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Thursday Reading FUNdamentals: The Long & Short of It

March 24, 2011

This entry sponsored by my short story collection, The Carnival Papers, available now for $8.99 in paperback or only 99 cents on Kindle on Amazon!  Incidentally, the paperback version features a bonus story and updated revisions, which makes it different than the Kindle version.  I’m just saying.

Anyway, my Amazon Friend Ethan Cooper mentioned that Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely was actually made up of three short stories.  We’re in agreement that making a novel from short stories has to be pretty tough.  On the surface it might seem easy–you just put one after the other, right?–but it’s not.  At least if you want to make a coherent story.

This seemed like a good time then to go over the difference between novels and short stories.  In my opinion, which really means shit to the rest of the world, the big difference between them is scope.  Effective short stories are like novels, only smaller.  By smaller I don’t mean they use smaller sheets of paper or smaller words or anything goofy like that.  I mean that the scope of a novel is different.

In my book of short stories, what I did was focus each story on one event.  There’s a couple where a girl over one day discovers a nasty truth about the world–and herself.  There’s another about the night a woman runs away from her abusive husband.  The bonus story involves one day of a man’s trip to Toronto, where some interesting stuff happens.

This is because short stories are supposed to be SHORT.  So you can’t effectively cover someone’s entire life.  It’s hard to even cover an entire summer in one short story.  The reason, which should be obvious, is that you can’t develop full scenes or characters for weeks or months and keep it under 10,000 words.  (Or 5,000 words, which is a more reasonable maximum.)  So if you try to cram an entire life into one short story, it’s going to wind up as a lot of telling instead of showing, which as you all know is a no-no.  (Unless you’re already famous.)

In a novel you have 10-20 times that amount of room to work with, so you can develop weeks, months, and years far more effectively.  If you’re suicidal like me you can take 180,000 words to go through the first 35 years of a man’s life.  That’s the sort of freedom you don’t have in the short story, where words are at a premium.

Conveying a meaningful story in a small number of words is a challenge for any writer.  That’s part of what makes the Chandler situation so interesting.  Getting three stories to fit together to make a coherent novel is like putting together a 100,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.  But at least to Mr. Cooper it works.  (I haven’t read the stories or novel yet, though I think the stories are coming up in my book of Chandler’s short stories.)  It’s hard for most of us to do that because we either think in broad strokes–the novel–or in smaller ones–the short story.  Then of course you have James Joyce, who in Dubliners writes short stories focusing on small moments while in Ulysses writes a sprawling novel covering just one day.

Like everything in writing, there’s no right or wrong way to do a story.  You just have to make sure you don’t try to paint a picture too large or too small for you canvas.  That can be the difficult part.

Since we’re speaking of short stories, tomorrow I’m going to flog the hell out of the Second Crusader Challenge, which was a writing prompt requiring you to start with four words:  The goldfish bowl teetered.  Oooh, that’s a toughy.  And Sunday is the conclusion of the Worst Book Ever Tournament!

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8 Comments
  1. I wrote 1 short story…1. And posted it on my blog’s writing page. It’s an early attempt at writing and probably needs a lot work, but hey, I gave it a shot.

    I think it’s harder in a lot of ways to condense things to the bare essentials. It means each word and scene has a lot of weight to carry.

    (Nice pitch, by the way, about the difference in the paperback version versus the e-version of your story collection.) 😉

  2. I’ve only written two short stories although I have some ideas for one or two more. They kind of percolate into my mind as I sit and watch hulu or other things on my t.v. Personally, I think that writing short stories seems to be a much more difficult exercise in general than writing longer works. However, I think I can explain this. It’s not that the craft is any more difficult. It stems from how I have trained my brain to think. Some writers (like yourself) seem to be much better at switching minds to the short-story mode than myself.

    Also, on short stories…for some reason I prefer reading erotica that is written in short story format but don’t like it as much in a novel. I think that may say something wierd about me. If it’s a short story I’m like…there better be some great nudity in this… Maybe I’m just a pervert lol.

    • Is there much point to erotica novels? I mean if you need to read a whole novel to get it up you need a lot more help than a book. That or your wiener is going to be really chafed. Short and quick…that’s what she said.

  3. I like the idea that it’s the scope of the story versus the length, although it’s possible to capture a whole life in a short story; this week’s The New Yorker has a really phenomenal short, “Going For A Beer” that’s worth reading and quick (and free):

    http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2011/03/14/110314fi_fiction_coover

    Sometimes short stories are a little too long and become almost-novels, like “Disquiet,” another great story and one that’s not quite a novel but too long to be a short story. (That was the inspiration for my “Eclipse,” in a way — the inspiration being that I could take a short story and make it a whole book.)

    Sorry to mention my own stuff in your blog, Rogue Mutt, but that’s business for you. I’ll make it up to you by buying your Kindle version tonight.

    I think that people SHOULD try to write a story as a short story first — limiting your idea to, say, 10 pages, and then expanding it, to learn how to focus or what’s really important. At least as a writing exercise. On the other hand, I (like everyone in the world, apparently) am unwilling, in general, to buy a collection of short stories, but I do buy novels. I don’t know why that is, just that it is. So if you want to be commercially successful, focus on novels. And then mention them on Rogue’s blog.

    • If you buy it and read past the third story you’ll be ahead of my sister, who read 37 pages of the paperback in January and hasn’t read a page since.

      And the extra story, “Meet Cute” was posted on this blog a while back.

  4. Actually mutt I think that erotica is as legitimate as any other form of writing. I read everything from nobel prize winners to the self-published. Never have I sat back and thought that one had any more purpose than the other. I guess I don’t get your “high and mighty” tone when it comes to erotica.

  5. Funny. I used to think that short stories were easy and novels were scary hard. When I was younger I used to love to write little sketches all the time, after finishing the first draft of my first novel I feel like it is hard to go back to the short story. I can’t think of a story line small enough to fit into a few pages.

    Though I would like to try short stories again too.

  6. You should check out the book Angelica by Arthur Phillips. It’s the same story told from four different POVs, each with their own section of the book. IMO it borders on four shorts making a whole novel, and I thought he did it really well.

    I’d love to lend you my copy. I’d be interested to hear what you think of it.

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