Our guest blogger this week is the incredibly talented Dennis M. Lavoie. Dennis is a charter member of the BWC and co-hosts our BWC Writing Workshop. He has become well known for his exceptional short stories and taught many of us the value of flash fiction.
You Don’t Have to Write a Book (to be a Writer)
By Dennis M. LavoieIt used to be said that what distinguishes humans from other animals is that we are tool
makers. A more accurate distinction is that humans are story tellers.
We’ve been telling each other stories ever since we hunkered down around the evening fire to tell about the day’s hunt, where to find the best plants for medicines, make jokes, gossip about the neighbors, speculate how the world was created. It’s how we make sense of the world around us and how we fit into it.
Making stories is a process of pulling out bits of the chaos of “reality” and then putting them back together to build simplified versions of what happens around us—models of reality, if you will, models built of abstract things called words.
At this high level of generalization there is little, if any, distinction between fiction and non-fiction, because all the models we build and communicate to our fellows are only selected bits of reality that we mix and match to suit the circumstances. They are all fictions in that sense.
Some seem to follow predictable patterns, and we believe they reflect reality, while some are recognized (or not) as pure fantasy, but they are all only simplified representations of what we experience of the world. We occasionally are reminded that our views of the world are fictions when something unexpected, usually something traumatic, happens to us and our story doesn’t work for us anymore. (This situation is itself a recurrent theme in literature.)
One characteristic of most of the stories we tell is that they are short.
Even the longer ones are chopped up into “digestible” pieces. Your friend doesn’t tell you the story of her relationship troubles for six hours at a stretch; books don’t go on for hundreds of pages without a break. This is because, as recipients of the stories, we have a limited attention span. That’s not a disparaging observation; rather, it is a reflection of our biology.
Neuroscience—the study of of how the brain works—indicates that learning involves
physical changes in the brain, addition of new neurons, but mostly new connections between existing ones, and formation of new patterns of interconnections. This all takes takes a finite amount of time as well as energy, and the amount of each depends on the type of input and where in the brain most of that input is handled.
Although it is an oversimplification, we can think of the human brain as operating on two
levels, intuitive and rational. Most of the mass of our brain is the beneficiary of millions of years of evolution in which brain structures evolved for efficiently processing sensory input for the purpose of reacting in novel situations—making life or death decisions. We don’t have to ponder whether that shaking bush hides a possible predator, we are instantly ready to fight or flee; we don’t ponder whether to be wary of an odd-looking stranger, we are immediately on guard.
As a result of these highly evolved brain structures, we can evaluate situations and make
intuitive decisions in milliseconds. When presented with new experiences, we instantly and
intuitively categorize them (of course, this process occasionally makes mistakes). This sort of activity constitutes the bulk of our mental processes, and we are largely unaware of it. When we believe we are being rational, we are usually just putting into words what our intuitive, primitive brain has already decided on.
This speed and efficiency is not true for the higher cognitive functions, such as language,
voluntary action, planning, and abstract reasoning, which are mostly done in the newer parts of the brain, the frontal lobes (the part of the brain that gives us a bulbous forehead compared to our nearest cousins the chimpanzees) and cerebral cortex (the intensely folded and dime-thin outermost layer of the brain). This is painfully obvious to us when we try to learn a new language, learn a mathematical theorem, or puzzle out a philosophical argument. This sort of mental activity takes more time. It also takes a large amount of chemical energy in the form of glucose. It’s the reason you feel tired after a bout of heavy thinking or abstract input; the brain is accounts for about 20% of your daily calorie burn.
All in all, this is probably why we can tolerate intense intellectual activity only for relatively
short periods of time before requiring a “rest” period to “process” the information and to rebuild energy supplies in the brain—think 50-minute algebra class periods.
I don’t know if this hypothesis has been put to a scientific test, but I’m making the leap here that we as human beings are built for short stories. This is particularly true for written stories because the act of reading involves high order abstraction mental skills—interpreting dark and light spaces on a surface, associating them with words, and linking those words with experiences and concepts.
But, you object, I just read a book in one long sitting! First, it probably was not a long
book—War and Peace is the cliché that fits here. Second, it probably had a lot of emotional
content—it was probably not a discourse on quantum physics (unless, of course, that lights up the pleasure centers of your brain). Again, input that is emotional and intuitive—i.e., stuff we don’t have to expend much mental energy on because most of our brain is built to deal with it quickly—is easier for us to handle than abstract input.
So, if short stories are more natural, why do we think that writing a book is the ultimate
Here are three possible reasons:
First, if you’re good at it and popular, you can make a fair amount of money.
Second, producing a book is a long and laborious exercise and its author should be respected for that reason alone.
Third, in writing a book—especially fiction, but to even non-fiction works—the author must successfully master a difficult form.
That form is deceptively simple: beginning, middle, and end. At a more detailed level,
especially in fictional work: there also has to be a plot; there has to be character development and the characters have to change in some significant way; there has to be conflict and resolution of conflict; and there has to be a wrap up. Note that this arc is largely artificial. Real life as chronicled in a book would be a series of “slice of life” sketches; it would not be a novel. As readers of long form fiction, we are not looking for real life. We may be looking for insights to real life, but primarily we are looking for some validation of our innate conviction that there is some order in the world around us.
In my view, long-form writing is a specialized and rather constrained form of literature. It is demanding and risky: it may take years of effort, and when finally published it may not be
appreciated in your lifetime (e.g., John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces).
If you have the ambition, if you have an epic story to tell with compelling characters and
situations, and you are willing to meet the demands of the form, more power to you. If you are successful, you will have achieved a difficult goal.
But it’s not the only literary art form out there, and there is no reason to restrict your creative talents to a single form of story telling.
Recognize that there is a much larger world of short-form stories, especially if you want to make a living at writing. Current event and personal interest magazine articles, news and
commentary, essays, travel pieces, inspirational, how-to, humor, scripts, poetry, literary pieces. Although they may be constrained by conventions of their own, most of these are not constrained by long-form conventions of the novel. In short fiction, this means you can write anything from plot- or character-driven stories to prose poems that emphasize mood, emotion, and atmosphere to slice-of- life pieces. For that matter, that can apply to creative non-fiction too.
Since you can turn these short pieces around relatively quickly, you can afford to experiment and push your limits. There’s less time and sweat wasted and less discouragement when you have the inevitable failure; conversely, there’s more elation when you turn out a string of good stories.
And there has never been such a plethora of outlets for short work. There are still dozens of vibrant print outlets of all forms and genres, and, of course, burgeoning outlets of all types on the internet. Shorts for fiction and non-fiction anthologies are in demand. Writers Digest periodically highlights the advantages of short stories and a good article appeared in the November/December 2014 issue by Anne R. Allen. She listed nine professional reasons to write shorts, including the fact that, word-for- word, short pieces have a higher rate of return on effort than long works for most writers and they can be turned out faster. (I’ve summarized the article at the end of this piece.)
Finally, many successful authors started out writing shorts, and many write shorts in between their longer publications, often to keep connected to their readership. If you are stuck in your novel, take a busman’s holiday and write a short to reset your creative muscle.
So, I’m making the argument that you don’t have to write a book to be a writer. There are all sorts of ways to tell a good story. Writing short stories is natural, allows for more growth, and can be just as rewarding—in whatever sense you want to take it—as writing a book.
* * * * *Summary of “Short Is the New Long” column by Anne R. Allen in Writers Digest
November/December 2014, page 10.
“Bite-sized fiction has moved mainstream, and today’s readers are more eager than ever to “read short.” Here’s why writing little stories is paying off in a big way”
- Small, portable screens are changing the way we read.
- Anthologies are hot. Multi-author anthologies are a great sales tool….
- Publication identifies you as a professional.
- Networking with short fiction editors can further your career. Editors at small magazines often have connections in the publishing world.
- Filmmakers buy rights to short stories.
- Online retailers favor authors with more titles.
- Short fiction contests can build you bio. Contests are easy to find and enter in the Internet era. (fundsforwriters.com, winningwriters.com, WritersDigest.com)
- Shorts keep fans engaged and draw new ones. Shorts keep fans interested while they’re waiting for the next book [of your series] and a free story in between is a great marketing tool.
- Todays short stories make money and hold their value. Per word, a story can make more money than a novel.