You Can’t Get to England in a Rowboat

Are short stories a useful exercise, or are they a waste of a budding novelist’s time?

I’ve been trying to write a longish short story for the past few weeks, and it hasn’t been going all that well. I feel like I don’t know my characters intimately because I just haven’t committed to them or spent the word-count time introducing readers to them.

While perusing the current P&W yesterday, trying to persuade myself to write instead of working on various crafty projects while watching TV, I came across the following quote from William Dean Howells:

We become of a perfect intimacy and a devoted friendship with the men and women in the short stories, but not apparently of a lasting acquaintance. Recurrence and repetition seem necessary to that familiar knowledge in which we hold the personages in a novel.

The article containing this quote is, “A Novel Approach: Learning to Write More than Stories,” by John Stazinski. Stazinski posits that the time constraints in MFA programs force teachers and students to focus on short stories, which inevitably don’t sell and can’t teach students the mechanics of writing a full novel. He writes:

…The difference between constructing a short story and constructing a novel is like the difference between building a rowboat and building a yacht: They both have to float, but one is bigger and grander and meant to carry more people farther. Just as the yacht is not simply a bigger rowboat, the novel is not a big short story: knowledge of one doesn’t necessarily translate into knowledge of the other.

This is interesting (and perhaps enabling) to me, because I’m not a fan of writing short stories, in spite of advice I’ve received. George R. R. Martin advises novice writers to begin with short stories, because starting with a huge book or more is “like starting in at rock climbing by tackling Mt. Everest.”

I’ve always ignored that advice.

I like novels. I like reading them, I like constructing them. Novels give you the space and plot-depth to really dig into issues as well as characters, to explore a world and a conflict. Novels create relationships and immerse readers in a new universe.

Don’t get me wrong. I like reading short stories, too. Hemingway’s short story “Cat in the Rain” changed my life, but that’s a story for another blog post. Short stories are like miniatures: works of art in themselves, but they require a different set of tools than a Neoclassical history painting that occupies an entire wall.

I assigned myself the task of a short story because (a), I had a very small plot that I loved, and (b), I thought writing a full plot arc in miniature would be a useful exercise for a writer who tends toward the epic in scale.

It’s proving more difficult than I had expected. I keep wanting to expand, to add subplots and minor characters. I want to build a yacht.

So what do you think? Short stories: friend or foe?

13 thoughts on “You Can’t Get to England in a Rowboat

  1. I like short stories because they make you explore one central conflict. It’s sort of like the difference between a reduction and maybe a gravy. A short story makes you boil away all the extraneous stuff until you get what’s essential. I actually have more trouble with longer pieces, sustaining the character arcs and conflicts.
    Thanks for the interesting post.

    • That’s a great comparison. I think it IS good for me, to resist the temptation to make a full soup… This story is just a broth. And once I can make a good broth, my soups will be better.

      I’m actually cooking soup today. Does it show? 🙂

  2. Personally, I did take GRRM’s (and many other’s) advice. I wrote short stories for a few years (and still do) because it forces me to write well (or, at least, try).

    By that I mean it forces me to find the center of the story. What am I trying to say? What are my characters after?

    With a novel, it is easy to lose one self with characterization, scene descriptions, plots, subplots, and the myriad issues a writer has to juggle. Let alone trying to write complete sentences!

    Learning to write short stories does allow a new writer to explore writing techniques while conveying a story with a narrow focus.

    Of course, both Howells and Stazinski are correct. Short stories and novels are two different animals. Approach each with caution.

    Any writing is good for a writer – even if you hate it. Look at it as words towards your one million. 😉

  3. I’ve written maybe…two or three short stories in my life. I’m right with you, Kristin. I don’t like it, and I don’t wanna do it. While I get that it has merit, I love novels. I even love my novels, though to see how relentlessly I’ve been hacking away at the first one lately, one might doubt the sincerity of that statement.

    But yeah, not a huge fan of writing short stories. They too often explode on me and become novels. Even one of the current standalone short stories I have in my portfolio right now is part of a novel.

    • I’m trying so hard not to let this one become a novel. It’s on its way… and it could be so interesting, and funny as a novel…!

      Ask me again in two weeks, and we’ll see if I’ve won the battle.

  4. If it becomes a novel, well, so what? I think one can learn a great deal from writing short stories, such as how to leave out extraneous bits and really get at the meat of a piece; it’s a brief, easy way to explore new styles or voices. One can write a short story faster than a novel, redraft and hone it, but if your vision of the work no longer fits in a short story, if it becomes more of a novella or even a full blown novel or series, there’s nothing wrong with that, either! I’m a dunce when it comes to writing brief styles, but that’s exactly why I feel the need to try. My teachers were so busy trying to squeeze words out of my peers that they never set word or page caps, just “at least x pages”, so I’d hand in twenty pages on a two page paper. I know I need to learn to prune, to convey concepts in less words both with relevant, meaningful dialogue and “space” that a reader can fill in with their imagination instead of me feeding them every detail. Still, even though I want to hone my ability using other styles of writing, I’ll always consider myself a novelist first. My advice: let your ideas be what they want to be, and give them the space they need to flourish.

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