Monday, May 12, 2014

Guest Post: Susan Oleksiw

SMFS member Susan Oleksiw's novel, For the Love of Parvati, third in her series featuring Indian American photographer Anita Ray, is due out May 21. As part of a blog tour to promote the novel, Susan contributed the following guest post:

When I asked about writing a post for the SMFS blog, Gerald So suggested a discussion of character development in short stories versus novels. Are series characters different in the two forms? Is anything missing? That’s a lot for a short post, but a short post is long enough to make a point.

My first reaction was yes, of course, lots of things are missing, echoing a general opinion I’d heard for years, since I first started reading crime fiction. People love Agatha Christie’s novels, but not her short stories as much. The late critic Robin Winks believed crime fiction needed a full-length novel to reach its potential. The short story didn't offer enough room for both character and plot, and was overall an unsatisfying medium for crime fiction. I was ready to write something along these lines when I thought about my own experience.

I tried writing a female amateur sleuth living in India almost twenty years ago—and got nowhere. I think I wrote four novels featuring various versions of Anita Ray. The novels were terrible. I got advice from an agent, and other readers, but I could not find the character who would make the story come alive. Nothing worked. I continued writing the Mellingham series with Chief Joe Silva and the occasional story along with reviews and articles while I stumbled along wasting paper and time on India stories that went nowhere.

I was about to give up in frustration when I decided I'd write a short story with Anita Ray and focus on a murder that grew out of Indian culture. Anita's role was to investigate, nothing more. Out of that restriction came the surprise of Anita’s personality.

Short fiction forces the writer, me, to find the essential nature or core of the protagonist. The novel allows time for exploration and explanation, but the short story crystallizes what is necessary. By doing so, the character takes on a vividness and sharpness in the short story that can be slow to appear in the novel. (And in my case didn't appear at all.)

I'll give as an example Robert Lopresti's story featuring the barely-making-it writer Leopold Longshanks in "Shanks Goes Hollywood" (AHMM, April 2005). In the first page we know who he is, how he feels about his career and that of his friends, and how smart his wife, Cora, is. It’s a good mystery and it’s fun, and we know the characters well. Every detail of the plot works, and there are no loose ends. I could cite other stories that remain more vivid than novels, such as "Goodbye, Pops” by Joe Gores (The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century, ed. Tony Hillerman), in which a man escapes from prison in order to see his father before he dies. The obvious examples are Sherlock Holmes stories or any story by Edgar Allan Poe.

So, is there a difference that matters between short crime fiction and the crime novel? In a novel we get to spend more time with the characters, the plot may be more convoluted, but it's easier to mask failings in a novel than in a short story. In short crime fiction the character has to arrive fully developed, clear and sharp, in a plot that works. There can be no loose ends, no details that don't quite work, and no bait-and-switch in the plot. This is not easy.

Anita Ray has gone on to appear in twelve stories, with another in the AHMM pipeline, and three novels, the third out this month. In some ways the stories are harder because every detail has to be right. But there's also a great sense of satisfaction in creating a perfect little gem. —Susan Oleksiw


Anonymous said...

Great points, Susan. As you said, short stories have to be perfect little gems because it's next to impossible to mask failings. I found it interesting that, by restricting Anita to focus on investigating the murder in that short story, her character emerged--and you realized that short fiction forces you to find the essential nature of your protagonist.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I agree with your observations on character development in short story fiction vs. novels. The short story is more sharply focused and tight because the space is shorter. Every novelist should begin by writing short stories first in my opinion.

Jan Christensen said...

Great post, Susan. I agree with you, and I can see the point some people make about a short story not having enough words to have a good plot. I only found that to be true for me when I tried to write a true puzzle mystery where you have at least three, ideally four, suspects to deal with. I've done it, but it's hard. I much prefer to tell any other crime story than a puzzle one, although I know some writers do an excellent job with those. I was fascinated that you found the way to write great novels about your character by trying a short story with her in it. Like Jacqueline, I've often said that I think fiction writers should start with short stories to learn craft more quickly. For me, they are very satisfying to write.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I was surprised at how quickly Anita emerged in the short story. I've always loved writing and reading short fiction, so this was an especially happy discovery.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Writing short fiction is truly a challenge, I think, and a good way to learn the essentials of a story. You're right about the space--you have to learn to focus.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I too find short stories very enjoyable to write. I get close to the characters very fast, and I love having the focus tightly on Anita and the situation she's in. You're right about the puzzle story being hard to right in a short story format. Very challenging.