Last Friday, I read Joe Lansdale's Vanilla Ride in a single afternoon. It's both a testament to Mr. Lansdale's seat-of-your-ass, no-holds-barred, nutsack-full-of-testosterone prose and his excellent sense of pacing. The book, a pretty compelling thriller in which Hap and Leonard tussle with the Dixie Mafia, is short. Most of the fifty-plus chapters rip by at four or five pages apiece. It's a little different than a lot of Champion Joe's prose, as he often fleshes out larger chapters, but it's a very satisfying read.
Lansdale has a real knack for capturing scenes in full with his economic prose, and also for ending his chapters on appropriate narrative notes. Many of these dialogue-laden sentences put a conclusion on the scene, showing that you don't always have to point the way to the next plot development or search for the perfect cliffhanger. A lot of these chapters feel like flash stories, and that's a nice experience for the reader.
It's an important lesson, I think. This morning, I sifted through thirty-seven pages of the book I'm finishing up, trimming and excising and cutting and blow-torching. I'll try to do another thirty-seven tomorrow if I can. I'm trying to make these chapters round into shape, and its hard but satisfying. How does it all fit together?
My creative writing students from the fall had lots of questions about novels, even though we were writing short fiction. They wanted to know if there was much of a difference between writing in the long and the short forms. They wanted advice, but I didn't have a whole lot to give.
I told them to put their heads down and their hands on the keyboards and write--either way, they'll get there eventually.
But I think it also helps to think of the chapters like short stories. It helps with fashioning the overall narrative blueprint, as well as the day-to-day writing.
Maybe next time, I'll have them read some Champion Joe to give them a good example of what I mean...