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An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2011-12-15 05:05
Subject: [process] Tools in the toolbox
Security: Public
Tags:process, writing
Richard Parks, a couple of days ago, blogged regarding the career and craft contrast between short stories and novels. Go read it, the post is worth your attention.

Back? Good. Did you notice my comment on Richard's post? Here it is again, in case you missed it:

One comment I make about the connection (or lack thereof) between short fiction and novels is that they’re like cabinet making and framing carpentry. Related in some obvious ways — wood, saws, hammers, whatnot — but very different arts requiring very different skills. Some transference of skill is possible, but there are people who are cabinet makers, there are people who are framing carpenters, and there are certain people (myself included) who can do both. One does not, however, inherently or readily lead to the other.

The question is usually framed as something on the order of, "Do I have to publish short stories in order to break in as a novelist?" It's usually asked by an aspiring writer of some crusty old novelist (well, crusty if we haven't showered recently), usually at a convention, perhaps during a panel session, perhaps in the bar. I think Richard's post does a terrific job of answering the question, but I want to pick at my cabinet making versus framing carpentry metaphor again.

In a sense, that metaphor is obvious to the point of crude. Writing short stories and writing novels are both crafts that require mastery of character, setting, plot, style, usage and so forth. Those tools, while not identically deployed, are sufficiently similar as to be almost interchangeable, at least up to a point. A hammer is, in a sense, a hammer, after all. But the creative wood we work in each pursuit is a different grade, cut to different tolerances, and used to very different ends. And its the uses of those wood that influence the uses of those tools.

Take character arc. A novel is a journey, almost always. If nothing else, there's hundreds of pages for the reader to pass through. Hundreds of pages for a character to emerge, be established, develop or elucidate their stakes, try and fail in hopefully spectacular ways, and eventually seek a resolution and a validation. There's room to breathe, room for expansion and digression, room for the character to grow and change in unexpected ways, influenced by other characters, by the plot, by their own inner demons.

If a novel is a journey, a short story is a quick stopover. Grand events are almost always off the page in a short story, present in the backstory or by implication, or perhaps briefly glimpsed in the course of the story. The characters arrive all but fully formed, fleshed out from the moment they hit the page. They don't have time or room to develop a full arc. Short stories typically focus on a single or very limited set of plot elements, and the characters' responses to them. The character arrives extant, encounters the situation, resolves it perhaps with a moment of enlightenment or epiphany, and moves on past the ending to some other, hidden part of their life.

The writerly tools and skills required to propel and motivate a character through that novelistic arc are very different from the tools and skills required to march a character through a short story arc. The sheer scope of things places different demands on the characters and the author alike.

The same distinction applies to plot, setting and all the other bones and bits from which we assemble story in all its manifold forms. All of which is to say, Parks is right. If you have what it takes to be a good short story writer, write good short stories. Use those tools well. If you have what it takes to be a good novelist, write good novels. Use those tools well.

I suppose where the question still applies as an open issue is a newer writer feeling their way into the craft who wonders which way to go. Assuming you have roughly equivalent talents in both directions and your quandary is over which way to jump, it becomes a question of personal preference and career direction. That's a huge discussion of its own, in its own right, a topic I'll address at another time.

Your thoughts? Questions? Comments? Better metaphors?

Post A Comment | 5 Comments | | Link

mlerules: bunny butt
User: mlerules
Date: 2011-12-15 13:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:bunny butt
Heh. You said wood.
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mlerules: Brain
User: mlerules
Date: 2011-12-15 13:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Good brain fodder-thx.
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User: cathshaffer
Date: 2011-12-15 15:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think someone with the basic writing talent and skills for either can learn the other. It's just a matter of having the patience to figure out. In the nonfiction world, short news articles, magazine features, and books are all different skills. No one would say that a person just wasn't born to write magazine features or whatever. What they do say is that there's a learning curve, especially if you're going from one to another.

Up to a couple of years ago, I would have said that the advice to start with short stories was passe. A lot of writers were breaking in with novels, and the short story markets were very anemic. Now with the changes brought about by epublishing, I once again think short stories are a good way to get started. There are a lot of markets out there for your work, and people do read them and talk about them, which can help when you're marketing a novel. Also, writing a lot of short stories is a good way to practice one essential skill that transfers to writing novels--finishing the damn story!

However, if you're really on fire to write novels and don't have the time or patience to learn short story writing, it's not required. Sometimes you have to take the path that contains the most motivation.
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Leah Cutter: Battle lines
User: lrcutter
Date: 2011-12-15 23:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Battle lines
I think that decades ago, yes, writing short stories was a way to break into the market. Today, I don't think it's true or necessary.

The metaphor I use is runners. Everyone can run. Not everyone runs well enough to compete. If you have a certain type of muscle fiber exclusively, you can run sprints really well, but kind of crap out at marathons. If you have the other muscle fiber exclusively, you're a great marathoner, but you don't have explosive sprinting speed. Most people have some of each muscle type.

So with writers -- you might be hard-wired to write one or the other, or maybe you can do both.

Me -- I've been on a 13 week challenge, writing a short story a week. When I started, it's strange how my short story muscles felt "weak". But I also know that with week 9, I've started writing better and better short stories. Practice.

January I get back into the novels. What have I done to stay in shape for those? As you mentioned, character, voice, setting, as well as process and butt in chair.
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User: keikaimalu
Date: 2011-12-16 02:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Honestly, I find them to be very similar experiences, requiring similar skill sets, and exposing similar strengths and flaws in my writing.

I've written dozens of short stories and 7 (unpublished) novels. I haven't detected any difference in my approach or in the progression of the work.

This may be one of those YMMV things.
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