While I was perusing my Twitter feed this morning, I read an interesting quote. Something to the effect of, “Novels make money, but short stories teach you how to write.” This reminded me of when I was studying philosophy and would solve the world’s problems one essay at a time. From God to beauty to identifying the Self, there wasn’t a topic I didn’t argue with a voracious appetite. It always started with a simple thought, “What is Beauty?”, and before I knew it I’d written an elaborate argument for my position. My mentors (Dr. Dave Yount and Dr. Jenann Ismael) loved my enthusiasm and attacked my arguments until they were sound. Those little debates quickened my mind and helped me to better understand philosophy. They helped me to form those nebulous ideas into cogent arguments, and the more often I did it, the easier it became to transcribe thought to paper.
When I first started writing (after acquiring a lifetime’s worth of experience) I mounted my pride on my shoulder and dove straight into a novel. I wasn’t 2,000 words into my first scene when I realized I didn’t know what I was doing. Like most people, I knew how to write and read, and I felt as though I did it well enough, but the more I tried to transcribe my thoughts to paper, the more I realized it wasn’t as easy as it seems. How exactly does one translate a sentiment or feeling into words?
It reminded me of painting. Holding the picture in my head is easy, for the most part, but it’s not a picture in the traditional sense. I don’t actually see it. It’s more like the idea of an image. A silhouette of thought that hints at an image the way a memory hints at the past. I know how I want the image to be, but for some reason, the image I paint is never the image I hold. I quickly learned that writing also exists in that nether realm between sentiment and reality.
Novels take time. A lot of time, and a lot of energy and mental acuity. Knowing that you want your character to feel happy is echelons different than being able to show that your character is happy without the simplicity of saying, “She was happy”. How do you encapsulate a character being happy with the why of it? How do you get your readers to feel your character’s emotions without telling them what those emotions are? There are hundreds and thousands of books and articles that will teach you how to do it, and how to mitigate that cursed realm of ambiguity. But there isn’t a specific recipe for writing a scene like there is for baking a cake. There aren’t any shortcuts to solidify those nebulous sentiments into something more tacit. Writers are manipulators of emotions, guiding their audience on a journey. Without knowing how to transcribe sentiment to paper, your readers won’t end up where you want them, or feel the way you want them to feel. Writing short stories facilitates that transcription in the same way that painting more often helps painters paint better, singers to sing better, and sculptors to sculpt better.
After I sent my manuscript to a few friends for review, they all gave me pointers on where I needed to improve my craft. I started to write short stories that focused on those aspects, none of which I ever intended to submit. Their sole purpose was to help me improve my craft; to facilitate transcribing sentiment to paper.
We all want to publish that novel and earn that paycheck that will allow us to do what we love for a living. But we can’t expect to pick up a brush and become the next Rembrandt, and neither can we open up a laptop and expect to become the next Stephen King.
Write your novel! Follow your dreams! Just don’t forget to hone your craft.