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Should You Write a Short Story or a Novel?

Being a novel writer but publishing a short story yesterday raises the obvious question: how do you know if you should write a short story or a novel?  Are they structured the same way (no), are they similar to write (no), and can you take a short story and make it long (usually not well) or a novel and make it short (sometimes a little easier)?  They really are two separate beasts, with the commonality being that they are written with words that are formed into paragraphs.

Before I explain the differences between short story writing and novel writing (and how you know which one to write), I want to thank everyone who downloaded my story, “Nidah,” yesterday.  It meant a lot to me that you would jump from blog posts to women’s fiction all the way over to a vampire infertility story with me.  To be honest, for me, it spoke volumes about trust: about trusting a writer to deliver a certain type of story, and I don’t take that trust lightly.  So thank you.  Enormously.

[And for anyone who still wants to read it, you can download “Nidah” right here, as well as read the first few pages of it over here.  Please give it a chance.  With sugar or whatever incentive you need on top.]

Okay, so short story vs. novel.  How did I determine that Rachel Goldman would get the novel treatment and Nechama Tannenbaum would be contained in a short story?  It all comes down to presence.  You know how there are some people that you meet who immediately make a strong impression on you, and you know when you walk away from the first conversation that you have a connection or you were taken in or your interest is piqued?  Those people are short stories.  You know how there are other people that you meet who remain on fairly neutral ground until you get to know them?  Those people tend to dig their roots deeply into your heart, and then one day you see them and you realize that you’re hooked: they are part of your life.  Those people are novels.  Neither one is better than the others; they’re just different.

I was in Spain for three weeks, and we only had two books to read: Portnoy’s Complaint and Lolita. (I know, seriously, who planned the novels for that trip?)  I ended up reading Lolita about 8 times in a row while I was there.  Even though it has one of the best novel openings of all times, (“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”) the story itself is a slow burn. You aren’t smitten with Humbert Humbert from the first page.  He needs time to build some comfort with the reader (if it comes to you at all — I’ve heard tale of people who don’t like Lolita).  I was pretty far into the book before I realized that I cared about the characters, I cared what happened next.  A novel gave Nabokov the space and time to build that relationship between character and reader because, let’s face it, if he had tried to shove that character on us in short story form, we probably would have made a face and walked away.  No one in that book is an easily likeable character.  But the pace of a novel allowed the reader to warm up to them.

So first ask yourself: do my characters need time to allow the reader to warm up to them?  Is my plot line immediately interesting, or do I need more time to build the action?  Can people jump into the world easily, or will they need to be led in slowly?

The contrast is a Raymond Carver short story.  Grab any of them.  I’ve talked about “A Small Good Thing” before, so let’s go with that one.  You immediately wonder why the baker is so curt with the woman.  Carver hooks you on the first page, and you keep reading because his personality is like Chekhov’s gun.  You know that it’s going to be explained by the last page because it’s the element Carver is waving around on the first page.  And you have to assume that the reason is going to pack a punch.  And it does.

Novels are a series of jabs.  None of them do more than knock your head around for a bit.  It’s a long drawn out fight.  Short stories are a thirty second knockout with a single blow to the head.  They pack a punch; they make you feel something deeply in a few pages.  People usually read short stories in one sitting; it makes them feel something intensely in a short period of time.  People usually read novels in many sittings; and while certain scenes may stick with you (remember, series of jabs), they don’t have the same impact.  The exception being major events that occur after the reader is deeply invested.  Think about all the jabs from the Harry Potter series that happen in books 5, 6, and 7.  Now move those same deaths to books 1, 2, and 3.  Would it have affected you in the same way?  I’m guessing not.  So remove those sorts of jabs because they are sucker punches, and go with your average free-standing novel (vs. series).  Most of those jabs may stick with you as you go about your day, but they rarely have the impact that a story story has to affect your mood/occupy your brain.

So now ask yourself, do I have a slow burn type story on my hands or do I have a raging inferno of a plot line?  Can you get under the reader’s skin in a short amount of time, or do you need space to build all those individual jabs until you take them to the emotional knockout at the end?

I started out my MFA program as a short story writer.  My mentor asked me during my first semester if I wanted to try my hand at writing a novel.  I said sure, and he gave me a few guidelines for building a novel and then told me that the only way to learn novel writing was to do novel writing.  My first novel felt like a long short story.  It’s in a box somewhere.  My second novel felt like a weird novel/short story hybrid.  I was getting closer.  I graduated from my MFA program and wrote a third practice novel.  This one read closer to a novel.  I decided it was time to stop practicing and start attempting to do so I wrote my fourth novel (yes, we are talking about thousands of practice pages at this point).  That novel is still unfinished, though I will complete it one day.  And then I wrote my fifth novel: Life from Scratch.  It took five long tries to move from short stories to novels.

Nidah” is the first short story I’ve written in a long time.  In some ways, it was hard to go backwards; to write a short story after getting comfortable with the pace of a novel.  I will say that it’s a bit easier to go from novels to short stories (vs. going in the opposite direction) simply due to length.  It is easier to keep a short story in your head as you edit and mentally see the whole trip from start to finish.  It’s much messier to edit a novel.  “Nidah” plodded along on the first try at a novel’s pace but edits fixed it.  So why write practice novels and not practice short stories?  It all comes down to length and commitment.  Short stories are a short commitment and worth editing.  A 400 page practice novel… not so much.

This is getting long.  If people are interested, let me know and I’ll write a second post about structure; how one goes about constructing a short story or novel that keeps moving forward without getting away from the author.  Especially the idea of tiny jabs vs. a 30-second knockout.


1 Jen { 01.31.13 at 10:41 am }

Intrigued! I’m now off to do something I never thought I would do – buy vampire fiction. Would love to hear more about how the process was different to writing your novels.

2 Chickenpig { 01.31.13 at 10:52 am }

I think that writing a really good short story is very difficult. The plot has to be so carefully constructed, where in a novel you are free take turns and twists. Then again, I’ve read some really bad novels lately where they could cut out just about everything and be left with a novella that might be half decent.

Nidah was perfect as a short story because of the pacing and suspense. I think that short stories and/or plays separate the women from the girls when it comes to showing their writing chops. I think you really showed your stuff with this one, not that your novels are just fluff, mind you, but this is in another league. I would love to read more short stories from you. 🙂

3 serenity { 01.31.13 at 12:54 pm }

Totally intrigued as well. Part of the reason I got the short story was because I was so curious as to the structure. I spent some time in November “writing a novel” which, truthfully, I hated, mostly because it felt like I was plodding along, and I never saw the arc of the story like I can see in a poem or short story. And that’s typical of my writing: every time I’ve tried to write something long, I’ve found I get bored with the character. Maybe that’s because they’re short story characters!

I suppose I hadn’t put two and two together – that a short story versus a novel are two completely separate entities, with different delivery mechanisms.

So yes. Intrigued. And I didn’t finish “Nidah” in one reading yesterday, mostly because I was interrupted by Lucky, who wanted to play games on the iPhone. Tonight, though. 🙂


4 Kristin { 01.31.13 at 2:28 pm }

More, please!

5 Brid { 01.31.13 at 6:58 pm }

Mine is a slow burn, as you put it… however, so slow one can hardly see the movement! When I think of short stories that have held onto me forever, you are right, they do punch. I always go back to “Hairball” by Atwood (and I don’t really even like Atwood even though, apparently, all Canadians must love Atwood), or “The Story of an Hour”, by Kate Chopin… punchy!

6 a { 01.31.13 at 8:09 pm }

I don’t think there are many who can do both. I’m not a huge consumer of short stories, although I think Stephen King’s short story collections are really awesome and his novels are eh to really good (for what they are). I downloaded yesterday, but I haven’t had a chance to read yet. Maybe that will be tomorrow’s lunch entertainment…

7 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 02.01.13 at 12:26 am }

I am so impressed at how hard you have worked at your craft. Four practice novels!

8 {sue} { 02.02.13 at 8:25 am }

I love the way you describe the difference between short story and novel writing. Please, more!

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