A Novelist’s Short Story

For most writers, the road to the novel is a long and winding one. A work of such length and complexity, requiring hundreds of hours of disciplined work and – depending on a writer’s approach – planning, plotting and sketching, or improvisation and invention. In lieu of the freedom afforded by the scant demands of a short story; short word count, little exposition, relatively little investment and a rapid turnaround, the writer now has to contend with squeezing in many hours a day between family and the nine-to-five slog if they’re to stand a chance of completing their manuscript within a reasonable time.

Forging an entire world from nought but ink and paper; a writer’s mission.

A short story can lay in a desk drawer or a box in the attic for years on end, and then merely be picked up, glanced at and, after a mere handful of minutes, completed. A sketchy outline can blossom into a fully formed exploration of the nature of morality, or become a stage for the grandest space-battle to ever occupy the bounds of three-thousand words.

A novel cannot be left in such a state, at least not by most. So much must be contained within the writer’s mind at once – most of which never meets the page, and exists merely as the product of an overactive imagination in the recesses of their psyche – that it can drain into obscurity and become lost in mere days, let alone months or years. A chapter, revelation or foreshadowing, which at the time certainly made absolute sense and inspired great excitement, may at a later date seem meaningless, amateurish and downright messy. Loose ends, in novels, are unacceptable.

Perhaps this is why some budding writers feel daunted by the task. Once the sheer scale of their chapter and word counts have been totted up and appreciated, it can seem a monstrous task to undertake, considering that authors set out on such journeys with absolutely nothing besides paper and pen.

How is it that the great works were forged? How can beauty and existential revelation be born of mere words; shapes carved onto treated tree-pulp, devoid of meaning or spirit in themselves? How can mere language unlock a formerly inaccessible region of a human being’s, for the want of a better word, soul?

How can somebody without a candle to light the way on a path so rife with shadow be expected to come up with anything but a room full of paper-balls and spilled ink-wells?

How could little old you ever measure up?

It’s a daunting thought, and even published authors are often quoted claiming that each novel is as difficult as the last (with some even saying that they become only more difficult with the addition of demands for originality, for something fresh, and to maintain a sense of equal or ever-increasing quality [the so-called Second Novel Syndrome]).

This may be perhaps why some never stray from the realms of the short story. For some, it is more than enough to produce a larger, more widely ranged body of shorter works. For some, that is their calling.

Even incredibly talented writers such as Alice Munro, winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2009 and often stated as deserving Nobel Laureate status for her contributions to literature, has yet to stray into the realms of the novel. Munro has been quoted as saying that she hopes to one day pen the Great Novel, but that it has thus far eluded her.

This dispels any evidence to suggest that some shun the novel out of any lacking characteristic or talent. The novel is merely a different beast from the short story, as different as it is from poetry.

However, as I have found, it’s certainly possible to belong to the opposite school.

I feel that, if one were to segregate writers, I would fall squarely among the ranks of the novelists. I write novels. Give me a sketchy idea and I’ll walk through fire to play with it like a cat plays with string; to give it some legs and explore every avenue available to it, and to watch it blossom into something of grand scale and deeper meaning.

Short stories are, to me, a much finer art, one that requires a much greater effort to produce. Everything about them; every word and speck of punctuation, is a calculated move. There is scarcely enough room for tangents or flights of fancy, which for some is a difficult vice, and freedom, to relinquish. Little things unexpected and surprising can no longer emerge of their own accord, nor can characters make their true selves known with shocking revelation.

A form of prose as individual as any other, the novel it to me a picture of ultimate freedom, whereas the short story, as powerful as it may be, is a bottling act that I am yet to wield with confidence. Perhaps, I never will.

However, as frustrating as the form may be for me, from the shores of the vast Novel Archipelago, I can’t help but imagine what it’s like to stand on the far shores of the Short Story Atoll; to dive into the vast ocean between them.

For us all, it is a daunting task indeed to brave those waters.

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2 thoughts on “A Novelist’s Short Story

  1. I’ve started writing my novel (up until now I have been a writing devotee of flash fiction, keeping my stories under 1500 words).

    It is daunting though, not because I don’t have my story (I plot well enough and have the entire novel planned), but because of the time commitment.

    I start a short story, I know I can have it finished in a week, edited and ready to go, within two. A novel, the process from start to (book) shelf can take years. Its having that big picture long term approach to my writing that is difficult for me to shift into.

    1. Great to hear from a fellow writer.

      I find it fascinating to be informed of what it’s like the other way around. I’ve always found writing novels to be many degrees of magnitude easier than crafting a short. Getting the words succinct enough to capture the essence of a character in a limited space is what I find challenging.
      I admire your talent for it.

      With regard to the novel, all I can suggest is that you stick with it and treat each sitting as a self-contained piece of writing; one step at a time. Just like climbing a towering staircase, if you take the steps one at a time, sooner or later, you’ll look down and see that you’ve climbed quite a way.

      Thanks for the comment!

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