Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Short versus Long

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?

Mark Troy
Hawaiian Eye Blog
Game Face from Ilium Books, on Kindle, Nook, and other ebook readers.


Steven J. Wangsness said...

I agree that the short story is more work, word for word, than the novel. I appreciate the short story as an art form, but for me, it's just too narrow and limited a form; there's too much I want to write about. I need some room to roam.

Shalanna said...

I can write a novel faster than I can write and polish a short story. And there's no market to speak of for short stories the way there was in the glory days of the Saturday Evening Post, Redbook, and so forth. More people prefer novels. I only read novels myself. Have you ever noticed that in school, when you read a "short story" by, say, Fitzgerald or Ring Lardner, it is 20K long? Now a short story has to be 2500 words or less to have any chance. We are the short attention span generation. So you might as well go ahead and develop that idea into a novel. It'll be a lot more rewarding in the end, and your readers will have something more meaty to spend their time on.

If I get an irresistible idea for a short, I do sit down and write it, but I usually end up posting it for free somewhere. So that's not a good career plan! Novels are king.

--Denise Weeks (Shalanna Collins)
Winner of the 2011 Oak Tree Press contest with NICE WORK, a mystery coming out in July 2012
(sorry for the plug, but I have been hypnotized to sign everything with this for the next month)

Earl Staggs said...

Mark, I understand and appreciate all you've said, but I'm a bit different. I enjoy writing short stories more because I can move from one set of characters, one voice, one setting, one tone in a much shorter length of time than if I wrote only novels. I also enjoy reading short stuff more for the same reasons. I suppose the key word for me is variety.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I'm not a short story writer, but sure enjoy reading them.