Monday, April 30, 2012

Short Story vs. Novel

In recent weeks, I have been asked by a few folks about writing. I suppose this is because my first novel, Journey of Shadows, came out in March through Smashwords. My co-workers have especially been curious, and a few of them have asked some really good questions. The most reoccurring question though has been this: "Why did you decide to write a novel instead of a short story?" The usual comment that follows is something along the lines of "A short story is so much easier, right?"

My answer? Well, yes and no. A short story is less words... a whole lot less in fact. But in my opinion, it is much more difficult to write. Why? For many, many reasons.

Let's look at what a novel is, and then check out the short story. According to Wikipedia, a novel is "a book of long narrative in literary prose" or in my words, a long story comprised of scenes. The length of a novel has been disputed. Lee Masterson supposedly wrote that a novel is 50,000 to 110,000 words. The Huffington Post says the average length of novels on Amazon is about 64,000 words. Colleen Lindsey, an agent with FinePrint at the time of the post and now a business agent for Penguin, gave far more specific guidelines about novel length in a September 2010 blog post. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of American's Nebula Award says for a novel to be considered, it must be 40,000 words or more. So you see, there isn't much consensus on the length of a novel. This is my rule: If you think you are writing a novel, then you are writing a novel.

On to short stories. A short story, according to Wikipedia, is "fiction... written in prose, often in narrative format." In my words, that reads pretty much like the definition of a novel, minus the "long" part. However, Wikipedia goes on to describe a short story as one that could be read in a single sitting, per the classical rules. Or, 1,000 to 9,000 words for those that need a quantitative amount. And then it says that the contemporary definition of a short story is a story of 1,000 to 20,000 words. Confused yet? And that is just from Wikipedia. Lee Masterson called a short story 1,000 to 7,500 words. An article from Writer's Digest (link coming later) suggests a typical short story is 1,000 to 5,000 words. See? No one agrees. So here is my rule for a short story: If you think you are writing a short story, then you are writing a short story. Notice a trend yet?

I found a lot of articles discussing the pros and cons of writing a short story vs. a novel. They all talked about different reasons for different things. There was no cohesive advice. So I'm not posting them. I felt more confused after reading 10 or so articles than before I started trying to discern the difference in the two works.

So this is my opinion on short story vs. novel if you are still interested. I know the information above probably has your head spinning. Take a moment to refocus. I can wait...

I promise my opinion has nothing to do with numbers, if that helps.

Okay, so again, this is my opinion on the two. A short story is a story that is not only a lot less words than a novel (see, no numbers!) but also takes place over a much shorter time frame, has fewer characters to introduce, and usually includes a single plot arc that can be resolved within the single piece. A novel is exactly opposite. It is a long piece that can take place over a long time frame. Notice I said can, as it is quite possible for a novel to take place over a short time frame too, though that isn't very often. A novel has room for multiple characters, multiple plot arcs, side stories and side arcs, rich histories and descriptions, etc.

I have dabbled in short stories. I think I probably only finished two of them, possibly three. It just never really appealed to me as a writer. I can write 5,000 words in a couple hours (my bad, the numbers...). That doesn't make it a short story for me. And for the co-worker that suggested that "a novel is really just a bunch of short stories mashed together".... Um, no. No, no, no. A novel is comprised of scenes, not short stories. A collection of short stories is actually considered an anthology I do believe. Now, that isn't to say that an author's collection of short stories that possess a definite chronological order or progression cannot be a novel. I have seen this done very well before. I can't do it, but that doesn't mean that it is impossible of course.

So now we are back to why I write novels instead of short stories.

  1. Writing a novel is easier than writing a short story, to me. My characters have too much to say, too much to do. They can't be constricted to a short story. Also, I am long winded. Trying to limit my writing to the space allowed for a short story is not fun for me. Why would I write if it were not fun?
  2. I never thought of myself as a short story writer. When I dabbled in them, there was no spark or "ah ha!" moment that made me think of myself as a writer. Writing my first novel did that for me. It took a few weeks, but it jumped out at me after I reached a certain milestone (I think around 30,000 words for my first NaNoWriMo-- there I go again with numbers).
  3. I rarely enjoy reading short stories and only seek them out if they are collected in an anthology with other similarly themed short stories. And those are usually only urban fantasy collections. I know, I'm a snob. But I know a lot of people are like me.

This has gotten fairly long so I'll wrap it up now. I will leave you with two links to check out. The first is a list of signs to determine if you short story wants to become a novel instead. I particularly like #7. The second is from Writer's Digest (there is that link I promised you) and has a list of 5 things to consider when you are trying to decide whether to write a short story or a novel. Both are really good articles so check them out.

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