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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.

Liking Little Things: Dissecting Short Stories and Flash Fiction

This past Friday, @tordotcom tweeted a fun challenge asking for six-word fantasy stories. Like all such challenges, it’s inspired by (what I consider to be) the best short story ever written (supposedly by Ernest Hemingway to win a bet):

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

This challenge got me thinking about what it takes to write a great short story or flash piece, which I think is especially relevant to anyone writing in the science fiction, fantasy or horror genres. Basically, if we write short stories or flash fiction, odds are we’re writing in genre for the simple reason that there aren’t many markets outside of the genres for us to sell to. The literary journals are few and far between, literary anthologies tend to reprint old stories written by past masters, and there just don’t seem to be that many places for us to place something that isn’t a genre story. So given all of this, what does it take to write a great genre short story?

If they are successful, shorts can pack the emotional punch of a novel into a space one tenth the size. I find it hard not to appreciate the economy – the discipline – that demands. If you’re bumping up against your publisher’s 2000 or 3000 word cap, every single word matters. Of course, we like to think that every word in a novel matters too…but the fact is they don’t. They should, but with the reality of deadlines and the challenge of completing the novel-writing marathon, some poor constructions just squeak through the editorial cracks. It happens to every writer, good and great included. It’s just the way it works. But short fiction – whether short stories or the relatively nascent form of flash fiction – does not have that luxury.

Artistic Techniques of Good Short Stories

The Reader’s Investment Our reader is always going to be less invested in a ten-page, 2000-word story than the two-hundred page, 100,000-word novel they’re halfway into. If at any point our short story loses their interest, our reader might say “Screw it, this story sucks” and go back to playing Fallout. What have they lost? With a short story, a very small amount of time. Short stories are a lot less forgiving as a form, in relation to their length. As I write, I always try to remember:

  • Writing is re-writing. Revise the story with the eye of a zealot. Trim all of the fat we can find.
  • Big things are made of smaller things. For each act, each character, each paragraph, each sentence, we should ask ourselves: is this really needed? Can we say this more economically?
  • Don’t fear the delete key. It can be tough to cut something we’ve written. But whatever tightens the story, strengthens it.

Limited Cast of Characters We’ve all read the massive epics that require a dramatis personae either before or after the text to keep track of the cast of characters. Ever seen a short story with one? I always try to think about this in terms of:

  • Purpose. Any character (certainly any named character) in our story has to serve a specific thematic or plot purpose. He or she needs to perform some action, and every action adds words to our length. To keep it tight, we should limit these characters and their actions to that which is essential to the story.

Limited Perspective Each time we shift perspective, we have to pull the reader out of the character they have already invested in and convince them to re-invest elsewhere. Sometimes, this is necessary. But it should be used very judiciously. I usually think about:

  • Speed. Perspective is the key to getting our reader invested in our character and the world we create. We should grab our reader quickly and hold onto him or her throughout the story.
  • Narrative Voice. Who is our narrator? Can we tell the story from a first-person perspective? Can we give our narrator a distinct voice, spicing it with opinions/values to rapidly build our world around our reader?
  • Use of the First-Person. A great trick for maximizing speed is to tell our story from a first-person perspective. When we read something from an “I”-perspective, it instantly puts us in the character’s head, instantly builds the character’s world around us.

Limited Plot I love Byzantine side-plots, with twists and turns and double-agents and triple-crosses and all that fun stuff. Unfortunately, we just don’t have the space to cram a lot of that complexity into our short stories.

  • Choose your battles. Pick the plot arc that is most important to our story and its themes. Stick with that.
  • High stakes yield high emotion. If we want our reader to be invested in our story, the stakes at play must matter to our characters. If they don’t care, if they are not invested, why should our reader be?

The Ongoing Dialog in Letters Every editor is looking for stories that are “new” and “fresh.” Genre fiction pre-supposes some reader familiarity with its history and tropes. Back in January, Jo Walton posted a great piece on about the concept of “reading protocols”, which should be required reading for anyone writing or editing in genre. For our short story to be fresh it has to be one step ahead of what the best writers are producing today. To figure out what that is, we need to:

  • Know our markets. This is more than just reading submission guidelines carefully. It means following what the best writers are producing today.
  • Track trends. What are the over-saturated sub-genres in the marketplace? Seeing too many vampires, too much steampunk, too much “insert-trope-here”? Use what we see to stake a new claim.
  • Learn editorial preferences. Each editor has different tastes. By reading her submission guidelines, by tracking what else she buys, and by submitting different stuff of our own to her, we can (over time) learn what her tastes are.

The Rise of On-screen Reading As the markets for short fiction increasingly go online-only, odds are people will read our short story on a screen rather than a page. This fact has tremendous implications for how we construct our story: have you ever tried to read a 200-word paragraph on screen? Did you get through it all? Reading on screen is (for better or for worse) different than reading on paper, and it does affect how we should write our stories:

  • Use shorter paragraphs. They are easier to read on-screen, and they force a certain economy of thought into our writing, thus contributing to the story’s overall tightness.
  • Use clearly delineated sentences. This is another trend in English literature championed by Hemingway. Clarity in sentence construction is also a more economical use of words, and contributes to shorter paragraphs.
  • Avoid typographic chicanery. I love the poems of ee cummings. But in today’s short prose markets, there is precious little demand for typographic tricks of that nature. It takes a lot of work for a publisher to make complex typography display consistently across multiple different devices, browsers, screen resolutions, etc. Which is why if our story relies on typographic sleight of hand, it’ll be a much tougher sell.

The Economics of Good Short Stories

Competition in the Short Markets Two facts contribute to increased competition in the short fiction markets:

  1. The number of markets paying professional rates has shrunk. New markets are increasingly cropping up online, however the majority of them can afford to publish 2 – 4 short stories per month (as opposed to the 8 – 10 stories the old print magazines used to run).
  2. Computers and the Internet make writing easier. Everyone has one, and everyone (myself included) thinks they have a story or two in them. This means that slush piles today are larger than they were thirty years ago.

Thus, there are more stories out there fighting for fewer publishing spaces. And that’s just if we’re talking about slush: let’s not forget many published stories are solicited, by-passing the slush piles entirely. This makes short fiction an extremely competitive market, and it means that in order to break into the space we need to:

  • Write better.
  • Not give up.
  • Know what the markets we’re submitting to like to buy.
  • Write better.
  • Network: meet the people (online and offline), because people buy from people.
  • Write better.
  • Keep at it.

Less Money in Short Fiction The last ten years have seen a huge shift in how short fiction gets paid for (at least in science fiction, fantasy and horror). A quick glance at the listings on Duotrope suggests that a majority of short fiction markets paying professional rates are now online-only, and donation-funded. This introduces revenue uncertainty and irregularity for the publishers, which drives down what they can pay for stories, and limits the number of stories they can buy/publish. If an editor can buy two powerful (but shorter) stories for the price of one longer story of similar resonance, which would make the most sense? This is one of the main factors that is driving the increased call for flash fiction (short shorts < 1000 words, though definitions/preferences vary).

The Art of Implication

So given all of the above, what makes Hemingway’s six-word story so damned good? Why does it resonate so well? Because it adheres to all of the principles outlined above, while packing a tremendous emotional punch in only six short words. How does he do it? He employs what I call “the art of implication”. It’s a theory that Hemingway himself outlined in Death in the Afternoon and which since has come to be called the “iceberg theory”.

In a grossly over-simplified version, the theory says that the reader will fill in the blanks if the author leaves things out of the written story. The author can leave out events, characters, opinions, plot, etc. If what remains is written well enough, if there are enough context clues embedded in the text, the reader should be able to intuit or imagine what was left out. Each reader might intuit something different, but that would not detract from the overall emotional resonance of the story: if anything, it would strengthen the story by making it more resonant across a broader range of readers. That short, six-word sentence is a perfect example of this theory in practice:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
The Reader’s Investment This story is six words long. Hemingway is asking us for a very small investment of time. Who wouldn’t invest the time to read six short words?
Limited Cast of Characters This story – ostensibly – lacks characters. The characters are implied by the text. Who is the narrator? Who is selling these shoes? Is it the baby’s mother? The father? Some other relative? A stranger? A neighbor? Each of us fills in this blank for ourselves, putting a character into the story that they we will identify closely with.
Limited Perspective This is one of the very few stories I can think of that has no perspective. No matter how hard I try, I cannot read that sentence and determine (based on the evidence in the text) who is speaking. It does not feel like an omniscient narrator, but there is no evidence to the contrary. There is no hint of first person narration in the text itself, but (to me) it feels like there is. There is only one perspective in this story, and that perspective is whatever we put into it.
Limited Plot This story lacks a plot. That’s not a bad thing: some of the best stories lack a classic plot. In this case, the plot, the conflict, the events of the story are also implied. They take place in a time leading up to those six little words, and whatever occurred is something we intuit or imagine.

The urban legend states that Hemingway put this six-word story together to win a bet. He didn’t sell it anywhere, it wasn’t published anywhere, it is just one of the many anecdotes that follow legendary writers. Of course, it’s impossible to state definitively whether it would sell today. I doubt there’s an editor working in the English language today who isn’t familiar with this story.

However, if we’re looking to make a living writing six-word stories, I’d suggest we reconsider: while it’s an interesting exercise, there isn’t terribly much commercial demand for it. While stories of this length are clever, and can be momentarily satisfying, the investment and payoff are not – in and of themselves – quite satisfying enough. It’s a nice entre cours, but what readers are looking for is an plat principal with a little more meat on its bones.

So what do you think makes short stories work well? What kind of structures do you like to see? What are some of the best six-word stories you like? If you want to see the stories people came up with in response to’s Twitter challenge, just do a Twitter search for #sixwordfantasy (or today’s #sixwordscifi).

And in case you’re wondering what I came up with:


Murder! Hungry witch roasted by kids!


Traveler constructs her own quantum fates.

Nowhere near as good as Hemingway’s, but hopefully fun.

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