Short Stories

Many of Jan’s best-loved books are collections, such as Nothing to be Afraid Of or ‘frame novels’, like They Do Things Differently There. She often expressed her preference for the short story form. The following first appeared in The Horn Book magazine, circa 1986.

I spend more time now writing short stories than writing novels; I much prefer writing short stories. I have to explain this to schoolchildren. They think I like writing short stories because short stories are quickly done and therefore easy. They have a naïve belief that when you start writing, you begin with short stories because this is all you can manage, and as you gain in maturity and experience, you progress to novels so that you end up writing War and Peace.

In fact, writing short stories is harder than writing novels. You can’t get away with anything in a short story; you shouldn’t want to get away with anything in a novel, but it’s almost inevitable that you do because in a novel you’re aiming for an overall effect. It is said that in a novel every chapter must count; in a short story every sentence must count; in a poem every word must count. If you’re really high-minded you can say, ‘Even in my novels every word counts.’ If that’s so, the works are probably not very good – as novels. You can look too carefully and too closely at what you are writing. The reader of a novel is not going to carry away a memory of every word. In a novel the reader wants to remember wholly, not word by word, in eighty thousand fragments.

Because you know this, there is always the feeling that you are getting away with something. If readers are engaged with what you’ve written, they’ll stay with you. If they find your novel boring in places, they’ll skip a passage; they may skip a page; they may skip a dozen pages; but at the end of a novel they’ll forget the boring bits and remember it simply as a good book. Some of the world’s greatest novels appear to be entirely composed of boring bits tenuously held together, like string vests. You can’t take any such risks with a short story. If your readers become bored with a short story and skip several pages, they’re going to end up in the next story. If they’re reading an anthology, it may not be your story; you’ve lost them, especially if they’re children who won’t remember your name anyway. So writing short stories is much more demanding; it’s a far more advanced disciplined, a form of virtuoso writing. It’s more of a discipline in itself because if a short story doesn’t work very well, it doesn’t work at all. If it’s not very good, it’s no good. One of the reasons I enjoy writing stories is it’s good for my self-esteem. When I finish a novel, I feel tired. When I finish a short story, I feel clever. There’s an element of cleverness in it: if it works at all, it’s working well …

In a novel you’re dealing with development; you’re observing development. I won’t use the word change because I don’t personally think people do change … But (the novel) has room to do this: eighty thousand words, a vast cast of characters, nine months in which to write it, and centuries, if you wish, to be encompassed in the course of the narrative. Now the short story is not dealing with any of these things; it’s dealing with the moment at which change occurs: the seminal moment – after which nothing will ever be the same again …

When I am trying to explain this idea to children, I use the image of a movie and a still photograph. I explain that when I am writing a story of any kind, I am operating through a frame but that I am aware, and I hope the reader is aware, that there is more than the frame. I have focused on only one particular element, a period of time, and what I hope to leave readers with is the sensation that there is more on the other side of the frame that they must supply themselves from the evidence that I have given. A short story must exist in its own right as a still photograph does; it must be whole, but a novel is like a movie. The movie is made up of thousands upon thousands of still frames, each one of which is observed momentarily as it passes through the projector … A cactus, a Colt and John Wayne may give you some idea about what the film might be like. But you won’t know which particular Western it is. The same is true for a novel: you have to read the whole novel, just as you have to see the whole movie from start to finish. But with a short story it is as if you have stopped the projector and said, ‘This is the frame I want. This is the moment I’m interested in. After this point nothing will be the same. The people who are involved in this particular incident are going to be altered irrevocably by what has happened to them. This is the moment I wish to describe.’ After that you are obliged to prove through what you have written that you chose the right moment at which to stop the movie.

The Horn Book magazine