If it weren’t for short stories, I doubt that Pam and I would be novelists today. Although some people might transition through journalism, advertising careers, or even just launch themselves at the computer with a brilliant light-bulb idea – oh, how we envy those inspired geniuses – it was having success with shorter fiction that let two cowardly creatives dare to tackle our first novel. Together. Trembling and encouraging each other every step of our path through publishing.
I was 23, newly-promoted as assistant to an encouraging literary agent, when my boss hired a new secretary who also aspired to be a writer. I quickly saw that if I didn’t rally the nerve to produce my first piece of work, I’d be choking in her dust. Luckily my disastrous love life gave me plenty of material for ‘chick-lit’ type stories – i.e. a mostly cynical, humorous look on modern London romance or rather lack of it. I became a regular contributor to women’s magazines using the modest proceeds to fund holidays and later backpacking adventures. More importantly, I started thinking of myself as a writer. Sort of.
While I was faffing about South America Pam got into the scene. She had three young kids and her much needed escape became a creative writing class. Her stories were more of the twist-in-the-tail variety. And isn’t that the beauty of short stories – that you can experiment with all the different forms – mystery, romance, science fiction – to discover your voice while building confidence and skills? You don’t have to spend a year or more of your life writing an entire book, only to throw away the whole rambling mess in disgust. Tossing aside a few scrambled pages hurts a lot less!
Meanwhile we learned valuable lessons. When your clever tale has to be tied up in 1,000 to 3,000 words, that first sentence had better throw the reader smack into the dramatic tension from the get-go. Your main character had better be instantly likeable, distinctive, and facing a clear conflict or crisis with no rambling detours to dilute the reader’s interest. You’d better find a good resolution or punchline to end on. You learn to aim for dialogue that’s witty and original and advances the story. The same with description, finding the details that matter. We envy poets or songwriters like Bob Dylan and Van Morrison who can evoke whole worlds in just a few lines. Now there’s something to aspire to…
Even now, writing full-length novels, it’s easy to get lulled by the fact that there are seemingly endless pages to fill. It’s noticeable that our first two novels are much longer than the subsequent ones, partly because we jumped right in with not one but four main characters – hard to write about the dynamics of sisters, we felt, without offering the different points of view. But more and more we’re coming back to our roots, rediscovering the value of editing out those fascinating, heartfelt or humorous paragraphs or diversions that amuse us greatly but add nothing to the plot. We’ve just slashed 20,000 words out of a manuscript and discovered that much as it made us ache at the time, not only was the book not hurt, it was greatly improved.