Is it a short story or a novel?

white laptop,black and white notepad and pen, white mobile, on desk

Is a novel a short story that keeps going, or, is it a string of stories with connective tissue and padding, or, is it something else?  Essayist Greg Hollingshead believes that the primary difference between the short story and the novel is not length but the larger, more conceptual weight of meaning that the longer narrative must carry on its back from page to page, scene to scene.

“It’s not baggy wordage that causes the diffusiveness of the novel.  It’s this long-distance haul of meaning.”  Greg Hollingshead

There is a widespread conviction among fiction writers that sooner or later one moves on from the short story to the novel.  When John Cheever described himself as the world’s oldest living short story writer, everyone knew what he meant.

Greg Hollingshead says that every once in a while, to the salvation of literary fiction, there appears a mature writer of short stories—someone like Chekhov, or Munro—whose handling of the form at its best is so undulled, so poised, so capacious, so intelligent, that the short in short story is once again revealed as the silly adjective it is, for suddenly there are simply stories, spiritual histories, narratives amazingly porous yet concentrated and undiffused.

When you decide you want to write in a particular form—a novel, short story, poem—read a lot of writing in that form.  Notice the rhythm. How does it begin?  What makes it complete?  When you read a lot in a particular form, it becomes imprinted inside you, so when you sit at your desk to write, you produce that same structure.  In reading novels your whole being absorbs the pace of the sentences, the setting of scenes, knowing the colour of the bedspread and how the writer gets her character to move down the hallway to the front door.

I sit at my desk thinking about form as a low-slung blanket of cloud blocks my view of the sky.  Through the fly screen I inhale the sweet smell of earth after rain as another day of possibility beckons.

We might write five novels before we write a good one.  I wrote five book-length manuscripts before one was finally accepted for publication. My skill was in the short form. I’d published dozens of short stories in prestigious literary journals. So it made sense that my first book, ‘My Year With Sammy’ (Ginninderra Press) is a novella –  a small book.

What about you? Is your skill in the short form or the marathon?

book cover My Year With Sammy

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7 thoughts on “Is it a short story or a novel?

  1. An interesting question, Libby. Perhaps I’m doing it all wrong but I never really know whether I’m writing a short story or a novel until I have finished the piece, having no more to say on the subject. My current project, for example, looks like it might fall into the category of novella (based on word count) but I didn’t start out with that intention.

    I tried planning a novel once, mapping out the plot and characters beforehand, but that approach didn’t work for me. I like to write as though the story is being told to me and I am hearing it for the first time. I do usually write lots of drafts before I’m satisfied, or satisfied enough to call a halt and move on to something else; so you could say that I write by ‘trial and error’ but it just feels more intuitive, more satisfying and more fun that way.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. you’re right. when you set out to write, you don’t know ahead of time what you’re writing, unless it’s planned ahead of time. and, like you, i prefer to write organically. see what unfolds. as you say, much more fun to write that way.

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  3. An interesting study on the two formats, Libby. The two are very different and it is true that one often develops from short story to novel writing…but it isn’t easy with great skill required. I’m still writing short stories whilst editing my first ms…The novella is an under appreciated and under used format I feel.

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    1. yes, i agree Annika. yeah for the novella. and yeah for short novels. apparently, 50,000 words is acceptable now. i used to aim for 60,000 words which is a huge stretch for a short story writer. 50,000 words feels more manageable. good luck with editing your first ms.

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