwhile I just had to write this, and then that, and then this. And, awkwardly, just as soon as I thought, "heck, this game pays even worse than writing novels," along would come another sale, up would pop another prize, and suddenly it was 2003 and it was six years since my last novel. I was a short-story writer.

I understand now. I really am a short story writer. Short story writers are different beasts from novelists. Look at all those novelists who never wrote short stories: Attwood, Atkinson, Asimov, Ali; Boyle, Balzac, Block, Bradbury, Ballard, Barnes; Chandler, Christie, Conrad; Dickens, Doyle, Doesteovsky; Ellison, Ellison, Ellroy; Fitzgerald, Franzen, Faulkner, Ford; Goldman, Gutterson, Greene, Gorky; Hemmingway, Hammett; Ishiguro, Irving; Joyce; King, Keegan; Lawrence; Munro, Marquez, Mann, McEwan, Maugham; Nabokov; O'Brien, Oates; Paretsky, Pynchon, Proulx, Priestly; Ellery Queen (Dannay & Lee); Rankin, Rathbone; Saroyan, Stone, Stevens, Simenon; Twain, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Trollope; Updike; Verne; Wolfe, Wells, Wharton, Welty, Walker; X (dang it); Richard Yates and Emil Zola.

Oh they did? Oh, I see. You what? "And some wrote poetry, some wrote plays, some wrote articles, essays, some wrote for the screen," Oh!

Quite simply, these writers wrote. They were human beings who could develop characters, write dialogue, plot, investigate themes. There is no mystery, no dichotomy, no glass ceiling or wall. The reason some writers write novels, some short-stories, some plays or screenplays is not because they can't write in the other expressions but because either they choose not too or think they cannot write X because they are Y.

Just like I said.

What if the poet James Dickey had not written Deliverance? What if Shakespeare had stuck to plays or poetry? What if Dickens had never given us A Christmas Carol? What if Stephen King had thought Rita Hayworth & The Shawshank Redemption was beyond his skills?

William Goldman wrote superb screenplays like Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, but stopped off to write good short stories, great books on the craft of screenwriting, (and he tells us a lot about writing within them) and then a not insignificant novel or two, The Princess Bride, Marathon Man.

I would recommend Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade and particularly the section in there looking at a simple tale about a barber. Whose story is it? Goldman asks. Superb!

But the point is, here is yet another writer, someone with the insight and flair to understand story to understand character.

It happens that this particular writer, Goldman, wrote novels, wrote screenplays, wrote short stories and wrote exposés. It happens that I have "only" written poems, short stories, and novels. It "happens" that some great authors wrote shorts, and also wrote novels and also dabbled as Hollywood screenwriters. It happens that as well as writing short-stories, Chekov was not exactly writing overlooked plays!

What happens may be chance or inclination, but what is real, what is undeniable (at least for all the writers mentioned and about another ten thousand like them) is the simple fact that any writer worth his salt (like these) can, if she chooses, migrate into other literary fields. He may not choose to. He or she may, like me, for a self-deluding while, be under the illusion that these other writing outlets are really, in some dark, mysterious way, not "his" kind of writing.

And that is wrong.

Alex Keegan British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture, Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books) which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.

His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.

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