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The Difference Between Writing a Short Story and a Novel

So I finished writing my first novel last night. Typing it out like that makes it sound a lot more impressive than it actually is. It’s the first draft of an eighty-three thousand word fantasy novel, and is my first attempt at anything longer than a short story since I was twelve years old. Now, I’m going to put it aside for several weeks, work on other things, and then return to re-write it, and then maybe I’ll dance a little jig. Maybe. We’ll see how I feel about the finished product in a couple of months. But since this is NaNoWriMo, I thought it might be interesting to share some thoughts on how the process of writing this particular novel differed from my earlier experiences writing short stories.

DISCLAIMER: The experiences I’m describing here relate to this particular novel, and to me as a writer. Many of these experiences would not translate to a different novel with a different structure, and a different set of challenges. They might not translate to anyone else’s approach to writing, either. For that matter, I’m also new at this. This is my first novel, and so the observations and methods that worked for this one might be trashed by the time I’m on my sixth. So take anything you read here with a grain of salt, as I’m kind of making it up as I go.

Why I Write Short Stories, or Why I Didn’t Write Novels

At some point, I got it into my head that short stories demand tighter writing than novels do. I figured that if I could get my short story technique down, then when I applied my craft to the longer form, it would be better, faster, stronger. So in the last two years, I finished about fifty short stories, ranging in length from 1,300 words to 7,000 words. Mostly fantasy, spanning a variety of types from fairy tales, to (the very rare) sword and sorcery, some horror, and some mainstream literary stuff. I looked at it as good practice for when I started writing novels, and I definitely think that it helped me to write the novel in a number of ways:

1 Short stories are short enough to experiment with. Lots of people argue that writing exercises are a good way to practice, but somehow I’m always disappointed if I do a writing exercise that does not yield a fully functional story. I think of it like whipping up some pancake batter for the practice, then chucking it without putting it in the pan. It’s helpful, sure; but finishing something delicious is more so. Even if you write slowly, churning out a 2,000 word short story will take you far less than an 80,000 or 100,000 word novel – which makes them a great way to build confidence and develop skills, without the danger of discovering you’ve written yourself into a corner at 60,000 words.
2 Short stories have fewer moving parts. As I talked about in an earlier post, short stories just don’t have the room for a lot of complexity. This makes them easier to disassemble than a novel. I find that I can take a short story apart, look at all of the pieces that it’s composed of, and then re-assemble it differently, or fix a broken element, much faster than if I had to do that in a novel. It also makes it easier to learn the craft of plotting, or how characters get built, or how world-building works, than in a novel. I kind of think of it like learning architecture from LEGO’s, before moving onto bricks.
3 Short stories can teach you how to schedule productive writing time. I’ve got a full-time day job, I do volunteer work, I have a social life. Carving out time for writing is painful. But if I want to set a self-imposed deadline upon myself (e.g. “Write a novel by the end of the year”), I need to use an awareness of how quickly I write to schedule around it. That’s just the way my schedule, and my scheduling approach, works. Writing short stories taught me to think before I write. I learned to think through many different aspects of a story, starting from the voice, the plot, the characters, the setting, etc. By thinking (sometimes for weeks or months) before I ever write a single word lets me actually write the story extremely quickly once I do sit down. I know not everyone works this way. But with my schedule, it is easier to find time to think (shower, car, lying awake in bed) than it is to find time to actually write. So producing short stories trained me to think first, and then when I’ve thought it through enough, to sit down and write quickly.
4 Editorial Feedback Writing is all about waiting. You write something, ship it off to agents, editors, and someday (six months later if you’re lucky) somebody gets back to you with a response. In the novel market, my understanding is that it is almost always a form rejection. Thankfully, the professional (and semi-pro) short fiction markets have a faster turn-around. Taking what I considered my best short stories, I could expect a response in several weeks, rather than months. As my writing improved, I could see changes in the responses: fewer and fewer form letters, editors offering reasons (sometimes precise, sometimes not) on why a story didn’t work for them. This was enormously helpful. It helped focus my attention on what needed work in my writing, taught me to deal constructively with rejections (a vital skill for any aspiring writer), and gave me confidence that my hard work was paying off. By writing and trying to sell shorts, I was able to go through multiple feedback iterations in the same time it would have taken me to write a single 100,000 novel.

Novels Are Not Short Stories

Getting Ready to Write

But novels are not short stories. I usually write short stories in a two step process: I think about them enough to develop a narrative voice, identify my principal character, perhaps identify the general mood for the story. It’s the act of actually disciplining my imagination, and sometimes it can take five minutes or it can take weeks. But once this step is done, I can sit down and write the first draft of the story in a couple of hours. I don’t outline, I don’t take notes. I just write the story and then revise it after the fact.

I knew that this approach wouldn’t work for a novel. Structurally, it’s just too big: too many characters, too many side-plots, too many moving parts to figure them out in my head before sitting down to write. So I adopted a different approach. So I started by taking some notes. Not an outline, something a lot simpler. I started with my premise (“How a world built on magic responds to the invention of the printing press”). The world of my story would start from this premise. With a premise like that, I knew the conflict would be between groups in the society, and between specific characters within those groups. So I started by sketching a paragraph of notes about different groups in this society: their histories, their motivations, their value systems, etc. This didn’t let me identify any characters, yet, but it did allow me to sketch a basic plot. Each group would have to respond somehow to the printing press. And so these responses formed my high-level, basic plot outline. With that premise, with the social outline, the basic skeleton of a plot, I was able to (preliminary) identify my characters: after all, someone would have to actually do whatever the groups’ responses would be. I hadn’t had to do this kind of outlining for any of my short stories. They were simpler, with less complex relationships, and less complex conflicts. But if I hadn’t done this, I don’t think I would have found a way to actually start my novel.

Starting to Write

The first 17,000 words (20% of the finished draft) were very hard. I must have written the first several chapters five or six times before I was happy with them. I started with close third person, switched to first, swapped the point in my (very general) timeline where the story began once or twice, and changed a bunch of my initial character outlines. Getting past these false starts was the hardest part in actually writing the book.

In terms of my actual writing, I wrote each chapter as if it were a movement in a short story. When I write short stories, if I’m writing the beginning I’m already thinking about what needs to happen in the middle. By the time I’m working on the middle, I’m thinking about the end. I tried to do the same thing with chapters: while I was writing one chapter, I would be thinking about what needed to happen in the next. Characters would act in the “current” chapter, and what would follow could only be a logical continuation (a response) of that action, or a sidestep to establish a new side-plot.

At this stage, I didn’t have any kind of real plot outline. The focus was on setting the stage, establishing characters and side-plots. It was hard work to write each chapter, to set up the dominoes. But the next chapter would be that much easier to write, because by the time I had gotten there, I had narrowed down the places where I could go. Once I had set up one row of dominoes, I had limited where others could go if I wanted them to fall in sequence.

Getting over the Hump

The next 40,000 words (20 – 67% of the finished work) got much easier much faster. That’s not to say they were easy (they weren’t), but they did begin to flow easier. However, as the number of established side plots grew, I decided to get much more systematic in the writing. I actually made an outline, of sorts. It was an Excel worksheet, with one row for each chapter. Each row had four columns:

  • The chapter number,
  • The version number of my preferred draft for that chapter,
  • The word count of that chapter, and;
  • A couple of sentences summarizing the events of that chapter.

I had never needed anything like this for short stories, but this became an invaluable tool for me while writing the middle of the book. It allowed me to keep track of characters, events, pacing, and side-plots. The outline actually laid a road map for me as I wrote, because I was able to outline six or seven chapters ahead of my current place. As I wrote, I would revise the outline. I would decide to shift events to earlier (or later) chapters, and would revise as I went. But I didn’t actually extend the outline until I achieved certain key plot milestones in my writing.

During this phase of the writing, I was able to build a rhythm for the writing. While I couldn’t find the time to write every day (unfortunately), I was able to find a rhythm that let me write about 10,000 words a week, which struck me as a perfectly good rate if I could maintain it throughout the novel. The biggest trouble I ran into during this phase was my narrative voice. By the time I had written 20,000 words, I was certain I had lost my narrative voice somewhere around 10,000 words. I chose not to go back and revise. Instead, I chose to keep writing (trying to regain my original voice), and to focus particular attention on it when I re-wrote the book after it was done.

Whether this was a good choice or not, I don’t know. Whether my fear was real or not, I don’t know. I won’t know until after I have let the story sit for a couple of weeks and return to the re-write with a fresh mind.

Rushing to the End

By the time I had written 55,000 words, I had enough (plot) visibility to outline the last 20 chapters of the book. During this phase, my focus was on maintaining momentum and executing on the outline I had put together. I actually accelerated my writing pace during this phase, as if it were a sprint to the finish line. That may or may not have weakened the actual writing, but I also realize I am still too close to the story to judge that accurately. That goes onto the list of things to pay special attention to during the re-write.

As I neared the end, I also started to plan out the next phase: the re-write itself. I know that I’ll have to revisit the entire book. I know that before I do that, I’ll have to put it aside for several weeks, if not several months. I’ll work on something else, put it out of my mind, and only then return to the re-write. When I do start the re-write, I have a list of issues that I know I need to address. Some are major, functional issues (narrative voice). Others are problems that I know I need to fix (background that I came up with mid-way into the book, which I should have established early on). Or still others are thoughts I might have to put more meat on the book’s bones, since 83,000 words is a little light for a debut novel (most genre editors seem to seek 80 – 110k). But before I do any of that, I need to gain some distance from the book. Put the plot, the world, the characters from my mind so that I can look at it fresh.

Moving Beyond the First Novel

So now that I have finished my first novel-length work, there are two major things on my mind: first, the fact that most first novels become an author’s embarrassing baby photo. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a multiple-book author who loves the first book they ever published. Usually, they seem to prefer their later (more experienced, mature) works for a variety of reasons. And I’ve heard too many stories of authors whose first (or first several) books collect dust in some desk drawer, never seeing the light of day. That’s probably not unlike my first short stories, and I would not be at all surprised if my first novel joins them. I am perfectly comfortable with that. Even if this book never sells, I know that I have written it and I have learned a lot about writing through the process. Probably the most important lesson is that I can write novel-length works, which is worth a lot. And is also one of the points of NaNoWriMo (even if this wasn’t a NaNoWriMo book, I still think NaNoWriMo is a great initiative for startup authors).

Which brings me to the second thing on my mind: writing my second novel. I’ve already got it well underway. This one is more ambitious, more complicated, and a bit more difficult (stylistically and thematically) than the novel I just finished. I’m already about 25,000 words into it, and I am well into its middle. It has a very different structure, and practically inverses the challenges of my first novel. Either way, I’m having fun writing it and I think it will be a good way to clear my first novel from my mind…in time to return to my first book in December for a re-write.

So if you’re a writer reading this blog post, or if you want to be, what do you think about the differences between writing a novel and short stories? What have your experiences been? There are probably about as many methodologies and lessons to be learned as there are writers, so I’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts.

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