5 Tips: Should You Write a Short Story or Novel?

adult book book store bookcase

Should you write short stories or work on a novel? Some say the difference between a short story and a novel is in the pacing. Are you a sprinter or a long distance runner?

Even though a short story and a novel have many similarities, such as characters, dialogue, plot, etc., there are aspects that a short story must have that a novel can live without. You can be looser when writing a novel, take your time building suspense, revealing information about the characters, and meander your way to the ending. The short story writer doesn’t have this freedom. Every sentence counts. The short story is an art form. It needs special skills and talents on the part of the author that novels do not.

And then there are novels-in-stories. My last two books, The Crystal Ballroom (2017) and The Usual Story (2018), are novels-in-stories:

‘While the short story pauses to explore an illuminated moment, and the novel chugs toward a grand conclusion, the novel-in-stories moves in spirals and loops, a corkscrewing joy ride.’ – Danielle Trussoni

Here are 5 tips on whether you should write a short story or a novel from Elizabeth Sims, Writer’s Digest

1. DURATION OF STORY
Obviously, the short story is short; the novel is long. But while short fiction typically ranges from 1,000–5,000 words, there’s another kind of length to discuss: time frame. One of the most prevalent characteristics of a short story is a concentrated time frame. A few hours, a day, a week. A short story that spans years or generations risks leaving the reader unsatisfied.

The novel, on the other hand, is the ideal form for a story that is literally extended in length. If you want to explore the effects of time on your characters, the novel is the more suitable vehicle.

So consider: How much time might your story require?

2. NUMBER OF CHARACTERS
Counting characters might seem simplistic, but actually it’s one of the best criteria for determining the scope of your story. If your cast keeps growing as you flesh out your plot—let’s say you’ll be portraying a large family, or a complex group—then a short story won’t serve. You simply don’t have room in 2,000 or even 7,000 words to draw more than a few characters effectively, giving each one enough presence for the reader to keep them straight, let alone relate
to them.

On the flip side, beware of relying on just a select few characters to carry a novel. On one hand, you’ll be able to develop those characters deeply, but on the other, you’ll risk losing readers who are restless for quicker pacing.

What about point of view? In a novel, the number of points of view is up to you. For short stories, it’s sensible to stick with the classic single POV, either first person or third limited. Briefer stories can also work well with the POV shifting between two characters, but when you get to three or more, the varying perspectives can dilute the power of the story.

3. PLOTS AND SUBPLOTS
I once had an editor advise me, as I was revising one of my early novels, to add more characters. I played around with the idea. As soon as I’d decided to add a few fresh faces and give them something to do, I realized that what my editor had really asked for was more plot.

Ding. More characters equal
more action.

Most short stories have but one plot. The very best, however, have what I call a plot-and-a-half—that is, a main plot and a small subplot that feeds in a twist or an unexpected piece of business that adds crunch and flavor to the story as
a whole.

Consider how much plot you’ve got worked out so far. Does one plot strand, or perhaps a plot-and-a-half, feel just right? Or is your story straining to bust out and explore territory you haven’t seen yet? Which leads us to …

4. THEMES
Coincidentally, when I got the assignment to write this piece, I’d been rereading Anton Chekhov’s short stories. My copy, a sublime little clothbound volume issued by the Modern Library in 1932, features marginalia written by previous owners. In the blank half-page after “Grief,” a story about a bereaved hackney driver and his callously abusive passengers, someone wrote, “Second-lowest man has one job in life: to keep the lowest man down.”

Now that is an incisive reading of the story. One vest-pocket-sized tale was all the great Chekhov needed to pierce our hearts with that truth. Just like Chekhov, in a short story you should be trying to get at one or two poignant aspects of being human. In a novel, you can create characters, let them loose, follow them and see what they do. If you feel your story will be more a journey than a statement, you may be leaning toward a novel.

5. COMMITMENT
Writing a novel could take a year or more, and whether you publish it or not, it’s a huge investment of time, energy, and mental and emotional strength. If you feel you’ve got a novel on your hands, consider these most important questions:

Do you lie awake thinking about your story? Do your characters come to you at odd moments and stand silently, waiting for you to do something with them?

Are you fully committed to doing whatever it takes to pour out your best? (It bears mentioning that in order to get your best, you often must pour out your worst—and be willing to toss it all in the trash one day.)

Are you afraid of wasting your time on something that might not succeed? (Everybody is.) The real question: Will fear turn you away from this task, or will you push through fear, risking failure but opening untold possibilities?

Will you be sorry if you don’t have a go at it?

Elizabeth Sims adds, ‘Whichever form you select, novel or short story, you should work with joy, with passion and without haste. And hey, you can always change your mind. Writing is a journey.’

For further reading, check out my posts Writing Is Like Becoming a Sushi Chef and Writing Tip: Use Your Obsessions. And to make sure not to miss anything from Libby Sommer Author you can follow me on Facebook  or Instagram.

Will my story resonate with anyone?

a man and woman dancing tango

When you write a story, you never know if it will resonate with anyone. Then a person like Dr Beatriz Copello writes a review and you find yourself dancing with joy, thinking how blessed you are.

Beatriz Copello’s review was published by The Compulsive Reader and you can read it below:

A review of The Usual Story by Libby Sommer

Reviewed by Beatriz Copello

The Usual Story 
by Libby Sommer
Ginninderra Press
Paperback, ISBN: 9781760415792, July 2018, $27.50, 80pp

The Usual Story by Libby Sommer takes the reader into the life and mind of Sofia.  Sofia is a middle-aged woman, a writer and very much involved in dancing, particularly Tango.

Tango, a dance that was born in the 1800s around the port of Buenos Aires, Argentina, was the dance of port workers and women of the night. Nowadays, this complicated and elegant dance is very much in vogue and danced around the world. Tango gives some sort of skeleton to a large part of The Usual Story. Other sections deal with relationships from the past and the present.

The reader gets to know Sofia as she dances and relates to the other dancers who participate in the Tango classes. In an interesting way Sommer mixes in her text Sofia’s tango adventures and lessons with her thoughts and love experiences, as well as evocative descriptions of her surroundings.

There is something in human beings that makes them ponder relationships. Sommer, with a very fine narrative, engages us in Sofia’s analysis of the past, particularly in her relationships with her parents and with two of her younger lovers J and Tom. The writer has the ability to create very believable characters. She handles feelings in a measured and unsentimental way. The author says about J:

Little by little, I’d learned new things about J. Once, when staying with him in that first summer, I found him lying on my bed with so pitiful a look on his face that I couldn’t see into it. It was very painful to realise how utterly defeated he looked; everything about him was different to what I’d seen before, out of sync, closed down, remote, his very guts hanging out in front of me.

Every now and again we encounter in the narrative some profound thoughts from Sofia. She reflects: “I think that when you are really stuck, when you have stood still in the same place for far too long, it’s almost as if a bomb needs to go off, to get you to move, to jump, and then to hope for the best.”

The Usual Story contains many things about the every day, the mundane, the routine of living but it is presented in such an engaging way that the story becomes real. It is impressive the ability of Sommer to fragment the narrative when we encounter Sofia’s visits to the psychiatrist. We read about her participation in Milongas, asking relatives about her past, and about love and its many facets. All of these interspersed with poetic descriptions of place. Sydneysiders will recognise many areas of the Eastern suburbs in Sommer’s vivid imagery. The following is one of those descriptions that has cinematic qualities:

The sea looks different every day. Today it’s a mid-grey tone, its surface moving in a gentle tugging motion as a container ship moves south along the horizon. A moist breeze brushes my cheek as the waves make a hushing noise as they curl into the sand of the beach. I watch the colour creep slowly into the clouds. A flock of lorikeets balances on the bare branches in front of me.

There is a certain melancholy in The Usual Story which I believe stems from the relationship of Sofia with her mother and her daughter. Relationship between parents and children can be very complicated. As sons and daughters we tend to arrive at a different view of them according to our age. As children, our parents are like gods; as adolescents they can be our enemies; as adults we tend to be more objective but we are too busy with our own children to spend time analysing these relationships. We may also depend on our parents to help with our progeny and this clouds our assessment. A different thing is when we get to that same period of life:  our third age. It is then, when we have lived and experienced life, that we can be more objective in the evaluation and appreciation of our parents. Sofia is at that stage and she can see clearly her mother’s distant and cold behaviour, but there must be in her a grain of insecurity so she wants to check what she thinks she knows. She wants to be sure. So she searches through memories, analysing them, confirming facts with other relatives.

Sofia’s relationship with her daughter is not perfect either. After seeing a mother and a daughter embrace each other with love she says: “They embrace and then walk to the door, still entwined. I feel a pang of wistfulness for my own daughter as I watch them walk away. My daughter who hadn’t wanted to spend a weekend away, just the two of us. She’d said we make each other tense if we’re together too much. But she’d said it in a kind voice.

‘You don’t mind, do you?’ she’d asked.

I did mind. ‘At least you’re honest with me,’ I said.”

As a psychologist, I found The Usual Story fascinating because the characters are so interesting and authentic. As a reviewer, I enjoyed the book’s clear narrative, perhaps a little leisurely at times, but the pace picks up engaging the reader with a beautiful text.

About the reviewer: Dr Beatriz Copello is a former member of NSW Writers Centre Management Committee, writes poetry, reviews, fiction and plays. Beatriz’s poetry has been published in literary journals such as Southerly and Australian Women’s Book Review and in many feminist publications.  She has read her poetry at events organised by the Sydney Writers Festival, the NSW Writers Centre, the Multicultural Arts Alliance, Refugee Week Committee, Humboldt University (USA), Ubud (Bali) Writers Festival.

Print and ebook editions of The Usual Story available from Ginninderra Press, Amazon, Book Depository and other online booksellers.

Publication Update

a man and woman dancing tango

On Tuesday I posted the corrected final proofs of THE USUAL STORY back to publisher Ginninderra Press.  Am now in the home stretch for July release of the book, a prequel to THE CRYSTAL BALLROOM.  Have finalised the blurb for back cover and obtained copyright approval for front cover image.

The primary goal of proofing is to serve as a tool for customer verification that the entire job is accurate. Prepress proofing (also known as off-press proofing[4]) is a cost-effective way of providing a visual copy without the expense of creating a press proof.[5] If errors are found during the printing process on press, correcting them can prove very costly to one or both parties involved. – Wikipedia

I’ve been working on the back cover Book Blurb for the last couple of months – rewritten it maybe 300 times. But I think it reads well now, so well I hope readers won’t be disappointed when they read the book itself. Hopefully the story lives up to its promise.

Like THE CRYSTAL BALLROOM, THE USUAL STORY is written in stand-alone discreet chapters. Versions of several of the chapters were first published as short stories in literary journals. I connected the stories by using segments as linking devices: the main character’s telling of the aftermath of a painful affair, her search for understanding of what went before, and the tango. It’s not an easy thing to do. My proof reader said the manuscript reads like a novel, rather than as a collection of linked stories. Am very happy to hear that. Another term for the structure of the book is novel-in-stories.

‘While the short story pauses to explore an illuminated moment, and the novel chugs toward a grand conclusion, the novel in stories moves in spirals and loops, a corkscrewing joy rode.’ – Danielle Trussoni

So corrected final proofs are now with  Ginninderra Press in Adelaide, a small but prestigious publisher.

The next step towards a July release of THE USUAL STORY –  a delicately fragmented story of memory, intrigue and passion –  is the uploading of the files to the printer.

An exciting time.