I recently attended another Vintage New Writers Evening at Foyles, a great event where debuting novelists talk about their road to publication and give opinions on other writing-related topics. There’s also free pizza and beer, which is cool, too.
Last Monday, the writers Kirsty Logan, Ruth Ware and Vesna Goldsworthy were in conversation with Alex Clark, the host of Vintage Podcast, about their new novels The Gracekeepers, In a Dark, Dark Wood, and Gorsky (respectively).
They answered some really good questions, one of which was whether or not they saw writing short stories as practice for writing a novel. Since Kirsty Logan had actually published an award-winning short story collection before publishing her first novel (and I believe she’s the only one of the three who had ever published a short story collection), she took the lead in answering the question. Her answer? No.
I started thinking a lot about the difference between writing a short story and writing a novel when I started grad school here. The novel I’m currently working on is my first attempt at writing one; until now, I’d only ever written short stories. The short story is a completely different animal from the novel, with different challenges and questions to consider. Because they occupy such a limited space, short stories often build toward a single weighty climax or revelation and can end just as the protagonist has begun reacting to that event or knowledge. There isn’t as much room for the kind of thorough character development or lengthy ruminations you find in novels; typically, a short story only gives you the info you absolutely need to know in order to contextualize what’s happening in the story and to whom.
Novels generally pepper realizations and bits of intrigue throughout, taking time to wax on about setting, memories, fears, etc. that can’t be explored in a shorter format. While writing short stories, I’ve thought, “I’m glad I can just get straight to the point — I have no idea how I’d add enough material to make this a novel!” And while working on the novel, I sometimes think, “Man, I’m glad I have the space to write about all of this — I have no idea how I’d condense this into a short story!” Figuring out what’s most important and shaving everything down to the bare essentials is a fun challenge of writing short fiction. Conversely, when writing a novel, training yourself to notice the small details of daily life and deciding how best to describe them (and also deciding which of those details the character you’re writing about would notice) is an interesting exercise, too. But switching suddenly from one type of story to the other can be jarring.
Kirsty Logan made a really good point while answering the question: she warned against trying to make a story something it’s not. Every concept has its ideal format. For instance, you might have an idea that’d be a stellar short story, but a shitty novel. So trying to stretch a good short story into novel-form probably isn’t a good idea. One of the stories in Kirsty Logan’s collection The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales is called “The Gracekeeper”, and while it inspired her new novel, the novel is a completely separate entity and in no way a continuation of the short story. Logan also mentioned the general lack of enthusiasm for short stories when compared with novels, which I’ve noticed, too. Writing a novel is a good way to get people’s attention, and to clear the way for a collection of short stories if you’ve written them. But typically, folks don’t go to bookstores looking for new short story collections (unless they’re already familiar with the authors of said collections), so starting out with one may not be the best way to gain a following (if that’s what you’re hoping to do).
This latest New Writers Evening brought up some writing issues that have been fun to consider. What are your thoughts on short stories vs. novels?
Have a wonderful Wednesday!