Replay: Starting small


Young Brahms: Baby steps

An interesting article popped up in my daily feed this morning: Why do first-time writers almost always start out with novels?

As the article points out, composers don’t start by writing a symphony. Beethoven waited a healthy amount of time before creating his First, and frankly, it’s not even that great. (His Second is even less good. He didn’t strike gold until his Third, the Eroica, which is Op. 55 of his oeuvre. His final opus number was 135, so he was well more than a third into his creative output before he really found his symphonic voice, and this isn’t even counting works he wrote as a young lad in Bonn that don’t have opus numbers.) Brahms didn’t write his first symphony until he was 43! (He admitted he was terrified of being compared to Beethoven—and he was. A critic dubbed the work “Beethoven’s Tenth.”)

So why do novels tend to cut their teeth on arguably the toughest format around?

I can speak for myself. I’m not kidding when I say I got the idea for Entertaining Welsey Shaw when I heard a voice in my head pitch the idea to me while I was working. Now, I’m not the sort of person who hears voices, bends spoons or sees dead people, and usually when I get ideas on the fly like this I decide half an hour later they were stupid. But something about this one stuck…

At some point into writing it, however, I felt that maybe I should complete a thing or two in shorter formats first. Coincidentally an on-line fiction site was having a novella contest whose deadline was being extended three weeks. I decided to knock out a novella and I did, just to prove to myself I could do it. (I won the contest, too! That really shocked me.)

Since then I’ve written a number of short stories and novellas for “practice” and posted them on that site. I even like a few of them, and maybe someday I’ll revise them and do something with them. And no, this is not intended as self-promotion. I’m not even going to link to them.

And that’s one reason I think most writers probably start with novels. They’re the most common fiction that people read. Short stories are a hard sell, or so I’ve heard, which really surprises me in this day of fast, fast, and faster, where there’s now 140-character Twitter fiction. Plays are an even harder sell. I don’t know much about poems, but I would guess the poetry market’s about as tough as the playwright market. And screenplays—unless you know someone in Hollywood I won’t even go there. And even if you do know someone it’s not easy. Even big-name people like Francis Ford Coppola have their pet projects sitting around, unrealized.

The article makes the point that perhaps getting well-versed in the shorter forms will help ensure quality over quantity. Most of the time when I tell people I’m writing a novel, the first thing they ask after “What’s it about?” is “How long is it?” I have a relative, in fact, who is always telling me one of her sons “wrote a novel” and it was soooo many pages, but when I ask her how many words she says she doesn’t know and then wonders why I asked. I tell her pages is an arbitrary measure: the size of your type, margins and spacing affects the number of pages, but the number of words is a constant. Novels shouldn’t be judged by the pound. Incidentally almost no one asks me what I think are the intelligent questions, such as Why are you writing the novel? or What are you trying to say? or What’s the point of view? When I look for fiction to read, I look for voice, point of view, character development, the overall idea. I don’t care about plot per se and often don’t even remember the intricacies of the plot, even in my own novels, where I constantly have to go back and look at my notes. My favorite modern novel is probably Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse—and there’s not much plot there.

A few modern writers buck the tide. Deborah Eisenberg, my favorite living fiction writer, concentrates exclusively on short stories, and eschews conventional narrative (which she “distrusts,” she says). Her best stories—Twilight of the Superheroes, Some Other Better Otto, Broken Glass, Transactions in a Foreign Currency, The Custodian—are as complex as anything out there. When asked, as she often is, when she’s going to write a novel, she says she starts all of them as such and then edits them down to the essentials, layering the material. That’s why there’s more life in twenty Deborah Eisenberg pages than in most 500-page novels.

But most people cut their teeth on the novel (usually the linear-narrative novel), for good or bad. I wonder how writing and writers would be be different if everyone started with short stories—maybe just a page or two to develop character—before moving on to larger forms with narrative (not all fiction must have a traditional narrative, something today’s writers and especially readers often forget). I think it would be a good idea. We’d all probably eventually move our novels along faster and have richer characters for it. But while no one would be foolish enough to skip little league and go straight to the majors, or begin ballet by dancing The Firebird, writers plunge into fiction with the vision of a thick tome at the end of the rainbow with their name on the front and their smiling author’s photo on the back flap. Perhaps me included.



One response

  1. Great post, John. Very thoughtful, as always. I started out writing children’s books. Middle grade, to be exact, which is the 10-12 year old crowd. (I have an agent who is peddling two of these now.) Writing juvenile fiction (approx. 40,000 words) was helpful to me because they didn’t require as much stamina as writing an adult novel and I learned how to craft a story with a beginning, middle and an end. Then as I developed my chops, so to speak, I moved to longer pieces. Now I write almost exclusively for adults.


    January 30, 2013 at 12:32 pm

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