Are Short Stories Practice for Novels?

Welcome to Writing Wednesday.
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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.

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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).

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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!

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9 thoughts on “Are Short Stories Practice for Novels?

  1. i am not a writer, but i am a reader lol. this was super interesting, and from a reader’s point of view i totally agree that it’s a completely different ball game. i’m not the biggest fan of short stories, i’ve read some really great ones but i’ve read a lot more meh or bad ones, so even though they are quick i don’t like to waste my time on them. that sounds awful, i’m always open to read some, of course, but i don’t reach for them.

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    • Your comment is a case in point, haha. I think a lot of people feel the way you do. And I have no idea how something like that could be changed. And it’s funny because a novel is a bigger time commitment than a short story! But people are usually more willing to take a chance on them. Is it because the expected payoff is bigger? Now I have even more to think about!

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  2. Interesting blog! For me it depends on the subject matter and the author. I love some of Stephen King’s short story collections but don’t know that I would have considered them if they were not his. On the flip side, I am not a fan of erotic novels but I can do a collection of shorts so that it comes in small doses and according to my mood.

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    • There are authors (like Stephen King) whose short story collections I look out for, and sometimes I just buy short story collections (but for me I guess it’s half pleasure half research, so maybe it doesn’t count). I definitely relate to reading different things based on mood though. Then again everything I do is according to mood. You…y’know… XD

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  3. Pingback: Can Characters “Speak To” Writers? | acrossthehogsback

  4. Fascinating! I have only written one short story (that I finished and liked) and it was for a creative writing course – I find it so hard to condense my thoughts! I’m in the middle of a novel right now and I love that I can write on and on about the details that seem important to me…though we’ll see what it looks like in the end :/ haha

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