Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Writing: Short Story versus the Novel.

Sometimes I drive around thinking about stuff.

There are differences in writing the short story versus the novel.

The most obvious difference is sheer length. However, if you can write a good, stand-alone short story, then you can certainly write a good chapter. The chapter allows more leeway, not less, because you have all the stuff that went before, and all the stuff that comes after. It might have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but it’s not so final—not until you get to the end of the book.

Assuming you write twenty or so chapters, each of four to six thousand words, you’ve got yourself a good first draft of a novel, at least in terms of sheer word count.

A good first draft takes me anywhere from two to three months to write. That takes care of the plot and the characters to some degree. I need to get to the ending before I begin to feel really comfortable with the thing as a totality.

Usually it’s around sixty thousand words. Re-writing usually makes it a bit longer, and yet I’m always paring words out as I go. With luck, I manage a thousand words a day for two or three months. Some days might not see any work at all, and on other days I might manage two or three thousand words. The thing has to be making progress to be motivating.

It’s not hard to write a thousand words a day. It takes about an hour, sometimes even less. First, you need to know what the next scene is.

You can’t write it if you can’t imagine it, seeing enough of the basic movements and settings, clearly in your head. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about what comes next. I know where I’m going tomorrow when I sit down to write. My current novel is up to eighteen thousand words right now, and it’s my eleventh novel.

(Other than that, I have no real qualifications for speaking on such matters.)

A novel has to have some kind of compelling climax and a satisfying ending. When I begin a novel, I often don’t know exactly how it all turns out.

Working at a thousand words a day gives me time to figure that out, and work towards that end point.

When writing a short story, I can’t even begin to write the thing until I figure out the ‘gag.’ Once I have a gag, the structure reveals itself and works itself out.

I have to know the ending. In that sense it’s easier structurally. All the rest of the novel is left out of a short story. I say that because any good story can be made longer. I have short stories that arguably should be made into novels. Why I abandon them, is a very good question. That one I think is purely intuitive—they simply didn’t grab me by the guts and refuse to let go until I did the work and got it out of my system.

Another major difference is simple time. I wrote a seven thousand word short story over the weekend. It took two and a half days. It’s already submitted. There is the satisfaction of coming up with an idea, working with it, solving the problems and then completing it. There is that quick gratification with writing short stories. You write them and submit them and hope for the next good idea to come to you as soon as possible.

Making a submission is a fairly positive moment.

Right now I have probably a dozen, pretty strong short stories under submission in pro and semi-pro markets. As long as you’re writing new material and resubmitting as soon as a rejection slip comes in, that part of the business is relatively easy to maintain. Read the guidelines and keep track of your submissions. If you get even the silliest idea, write it up, polish it, and submit.

See what happens, and repeat as necessary.

As for writing a novel, the motivation, the urge must be sustained over a longer term. It takes enthusiasm generated over the long haul. There may be no real clear idea of where it is headed for the first twenty or thirty thousand words. You may have no idea of who the people are until they begin to react to each other in their own voices and their own characteristic way. It happens on the page as you write it. There is spontaneity in the novel. It just takes longer to write one.

In order to submit or self-publish a book, first you have to write one, and complete it, and polish it until all doubts are removed insofar as that is possible.

No one can teach you how to write or tell a story. It is a journey of discovery. If we want it bad enough, we will learn. We teach ourselves. Ultimately, we’re all alone out here.

You learn a lot about yourself as you go along.



  1. Short stories require a lot of word-smithing. You have to be careful and choiceful with the words to present the full picture. You don't have 1000 extra words to play with. Each scene has to entice and engage the reader. It's a challenge to some.

  2. Thanks, Melissa. There's something liberating about not having to make it a novel. I've done several novellas, and they're all really interesting art forms.


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