Matthew A. Merendo
October 9, 2017
2:16 am

In which I explain why short stories are like business meetings

Nobody reads a short story for fun.

Who, the last time they went on vacation, said to themselves, “I think I’ll take this fun and easy-to-read collection of short stories to the beach!” No one, that’s who.

No one.

Some of you out there, especially those of you who are literarily minded, are probably getting your pitchforks ready, but hear me out. The very nature of the beast prevents a short story from being fun because it calls for such compression, such obsession to all things craft. Because short stories are short, there is virtually no room for leisure. Every sentence, every word, every punctuation mark has to work double time to make the short story effective. This is not an observation of my own. Take Junot Díaz in the introduction to Best American Short Stories 2016:

[The short story] is a form that is unforgiving as fuck, and demands from its acolytes unnerving levels of exactitude. A novel, after all, can absorb a whole lot of slackness and slapdash and still kick massive ass, but a short story can unravel over a pair of injudicious sentences. And while novels can dawdle for chapters before sparking into brilliance, the short story needs to be about its business from its opening line.

That sort of obsession is tiring to read, at least for me, and it’s damn tiring to write. Which brings me to my point.

I have to workshop a story in two weeks, and I’ve been neurotically trying to figure out what to do. I’ve settled (for now) on my traditional epic fantasy story (with a gay twist, of course). The idea has been marinating for a while now, and I even started writing it, but I stopped, mainly because I can’t figure out if the story is a novel or a short story.

I first wrote twenty-five pages of the novel using my traditional “leisurely” style. Shifts in point-of-view, information slowly unfurling via scene, no rush to get through, a few side characters and their subplots, heavy on the romance AND the epic fantasy. But it felt too pulpy to me, which is a topic for another post. Suffice it to say here that I do not believe in, on a moral level, the very obvious hierarchy that subordinates genre fiction to “literary fiction,” but it is nevertheless one of the strictures of the world in which we live, so I am affected by it.

But I digress. My point is that, for whatever reason at the time, I decided the novel was too leisurely. (In addition, novels take a lot longer to write, and they’re harder to sell.) So I decided to write it as a short story instead, but the story itself changed so much without my even realizing it simply because of the medium. Gone were the secondary characters whose subplots I enjoyed. Gone was the focus on romance — the couple is now a couple, no questions asked. Gone was the leisurely tone, the periods of writing where an entire scene would come out of me in a flash. Now, I spent hours belaboring a single sentence and still hated it afterwards. I wrote about ten pages of that short story before fizzling out.

Writing a novel is like having a nice, meandering conversation with some friends. You go to dinner, have a few drinks, shoot the shit. It’s easy — or at least it feels easy, even if your friends are difficult as fuck — and loose and non-specific. Writing a short story, on the other hand, is like a business meeting or perhaps an interview. You’ve got a very limited amount of time to impress someone or get your point across, and you can’t ramble and you can’t diatribe and you need to watch every single word you say and you sure as shit can’t get drunk and talk about the cute dude who’s engaged or the chick in the whackadoodle dress at the next table over.

Now, I’m curious to know what you think. This is, of course, my own feelings on the matter, and I’m wondering if I need to break them down. I’d like to write short stories — really, I would — but it’s really hard for me to commit to a business interview when I know I could be shooting the shit with my gal pals over margaritas and mai tais. I don’t think there’s much room to argue that a short story isn’t about an obsession with compression, but does that necessarily have to be business-like? Can you read a short story that feels like a beach book? More importantly, can you write one?

I dunno. Maybe I’ll never know. And in the meantime, I still have to decide whether to write this story as a novel or a short story, and I have to do it within the week.

Pray for me. Or just tell me what to do. That’s probably the better option. So start talking!

Matthew A. Merendo