08 January 2007

Curb Your Short Story

No, I'm not talking about taking the story over to the curb to do its business, although that might not be a bad idea. I was thinking of a curb bit on a horse, a bit more severe than a run of the mill snaffle bit, it basically operates on the principle of leverage. It can apply pressure on the bars, tongue, and/or roof of the mouth of an unruly horse and let him know his antics are not acceptable. Used properly, the bit raises the horse's head and neck and makes him tuck his nose. In the wrong hands, the bit can be painful, it can cause the horse to throw his head up high and stretch out his nose in an effort to relieve the pressure. The gentle pull you give on a snaffle bit can cause agony with a poorly fitted snaffle bit.

When I first moved West, I had a hard time dealing with 'peanut roller' horses. Those that carried their heads so low they seemed to be dragging them on the ground. All my English style training taught me to have the horse on the bit, head up and waiting for my signals. Instant response, instant gratification. Until I rode Western, I didn't know there was any other way.

I had the same problem with short stories. They have their own rules and regulations. I did what I was supposed to, and read the guidelines, then read collections of short stories in an effort to distill the formula. Many abortive attempts later, I discovered what other people were quicker to figure out. There is no formula. Many of the examples of good short stories broke all the 'rules' set out by the leading magazines and college professors.

I should have known. I'm not big on the rules part of anything, why did I think following the rules regarding short story writing would help? Like anything, it's good to know the basics before you set out to tinker with the system. I wrote several by the book short stories. They were mechanically sound, but bored the hell out of me. I suffered from the Begin At The Beginning syndrome. Now that I'm a wild west rule breaker, I know enough to start there, but edit later and pare the story to the basics. Tell the tale until it's done, then go back in with a curb bit and make that story spin on its haunches if need be. Make it arch its neck and tuck its nose. Too heavy a hand and the poor story is tossing its head in agitation. Don't make it behave and you have an incomprehensible mess on your hands.

Used properly, the curb bit of rules can guide your short story to the finish line. Short stories are the dressage of the writing world. "Look what I can do", they say as they perform their gymnastics. Of course I must confess I was never that good at dressage. I liked show jumping with its all or nothing aspect. One fault and you're through. Maybe that's my fear with short stories, since its harder to hide mistakes. Will it measure up? All I can do is put it through its paces and send it out into the world, head held high. Then I can retreat back to my peanut rolling novel, with its inoffensive snaffle bit outlook. But come to think of it, maybe my novel would benefit from a few weeks with a curb bit. It's been feisty of late, changing direction and demanding larger story arcs. How else can I show it who's boss?

4 comments:

Gabriele C. said...

Hehe, I've attempted Western riding (there are clubs here) but never really got into it, it's British high dressage all the way for me. Or a really wild gallopp behind the hounds. :)

Funny enough, I wrote some decent shorts in 2003 when I experimented a lot, without ever caring about rules. But since then my plotbunnies keep coming novel sized. Though I'd like to do a short now and then.

Constance said...

I was raised to ride English, Western was a shock to me. How can you not want your horse up on the bit? *g* Never did fox hunting, although I tried cross country. It takes a slightly crazed horse for that I think.

I have more novel sized plot gerbils than I need, but I'm trying to be disciplined and learn short stories. I write enough little scenes, you'd think they'd be easy. Of course, most of the short stories I want to do are historical fiction. Go figure.

Carla said...

Impressive extended metaphor :-)

I don't seem to have the right sort of imagination for short stories, though I like reading them.

Constance said...

Carla, I work for the government. Beating dead horses is a specialty.

I've been reading short stories, and I'm still bewildered by the preponderence of avant garde BS...If that's what is the going thing now... forget it. I'll stay with history and fantasy.