Mini-Novels Will Hurt You As a Writer)
By Sean Taylor
I’m predominantly a writer of short stories. Sure, I am working on a novel and I’ve written more than a few comic books, but if I’m honest, short stories are the first love I will always go back to.
I love the craft it takes to “work small” and tell a fulfilling tale within those word count constraints. I relish in the time and work required to target each word and phrase rather than allow for meandering and possible filler.
That said, I also understand that short stories and novels are two separate entities. And good short stories, just as good novels, requires a writer working diligently with all cylinders firing in pristine shape.
Understanding that, perhaps that’s why when I received this link from author Jerry Jenkins in my email a few days ago, it really, REALLY irked me.
Go ahead and click on it and give it a read-through before coming back here. I”ll wait.
Now, I have to admit that I agree with his tips for writing short stories, and if that’s what the article focused on, it’d be a fine how-to. But I take umbrage at his intimation that short stories are the literary equivalent of “baby steps” for novelists.
Particularly, I found this part really got my dander up.
“A novel is not where you start—it’s where you arrive.
“Next, when you try your hand at writing, don’t start with a 300-400-page manuscript. Learn the basics first: things like dialogue, point of view, characterization, description, tension, conflict, setups and payoffs, submitting your story, working with an editor.
“Start with short stuff: short stories or even flash fiction. ...
“Most writers need to get a quarter million clichés out of their systems before they hope to sell something.”
Let me just get this part out of the way first, if you want to write a novel, start by writing a novel. Hell, write two or three of 'em, then when you get that strong, ready-to-show novel, shop it around. But don’t write a short story if you really want to write a novel.
It will mess you up. Not help you.
Here are 5 reasons.
1. Short stories aren’t novels. Novels aren’t short stories. What Jenkins is espousing is basically the literary equivalent of me telling an aspiring vintner to try his hand at beer first, because beer is more common and less fancy than wine. Beer isn’t wine. And you can’t make it so.
Will writing short stories help you learn to write? Yes.
Will it help you learn to write novels? Not really.
2. The two formats have different approaches in terms of scope. Novels have a grand scope. Novels have room for three acts and multiple character arcs. Short stories have a limited scope. Short stories require you to hone in on one section and one character arc. (A caveat here: Some novelettes, i.e., long short stories, CAN allow for a more novel-based approach, but even then, you can’t write it like a full novel. You must think small from the beginning, not just plan big and then trim it down.)
3. A novel gives the writer time to chase rabbits and meander. It shouldn’t but I’ve yet to find one that doesn’t waste time somewhere along the way, either with wasted time on a character who is superfluous to the main plot and theme or with plot points added to further complicate the plot (at best) or lengthen the book (at worst). (Wait. I take that back. Chandler didn’t meander at all, but his novels were also a great deal shorter than the epic doorstops that readers blindly follow nowadays.)
4. A novel is a wall. A short story is a target. Have you ever heard the saying, “throw shit at a wall and see what sticks”? You can do that with a novel and find forgiveness to some degree from your readers. Try that with a short story, and your readers will be long gone. Or, as author Sherrie Flick describes it:
“I write very-short short stories—2,000 words or less. In these stories I try to condense a vivid sense of the world into a small space. I compare the process to shoving an angry black bear into a lunch bag, without ripping the bag.As for my take on it, working on my novel is like dumping buckets of words onto the page each day and guiding them all into the right funnel, whereas working on a short story is more like targeting each word and concept as a single arrow with a single circle to hit.
“My goal is to write a short story (often less than a page) that seems full to readers long after they walk away from it. I want them to think back on the story years later and add their own sub-plots, characters, and details. Ideally, the story expands beyond the page, and the reader is active in that expansion.
“Writing a novel is a much different process. Instead of holding back—working with a fragile amount of space and condensing language to make effective and subtle suggestions—I open up the word spigot and, in doing so, the fictional world of the story. My sentence structure lengthens in the novel manuscript, and I enter into the challenge of evoking complex atmosphere with a bigger, more expansive sense of character on the page. It’s like pulling the (still angry) bear back out of the bag without getting mauled.
5. Novels and short stories begin and end at different points. Novels have a clear beginning and a clear climax and (more often than not, it seems to me) a denouement. This means that they begin getting the hero or protagonist into the position that will then snowball the action toward some new direction and end with a very strong period and often a second period just for good measure. The bad guy is foiled. The dad reconnects with his daughter. The tower falls into a blazing heap just as the hero and her followers escape. Then we often learn what they’re all doing two weeks later and who ended up with whom.
Short stories don’t always have a clear beginning or end. Just as the best short stories begin after the beginning, they also end before the expected ending. Best example? “The Lady or the Tiger.” Another great one is Stephen Donaldson’s “The Conquerer Worm.” There’s rarely a pretty bow on short stories. Try that with novels, and your readers will tend to call foul on you -- or assault you with words at your convention tables.
Why are these problems? Why will they mess you up?
1. Learning to write short stories will prepare you to write better short stories, but you’ll still need to approach your novel as a beginning novelist because that’ll be what you are. The skill sets you’ll need to plot, organize, and craft a novel will not be the same ones you learned writing short stories because contrary to what several folks may tell you, short stories are NOT INFANTS THAT GROW UP TO BECOME NOVELS. Short stories are full-grown adults in their own right.
2. This one can really hurt both ways. Short stories don’t work in grand scope, nor do novels work in a limited scope (with a few notable exceptions that would probably never get published today, such as Kafka’s Metamorphosis.) The novelist who sets out to write a short story by plotting a short novel is doomed to failure. Likewise, the short story writer who begins a novel by trying to stretch out a short story is going to be disillusioned quickly and sacrifice content for filler.
From their very DNA, you have to approach each in a different manner.
Your story triangle for a novel will have several smaller triangles within each segment, and within those several plot points, action sequences, and possibly even settings. For a short story, your triangle is more psychological, more emotive, dealing with character change (or failure to change) and you don’t have room for those multiple settings and plots within plots.
As for characters, a short story tends to focus on one character. Unless it’s a novelette or novella, you don’t usually see multiple POV heads operating in the same narrative. Your novel, however, can be as wide open as a movie, jumping around from character to character as quickly as Michael Bay can change camera angles during an explosion.
3. If you’re the kind of writer who likes to set out on the journey without a roadmap or an outline, be warned. The structure of a novel will allow you to make a false start and then get your feet, figure out what you’re actually writing about, then go back and revise you opening chapters to fit the later stuff you like. Not such much in the short story. If you need a few pages to get your footing, chances are your story is halfway over (or more) by the time you figure it out. And that means a total rewrite, not a revised intro.
4. If you need a subplot to keep your characters busy as they search for the killer, a novel is just the place for it, but if you start to add subplots your short stories, you’re going to find that you are just muddying the waters of your plot and you risk leaving dangling holes in your story. And those holes are annoying enough in novels (Such as: Where did that family who was so important in chapter 7 disappear to, and why are they not showing up again?) but in the space of 20 or so pages, it’s a downright disaster. That’s the opposite of tight writing. It's sloppy, plain and simple.
5. This is sort of a continuation of #2, but it is important enough to be a roadblock all its own. There are a time and a place for sweet, little short stories that wrap up in a pretty bow, and that place was Good Housekeeping magazine back in the 1940s and 1950s (and others of that type). Those writers are mostly forgotten or ignored by publishing history.
The literati might say that a novel is to entertain you and a short story is to get into your head and cause you to think. And to a degree that’s true, but not completely. Both should make you think. But where a novel is a long-time, small dose of medicine that builds up in your system, a short story is a super-concentrated, crazy big dose that shocks the system and makes you confront the rainbow elephant in the room face-to-tusk.
As such, the ending to a novel serves a certain purpose -- it brings you back down from the build-up and lets you off roughly where you came in. The “ending” to a short story tends to drop you off in another city or plane of existence and tells you to find your own way back home. Get those two mixed up, and trust me, your readers will let you know they're not happy.
How about a few examples?
1. Short stories aren’t novels.
When I started to plot my first novel idea (long since abandoned) I was building from several years of writing short stories. Because of that, that novel died on the vine because it didn’t have the “beefiness” to sustain a long-form story.
Conversely, the first short story I wrote came after years of reading novels, so I tried to cram way too many characters and themes and settings into one sci-fi story about a dying girl who teaches her court-appointed death-chronicler what living really is. When I finished it and sent it off to magazine after magazine, it came back rejected. Thankfully, Analog was nice enough to tell me that while my voice was the kind of thing they liked, the story was way overblown and entirely too much for a small story.
2. The two formats have different approaches in terms of scope.
In my story “And So She Asked Again,” from the horror collection The Bacchanal, is focused the characters down to a fine spotlight, just the conversations between the two characters. Everything else happens off-screen and is either referenced or left to assumption. Nothing matters except what they say to each other and the way they act as they say it. That’s where the horror comes from.
3. A novel gives the writer time to chase rabbits and meander.
My pulp novelettes are the exception for this one. Because of the nature of a pulp novelette, they tend to be created as if they were tiny novels.
But not so for your average short story.
For that, you need to know where you’re going and what you're doing on the journey. If three friends are on a trip to visit Jim Morrison’s grave but get lost, you need to know when, where, and why -- and what the fallout between them is because of it. It doesn’t have to be a firm outline -- the best writing always leaves room for tweaking and redirection -- but it does need to have a direction and a goal. (That’s an unpublished… as of now… story; by the way. I’ll keep you posted.)
4. A novel is a wall. A short story is a target.
Take my story “Farm Fresh” from Zombies vs. Robots: This Means War, as an example. The point of that story is that two former friends fell apart over a woman, and now they have to work together to save each other. I had no time nor reason to write about what was happening in town with other people or to sidetrack into the approaching throngs of zombies. If I needed to reference those events, a radio in the background served that purpose well. If it didn’t concern the two former friends, it didn’t matter.
One plot. One direction. One set of characters. One target.
5. Novels and short stories begin and end at different points.
This is my favorite.
If a novel begins with the handsome victim getting out of the car, walking up the driveway, ringing the doorbell, and opening the door, the short story begins with the door already wide open and the killer brandishing the knife and swinging for the victim’s chest.
Or, to use an example from my own work…
In “Die Like a Man” from Lance Star: Sky Ranger Vol. 4, I didn’t have time to have Lance kiss the girl goodbye, then send him up in the experimental plane, just to have him shot down. I only needed him captured so I could write about his escape. So, I skipped it and dumped his heroic aviator backside right into the ocean at the end of a noose. Bam. Now that’s a beginning.
As for the end of that one, the story really had nothing to do with him getting back to the base and talking to the authorities. Nope. It ended with the crew leaving the island and looking back on the destruction. Fin. Close curtain. Go home.
When the action is over, you type ‘The End.”
Okay, but why are you so upset?
I’ll admit it. It sounds a lot (and I do mean A LOT) like I’ve got a bee in my shorts about this, and perhaps I am a little obsessive in arguing the merits of short stories over novels. (But c'mon, you always defend and argue for your children, right?)
Besides, short stories have gotten the proverbial short end of the stick lately. The publishing world revolves around marketable epics now. There's little room for short novels, much less short stories (except in that new "promised land" of e-books, it seems). And while in the past writers could earn a decent living wage off short stories in the pages of magazines, that market has dried up as a profitable venture with the absence of prints mags that provide outlets for them.
But, to be honest, even that’s not quite it.
In a world where the novel is king, I’m tired of short stories being treated as baby steps or the shallow end of the writing pool. There's a certain kind of writer (and more than you think) who lessen and diminish the short story in favor of the "true art" of the novel. Or perhaps the "true marketability" of the novel. One is the lesser and one is the greater, simply become it is believed that one is the short version of the other. But they're not even the same kind of story, so that kind of comparison doesn't hold true.
The truth is more like this:
ONE IS A PAINTING,
AND ONE IS A MOTION PICTURE.
There's an art to writing small and there's an art to writing big. It's not an either/or. So where does the idea that short stories are "practice" for novels come from? I'm not entirely sure where it began, but that doesn't mean any of us have to accept it as fact.
So yes, SOME of the techniques and skills you learn writing short stories can travel back and forth between stories and novels.
But not ALL of them. Outside of grammar and sentence construction and choosing details to establish character and learning to use strong verbs instead of weak modifiers, I'd venture to say few of them.
And learning the difference between those can mean the difference between making quality art and making crappy art.