14 January 2012

Novels and Short Stories: Can A Writer Do Both?

by Elizabeth Zelvin

I have writer Mike Orenduff’s permission to quote something he said on the DorothyL e-list a few weeks back:

I’m often asked at talks and signings about how to write short stories. My answer is if you want to write books, don’t write short stories. A short story is to a book what a sprint is to a marathon. Both are worthwhile and fun, but you need to choose just one because training for one actually harms your ability to do the other.

With due respect to Mike, I couldn't disagree more with his statement that training for short stories harms your ability to write novels and vice versa. After all, they’re both storytelling.

Learning the fiction writing skill set (which builds on and differs from the general writing and editing skills I'd been honing all my life) started with the first novel. Creating a coherent structure, pacing, starting and ending scenes in the right place, developing and differentiating character, sharpening dialogue, avoiding information dumps and excessive backstory, and killing my darlings in revision in the first and subsequent novels were all essential in writing short stories.

Writing short stories taught me when to stop, how to tighten structure and pace to the max, literary contraception so darlings that might need killing were never born, and how to end with a twist and a bang, which in turn enhanced my scene, chapter, and novel endings. Writing short stories also showed me that my series character's voice was not the only voice I had in me, and further, that beyond writing the straight whodunit from the detective's point of view, I could explore my dark side, switch subgenres to write historical, paranormal, and flash fiction, and even find the voice of a killer or two. Both of my series, one a series set in today’s New York and featuring a recovering alcoholic and the other, set on the voyages of Columbus, with a young Marrano sailor as protagonist, consist of both novels and short stories. If I may say so myself, both formats work for me.

When I surprised myself by writing my first short story, I was amazed to find how spacious 4,000 or even 3,000 words can be, and that impression has been sustained through a dozen published stories, three of them Agatha nominees. I’ve never had a sense of having to cut description, character, or dialogue. That insight has helped me see when enough is enough in drafting and revising each 70,000-word novel. Just as novelists who used to be journalists find it easier to produce a set number of words every day and take critique better than the rest of us because they’re used to being edited and even deleted, short story writers bring to their novel manuscripts a keen understanding of when enough is enough.

When I first heard of flash fiction, I was astounded that some writers could tell a story in 1,000 words or less.
But when I thought it over, I realized that I had been creating concise narratives of 150, 250, and other limited word counts for decades: some were poems, others were songs. I don’t decide in advance how long a tale I’m ready to tell will be, unless I’m writing for submission on a particular theme with a particular length requirement. It depends on what the characters tell me and where the story takes me as it unrolls in the mist before me. Without getting into any debates between science and theology, I can’t help imagining whoever is in charge of the universe taking the same journey (or is it a voyage?) through the primordial soup, with all of creation unrolling into an endless story.


  1. Liz, I totally agree with you that writing short stories or novels does not preclude an author from writing both. You and I are both examples of producing each one at least well enough to have them published and paid for. Three of my favorite "big shot" authors produce first-rate novels and short stories--specifically, William Faulkner, Stephen King, and Jeffrey Deaver.

  2. I'm with Fran and you on this one, Elizabeth: The skills and talents required of one can surely be translated to the other. How sucessfully would depend on a lot of factors, of course, but many, many authors, as my Tuesday blog touched on, do both very well.

  3. "literary contraception"– what a great description– it's prophylactic phrasing.

    I'm biased in your favor, but what you write makes sense to me. Further, I think the same skills apply to non-fiction.

    I've had stories recommended to me by 'self-pubbers', one 'best seller', which I read several months ago and a short story more recently.

    I admired the premise, the title, and the cover art of the 'Indy' best seller, but the execution was a mess. Problems included third person mixed with multiple first persons and abrupt switches of PoVs including a couple within the same paragraph.

    The short story used a half dozen modifiers in each sentence. I imagined the author poring lovingly over every paragraph to exact the precise colors and textures in her mind's eye. Her hero wore tight, black, boot-top Levi jeans and white silk Western-cut shirts with shiny pearl inset snap buttons, offset by his swept-back long, black, lustrous hair a half-inch too long for style. He drove a new bright red shiny Ford 350 pickup with white leather seats and matching steering wheel cover. Description elbowed out the plot.

    I guess the phrase 'self-indulgent' comes to mind, and that's a killer in any format.

  4. Liz, as much as I admire and respect Mike, I'm in complete agreement with you. I write both short and long and feel comfortable in both. I often do a presentation called "What's the Difference Between a Novel and a Short Story?" The answer: "One's bigger than the other." I usually get some chuckles from that, then I explain that a novel is bigger in terms of the story being told. I take a simple plot and outline it as a novel first, then outline it as a short story. That brings home the point.

  5. Glad you all agree with me! Earl, I had Mike's permission to quote him. He seemed pleased that his comments on DorothyL had stimulated discussion. :)


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