Ann Patchett is my go-to writer at the moment for wisdom. (Have you read Commonwealth yet? If not why not?) Browsing through the paperback edition of State of Wonder, her previous novel, I read a piece she’d written entitled ‘A Short Story Versus a Novel’.
Here’s what she had to say:
‘When I was in college, I wrote short stories … With all the certainty of youth, I was convinced that I’d found my form. Who would want to write a novel if the same effect could be achieved in the quick explosion of twenty pages? … It was several years after I pledged undying loyalty that I wrote my first novel.’
Novels offered Patchett the ‘heft and height’ that she needed in her twenties to make a writing life. She says, ‘(writing) The Patron Saint of Liars was one of the best things that ever happened to me, but in the process of learning how to make something big, I carelessly lost my ability to make something small.’
So she stopped, despite the fact that she taught short stories and compiled anthologies. Editors kept asking her for them but she’d decline. When she attempted a short story, she couldn’t make it work. Finally, however, after years of badgering, she accepted a commission, then duly panicked.
Then she decided to cheat. ‘I would borrow a couple of characters from the novel I was writing, and I would write about those characters years before the book too place. It was not a storyline that would have made it into State of Wonder, but it was something I already knew, because the novelist knows all sorts of things that aren’t meant to be included in the text … Once I had decided on that, it was the easiest thing in the world.’
The editor thought Patchett had done a great job, although she confessed the truth. ‘I really couldn’t write a story anymore. All I could manage was an out-take from a novel. It isn’t the same thing but it can very nearly pass if no one looks too closely.’
Of course, being Patchett, it was a brilliant out-take, but it got me thinking about my own recent misadventures. Not the one with the crime novel, which I wrote about recently, but an earlier one – a desire to write short stories about the characters in my novel, Ready to Love. (I have gone back to my new novel, which is exactly where I want to be, but I do want to tie up the loose ends from the previous book.)
Knowing that Minna and Jeff finally get together at the end of Ready to Love won’t spoil the plot for anyone who hasn’t read it. I signal that it’s going to be far from plain sailing for them, with no promise of happy ever after. But I wanted to show readers – and myself – that they’re not going to give up on each other too easily. I’d mentioned a forthcoming event – a party – which I thought would be a good moment to revisit them.
I knew where to enter the story, but not how to develop it. Over the summer, and into the autumn, I dug out my draft, determined to work on it, trying various scenarios, but stalled every single time.
I realised, thanks to Ann Patchett, they were performing what could have been an out-take from their earlier lives. The thing about Minna and Jeff is that so often they are pushed and pulled by the whims of more confident and assertive people around them. They’re easily startled, and stall, although less so at the end than the beginning. I had to know they wouldn’t stall permanently.
A proper short story won’t allow that. It’ll offer a moment from which there is no going back; a moment that will change them for ever. A short story will make Minna and Jeff lift their game and smarten up their act. And I’m hoping it will make me, their author, do exactly the same.
So I’m writing …
One of the saddest short stories ever written …