A Distinction With a Difference

Today’s post will be bit of writing neep (if that term “neep” still has any meaning). Yes, sorry. Our local writing group has been meeting online since the pandemic began and I was directly asked a question about the mechanics of writing a novel vs a short story. Allways a dangerous idea, since I tend to mull over such questions and come up different answers depending on what I had for breakfast that morning. Here’s more or less what I said.

I’ll take a shot at this, bearing in mind I can only speak from my own experience. Any other novelists in the group would likely have a different take. I wrote short stories for years before I first attempted a novel, and that first novel took me five years to write because I didn’t know HOW to write a novel. After five years, I knew how to write a novel. That is, I knew how to write that particular novel. The next one? Another steep learning curve. And the next….

All that said, the most significant difference between short stories and novels is not length, because a novel is not a long short story any more than a short story is a tiny novel. It can be summed up in one word: pacing. For that reason, a novel composed of self-contained flash fiction chapters with complete story arcs is likely to read very “choppy” and call too much attention to themselves at the expense of the larger story, unless substantially revised with the greater story in mind. The main job of a chapter is not to tell its own story but to serve the greater narrative and smoothly advance the storyline. And the writer has to make that happen even if, as is often the case, they themselves do not yet know the whole story. Yes, there are some writers who can sit down and plot out the whole book before they even write Chapter 1. I’m not one of them, and I know from contacts with other writer friends that I’m not alone here.

Sorta sounds impossible when you look at it that way, but it really isn’t, and the process is a lot simpler than it sounds. It isn’t necessary to know the whole story when you start, but what you will need to find sooner rather than later is a direction. That is, by the time you’re a few chapters in, you need to at least know what the greater narrative is and where it’s going, even if you don’t yet know how the heck you’re going to get there. Figuring that part out is the daily work. A chapter usually isn’t a complete story in itself, though it can be, provided that’s what the greater narrative requires.

You’ll likely end up with some chapters that are fine by themselves but don’t serve any purpose in the narrative. Other chapters which you might have written without understanding how they fit in, were exactly what was needed. All that will come under the heading of editing/revising. Neil Gaiman once described it, and I’ll paraphrase, “Making it look like you knew what you were doing all along.” The reader doesn’t need to see the bits that don’t work, nor should they.

Otherwise, perfectly doable. Just like eating an elephant: One bite at a time.

4 thoughts on “A Distinction With a Difference

  1. Interesting post. Thanks. and I had my smile for the day at “one bite at a time”, 🙂

  2. Thanks for posting this! I’ve had a similar experience. I stopped reading through my early twenties. Six years ago found myself at a bookstore because a friend wouldn’t leave me alone about reading Wheel of Time. Instead I found two books that caught my eye. Name of the Wind and To Break the Demon Gate. I felt things, I was entertained. Those two books were the first books to ever make me stop and ask myself “how did those authors just do that to me?” So I started researching and decided to write, the experience has been similar to what you described.

  3. Speaking of novels, how is the final Laws of Power book coming along?

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