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?