Short Stories vs Novels

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This post is about short stories and novels, but first a quick update. I have not been able to write lately. Not at all. Not a word.

I’ve been a total basket case, stressed beyond belief for reasons I don’t understand. I’m busier than I used to be now that I’m helping with my husband’s business, but I feel like it’s more than that. Any time it starts getting close to when I have to get ready to go to work or run errands, I get this jittery, panicked feeling and start breaking down. I cry and scream over the tiniest things. I think I’m getting into that “nesting” phase of pregnancy that I keep hearing about, because all I want to do is clean our house so it’s nice for the baby, but I don’t have enough energy to do it.

I’m about to head out for a long walk, longer than I’ve gone on in months. I’m hoping it will clear my head a little. When I get home, I plan to clean as much of this dump I call a house as possible. Maybe if it’s tidier, my brain will be tidier.

Enough of that for now. Since I haven’t been able to write, I’ve been trying to read. That also hasn’t been going too well, so I’m trying to read short stories since I can finish one in 40 minutes and not have to remember anything about it afterward.

I’ve never really understood or liked short stories. When I was younger, I thought they were kind of like the easy way around writing a novel. You didn’t need as much content or as much patience or as much planning, so it was just easier to write them.

Despite that notion, I’ve only tried writing short stories once in my life. I wrote a collection of short horror stories. I’ve gone back and read them since, and was surprised by what I found.

For one thing, the writing was terrible. I expected it to be since I wrote them when I was about 14, but it’s always embarrassing for me to go back and read things that I wrote that were that incredibly bad.

But aside from the poor quality of the writing itself, I was pleasantly surprised by the stories. I have always thought of short stories as rushed and stunted, with no time to develop a good back story or to create an atmosphere because you’re in and out of them so fast. I’ve always thought they have beginnings and middles and ends just like novels, but with nothing in between.

My stories weren’t like that. They were actually well developed. They read like longer works, just in a shorter space of time. I’m saying this about the two I remember. My suspicion is that the others were terrible and I couldn’t even get through them. They probably had beginnings and middles and ends without any connective tissue, just like my false impression of short stories in general.

I hadn’t thought much about my short stories until I started reading short stories. Now that I’m older and a better writer (hopefully), I understand how difficult they actually are. You have to be able to say so much, express so much, create an entire world, in such a short space of time. In so few words.

I think that’s why I’ve never liked them. I’m a rambler. I like things to be explained and then explained again in a different way. I like to know as much as possible about the world I’m reading about. A lot of people thought the 5th Harry Potter book was too long, and that half of the content could have been cut, but I think omitting anything would have made it lose so much. It wouldn’t have been the same without all those words, and all that detail.

It does take patience to write a novel. Another issue with my old stories, long and short, was that I’d get a good beginning going, then start to get into the middle and get bored. It’s all over my stories. I can see the point in each of them that I lost patience, because the story just takes off in a random direction. Characters do unexpected things, like so unexpected that it reads like I forgot who I was writing about, or some stupid, unbelievable plot twist comes along to take things into a new place because the old one is making me twitchy. It reads like I got bored. Like I decided to sabotage the story because I didn’t want to take the time to do it right. The planning got to me, so I threw it out the window.

Another misconception I’ve always had about short stories was that that didn’t happen in them. That they were so short there was no time to get bored. No time to mess around. No time to even skip over important details or do anything unexpected. They all stuck to the plan, because the plan was short.

Reading the stories I’ve been reading, I realize that’s wrong, too. The short stories that feel disjointed, that feel like they have no substance despite the presence of a clear plot, feel that way because they’re not focused enough. The author either didn’t stick to the plan, or they didn’t have a good enough plan, or, like me, they just started writing and called whatever came out the finished product, without taking the time to go back and connect the dots.

However, that is not a failing in short stories. That is a failing in writing in general. I’ve read novels that feel exactly the same way. Like they’re based around a good idea that isn’t supported by enough background. Like the author knew the events, but didn’t dig deeper to find the guts. Like the story is the exterior of a human body, a bag of skin on a hanger that would just fall into a limp puddle on the floor if it wasn’t bound by a cover, because the cover is all that’s there. There’s nothing inside.

I’m realizing now that short stories and novels have the same challenges and the same tendencies. The short stories that read like longer works are well planned and well executed. It has nothing to do with their length. It’s just a different medium. For people like me who are wordy, getting everything they want to say down in a short space of time may be difficult. For people who are less wordy, filling a novel may be difficult. I used to think the latter was more valuable as a creative work, but it’s not. It’s just longer. And what I prefer. My taste. But not better.

Obviously, if I get any time to write I’m going to work on the behemoth. I am a good 100 pages behind my timeline now, so I don’t want to spin off in a new direction by trying to write short stories for the second time in my life. However, if it gets to the point eventually where things slow down a little, or I get a little less crazy or more motivated, or my brain stops sabotaging me, and I am back to working on the behemoth and I find myself with some spare time… eventually I would like to take another shot at short stories. Shortening my thoughts into 40 pages instead of 800 would be a great exercise for me. I also think it would increase my newfound appreciation for the art.

But not now. For now, I’m going for a long walk at the park pictured above, then I’m cleaning my dumpy house. If I get any free time later today, I’ll write. I think just writing this post was a good start.

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