the short and the long of it

I have a friend who is a great writer working on a novel that is just brilliant. I have heard her say multiple times that she cannot write a short story. Because she is not the kind to fish for compliments, I accept that she believes she cannot write a short story. Her competence in the long (novel) format coupled with her hesitance with short story writing makes me wonder about the relationship between the two formats.

Is writing a short story like running a 500 yard dash, and a novel like running a marathon? Are there any athletes that can do both? I don’t know of any, do you? Does the short story utilize different “writing muscles” than a novel? There have got to be similarities–plenty of writers write both great short stories and novels (e.g., J.D. Salinger, Isaac Babel, Haruki Murakami, and James Baldwin, for starters) …but then there are novelists like John Irving who admit to not writing short stories. (I read once, and I’m sorry I cannot remember where, that he thinks he writes much better novels than short stories. Having read a collection of his short stories as well as almost all his novels, I concur).

If there is a distinct relationship between the short and long formats, it’s interesting to note that MFA programs use short stories as a basis for teaching fiction. MFA programs breed short story writing. From personal experience, I’ll tell you that it’s much easier to workshop a short story than a novel, even if you are taking a workshop focused on novel writing. From the basis of short stories, students are supposed to pick up the principles of novel writing (if that is one’s goal). But is it the only way to teach the longer forms? Is short story writing the best way to teach a novel?

Both formats contain the basic craft elements of fiction: character, plot, language, setting, point of view, etc. It’s clear that examining these elements through short story writing is probably a lot less wieldy. Also, there seem to be a great deal of debut writers publishing short story collections first, and then a novel second–showing that this leap is often made. But I wonder where the gaps might be. For one, I know my gap is in the pure endurance level of writing a novel. I get distracted.

In interviews, Haruki Murakami often speaks of getting into physical shape to write his novels. He needs the fortification he says, to deal with much of what he confronts as he writes the long format. I wonder if he needs the same kind of conditioning and preparation to write his short stories?

Likewise, I wonder about writers who do write both formats. Murakami does not write short stories while he writes his novels. In doing so, I wonder if that’s an acknowledgement of how different short stories are from novels. But then there are writers who can do both concurrently.

While at a writer’s colony, I wanted to focus solely on my novel. I ended up writing a short story while there. I felt guilty about taking my attention away from the novel, but my friend and fellow resident commented, “Your novel will thank you for writing short stories.” She herself had written many short stories while writing her first novel and said it was a blessing.

As always, there seems to be no black and white rules to writing. This holds true for the relationship between short and long writing forms. Who can do one or the other? Who can do both? Can one focus on both at the same time? Just curious.

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6 Comments

Filed under The Novel, Writing

6 responses to “the short and the long of it

  1. Strangely enough, though I have written short stories, as a reader, I am not drawn to them at all. The only short stories I have ever really enjoyed are Carver’s. I would far rather dive into a novel, and watch a writer’s craft unfold itself slowly, than endure the short sharp bursts of craftsmanship that short stories embody. I’ve never done an MFA programme, but I imagine that it’s far more convenient to concentrate on short stories than on novel-writing, since the latter come in bite-sized pieces, whereas novels require a more intense kind of involvement from a teacher.

  2. I prefer novels although I read short stories and enjoy them. I want the world of a novel, the sweep of experience, the cast of characters. I have never felt all that successful at writing short stories; I resorted to formulaic “character tries to get something, either succeeds or fails” to finish a super-short piece that got published & podcasted recently.

    My fave teacher wrote her first novel in 5-7 page bursts during her MFA program. You can tell. I like the format but many people who have read it have said they like her second novel better. She wrote it in the same sort of way, but the breaths are longer, and the novel really focuses on one character and not a whole village full of them.

    I am just doing the same short bursts for my novel but many of them don’t even reach 7 pages. Oh well. I can do long rants (as well you know) but sustaining a long scene full of action is harder for me.

    I would love to do short stories first, because it’s easier to get them published in magazines, gaining attention from agents, leading to publication of a book. But you have to go with what you do successfully. I will continue to mess around with the short story – and read them – to see where I go. Just experimenting is worth the effort, even if I’m not happy with the results.

  3. w

    I’m doing short bursts myself for my novel because I enjoy the brevity and containment of each chapter’s short-story potential. I’m not sure I see it as a novel-in-chapters, the way publishers feel the need to categorize such books, but there’s something about the bursts—the energy, I think, and the amount of information being restricted from the reader—that make me want to do both forms at the same time.

    We all know, too, that agents and publishers prefer short-story writers having that novel available when shopping around for representation. The “more sellable if there’s a novel” thing gets to me, but in a way it also makes me more determined to finesse my stories in such a way that they’ll be asking: “So when can we see your next story collection?” (Sorry to bring the marketing thing up…!)

  4. mel

    just got off a plane and can’t believe i’m reading blogs at this hours. basically i just wanted to say i always reference that track/running analogy! (except i tell students poems are sprints). I think yes different writing muscles. Got to pace yourself for marathon/ novel, there are more legs (i.e. laps) of the race, shorter forms you got to get out there like gangbusters i think, every tenth of sec counts. right out of the blocks, go!

    i need sleep. good to read you again jade and hope you had a good holiday…

  5. I think things are a little bit different in the SF village. A lot of SF authors write both short-stories and novels. While the normal pattern is to get a little bit established by writing short stuff, and then putting some novels out there (and often writing fewer short things thereafter), a lot of authors I admire do both: Maureen McHugh, Bruce Sterling, Paul Park, Rudy Rucker, Vernor Vinge (though his short story output is relatively small), Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester.

    There are some people in SF who make their name wholly on short stories… Ted Chiang is the most recent, and probably the best among them, and Paul di Fillippo is another (though I’m not much into him), and Kelly Link is a very celebrated example as well… or, at least, I don’t know of anything long by her. Cordwainer Smith also wrote primarily shorter stuff. And of course, there are a number of SF authors who write only long stuff, or whose shorter stuff just hasn’t made as much splash as their long stuff.

    I think that different authors tend to have different natural lengths, and while they can certainly move beyond those natural lengths — both shorter or longer — it takes training and a LOT of reading and probably some feedback, or else, well, brilliance.

    Me, my natural word-length seems to be novella. 10-20,000 words is a length I fall into quite naturally. It’s extremely hard for me to write anything shorter than 6000 words, and when I do, it tends to be just a short-short or flash piece. As soon as you start getting into enough substance for a 3,000 word short story, I immediately start building a world that’s just more naturally fit for a 9,000+ word story.

    However, I think that working with lengths that don’t come easily to one is something that can be learned, if one wishes. And I think that learning to work in lengths that don’t come naturally forces one to experiment and focus on weaknesses more.

    (Also, short things, as one instructor told me, “allow you to crash the plane and walk away unscathed, where having to give up on a novel halfway through can be severely demoralizing.”)

    One non-SF author who wrote pretty well at both very long and fairly short lengths, by the way, is Tolstoy. Well, if the translations can be trusted. At least, “The Death of Ivan Illych” blew me away.

  6. I agree abt The Death of II–although it’s a very long short story.
    I’ve written both, but prefer the novel, and I prefer reading novels, too. And I just finished teaching a novel workshop, which really I thought went pretty well. It was small (9 students) which I think would be crucial, so that everyone can remember and keep track of everyone else’s plotline and characters; I think it was pretty successful (although the students would be the best judge of that).

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