Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Long and Short of It

Guest Post by Angel Luis Colón

I’m an ex-marathon runner—meaning I have run marathons, plural.

Yes, I am bragging a little.

I’ve probably peaked at coming in 12,000th place at the finish line or wherever, so it’s not like I’m a pro, but in long distance running there’s some great knowledge that’s entirely applicable to writing: short runs help make the long runs better.

Seriously. You TOO can be the Prefontaine of writing. Well, I can't
help with the bitchin' facial hair. You're on your own with that.

I’ve recently come off putting together another novel while my last one’s being shopped by my agent and my brain is pink slurry. Most folks understand novel writing is tough. It takes a lot out of you and sometimes it feels like a hellish slog—like running a marathon (see what I did there?). And after you’re “done”, whether you’re waiting to reread with fresh eyes or have a friend or editor going through that manuscript, the last thing you should do is sit around staring at your dainty fingers. Unless your day job is hand modeling, then I guess you need to get on that manicuring tip ASAP.

Otherwise? You should be writing, damn it.

But Angel, my fingers, they are cramped and beaten from the keyboard slapping! I will never be generic pair of hands #3 in that Tostitos commercial!

Indeed, imaginary failure of a hand model I am addressing, indeed, but you know what? It’s no excuse.

Now is the time to write a short. Be it flash or the standard short story, this is a chance to work a whole different set of writing muscles. Remember, you just wrapped up plotting 60K or more words—connected a skeleton of intrigue and back story, synced chapter 1 with your denouement on page 354, added whole heaps of background for that fella who was only supposed to be around for six pages but took over the back half of the novel. Think about all that space this novel’s taking up. It’s not too dissimilar to the Monday after a 20 mile training run. Your legs are lead, your core (JESUS CHRIST, YOUR CORE) feels like you’ve been taking blows from Tyson, and you can’t lift your arms over your head. Is it the brightest idea to go out and do 21 miles right after?

That’s a lot of work, but a whole different way of writing. Shorts don’t require all that constant effort. And please, I am in no way demeaning the effort it takes to condense an entire story into 6,000 words or, yikes, 700, but there’s something nice about feeling “done” in a quick turnaround. A short is quite literally running a tempo 5K or a 40 minute fartlek (if you Google the latter, spell it right—don’t go blaming me for what turns up if you’re not paying attention).

I also find jumping back to shorts helps my brain dump out all the gunk that novel writing’s occupied through the weeks/months. It provides me with clarity and less pressure. It gives me something to do while I wait for edits or hear word back on whether I wasted my time on 300 pages of gibberish. What’s better: finishing stories and sending them out to publications! Even if you get bad news, it’s an opportunity to further refine those unused muscles. Bonus: when you’re back to the novel and worried you’re still a talentless hack, the occasional short story acceptance does wonders to breathe a little extra life into you. You don’t have to look very far to see a lot of the writers in the crime community not only came from writing shorts but still thrive there. Look on the back cover of any issue of Thuglit, All Due Respect, or even Ellery Queen and you’ll see the names of critically acclaimed novelists with work they put together in the ‘downtime’. Because ‘downtime’ doesn’t mean writing stops. Writing never stops.

The other perk in jumping back to short form: refining your craft. It sort of goes hand in hand with working on running mechanics. You take the chance to try new things out and see what works and what doesn’t. This goes back to my earlier point that writing short pieces is in no way a simple task. Nothing gets you thinking about word economy like going from the infinite space of the novel to the 2x2 jail cell of flash fiction. Can you fit a three act structure into 700 words? CAN YOU?

Um…got any tips? Because that’s not easy.

All the effort you’ll go through with shorter fiction will help you in editing phase and with later long form projects. You’ll learn to get to the damn point and do it in a way that manages to maintain attention instead of droning on and on about frivolous details that will remain frivolous no matter how much you try jamming them in to pad your word count.

And you don’t have to limit yourself to short stories. Blog, write a review on Goodreads or Amazon, hell, do a guest post somewhere people may actually read the lunatic ramblings you’ve put together about the craft of writing. Man, if you’re the masochistic type, why not craft a workout plan where you’ll write out the dreaded 1, 5, and 10 page synopses? Disclaimer: I take no responsibility in what may happen if you actually attempt writing three synopses of various lengths at one time, but I will pray for you and your loved ones.

There are a lot of options and in the long term, all excellent for your work on that big novel. You’ll find that slapping out 250, 500, 1000 words becomes easier, which will help you handle trimming 15,000 words from 100,000 or adding 25,000 to 55,000. Like in running, there is never a mile that should be considered a waste—even if it’s an ugly one.

Angel Luis Colón is the author of THE FURY OF BLACKY JAGUAR. His fiction has been shortlisted for the Derringer and has won an award or two. His nonfiction has appeared in The LA Review of Books, The Life Sentence, and My Bookish Ways. He’s also an editor at Shotgun Honey, home of some of the finest hardboiled flash fiction on the Internet. Find out more or ignore him on Twitter under the handle @GoshDarnMyLife.

1 comment:

Dana King said...

I got into writing flash pieces when Patti Abbott had challenges on her blog. (A few others I read also did them for a while, but she was the most consistent.) They went a long way toward honing my craft and tightening what I thought was already a tight style.