21 October 2011

Writing Aweigh

Size Does Matter
"Dear Sir: We regret to inform you that 90,000 words is a little too long for a short story in our magazine."

Over the past couple of weeks, some of our blog posts here at SleuthSayers have really gotten me thinking about the differences between short stories and novels.

And there are quite a few actually. Including, of course, the length. Short stories are ... well ... short. Or, at least, they're supposed to be. And novels are (wait for it! ... wait for it!) longer.

But, there are greater differences than just the size, in my opinion; their structures seem quite different to me -- in ways I can't easily put my finger on, but definitely feel.

Now, I'm not stupid enough to believe that all these things that I perceive to be different, are necessarily perceived to be different by everybody else. Likewise, other writers may notice differences that I don't. Nor (contrary to anything you may have heard my wife say) am I egotistical enough to think I can provide an exhaustive list of the differences between the two formats. (Though there are undoubtedly entire libraries filled with writing books that strive to do just that.)

What I can do is share my experiences (aka misadventures) in dealing with short story writing vs. novel writing, and hope that it sheds some light on the subject-- particularly for the layperson. Writers, however, may also find my thoughts amusing. (My wife certainly seems to; she never stops laughing at me.)

Writing the Sunfish

I often think that writing a short story is quite like constructing a small sailboat -- like a Sunfish, maybe -- in your back yard. It's an activity undertaken in an almost carefree attitude of adventure. You get the equipment together, roll up your shirt sleeves, maybe crack a beer (or in my case: jam a cigar stump in the corner of your mouth) and dive right in.

You know how it is (or can surely imagine it): Laying the 14-foot keel, bolting the tall mast into place, cutting and fastening the framework together, steaming planks to warp them into proper shape for the hull siding, tapping the finish nails into place, giving the screw driver just the right amount of torque as you seal the deck boards to the frame, applying a few coats of high-glass marine-grade paint, attaching the halyards and other lines, attaching the sheets.

Then you load it onto a trailer, drive to a nearby body of water and slip the boat into the waves. You hold it close-in, keeping the painter in your hand, hoping it doesn't sink. And, if it stays up a few minutes, you tie her to the dock and drop the centerboard, slide in the rudder, and run up the sails for the first time.

Maybe she lists a bit to port. So, you check her for extra weight on that side, maybe add a counter-balance to starboard to fix her trim. You caulk over any small leaks, maybe tighten up the screws on that wobbly tiller, sand down the edge of a hatch cover so it will batten more firmly.

Finally, I think I've got something that's seaworthy, but a bit out of the ordinary. A sailboat that will catch a buyer's eye. So, I load it back on the trailer and haul it home. There, I ask my wife to take a look at it. She's willing ... but professes not to know much about sail boats (which isn't true; I know). So, she hangs the kids on the laundry line to keep them out of trouble, and walks over to take a gander.

After awhile I ask: "What's wrong with it?"

"Well. It's too pointy."

"Too pointy?"

"Yes. At the front part."

"That's the bow; it's supposed to be pointed--so it can cut through the waves. You know?"

She shakes her head. "Not that pointy. That's not like the front of a boat. It's more like the front of a supersonic jet fighter. It shouldn't be that pointy. At least, that's what I think." And she walks away to take our kicking and screaming kids down from the laundry line.

At this point, I invite a few members of my writers group to take a look at it. They read it and like it, but make some other suggestions. (Should the mast be that tall? One of them really likes the paint scheme; another one thinks the colors clash. I ask about the bow being too pointy. They discuss it, but decide they aren't sure, and can't be certain why they can't be sure--but somehow maybe something's wrong with it. Maybe I should sand it down a little, round it off a bit; that might be better. But it's hard to tell.)

Finally, my critique group leaves, and I park the boat in a storage shed -- along with notes about their comments -- and leave the boat alone while I work on something else for awhile. A month to six months later, I roll the boat back into the sunlight, and take a look at it.

That's the really nice thing about small boats -- or short stories for that matter: you can see the entire thing at once. Looking at the boat in the bright sunlight, now, I can see that the bow does seem a little too pointed, but the real problem is lack of balance between the lines of the bow and the lines of the stern. I very carefully make a small change to the stern, then invite my critique group out for another look. (At this stage, my wife balks at giving me anymore input; she'll just say: "It's a boat. I don't see any difference.") But, the critique group comes out and says: "That's it! You rounded off the bow, and it looks great. (followed by) Wait .... no you didn't. What did you do?"

I added a four-inch fantail on the stern; I think that balanced it. They nod and look it over again. Yeah. That was the problem, and this seems to have fixed it. Now, all I have to do is ship the boat off to a potential buyer, and see if s/he will bite. If not, I'll ship it off to another one, until somebody decides she's a keeper.

Writing a novel, however, is completely different in my opinion. To me, writing a novel is like...

(scroll down)

. . . That's right. You guessed it. Writing a novel, to me is like . . .

Building an Aircraft Carrier in my Backyard -- All By Myself!

Building an aircraft carrier is, of course, a much more monumental undertaking than building a small sailboat.

No genteel fashioning of wooden hull planks, here! Instead, I need steel-toed boots and a welder's shield. And, I have to constantly keep the principles of engineering in mind, in order to ensure the structure I'm building can support all the decks I'm going to add above it. This is not something that can be approached like a weekend hobby; building a carrier will take months (maybe even years) of concentrated work.

Still, my heart sings with the joy of craftsmanship (or else the finished product will be dull and lifeless, unsaleable. OR, "un-sail-able" -- sorry, couldn't pass up the pun!). I take pains to carefully cut and assemble the inlay tabletop in the officers' wardroom. Fashioning a large wheel in the bridgehouse, that hearkens to the days of the buccaneers, I make sure it also provides contemporary control response, so my work doesn't seem dated.

And here, we meet another difference between sailboat-like short stories, and aircraft carrier-like novels. A sailboat has relatively few moving parts; it's pretty simple in constructional planning and operational terms. But, an aircraft carrier requires multiple, seemingly unrelated task-units, which must all function correctly and interdependently if the carrier is to do its job. It needs a fully equipped engine room and a set of four gigantic props, in order to enjoy powerful propulsion. And, a steam-fired catapult on the flight deck, to quickly launch fighters. I need to install reinforced anchor points, and arrester cables to recover incoming aircraft. An up-to-date electronics system to monitor aircraft in flight, as well as enemy submarines lurking below the surface.

At the same time, I have to take care of the human aspect of the crew who will eventually staff her. They need places they can hang their hats while below decks, bunks to lie comfortably in when off-duty, and a few television stations and movie theaters for entertainment -- not to mention bathrooms ("the heads" I suppose, since this is a naval analogy). And what happens when some of them fall in love with each other? Even the navy isn't quite sure how to handle that one!

Editing in the Bowels

Before long, of course, I begin to realize that the carrier would move more rapidly if I changed out one of the engines. But, after making that alteration, I worry that the bow may not be able to handle the hull pressure generated by the increased speed.

I can't see the bow from where I'm standing in the engine room, of course, so I make my way forward, finally reaching the inner bow , where I examine the struts to ensure I've beefed them up enough.

(The inner bow would not be the part you're looking at in this picture . The inner bow would be inside that part. See those guys standing there, looking confused? Maybe they just heard me knocking, and want to know who's foolish enough to climb down inside the bow of an aircraft carrier. The answer, of course, is: A writer.)

This shot of the bow does illustrate one of the differences between novels and short stories -- I can't see the whole carrier (or novel) at a glance, the way I can look at a small sailboat (or short story). I've tried all sorts of ways to get a better look at it. I've even backed way off, climbed a scaffolding, and looked from there. From that distance, however--though I can see the entire carrier, from stem to stern--I can't see enough detail for my view to be useful. So, I grab a pair of binocs--but then I'm right back to only seeing part of it.

Plus, a lot of the carrier -- most of it, in fact -- lies concealed below decks. Trying to figure out what I can cut out, down there, without weakening the ship to the point where the entire superstructure collapses about my ears, is very difficult and time-consuming.

The Shocking Realization

But, finally the day comes -- I've completed construction! A massive aircraft carrier stands finished in my backyard. Since my wife is across town at work, I call up my parents and invite them over to see the completed project. After receiving a guided tour, they congratulate me on having had such wonderful parents, who made it possible for me to grow up and build an aircraft carrier all by myself. It takes me a minute to decide that there's a compliment buried in there, but finally, with handshakes, hugs and smiles all around, they depart.

My kids arrive home from school, and I greet them with the momentous news. My 3rd-grade son is excited, but when I tell him that no, he can't play on the aircraft carrier, he says, "That's okay. Can I go to Stephan's? He's got a new dog!" My 16-year-old daughter physically shrivels at the news. "Oh, God, I hope none of my friends can see it! You're such a dork." Then she runs to her room.

But, all is rewarded when my wife returns home that evening. She walks out back with me, arm-in-arm, and gasps at the enormity of what I've created. "Honey, that's fantastic! I knew you could do it!" She throws her arms about my neck and kisses me.

Then she asks, "How long before we get paid?"

My cigar drops from my fingers to smolder unnoticed in the grass. Because that's when it hits me: I've built an aircraft carrier -- hundreds of thousands of tons of steel, rubber, glass, plastic and wood! But, I live in Scottsdale, Arizona--a suburb of Phoenix--surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of miles of desert! How the hell am I going to get this thing to the ocean???

And that was what happened, a few years ago, when my wife asked me this. I realized that writing a novel is like constructing an aircraft carrier in your backyard, while writing short stories is like crafting a small sailboat.

Because: shipping a little sailboat to interested parties is pretty simple -- compared to moving a massive carrier cross-country to the ocean.

Thankfully, you don't really have to ship the whole thing cross-country. The powers that be don't want to see the whole thing, anyway -- at least, not at first. But, that's another subject.

I call that subject: The Hard Part of Writing.

Maybe I'll post about it another time. Meanwhile, let me know if anything I've mentioned sounds familiar (you writers) or if you are surprised by what I wrote here. Or, if you think I'm ready for the rubber room. (My wife just came in and says that's her vote.)

Until two weeks from now: I wish you smooth sailing, buddy! No matter what vessel you helm.


  1. Editing in the bowels made me spew my coffee! You certainly do have a way with words and getting attention. Great article!

  2. Thanks. Sorry to make you spew. And I know coffee isn't cheap these days.

  3. Dixon, thanks for a great start on a Friday morning. I see the validity of what you've said so well and agree that novels would be much easier if the writer could see the whole thing at once. That's why I go back and outline AFTER I write the entire book. It enables me to see the entire picture at once. Have a great day and thanks for starting mine off so well.

  4. Wonderful article, Dixon, everything in it rang as true as a bell. A bell-buoy.

  5. Wonderful article, Dixon, everything in it rang as true as a bell. A bell-buoy.

  6. Thanks, Neil, and I love your pun!

    Fran: Your concept of outlining after writing the book (I assume you mean the first draft) really interests me. I've never heard of doing that before, but can see where that would be VERY uselful in tightening and editing, while still pemitting leeway when writing the origional draft. (I don't really outline ahead of tiem, unless you count those occasions when I create a "Critical Occurance" flow chart to see where multiple plot lines in a complicated mystery will intersect.)

    I had a writing buddy who suggested putting each scene on a 3x5 card, and posting them on the wall. But, I found it too cumbersome of a system to deal with. (My office looked like a 3x5 card factory had exploded in it.)

    I'm gonna give your tip a try -- that might just be the solution I've been looking for.

  7. Did your wife think the carrier's nose too pointy?

    Very funny Noah post!

  8. Thanks for commenting, Beth. To my recollection, my wife has never read a first draft I've written (be it sailboat-short, or carrier-long) without pointing out problems I missed – which is why she’s usually the first person I show it to.

  9. Having possibly acquired a mild case of Short Attention Span Deficit Disorder, no doubt from consuming bad water in a foreign country, I always claimed that I could see from one end of a short story to the other end when creating. (Picture me with hands about three feet apart like a bragging fisherman.) That essentially fits your sailboat analogy. But, for me to write my first novel, I had to conceive of it as 20 short stories (sailboats), which would make a very strange air craft carrier. Now, I think I see why it (novel/air craft carrier) didn't sell. If I ever come your way, I'll bring a bottle of Jack and you can show me that carrier's blueprints.

  10. Priceless, Dix! I'm sending it to all the sailor/writers I know--all two of them, but I'll try to think of more. :)

  11. You're on, R.T.! Not that I'm any guru, though. LOL

    And, Thanks, Liz. Glad you liked it so much!

  12. Very entertaining, Dix, and right on target. By the way, did you reserch all those sailing terms and facts, or is sailing counted amongst your many talents?

    Oddly, I found writing a novel somewhat easier than a short story. I think it was because there's so much room to wallow around in at novel-length. But, as none of my full-length endeavors have yet seen the light of day, perhaps I wallowed a bit too much. Great post!

  13. I just wrote what I know, David. But don't think I know any more about sailing. My immense nautical knowledge (jk) comes from a single summer when I was 8 or 9, and I took some sailing lessons from an old guy on Cape Cod. My family lived there for few months while my dad was working a temp-job nearby. Well, I did have a high school girlfriend who owned a Sunfish, once. lol

    I can understand what you mean about enjoying the extra elbow room available in a novel. I have to fight the urge and keep cutting the fat from my own stuff for the same reason.

  14. Great writing, Dixon, great tips, and I'd love to sail.

  15. Thanks, Leigh. I appreciate that.

    And, I‘m wondering if that last part was literal or figurative. You're in Florida; DO you ever go sailing? Or are you more the kind of guy who rides a fanboat (flatboat? airboat? Not sure what to call it.) through the 'glades?

  16. Thanks! Loved it!


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