My friend Amy of The Writer’s Refuge wrote this post on the differences between writing a short story and a novel. She answers questions as well as shares some of her own experiences writing both. I hope you enjoy!
At the beginning of my writing journey four years ago, I struggled with my creative identity. I asked questions like: How do I fit into the artists’ world? Will I ever be able to create beauty for others? Will anybody be impacted by my writing? If you’re a young writer like me who dreams of getting published––or if you simply yearn to take your writing to the next level, these are essential questions.
But how does this relate to short stories and novels?
In my experience, most writers do best when they hone a specific genre––when they pinpoint a creative identity. Initially writers may train in all genres, but focus on the one genre they are most talented at: Which one comes most naturally. Later on, of course, writers may branch out to other genres as well. But for now, let’s focus on these two genres: Short Story and the Almighty Novel.
What is a short story?
According to the Writer’s Digest, a short story is a work of fiction that “ranges anywhere from 1,500 to 30,000 words.” That’s a lot of creative room! Think of the shortest short story as a long essay you’d write for school and the longest short story as a short novel or novella.
Since short stories are, well, short, beginning writers tend to think they are easier than a full-length novel. But this isn’t always the case––think of the short story as a novel in poem form: Every word counts. You must choose your diction carefully. The longest short story I’ve written is 3,000 words. I honestly can’t imagine going over 5,000––and it is surprisingly difficult to cram a story into such a tight word frame.
Most publishers don’t like publishing short stories. They’re an awkward length to market, and only the “literary types” tend to know they exist. Most short stories get published along with a vast collection of others in anthologies and such.
Another con I’ve found is that the contemporary short story world is…depressing. I read and studied tons of short stories back in college, and found that 98% of them were extremely well-written but thematically dragged me down––stories of burned babies, dead rabbits, hallucogeneic drug use, needless murder, infants in dumpsters, etc….
Most of these published stories have no trace of hope. One of my professors even asked the class to send her a contemporary short story that wasn’t wildly depressing, if we ever found one. But hey, if that’s your thing, no worries. And if you can inject life into this genre, then go for it!
Are short stories all bad?
No, they’re not. There are many pros of short story writing. I love to experiment with lyrical prose in these stories, with mythology and legend, and magical realism. Whenever I get an idea, I test it out on a short story––oftentimes, my idea isn’t fleshed-out enough to cover a whole novel. And sometimes it turns into a memoir or essay piece.
Short stories can be a nice way to complete your idea, or theme, without having to undergo a whole novel. Further, if you get your stories published in literary journals, you can develop a fan base before you even begin your novel.
In short (pun intended), this genre is a condensed story, and thus it’s difficult to create abiding characters––but it can take your writing to new and exciting places.
What about novels?
Novels are beasts all their own. Because of the length––typically no more than 60,000 words for a first-timer––it is easier to develop a setting, theme, and characters. But in this day and age, readers have so many things shouting for their attention: How can you grab––and keep––their interest?
The art of storytelling is as old as humankind. Even before the advent of written language, stories were told orally over warm fires and roasted dinosaur legs. (I’m kidding––kinda.) Before you embark on the grand novelist’s journey, remember this: Many books get published because they’re highly marketable, not because of their literary quality.
What are my options?
Pop-fiction books (e.g., sci-fi, murder mystery, romance, thriller, etc.) are usually one-time reads, meant more for the plot than the characters. And these are published by the millions! Contemporary fiction (e.g., more emphasis on writing style, character development, etc.) typically tries to rise above the current culture to create a work that will be re-read over the years. This can be a daunting task filled with lots of failures, but I find it to be immensely rewarding.
If you’re unsure if your drafts are coming along well, ask yourself: Am I being impacted by this story? If you’re not “feeling” the story––if it doesn’t hit you in all the right places––then it will almost certainly fall flat for everyone else, too.
Even though a novel is immensely challenging, it develops your writing abilities. Overall, it teaches you the endurance to revise your work over months and years into something bulletproof, lasting, and evocative!
How do I begin my writing journey?
I am currently smack-dab in the middle of my first novel. Do I have all the answers? Absolutely not. But I’ve been published in various magazines and newspapers, and the biggest thing I’ve learned is this: Publication isn’t a sign that you’ve “made it.” Rather, it’s a way for you to connect with people from all over the world, and possibly help someone feel less alone, or inspire someone to new and greater things.
Whether you choose short stories or novels––or something else entirely––let your writing be something to which you give your all. This is where the reward lies.
In good drafts and in bad, may your writing be your joy!
Amy is a writer who likes to loiter in coffee houses, read books by old dead people, and burn homemade candles. Her work has appeared in the Southwest Metro and Plymouth magazines, and the St. Paul Voice newspaper. She runs The Writer’s Refuge blog.