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Writing A Short Story Or Writing A Novel – What’s Harder?

Note from Josh: I’ve recently gotten very interested in ebook publishing and have been doing a lot of research into the various options for publishing stories, short and otherwise, in this medium.  After reading what Kosmo has written below, if you have short stories to share and you like the idea of publishing them and getting them into the electronic market, please visit that link up top!

Guest post from Kosmo @ The Soap Boxers

There really isn’t an easy answer to this question. On the surface, novels and short stories seem very similar – just two different types of prose writing. However, the short story writer and the novelist face different challenges.

Challenges For a Novelist

Time Commitment – When I get on a roll, I can finish a short story in 15 minutes – although the idea has generally been percolating for at least a day or two. Most stories take a bit longer, but it’s quite rare for me to sit down for 60-90 minutes and not have at least one story finished.

A novel, on the other hand, is a much bigger time commitment. Although you hear stories – many of them false – about legendary writers writing a book in a few days, the reality for most novelists is that to write a novel will take months or even years to complete. For that period of time, the writer really has nothing that she can hang her hat on – just a motley mix of ingredients. Conversely, in a similar amount of time, a short story writer will have completed several stories.

Complexity – A short story will often have just a single major conflict. The main character finds herself in a situation, the conflict comes to a head, resolution is achieved, and the cast exits stage left.

A novel, in contrast, has more twists and turns than a San Francisco street. How many false leads will the detectives chase down before they finally arrest the real killer?

The countless plot possibilities that make reading a novel so enjoyable can make writing it difficult. Not only can a novelist face writer’s block, but also “paralysis by analysis” in which the author can get bogged down worrying about how a decision at point C can affect the plot at point Q.

One of the worst feelings a novelist can have is when she realizes that certain plot elements are simply a bad fit for the book and must be discarded. Imagine the frustration of discarding a 5000 word section that took hours of mind-breaking effort to write.

I have discarded half completed short stories on several occasions. However, this is a case of discarding a few hundred words each time. Over time, the total amount of discarded work might be equal, but the short story writer experiences the heartbreak in smaller doses.

Ability to gather feedback – The mere length of a novel makes it more difficult for the novelist to get quality feedback. Someone who really likes the book might read it, but someone who dislikes certain aspects (and could thus provide constructive criticism) might be hard pressed to finish it. With a short story, even those who don’t like the story can usually stick around long enough to finish it.

Challenges for a Short Story Writer

Character Development – The length of the novel allows the novelist ample words with which to develop characters with immense depth, allowing readers to connect at a deeper level. This is even more true when it comes to characters who appear in a series of novels. Stop for a moment and think about Sherlock Holmes. Holmes has been so well developed by Doyle and subsequent authors that he has nearly duplicated Pinocchio’s leap to become a real person.

The short story writer is faced with a challenge when he develops characters. Words are at a premium, and it can be difficult to develop characters with substantial depth. If the writer is not careful, the characters that emerge will merely be archetypes – being indentified by one or two dominant characteristics and lacking any real personality.

The novelist also has the ability to introduce more characters. Ed McBain’s novels of the 87th precinct feature dozens of recurring characters. Not only do those characters add flavor to the story, but they also serve as a mechanism to develop the character of protagonist Steve Carella via his interaction with them. The short story writer typically has to work with just a few characters – or even just one. There simply isn’t the time to introduce an entire entourage.

Setting the Scene – Once again, the length of the novel gives the writer the ability to create a rich fabric on which to allow the plot to develop. Pull out your copy of Jurassic Park and watch Michael Crichton describe the park and its residents. Listen to John Grisham tell us everything there is to know about the fictional town of Clanton, Mississippi. We know of the racial tension in the town, the newspaper with its lengthy obituaries, the estate where Reuben Atlee raised Ray and Forrest, and much more. These authors have created scenes where your imagination can run wild.

Alas, this is another place where the short story writer is clubbed across the knees by the constraints of shortness of his story. He is faced with divvying up words between character development, setting the scene, and moving the plot forward. Many times, the scene is going to draw the short straw. It’s not uncommon to read stories with nominal development of the scene.

The Need for New Ideas – The novelist is going to be working on one core theme for the entirety of her book. She’ll have to come up with new plot elements, but everything should fit nicely into one cohesive plot. The characters shouldn’t suddenly change personalities; nor will the characters typically bounce from one scene to another in rapid succession. There should be a degree of order in the writing process.

The short story writer must come up with a unique idea every time he sits down. Over the past 18 months, I have written about 80 short stories on a broad range of topics. I can’t continue an idea from last week’s story – I need a brand new idea every single week (aside from the rare occasions when I write a multi-part story). Sometimes the well can run dry, and I’ll need to scour the recent news stories on the internet in hopes of inspiration. Once I have the main idea for the plot, I have to mold brand new characters. I repeat this process every 500-1000 words. That’s a lot of new ideas to generate.

Money – If you want to make money writing prose, stick to novels or screen plays. There was a time when writers could earn good money selling their stories to magazines. That time is gone, and not likely to return any time soon. Two of my favorite collections of contemporary short stories are volumes by Lawrence Block and Jeffery Deaver. What do these guys have in common? They are also famous novelists. Even the very best of the pure short story writers aren’t getting rich.

About The Author:

Kosmo is an aspiring novelist, vehement opponent of the designated hitter, student of true crime, and plays the keyboard for The Soap Boxers – an eclectic, team-written web magazine. He is also the author of dozens of short stories, including the voyeuristic tale The Cell Window.

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