The major joys of reading are:-
1. There is at least one form to suit everyone – short fiction, long, or anything in between, and non-fiction with its infinite variety of forms from the essay to the book.
2. There is at least one genre to suit everyone – fantasy, non-fiction (think of the wealth of topics in this alone!), historical, crime etc.
3. Reading is one of the forms of escapism I love most; the other is music. Even when reading non-fiction, you are escaping the cares of the world temporarily to find out what you need to know or to improve your knowledge of the topic you’re reading.
Literacy is one of the most precious things humanity has. It’s too easy to take it for granted. I am conscious that had I been born, say, 150 years ago, the chances of my being literate would have been remote. That’s a mindnumbing thought especially since, in the overall scheme of things, 150 years is not that long ago. Someone from my background would have been highly unlikely to have had much education. Literacy, especially for women, has not been something we have always had.
Literacy is always worth celebrating though and I thought I’d celebrate the joys of short and long fiction and discuss their challenges too. The differences are not just about the word counts involved!
Naturally I’ll start with my great love – the short form – though I am including short stories up to about 2,000 words in this. (Strictly speaking, short stories can have a much higher count than that, though I would consider anything over about 15,000 words as approaching the novella format).
Short Form Fiction
This includes flash fiction (with its various categories and sometimes the strange names to go with them such as the dribble at 50 words and the drabble at 100 words) and standard length short stories (generally 1500 to 2000 words is what you will see in most fiction taking magazines).
The Middle Ground
For me, this would be the novella, the comic book, and graphic novel. The latter two contain considerably less text then standard novels but, to my mind, there is a link with flash fiction here. I often think of my genre as precision writing as you are thinking carefully all the time about what words to use where because of the restricted word count. A comic book or graphic novel has to also consider their limited word count and what they need the text to do. They don’t need to repeat what is in the pictures. Their text should cover the gaps the pictures cannot tell the reader. It is an art form in itself.
Forms Which Cover Both Short and Long Fiction
Poetry and plays count here as both can tell stories. Both can be in few words or many. Both have technical challenges a writer needs to master to write them well.
Short Form Fiction – Why I Love It
The chief reason I think is because it is to the point. You don’t have to wait long for the pay-off. Flash fiction and short stories are easy to read in paperback but, for screens, they’re ideal. That covers a lot of ground from PCs to mobile phones.
I read flash and short story collections in between reading novels. I see it as a literary cleansing of the palate ahead of my next big “meal”.
I also think flash, in particular, has a role to play in drawing in the reluctant reader. Well, you’re not asking them to commit to too much in one go, are you? I would love it if a reluctant reader developed a love for flash fiction due to that but then went on to try a novella and then novels.Get someone hooked on reading for pleasure, who knows where that reading journey will take them?
And children are encouraged to write short fiction. I mentioned this on the recent podcast interview I had with Wendy H Jones but it bears repeating here. Radio 2 run the 500 Words competition in conjunction with the Oxford University Press. There are prizes, including for school libraries, so naturally that’s a great incentive for schools to encourage their 5 to 13-year-olds to take part!
(From my viewpoint as a flash fiction writer, it means more people now know what flash fiction is!). Children can, as Wendy was saying, see the end product of a 500 word story (which is far more difficult to do with a 80,000 word novel!).
And there are plenty of competitions and markets for the short form writer to try (though beware some magazines now take all rights so be wary of accepting that. It does mean you can’t use that story anywhere else ever. When you sold First British Serial Rights, you could sell Second British Serial Rights to someone else if you wanted. If you’ve sold all your rights, you can’t do that).
There is so much variety in the short form. Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse (who were big fans of each other) brought out short story collections, though both are better known for their novels. I wonder if they wanted to write shorter forms in between the longer works as a literary refreshment for themselves. It is hard work writing any fiction, though great fun, so having a break from the “day job” of writing novels by turning to short stories for a while makes sense to me.
Also if you have a situation which you can’t expand out into a novel, can you turn it into a short story? Some stories really do work better for both reader and writer when kept short.
Short Form Fiction – The Disadvantages
Especially for flash fiction, you can’t have a cast of characters. There simply isn’t the room. Even for standard length short stories, you’re going to be limited as to how many people you can include in your tales.
Now that is a good thing. The idea of the short form is to focus – and the shorter the length of story the more intense that focus has to be for it to work at all. That has a direct effect on how many characters you have in it.
The other disadvantage is there is no room for description. I’m sure most of us have had experience of reading some wonderful descriptive passages in novels. I know I’ve read many such things which take my breath away but in the short form you’ve got to get to the point quickly and that’s it. For flash particularly, you have to find short cuts for conveying impressions to your readers. That’s good fun but the longer, lyrical, and often wonderful prose is out.
Longer Form Fiction – The Novel
I love novels. You can have an entire world in them. Indeed with science fiction and fantasy, you can often have more than one. Gill James does this with her Peace Child books.
Also the world can be our one but set in different times. There are novels for most historical periods. Pick your favourite historical period and you’ll find something to enjoy fiction wise set in it.
Equally you can have novels where the characters are either not of this world or left it some time ago – see Jen Wilson’s Kindred Spirits series for that.
You can also follow character development, especially in series novels. My favourite here is Sam Vimes in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Sam changes a lot from when we first meet him in Guards, Guards to how he ends up in Raising Steam.
You can have wonderful descriptions. You can have dialogue between characters conveying information which carries on for longer than in the short form but which still keeps your readers hooked.
And you can have a cast of characters. If you like ensemble pieces, the novel is the way to go!
What I love is going from classic novels such as Pride and Prejudice to a crime novel and become immersed in both worlds, though they are so very different. And there’s huge variety within crime novels too from the cosy type to the bloody thrillers.
A good novel, whatever its setting, will show you something of human nature being played out as the story unfolds. Now that can happen in the short form too but you tend to get a glimpse. In a good novel, you can literally have much more.
Longer Form Fiction – The Disadvantages
From the writer’s viewpoint, the commitment needed in terms of time to produce and edit the novel is immense. That can’t be overstated. It also takes even longer to see any comeback in terms of sales from it! Also the challenge is to hook your reader and keep them hooked for 80,000 to 100,000 words or thereabouts. (Fantasy novels can often be more than the 100K too).
From the reader’s viewpoint, I’m sure most of us in our time have come across a novel that, for whatever reason, simply doesn’t engage with us. You get to the end of the book and feel disappointed that you “wasted” time in reading a book that didn’t appeal as much as you thought it would. That scenario is every novelist’s nightmare too. (And even worse is the one where the reader dumps the book part way through! This is even more of a nightmare where authors who use Kindle Direct Publishing get paid by Amazon per page read – yes, really.).
Then there can be the descriptions that go on too long or don’t give enough information to warrant the length of them and you can end up wondering where the editor was on that particular book.
So what to read then?
Read across the range. There’s a wonderful wealth of talented writers out there, and we draw on the influences of those greats who came before. There will always be time and room to enjoy Shakespeare and Dickens (who I like to think of as this country’s first great novelist). The pleasures of wonderful prose, whether long or short, contemporary or classic, are there for us to enjoy.
If you don’t know where to go next with your reading, check out the libraries and explore their shelves. Libraries are a great way of sampling works by authors new to you and our own Chandler’s Ford Library will always be glad to see you!
Don’t forget to explore the wealth of non-fiction too. My first love will always be fiction but so often non-fiction, for me, is not just a source of invaluable information but can inspire ideas for stories. What’s not to love about that?!
Above all, whatever you read or write or both, have fun!
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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