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Author Topic: On the Importance(?) of Short Stories
djvdakota
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We have been blessed with much discussion on the subject of short stories here at Hatrack.

Some like them. Some don't.
Some write them. Some don't.

So share with us your wisdom/thoughts/rants: Why, in your mind, is the writing/reading of short stories so important/unimportant to your development as a writer?


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autumnmuse
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Well, as a new writer I find the prospect of a novel to be a bit daunting first time out. I have learned much about the craft of writing by doing short stories. I've had a couple pro sales recently. All of this is giving me confidence I would not have had, if I had not written short stories.

As a reader, I primarily read novels, true, however I also enjoy a well done short story. There are some shorts which have made intense impacts on me, more so than many novels. And I like the versatility of a short; not a lot of time commitment for a relatively large payoff.


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Beth
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For me, I'm doing short stories now because they're short, so I can play around without the huge committment of novels.

Also I think they're harder than novels - there is no room for error - so they're a real challenge.

I'd rather read a novel than a short story, in general.


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mikemunsil
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what Beth said, although I'm not so sure that a novel isn't harder to pull off. but then, I haven't written a novel yet, so I'm a poor judge.
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JBSkaggs
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Short stories especially in anthology format are like a buffet. You can get a lot variety and choice without a big commitment.

For me I like having variety and change in my writing as well. This week I work on robot monkies next week it's killer shrews.

Financially short stories do not have the kick back financially that novels have.

Lastly I like novels where the chapters read like short stories- each chapter is a semi complete mini story in a series forming the novel.

JB Skaggs


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Three Minute Egg
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I write short stories to work on specifics - dialogue, description, maybe try using slang or a different POV. If I can't finish a decent short story using whatever tool/technique I'm trying out, then I know it won't work for me in the long term like a novel.

I agree with what JB said about chapters reading like short stories, and I think writing short stories has helped me with my novel by making me think in terms of segments of the overall story. Short stories have also forced me to tighten way up, cut down on wordiness, and get right to the point.


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Dark Country
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I like reading some short fiction--I tend to like author's collections more than anthologies or short story magazines--but in generally, I prefer reading the novel.

I have written a few short stories, but not many. Part of the reason is that I CAN'T write them. I simply find it difficult to think that short.

A few months ago I gave up all desire to write short fiction. Part of it came from one of OSC's discussion in his writing class, "Does a writing career mean writing novels?" I don't have delusions of grandure. I don't have any false hopes that one day I'll be able to support my family by writing horror, fantasy, and SF. But I do hope to make some money, enough to make doing the taxes a pain in the ass, enough to supplement our income. And as my wife says, if I earn enough money writing novels to put my kids through college, then that's a successful writing career.

Also, in this day and age, I'm not convinced that one needs to publish short fiction before moving on to the novels. I'm more than willing to start my career with a small market publisher until I get to a point where I can move to a major market.

At one point in time I used to never think along these lines--think of writing as a possible source of income--but that OSC piece really changed my mind. And, frankly, if someone told me today that I'd never make a dime from writing, I'd quit right now. I'm no artist. I'm a commerical writer, and I write for commerical reasons.

Another part of it came from something I read by Lawerence Block--that though writing a novel is generally easier than writing a short story, writing short stories won't guarantee that you'll be able to write a novel. It's a different format, and though there are similaries between short fiction and novels (more so than poetry and novels), a novel has its own conventions one needs to master. The only way to master them is by writing a novel.

I've now started and stopped six or seven novels. I'm about to start writing a new one. With each attempt, I changed my approach, trying to figure out where the others went wrong. (Gosh, I hope I don't reach Edison's numbers before I am successful!) I beginning to see that I am an outliner, and that I probably need to have very thorough outline/synposis on my desk before I start writing.

But if that means I can actually finish one, then so be it.


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HSO
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Writing a short story is where most of us learn to write. It is also helpful by getting several professional short story credits before pitching your novel to agents or publishers.

I prefer reading short stories over novels any day. Always have. And my attempts at writing a novel have resulted in failure up to this point. At least I'm able to finish a short story. Soon, I'll re-tackle the novel concept. For now, I'm satisfied with shorts.


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TaShaJaRo
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I actually used to abhore short stories, both reading and writing them, but the recent flash challenges have changed my mind. I much prefer reading a novel to a short story just because there is more time for characterization and I just like spending more time with the characters. I primarily write novels for the same reason.

However, since participating in the flashes, I have learned techniques necessary to writing good shorts that will help me in my novels as well. I've also had the chance to read some wonderful stories that pack a lot of punch in a tiny package and that has been great.

I don't know that I will ever delve deeply into writing and publishing shorts since my heart is truly in novels but they have been a wonderful learning tool for me.


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Survivor
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As I've said before, if you don't know how to write a short story, you don't know how to write.

It's true that short stories can be very limiting, particularly for fantasy and SF writers. And I think that once you've gotten a short story or two published in a widely recognized market, it is no longer essential to write them. They certainly won't help you support yourself or put a kid through college.

But the limitations of short stories are part of what makes them an excellent tool for developing your writing. The things that will kill a short story dead don't stop being problems once you're writing a novel. They'll kill a novel just as dead as they would kill a short story. It's just easier for a writer to hide from that fact when there's a lot of text to cover. So you can end up with one dead novel after another and never have anyone read enough of any of them to tell you the exact problem.

And the low paying position of short stories makes them a good way to break into the market and get some exposure to the field without mailing out tons of paper along with SASE's to get them back. They are also sometimes the most powerful form of narrative fiction because most people read them in a single sitting, while very few people read entire novels in a single sitting.

I'm not a short story writer. I don't feel like I can really develop the ideas, characters, and situations that excite me in such a limited format. But that doesn't change the simple fact that all writing skills are taught best by writing short fiction. Structure, characterization, exposition, dialogue...if you want to improve, the best way to do it is to write short fiction (this remains true even when you have a large and well informed audience willing to read any and all long fiction you write).

On the other hand, there are writers who seem to get by without knowing how to write....

On the other side of the coin, I enjoy both long and short fiction. As a reader, I don't make a sharp distinction between the two. As a critiquer, I definitely prefer short fiction, long fiction is a real pain (unless it's already virturally perfect or I have creative freedom to edit it without anyone else's input).


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ChrisOwens
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As a reader I can't get into short stories. By the time I get use to the characters and the milieu, the story is over. With a novel, I just have to climb this hill once. With a short stories over and over again.

As a want-to-be writer there are ideas simmering around in my head. Most times, a short story is an outlet for that idea.

I realize a mistake I've made with my novel is writing each chapter with the brevity and compression of a short story during my revision. That may have been a result of well-meaning critiques guiding me in that direction. Chapter one is slow and then-- bam! A flurry of action. To fast. No ebb and flow. So there is a danger of mixing the two forms.


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MaryRobinette
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Well, they're fun.

As a reader, I've always preferred novels because I read to escape. I like a world I can sink into and it's over too soon with shorts.

As a writer, shorts teach me about making every word count. I learn about structure, character arc, and how to establish mileau with a minimum of fuss. I also have a couple of story ideas that are too small for a novel, but which are too complicated for my current skills as a writer. That teaches me humilty. Repeatedly...

A novel is much easier to write, it just takes longer.


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autumnmuse
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Well, if it is true that novels are easier to write, I should be smooth sailing because I think short stories aren't that hard. I have a long way to go, true, but I have finally gotten a handle on the way my mind works, an invaluable tool. Before joining Hatrack, NaNoWriMo, and Mike's flash forum, I would get a lot of great ideas. Mostly milieu type ideas. Then I would craft characters. But I still had no plot, or ending. I even wrote 40k of my novel without having a clear path to the end in my head. The result is a hopeless mess which needs to be rewritten from scratch.

I have made the same mistake in much smaller scale on my first short stories. But lately I've learned that I need to have the end in mind when I start. That has helped me enormously. I've actually been able to sit down and re-write several of my shorts this way, and have gotten very encouraging results.

I feel that if I hadn't practised with short stories, my novel would never be able to heal due to the sheer amount of work, when I am struggling with the basic tools of crafting a story.

I still don't think I'm ready to go back and start over on the novel, but perhaps a few more months of seriously working on the short story as art form will enable me to take the plunge.

Unlike some of you, most of my ideas are shorter. Even the ones I think have novel potential are usually pretty linear and straightforward. I'm not good at involved plot lines yet. Which is another reason that novel length daunts me.

I hope you are all right, that writing the novel will be easier than I think.


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djvdakota
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I thought WRITING the novel was easier, but revising it--I'd much rather revise a short. If it takes me as long, proportionally, to revise my novel as it takes me to revise a short story I'm in deep doo-doo.

Someone around here said that he could write a whole novel in the time it takes to have a few stories ready for publication. That may be true, but you're talking about a rough draft novel as opposed to a bunch of polished shorts. You can't really make that comparison, IMO. A publication ready short story is a bird in the hand. A rough draft novel is two in a bush.

I also find that short stories are excellent exercises that keep the writerly flow going on days when I'm just not interested in working on the NovelIP. And, heck, while you're writing you might as well pop out a few short stories to get your name out there. Can't hurt. Can only help.

I also find--as Survivor so aptly put it--that short stories are a school for my writing technique and skill. Mini-classes, if you will.


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Pyre Dynasty
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I have a lot more patience with a short, if it sucks I only have a page or two more to go.
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Jerome
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I don't see any value of short fiction in terms of learning the trade . . . except that maybe its good to actually write a number of stories from beginning to end before venturing off into the realm of the novel.

But in terms of technique--character, description, POV, dialogue, theme, structure, plot--I don't believe writing short fiction will help you become a better writer faster than if you just wrote novels.

In terms of career, I can see where it might help . . . but I don't think it's essential. There are several novelists who have never started in the short story market: Tad Williams, Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, Walter Mosley, Peter Straub.

As a reader, I'm not much of a short story fan. I have a couple of favorite short story writers: Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, Clive Barker. But I'd just as soon read a novel than a short story collection. Perhaps that's the reason for my bias.

Strangely, I tend to prefer literary short fiction over genre short fiction . . . but I find most contemporary literary novels unreadable. I wonder why that is.

[This message has been edited by Jerome (edited May 20, 2005).]


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GZ
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I'd rather read a novel than short stories, though I like short stories better now than I used to.

As for writing, a short story is great in that you get to experience the whole arc of the story crafting process in full, much more quickly, than with a novel. Start 30 novels, and you'll never get to the point of doing an ending or polishing. Whereas with the lenght of a short story, you've got better odds of having written the same number of pages, yet still had the chance to work on the full skill set. So even if short stories aren't a favorite form, they at least have a good potential for practice.

[This message has been edited by GZ (edited May 20, 2005).]


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mikemunsil
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quote:
But in terms of technique--character, description, POV, dialogue, theme, structure, plot--I don't believe writing short fiction will help you become a better writer faster than if you just wrote novels.

I beg to differ! Well, actually no, I don't beg, I DEMAND!

[deleted]

Just do the math.


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Beth
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yeah, I think you can learn more from short stories than from novels because you have more opportunities to try out different techniques, more quickly. If you write, say, a novel in 1st person present tense, you'll learn a whole lot about 1st person present tense, but you won't learn anything about other POV/tense combinations - in the same time frame you could do a bunch of short stories to explore different POV/tense techniques.

oh, but you'll learn a ton writing novels, too, absolutely. And I do think there are things you learn from novels that you can't get from doing short stories - sheer endurance, for one thing, plus the pacing of a novel and the complexities and the way novels tend to let you stretch out and explore vs the relentless efficiency of short stories, and so on.

bottom line, any time I sit down and write, I am usually learning something about craft while I'm doing it.


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Isaiah13
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quote:
yeah, I think you can learn more from short stories than from novels because you have more opportunities to try out different techniques, more quickly.

Exactly. I think I learned more in my first two months at shorts than I did in the entire year I spent on my novel.


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Survivor
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Well, that's one way of thinking about it.

My main point was that in short stories you actually have to do those things the way they should be done in a novel, or they don't get done at all.

Many people trying to write a novel imagine that they can drag out or simply procrastinate some or all of these elements for ten or twenty or a hundred pages and still have them in the novel. And it doesn't work that way. I read almost every short story I critique all the way to the end. But with novels (and there have been fewer of these, but more than you might assume), I've only read one all the way to the end.

Now, it's true that I'll read the entire text of a short story I'm critiquing rather than finding in a magazine or something partly out of a sense of duty and all that. But generally speaking, I don't read several pages into a published short story and then give up. I do that all the time with full sized books. And I'm not alone. Bookstores nowadays are practically designed to encourage people to read at least ten or fifteen pages of a book and discuss it with their friends before buying it. Frankly, there isn't much chance that they would buy books otherwise.

And frankly, I don't care if someone buys my book, I want them to read it. The money is mostly for the publisher and the bookstore. I like money as much as anyone, but it isn't as though I actually need the stuff (and yes, I know that some humans do need money, but even then there are easier ways to get it).

By writing short stories you learn how to tell a story that people will actually read. You don't learn the theory of plot and milieu and all that, you learn how to deliver them before the reader gets bored and puts your book back on the shelf.


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Jerome
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Okay, Mike, I'll do the math.

I have a ream of paper sitting on my shelf right now. 500 pages. Approximately 125,000 words.

In terms of technique--dialogue, description, characterization, theme, POV, scene, etc.--what difference does it make if those 125,000 words of fiction comprise one novel, three novellas, or twenty short stories?

It makes no difference, in my opinion.

The more I think about it, I'd say there are two benefits of writing short fiction--of writing twenty short stories as opposed to one novel. (1) You are forced to be economical with your words and with your scenes. (2) You have the advantage of telling story after story from beginning to middle to end.

Both of those are beneficial, but any novelist can be economical if he or she wants to. (Most don't, and it's partly their own fault and partly the fault of the publishing industry today: I'd love to see the publication of short 70,000-word novels again). And though there is a real advantage to telling story after story, maintaining a middle throughout a short story is very different from maintaining a middle throughout a novel.

I've been writing for several years now, and I've written both short stories and novels, and I'm basing all of this on my experience.



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mikemunsil
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quote:
The more I think about it, I'd say there are two benefits of writing short fiction--of writing twenty short stories as opposed to one novel. (1) You are forced to be economical with your words and with your scenes. (2) You have the advantage of telling story after story from beginning to middle to end.

I agree.

quote:
Both of those are beneficial, but any novelist can be economical if he or she wants to. (Most don't, and it's partly their own fault and partly the fault of the publishing industry today: I'd love to see the publication of short 70,000-word novels again).

Again, I agree. Especially about the short novels.

quote:
And though there is a real advantage to telling story after story, maintaining a middle throughout a short story is very different from maintaining a middle throughout a novel.

Undoubtedly.

quote:
I've been writing for several years now, and I've written both short stories and novels, and I'm basing all of this on my experience.

I haven't written any novels yet. How about if we argue about this after I have, and can speak from experience? Say, next December?

Of course, by then, I'll only have 1 novel middle to base my comments on.


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Jerome
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When I claimed I was basing this on my expeience, I hope I didn't come across as some kind of pompous vetern correcting a neophyte. I should have added that other people's expereinces may be different. I don't believe writing can be taught. I believe principles can be taught, but the application of those principles--which is where the rubber meets the road--only happens by writing as much as one can.

When it comes to writing, getting it done is all that matters, I thinnk. Some may learn best by beginning with short fiction, and some may find novels easier. I do believe that serious writers--i.e., writers serious about their craft--will experiment in all kinds of ficiton, from the short story to the novella to the novel to the screenplay and so forth. The novelist can learn something by writing a screenplay.


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Silver3
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Entirely agree with Jerome. Writing a novel is different from writing a short story, if only because it is supposed to be more complex. Problems of continuity, of real character development, of multiple plotlines, of holding the reader's interest in the middle of a story, only arise in full in the novel.
But it is true that writing short stories enable you to gain feedback more easily than novels.

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goatboy
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I write the short stuff because it's fun. I write the long stuff because it's fun. If it wasn't fun, I wouldn't even try.

Here is the advantage I see for the novelist in writing short stories: If people can read a small sample of your work in a magazine, they are more likely to be interested in investing in your book.

If you publish several shorts every year and attach a bio with the address of your website to each one, it becomes free advertising for your book. (Hopefully, advertising that actually pays you back a little bit.)

Not all readers will link to your website, but at least some will. I have when I've read something that really intrigues me. Other times I haven't.


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Shendülféa
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I don't particularly like writing short stories as I have trouble thinking of an idea that can be said in that short amount of space. My stories usually rely heavily on complex themes that I can only express effectively in a full length novel. I have written a few short stories, but I still prefer writing my novels.

However, it seems that writing short stories and publishing them is the best way to get your name out there before you publish a novel, which is precisely why I've written the few short stories that I have.


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mikemunsil
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quote:
My stories usually rely heavily on complex themes that I can only express effectively in a full length novel.

No reason that a series of shorts cannot be used to explore complex themes.


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Survivor
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It's a mistake to have your stories rely on the complex themes. It should be the other way round, your complex themes should be relying on the story.

This is just the kind of thinking that writing short stories helps you to overcome.


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Jerome
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I'd agree with Survivor that starting a story with a theme in mind doesn't produce good fiction. I know, I've tried. Some are successful -- John Steinbeck, for example, wouldn't write unless he knew his theme, but I find Steinbeck's work to be dull and moved by propaganda rather than real drama. I think he's highly overrated.

Anyway . . .

But the same problem exists in short fiction as well. Have you ever read a contemporary literary short story? Most of them are filled with banal philosophy dressed in banal stories.

In fact, I didn't learn how thematically oriented I was until I tried to write a novel. Only when I was face with filling up several hundred pages of compelling story did I realize that I spent far too much time thinking about what my stories mean than what happened.

So I guess I'd disagree with Survivor's second point -- that writing short stories will fix this problem. It was trying to write a novel that cured me.


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Survivor
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That's probably because you've already learned a lot from short stories, though.
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Jerome
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Good point.
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whataboutbob85
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Honestly, in the grand scheme of things, short stories and novels are both equally important. I would much prefer to read a good novel but a well done short story can make an impact as well. I enjoy taking breaks between novels, and to fill that time, I write short stories, poems, and screenplays. I don't do it because I'm looking to get rich of my writing and build a hufge body of work, I do it because I can't imagine what life would be like without writing. It's the one thing that keeps me sane.
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djvdakota
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OK. To put the difference of opinion between Mike and Jerome, I offer an analogy:

When potty-training a child, it is important that they have plenty of opportunities to pee, so you give them plenty to drink so they will pee more often. They learn the process from doing it over and over. If they don't do it frequently, they're less likely to learn quickly.

The same can be said for writing. Writing many stories gives you practice in the work of writing stories. Long works don't give you as much practice in beginning and completing a story the way shorts do because you don't do it as frequently.

Besides, if you put a year into writing a novel that completely sucks, you've wasted a year that you could have spent writing a short story that completely sucks, then writing another short that doesn't suck quite so much, then writing another short that sucks even less, then writing another short...

You get the picture. I'd rather be sure that I know how to write a story before spending a year or two only to learn that I don't know how to write a story.


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hoptoad
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My concern with short stories is purely semantic.
You often see 'sketches' passed off as 'short stories'.

A story should be a complete, made object. Shouldn't it?
Certainly it can gesture toward a bigger, more complex world, but it should be self-contained in order to be satisfying.

Often you see a 'short story' that doesn't feel complete, it ends in a way that I am sure is supposed to be philosophical, but rather ends up feeling truncated.

So I like short stories that are complete, that are smooth and round and whole.

I like sketches too, but don't appreciate them being passed-off as a story.


I must say that what I have learned most from writing short stories is about structure. If you build a house (novel) the joints can be a bit rough and ready because you know how many layers of cladding and plaster are going on top of it. Occasionally, if something when you are done and it is still a bit dodgy, a coat of paint will make the problem disappear. The house is still serviceable and comfortable and warm.

However, if you build something small, say a jewellery box (short story) people look at the dovetails, the choice of timber, the finish. They buy it specifically for the craftsmanship.

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited May 23, 2005).]


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Survivor
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Hmph. Next time my dad ("wood is very forgiving") wants help building a house, I'll refer him to you, then.

I don't know whether this holds true for novels or not, but with a house, if you don't pay attention to the details, you end up doing about ten times as much work in the long run trying to fix all the idiot little things that you "didn't think would be such a big problem." And your cost overruns won't be a laughing matter either.


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hoptoad
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I agree, it is an imperfect analogy.

If your dad wants help I would be more than happy. (We can discuss ways of straightening you out. Just let him know that the only tool I am good with is a hammer -- if it doesn't fit, thump it. )

I mean that with a novel you have to get the structure sound to avoid costly mistakes and redos (as you said) but the structure doesn't have to be pretty to be sound. But with a short story, the structure has to be pretty, its part of the reason people want it.

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited May 23, 2005).]


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Survivor
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You don't have an engineer's eye. Structurally sound is always beautiful. You also don't have a lot of experience with real estate. Clunky houses sell for tens or hundreds of thousands dollars less than elegantly built houses that have similar or even slightly inferior stats.

I don't know whether the analogy is sound or not. I'm just saying that you have a naive view of how important it is to have a definite plan and do it right the first time when building or remodeling a house.

Good design and craftsmanship really are even more important when building a house, because there is no paint in this world that can cover bad design or poor craftsmanship. And a house represents a huge investment of labor and materials compared with a jewelry box.

Anyway, this is probably off topic. Stories are not houses or jewelry boxes.


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Jerome
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The analogy starts falling apart, I think, when you look at the Carpenter's Rule: measure twice, cut once.

It seems to me--at least it's been my experience--that the more I plan (the more I measure), the more I end up writing. I think this is because creativity feeds creativity, and I've found that a novel--at least the ideas I have about the novel--has to grow to an almost unmanagable point before I'm able to hone it back to a managable story.

I think a better analogy is that a short story must be like a building--everything must be perfect, working together to acheive the effect. A novel is more like city sprawl that has numerous highways and side-streets, hundreds upon thousands of houses and buildings, and though there is a plan--you can get from Point-A to Point-B--it's nearly impossible to see how it all comes together from a bird's-eye view.


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Beth
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I like the novel-as-city part. Certainly my novels have all had a bad part of town with crumbling infrastructure, and some good parts of town with good schools and lots of orthodontists.
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hoptoad
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I would love to buy a house with dovetail joints INSIDE the walls, do you know where I can get one?

By the way, its not my analogies that fall apart, its my houses!.

So novels are big.
Short stories are not. The reader looks more closely at them.

OOOH I know: Novels are like the sea....

( I like Beth's city analogy better than my house one. Dang it )

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited May 24, 2005).]


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Beth
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ah, but the city analogy is jerome's, not mine, alas.
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The city analogy might work if cities were commonly built or at least designed by a single individual.

I think that using an analogy is a bit unwarrented in this situation. After all, virtually everyone here has written numerous short stories and written or worked on a few novels as well. And we've all read quite a bit more than we've written (okay, I'm just hoping that's the case).

Analogies should be used when the audience understands the item used in the analogy better than they understand the thing being illustrated by the analogy. Most of us don't know more about designing houses or cities than we know about stories.

By the way, the fact that you can get from point A to point B in a city isn't so much a result of design as it is a result of a basic rule of development, if there isn't a way to get to point B, point B doesn't get built.


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hoptoad
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Thanks for clearing that up.

From now on you will always be (to me at least) 'Con-Survivor-tory'. Because you spread your life-giving warmth to us tender sprouts. And I understand Conservatories...

Sorry Jerome.

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited May 25, 2005).]


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rmbryan
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I like reading Novels and short stories I also enjoy writting short stories,
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