The Long and Short of It

Thursday, April 05, 2007

I knew I must write a novel. But it seemed an impossible thing to do when I had been trying with great difficulty to write paragraphs that would be the distillation of what made a novel. It was necessary to write longer stories now as you would train for a longer race.

Ernest Hemingway

When I have an idea for a story, I don't always know whether it's destined to be a short story or a novel. In general, they begin as short stories, but I get caught up in the idea and want to explore it completely and it begins to transform itself into a full-blown novel—with all the benefits and dangers that encompasses.

Past wisdom has been that writers should write (and sell!) short stories as practice toward eventually attempting novel-length works. Unfortunately, wide markets for short stories are rapidly vanishing (surprising, considering the average attention span of many people), so there are increasingly fewer markets for new writers to sell and publish their shorter work. Markets for novellas and novettes are nearly non-existent, so most writers end up having to make the leap between short stories to full-length novels (or, in many cases, series of novels—publishers seem to really like trilogies and longer series of books).

One maor issue is whether the idea can support a novel-length story. In many cases, it depends on the goal of the story and the intended audience. A lightweight idea can be sustained if the characters and situations are particularly compelling in same way. If characters are secondary, then the idea needs to pretty heavyweight, interesting enough in its own right to keep readers turning the pages. (In the science fiction genre, titles like Ringworld and Rendezvous with Rama come to mind in that category.)

Another problem with novels is that they take a long time to write. Even if the muse is cooperative, a novel-length work consists of a lot of words! It's definitely not for writers who desire instant gratification, unless they can find in the completion of a really good passage or chapter. That's probably the reason why so many people have half-finished novels sitting in their filing cabinets and hard drives.