The long and the short of it

Most writers seem to consider themselves either short story writers or novelists.  Before I knew anything about writing, I always thought the only real difference was length (or, as Elizabeth Bear likes to say: novels are works of fiction, longer than short stories, and flawed).

When people ask me why I write short stories when I seem to prefer (and be more comfortable with) novel-length fiction, I usually say I think writing short stories is good practice for writing novels.  But how true is this?  Short stories require a tight plot and coherent structure, and they need good character development and character arcs.  Developing these skills will improve your writing, regardless of length.  Plus, since it takes much less time to complete a short story, you can practice writing complete works more often than if you were writing only novels (in which you could invest a year before realizing their fundamental flaws).

Despite some overlap, however, short stories and novels make fundamentally different demands on the author, especially with respect to world-building and pacing.  In a short story you have neither the time nor need to create a complete world (though generating the illusion of reality still remains important).  The pacing, too, is totally different.  Even though both short stories and novels need beginnings, middles, and ends, the way you structure and build towards each will be very different.  Finally, with novels you not only have a broader, deeper canvas to work on, but you must fill it with sub-plots and a larger cast of characters.

So, does writing short stories really help you prepare for writing novels, or are the two forms of fiction too different to be truly comparable?

Even if the answer is no, there are still good reasons for novelists to write short stories.  For one thing, many critique groups are less inclined to workshop novels.  If you write short stories, you can remain active in your crit groups and garner valuable feedback from (and interaction with) your peers.  Another advantage I’ve found is that having short stories out to market keeps you feeling engaged while you toil away on novels.  Novels take a lot longer to come to fruition, and its easy to feel as if you’re not making progress.  Completing the occasional short story and submitting it to markets gives me (personally) a feeling of short term accomplishment.  This might seem like a poor reason to take time away from your novel, unless you consider the very real impact your emotional state can have on your writing.  If you’re feeling productive and upbeat, it’s going to be a lot easier to keep that novel draft moving forward.

I know others feel differently, though.  So, tell me, do you consider yourself a novel writer or a short story writer?  Do you write exclusively one length of fiction, or do you do both?  Do you see the necessary skills sets as complementary or divergent?

10 thoughts on “The long and the short of it

  1. EF Kelley

    Novelist here. Big time.

    Short fiction has helped me hone my novel writing abilities, but I’ve always wanted to write bigger tales.

    There’s also the financial aspect. Yes, writers should never get into writing to make money (which is a sad commentary on the state of publishing) but that’s what I want to do, and spending time on shorts makes me feel unfocused.

    And all of THAT said, I’m not keen on these 300k monstrosities that publishers turn out. Yes, they get to charge $12.99 for a paperback, but I’m looking at a significant time investment there as both a writer and a reader. I’m one of those heretics that believes 60,000 is a perfectly viable length for a novel.

    Anyway, that’s my .02.

    1. mirandasuri

      Eric – I know you are! And I do agree that it’s nice to have a larger canvas to really stretch your storytelling over. Sometimes, though, I feel like the constraints of a short story are a good challenge too. They FORCE us to pay attention to every detail.

  2. Danielle

    Hey Miranda!

    So I feel a bit stuck in-between most days. I really enjoy writing flash fiction, but I tend to write a lot more mainstream flash, and genre novels (or novel ideas, at this point). I find that whenever I write a full short story, I am always hoping it will unfold into a novel. I find the amount of time and effort I spend tinkering on short stories to be frustrating, when I’d rather be working on a book.

    But, I can see how the short story writing has made me a better writer. So I guess it’s a good exercise? It certainly helps me get to know my characters quickly.

    1. mirandasuri

      I think it’s interesting you write short stories hoping they’ll turn into novels. I always feel the opposite. I’ve written two shorts now that I’ve come to realize have to be told as novels, and both times it frustrated the hell out of me. I honestly think this is laziness on my part – I was hoping for something that could be told in a neat little package and be done. Sigh. 😉

  3. John P. Murphy

    I guess I think of myself more as a short story writer. Maybe it’s my preternaturally short attention span, but I like being able to encapsulate the whole experience in one sitting. It’s difficult for me to sustain my own interest for the months (or years) it takes to perfect a novel unless it’s on the back burner the whole time. I had to grin at your comment about short stories letting you feel engaged — when I’m primarily working on a novel, I feel like I’m barely writing at all!

    I don’t know how I feel about short stories as practice for novels (or vice versa!) I think that there is a significant overlap in skill set in terms of crafting the words and scenes and dialogue. So that’s useful. But the plotting is very different, and I think there’s a difference in attitude: novels that read like short stories tend to tire me out. Maybe it’s the pacing?

    1. mirandasuri

      I think you capture a major difference b/t shorts and novels really well – similar skills used for scenes and dialogue, but not for pacing. That’s a useful distinction. Pacing is really important in both, but in very different ways. I actually sometimes feel that novelists need to think more about pacing than they do. Most books I read that I end up putting down are discarded because they’re dragging (or b/c they’re moving so fast that I lose interest in the underdeveloped world or characters). Finding that pacing sweet-spot in novels is hard – perhaps b/c it’s harder to practice?

      1. John P. Murphy

        Novelists definitely need to think more about pacing than they do. I have no idea how to practice it except by writing… and as a (very terrible) violinist I have an aversion to practicing something I don’t know how to do, lest I ingrain bad habits. So I mostly write short stories 🙂

  4. Matt Hughes

    Novelist.

    Every time I sit down to write a short story, it expands to an unwieldy size and drives me insane. I’ve got only a handfull of short stories out there and honestly, they aren’t that good.

    And I think Eric has it about right with the length of books. I’d also add that I like books that stand-alone and not HUGE series (trilogies are okay). Case in point – I read the first four books in the Wheel of Time and haven’t touched the series since because I just wanted the danged thing to come to an end.

  5. NicoleMD

    My natural lengths are flash fiction and novels. I’ve been trying to hone my long short story skills though. It’s a tough skill to master. There’s not much room for fat like there is in novels, and you can’t rely on momentum as you can with flash fiction. I say if you want to write novels, write novels. If a writer has to write a million words of crap first anyway, it doesn’t really matter if it’s working with long form, short form or both.

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