I had a conversation with a fellow writer recently about short stories versus novels. He wondered if people, because of the hectic pace of modern life, would be giving up reading novels in place of short stories. I thought no, that just the opposite would happen. People with busy lives would turn away from short stories. Neither of us have data to support our positions, so all of this is speculation.
I reasoned this way. The novel is the only art form that cannot be consumed in one sitting. Anyone starting a novel knows they will put it down at some point and pick it up later. Not so a short story. Yes, you can put the story down and pick it up later, but I think that most people commit themselves to finishing the story once they begin. People with fragmented lives and smaller chunks of time for reading might be reluctant to open a short story if the probability of finishing is small. A novel, on the other hand, can be consumed in sips. There is no time commitment to finishing a novel. One simply reads while one can and resumes later.
Writing a short story also takes a large commitment of time. I find that I will start a short story with the expectation of finishing it quickly. I usually won't begin a short story unless I have large blocks of time in which to write. Thus I think of short stories as vacation writing. Not because they are relaxing, but because I can tackle them without work or other commitments interfering. I write my novels on the other hand in the mornings before work and whenever I can steal time at my desk. I know the novel will be a long-term project, no matter how large or small the blocks of time for the project.
I find that, page for page, a short story takes more time and effort than a novel. The reason is that every word has to count. Writing tight is not easy. A case in point is a short story I began last year about this time. I wrote it during a six-week period in which I worked at my job only four days a week, so large blocks of time were free to write. Getting the first draft was easy, but then I had to edit it.
This particular short story is quite long. The first draft came in at 18,000 words, almost a novella. I had to cut it. After six drafts, I had it down to 12,000 words and I was pleased with the result. The story had good pacing, good character, good action, and tight writing. I queried an editor who expressed interest in the story. However, he wanted 10,000 words. If longer, he said, it had better be exceptional. I decided I would do both; I would shorten the story and I would make it exceptional. When you go from 18K to 12K, you get rid of most, if not all, of the fat. Trying to go from 12K to 10K, after all the fat has been cut away, is like polishing bone. After two weeks and two more drafts, I've manage to cut 600 out of the 2,000. Maybe I'll make it, but I suspect it will take me the rest of the summer.
What's your experience with short stories? Do you read them? Do you write them? Do you prefer them to novels?
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