Novels versus shorter writing.


I’ve been musing about the differences between novels and shorter fiction – novellas, short stories, ficlets, flashfic and drabbles (and all variations on these). I’ve played with all these kinds of writing and I’ve chosen to read all of them, too. But I think I have to say my real preference is for the novel, whether to read or to write. Taking Nanowrimo’s definition as a yardstick I’m talking about fiction that is over fifty thousand words long. This is an arbitrary measurement, dictated by print publishing, but it allows us to use a common description.

Characters can be allowed to develop at their own pace in a novel. This is satisfying for a reader who learns about a character slowly, with lots of twists and turns of plot and personality. It is also satisfying for the writer who can hold back secrets, allow for events to influence development and look at the reactions of a character to all kinds of happenings. The plot, too, can take time to unfold, and can contain sub-plots and underlying themes that could never be fully explored in a shorter work. This is even more true of a linked series of novels, where there is the pleasure of remembering past incidents and building up a whole detailed history.

As a writer I like to immerse myself in whatever I am writing. I emerge later – sometimes hours later – knowing I have been living in a different world which is every bit as real to me as the one where I need to shop or prepare a meal. My favourite books are the ones where I have been able to lose myself in the world the author has created and I would seriously like to provide that kind of alternate universe for my readers. For me, it never seems possible in a shorter story. It takes me time to enter wholly into a fictional universe and until that entry is complete the demands of everyday life tend to summon me back again. So usually, with someone else’s short fiction I can admire, but not love, and in my own, I am always to some extent an outsider telling a story, not submerged in the ‘dream’.

I read very quickly, which is probably a factor in my preferences. A short story is over almost before it has begun and certainly before I have had a chance to fall under its spell. As I always write what I want to read this means my own short works are over too quickly, as well. Of course, stories dictate their own length and some have only one strand, which will last for ten or twenty thousand words and no more. Any attempt to expand the idea will produce repetitious and turgid prose that an editor would rightly cut. This is, incidentally, just as true of longer stories and some huge novels could benefit by being pared down to a slimmer size.

I notice that Writing Magazine lays great emphasis on the short story. Maybe it’s because there are more possible outlets for the beginner to try with submissions; there are magazines galore and calls for entries for competitions and anthologies.  Maybe people feel they can write something short because it will, they think, take less time out of their busy lives. There is also a mistaken perception that short stories are somehow easier than the novel; their lack of length makes them less daunting and more likely to be achieved. One only has to look at ‘classical’ short stories to know this isn’t true, but the idea persists.

I have been made more than normally aware of all this by the amount of ‘advent’ fiction that has come my way this month. Various writers, some I call friends and some I know of and ‘follow’ have been treating their readers to short fiction, sometimes a piece a day, in the run up to Christmas. This is happening in the worlds of original fiction and fan fiction alike. Some of the offerings are very good indeed and it is lovely to have such ‘gifts’ online to open each day. But there is something unsatisfying about a diet of brief glimpses. I was looking at some of my own flashfics, wondering whether to work on one or two to offer here. But I couldn’t really get into any of them again, whereas I was doing a final proof reading of one of my novels and had to be very strict with myself to concentrate on punctuation and spelling and not get carried away by my own story!

I know I feel happy that my own work next year will focus on novel length works. Two (at least) for final editing and formatting, and one (at least) to write. I shall no doubt get happily lost in them, and it seems likely that things like mealtimes and necessary household tasks will suffer!

Some of you, I know, enjoy shorter fiction, and some of you write it for various reasons, including the perfectly good one that it can be an excellent way of breaking the dreaded writer’s block. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

3 thoughts on “Novels versus shorter writing.

  1. I regard things I read as friends or acquaintances of sort, so in the long term I prefer novels. I appreciate and admire good short stories, but in the way gems and curious artpieces are admirable. They can be fascinating, but they don’t make friends, and they slip one’s mind relatively quick. And when I come across a really good short story, I tend to regret it isn’t longer.

    On the other hand, the element for I admire short stories the most, is usually their plot or the overall idea. At the same time, I tend to not care for the plot in novels (or at least care little) and I forget it easily.

    I think I have a slower rate of reading now than in the past. I tend to get distracted by associations and sink in thoughts over the issues brought up… And in many cases, the author possibly would be rather surprised, “Huh? Have I written about this?” *g*

    What I write – as far as I can say I write anything at all – somehow finds own rules and tendencies though, being often unlike to the above. In writing the plot matters a lot, regardless of the length, though I write mostly short trifles. And I write gen fics, not pairings, though I read more of the latter than the former… And I don’t like RPF, but I’ve written one…
    Heh, but at least I care for the style in reading as much as in writing.

    • I like your description of novels as friends. I once read (and can’t find) an article that said that in a truly memorable novel the characters became so alive that they are simply people in another room in your life, one you could visit at any time. I don’t think that usually happens in shorter works. But some of the ‘cleverest’ writing is seen in short stories, which have to be very finely crafted to succeed at all whereas a novel can sprawl and have parts that are less than perfect and still appeal!

      • Coming to think of it, we often know more about fictional characters than about many persons in RL…

        But some of the ‘cleverest’ writing is seen in short stories, which have to be very finely crafted to succeed at all whereas a novel can sprawl and have parts that are less than perfect and still appeal!
        This, exactly.

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