Perfect, Baby, Perfect! Now make it longer!

A short story is not the same as a novel. For a start, a novel has a lot more words.

I generally find it fairly easy (for a certain value of ‘easy’) to sit and write a short story. I’ll let an idea percolate in my head for a day or so, and then sit down and write, and before you know it, I have a short story. My shortest good* short story is about 580 words. My longest is just over 5000. Regardless of specific length, they generally take 2-4 hours to write, and then another 2-4 hours of editing. And then, after a break of at least a week, another 1-2 hours of editing. So, all up, worst case scenario: 10  hours to turn out a short story.

A novel, on the other hand, is a lot of work. There’s absolutely nothing easy about it. Okay, that’s a lie. I can develop characters, and have plot-arcs hanging in my head, and be intensely excited about it. And tapping out words on a keyboard isn’t any harder than if I’m writing a short story. But I can’t sit down for a few hours, print out a first draft, hand it to my husband and say, “What do you think? Is it worth keeping? Or should I save myself some time and delete it now?” Writing a novel is harder (for me, at least) because the light at the end of the tunnel seems to be a REALLY long way away. And I like praise. I crave it like a junkie craves his next hit. **

But the difference between writing a short story and writing a novel is not just a matter of word count. Do a search online, and you’ll find about a million different articles and perspectives on which is harder, which takes more skill, and which is more worthwhile. (I know. I did it.)

According to some people, *** writing a novel is harder because it takes a bigger commitment of time, a larger understanding of story arcs and character development, and a greater dedication to the craft.

Accord to other people,**** writing a short story is harder because you have less time for story arcs, character development, and world-building (in the case of speculative fiction). Oh, and it requires a greater dedication to the craft because “every word counts”.

According to just about everyone,*****writing a short story is a completely different process to writing a novel. The two artforms require different skills, they have different formats, and most people can only write one or the other. (Unless you’re Clive Barker, Jeffrey Archer, Marion Zimmer Bradley, et al.) I completely disagree with this. I don’t think they’re completely different at all.

Let’s look at the elements of a good novel: protagonast, antagonist, main story arc, minor story arcs, conflict, lasting change, conclusion, and good wordsmithery.******  Does a short story have those elements?

  • Protagnist: check.
  • Antagonist: check.
  • Main story arc: check.
  • Minor story arcs: check. (Depending on story length, there may only be one, and it may be VERY minor. But still.)
  • Conflict: check.
  • Change: check.
  • Conclusion: check.
  • Wordsmithery: check.

(Before I get flamed, I know I left a lot out. I did it on purpose. Really.)

But there is one thing that definitely differentiates a short story and a novel, and that is complexity. A novel requires a more complex idea or ideas. When you scratch the surface of your idea, there should be more underneath it. You don’t need extra (or different) skills – you just need a different kind of idea.

Think about it like this: You have a garden. You grow flowers. You’re really good at it. Then, one day, you decide that it would be nice to grow some vegetables. Do you need to learn an entirely new skill set? Or do you just need to plant some different seeds? (And adjust your current skills accordingly.)

And this is why it’s frustrating when someone reads a short story and says, “Wow. This is good. You should turn it into a novel.”  I appreciate your feedback. I really do. And possibly I could write a novel set in the same world, or with the same characters, or with the same theme. But I can’t turn my 5000 word short story into a 80,000 word novel, because my idea isn’t novel-worthy. I’d just have a short story with an extra 75,000 words.

* ie: I’m happy for other people to read it.
** This is possibly not a good trait in a writer.
*** Trust me: “some people” are real. I just haven’t got their names, websites, or qualifications. That doesn’t mean I made them up.
**** As above.
***** Really? You bothered to check this footnote? Surely you knew that I was going to say ‘as above’ again. Right?
****** I was pretty sure I just made that word up. So I googled it. Apparently it’s already included in the always-reputable Urban Dictionary. So I guess someone else made it up first.

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