Wednesday, December 07, 2005

From Short to Novel

When I started writing fiction, it only seemed natural to me that I should start with short stories and progress from there into writing novels. It made sense to me back then.

Sensible or not, that's what I did and the shorts came gushing out of me, but at some point I figured that writing for magazines wasn't going to help me make writing a career. For that I needed to write novels.

I started writing a novel three different times, each time I got stuck somewhere in the beginning, around the 15,000-30,000 word mark and went back to writing another short or two. It wasn't until my third attempt that I figured something out. I was writing a novel, not a very long short, which meant I had to change my whole concept of writing.

You see, shorts describe an event, or a sequence of events that happen at some point in the character's life. They describe it quickly and to the point. But novel writing is different. Writing a novel is describing everything that led to the crucial event that a short would concentrate on, it's adding a few other events, it's a plot and few subplots intertwined together, etc.

Of course I knew all that, but it wasn't wired in yet. I had to get into the novel writing state of mind. Instead of getting to the point quickly, I needed to get to the point differently. See what I'm saying? And then I discovered that there are many points along the way leading to that one big event, interesting ones, there is more character development, there are more voices.

I've always been a very quick and succinct person. I don't know how to philosophize at length (although I'm sure some of you are rolling your eyes just about now) and it shows in my writing, compact and condense. Maybe that's why I gravitated towards shorts at first.

My point? I have two:
The first is that while both forms are fiction, the mindset required for each is different.
The second is that if you are in the beginning of your writing endeavors and wish to write novels, don't start with shorts.

And if, on the other hand, you are like many of my friends who wrote their first short story after writing three novels, don't think it would be a breeze to write a short, but we'll tackle that some other day (maybe with a guest poster).

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Patry Francis said...

You make a good point, Melly. Also I think short stories are so hard to get published--sometimes writers get so discouraged by all the rejection, they never bother trying a novel.

Anne Merril said...

Thanks for that, very interesting info :)

I've a novelist who can't write a short to save my life. I try, but the subplots just creep in...sigh.

Anyone who says shorts are easy is lying! Or, you know, skilled or something ;)

Anonymous said...

I started writing short stories too. I hate reading short stories but I liked writing them because they it was challenging to write with the confines of 5K-10K words and the stories were easy to edit. They are great practice for writing a novel. My first short story was about 10 pages and the last one that I wrote came in at about 40. Finally, I decided it was time to write a novel!

Paul Darcy said...

I started writing short stories too. And, like you, got stalled out in novels even though I completed one and have four more fully plotted. After many years I realized I am just not a novelist.

And I think it's a good idea to try many different types of writing and see what you A)like and B) are good at and C)do you want a career or a hobby?

And Melly, I've got to say your comment - "I figured that writing for magazines wasn't going to help me make writing a career." - I just can't agree with. I know one lady in my local area who makes 130 to 140 thousand a year writing only non-fiction for magazines - sounds like a good career to me if you like that kind of writing and are good at it.

Of course if you are talking about a "fiction" career in novels, then I would say don't go the magazine non-fiction route - though give it a try and see. But you have to find out through experimentation what you want to and like to write.

And yes, short story fiction is one of the hardest to sell (I tried for many years, though not really hard enough I admit, and only sold 3). And any fiction is hard to write, but I think novels offer more room to get away with sloppy writing as long as your story is a good one. If your idea is great a book publisher will assign you an editor to help you rewrite it. Fiction short stories I think need to be tight and well written and even more so with poetry, but not being a poet I'm not sure of that one.

I have babbled quite enough now. Sorry for taking up so much space.

Melly said...

Thanks, Patry. Yes, indeed I had one year in which I was so discouraged by rejections that I stopped submitting and even writing for a while.

Hi Anne.
I know exactly what you mean. You just need to change that thinking when writing a short, thinking of only the one main thing. That's how I was with novels.
On the other hand, perhaps your stories are more novel ones rather than shorts...?

Melly said...

That's funny Fred...
Wasn't the same with me. I wrote different lengths of shorts but after a while leveled off around the 3000 word mark. Good length I'd say for a short, especially with publishing.

Hi Paul,
Well, it's good to know what your strengths are and accept your weaknesses. I know that I couldn't write a poem to save my life, so I don't even try, but I might try writing scripts if you got around to teaching us ;)
Oh, and I was referring to selling fiction to magazines, not non-fiction, and one cannot make a living out of that unless s/he can sell exclusively to plyaboy, newyorker, and other high paying fiction publishing magazines which there aren't that many of them.

Pat Kirby said...

Short fiction has never been "my thing." I don't read much and don't like to write it.

But my first publications were short stories. While I was working on a novel, I joined Critter Workshop. Since the workshop is focussed on short fiction, I wrote a few stories and sent them through the gauntlet.

I can write short fiction, but it isn't where I'm "happiest." For me, the allure of novels is character, the opportunity to emerse myself (as reader or writer) in the character.

But both short and long forms [fiction] are hard to do well.

The Phoenix said...

I've read several novels that get so caught up in character development, I get bored quickly. There's a plot in there somewhere!

The Taorist said...

Writing is like professional wrestling. Should I go to Smackdown or Raw?

Wherever I go I'll get beat up anyway. LOLZ!

Seriously, I like reading short stories because it's like haiku compared to the novel (it's more like a Sonnet to me). I like small packages with big presents inside.

BTW, I'd like to answer your comment on my blog but I don't have your address.....(wink! wink!)

Melly said...

Pat, whatever makes you happy :)
But I totally hear you about the ability to develop a character much more in a novel.

Phoenix, plot is as important as characterization, I totally agree.

Well, Taorist, if that isn't the best analogy I've ever heard... LOL!
Yeah, small packages that can pack a punch are nice :)

Gone Away said...

I had no idea I could write short stories until I became a blogger. Since it's pure folly to write a novel in a blog, I tried short stories and found I loved them. Now I need to return to the novel writing and find I have to adjust to get back into that mode. You're quite right - they are two different skills.

Jennifer said...

Oh My! I've never been able to write 'short' to my satisfaction. I've tried. I still try, but my mind has alway thought 'long'. I started writing short and i never seemed to do it well. Then I started writing my first attempt at a novel and it clicked. In fact i wrote too much :) much of which got chopped out much to my agony...then I looked back on it a few years later and I was like wow I can chop some more out :)

But I agree it's two different mind sets two different forms of writing.


Melly said...

Hi Gone,
I hear you and I'm glad you agree. It reasserts my own feelings about this. Thanks :)

Jennifer, what are you talking about??? I clearly remember reading at least one fantastic short on your site. If your novel writing skills are even better, then that novel that you sent out... okay, I'll stop here because I don't want to jinx it :)

Cavan said...

This is about as good a point as I've seen made on the subject. I started writing novels in my early teens and only recently did I start working on short stories.

My writing style is far better suited to the short story than the novel and, as a result, the jump wasn't a painful one for me. In fact, I think my shorts are far better than any long work I've written.

Of course, now that I'm working on novels again, I agree with what you say. I'm experiencing the same mindset changes here, too.

ME Strauss said...

I think they're both really hard. I give you credit for putting in the time on both enough to figure this out.

melly said...

Thanks Cavan.
That mindset is sometimes tough to crack, isn't it?

Liz, absolutely. They're both hard, but they're both hard in different ways, don't you think?

ObilonKenobi said...

I first tried a short story after wiritng my novel. I wrote a huge fantasy novel that took place over two eras separated by thousands of years. After submitting this huge thing and getting rejected too many times to count, I decided that I'd spend my time more wisely by writing short fiction. You know, short, easy to write. Less investment in time. I was wrong. I couldn't write short fiction for my life. I just can't get the concept of writing about one moment in time. I must write more! I'm not a very big fan of short fiction. I prefer the novel. So much for short stories! I then wrote another novel but I had learned something from my short story detour. I wrote my novel as if I were writing a short story. I began with a simple idea and expanded and added subplots and backstory. THis way instead of some big honking novel I ended up with a nice novel. Guess what, at a writer's conference my instructor told me that I needed to ADD MORE to the novel. She liked it but wanted more detail and story. I can't win in this game! I went to my novel and added more by researching my subject matter in greater detail and it added a wealth of good stuff. I think I've learned something along the way though and with my next novel attempt I might get it right.

melly said...

Lon, what you're saying makes so much sense. I guess it's a growth process of sorts. We start as kids and write unmanageable plot lines, then we overcompensate, but finally we learn... I hope... :)