by Will Viharo
When it comes to writing, you can either be a sprinter, or a long distance runner.
Naturally, you can also be both. The challenge is excelling equally in each field, equipped with separate, specific skills.
It can and has been done, many times, by many authors. Just make sure you’re properly trained for both, since each format is judged according to different rules. And remember, you're only racing with yourself...
Just like actors and musicians are sometimes limited – whether by talent or ambition – to particular types of roles and genres, writers can also be restricted per their own boundaries.
Pushing those boundaries is where the creative process comes in. But at a certain point, to quote Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, “A man has got to know his limitations.” That goes for women too, sorry.
Great authors from Mark Twain to Ernest Hemingway to Thomas Pynchon have managed to churn out stories of various lengths, all with an equal amount of excellence. But then they're all geniuses. You don't have to be a genius. You just have to get to know yourself, like they did.
Other celebrated authors specialized in a certain format, and stuck to it with great success. Edgar Allan Poe wrote poems and short stories, but nothing particularly lengthy. Jack Kerouac was primarily a novelist. Stephen King writes everything with complete command of his craft. And they are all equally lauded as masterful talents, deservedly so.
Sometimes a writer will create a piece that becomes an influential, enduring classic regardless of its length. Short stories like “Incident at Owl Creek” by Ambrose Bierce and “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson etched indelible impressions in literary history. The late Harper Lee will always be known for her novel To Kill a Mockingbird (the recent release of her unpublished first draft of that novel, Go Set a Watchman, notwithstanding).
It's not always the size that counts.
Just Make Sure You Have Enough Gas...
When you embark on your own unique literary journey, you may be wondering whether you “should” just write short stories or “should” try your hand a novel.
Nowadays, since anyone can self-publish, you can produce work of any length, even a single short story, as an eBook. Novelettes and novellas were once considered very difficult to get published unless you had an established reputation like John Steinbeck (Of Mice and Men), Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) or George Orwell (Animal Farm).
Those restrictions on length no longer matter. While most publishers consider anything under 50,000 words or so to be a “novella” (with novelettes typically clocking in at 20,000 words or less), with 65,000 words being the more acceptable standard, self-publishers and small presses no longer pay any attention to those outdated designations.
Many popular presses like the modern crime house All Due Respect regularly issue novellas (either one or two in the same release), so if you’re a sprinter, and you’d rather not self-publish, you may find a small publisher willing to give it a shot.
“Bizarro” books are typically 40,000 words or so, sometimes less, sometimes a little more, but hardly ever coming in at over 100 pages in print. But that genre requires an incredibly vivid imagination, requiring outrageous plots and characters in order to satisfy an audience that demands outré fiction.
Also, there are many, many anthologies being published by small presses that are wide open to cold submissions, and since the process of writing, submitting, and getting a short story published doesn’t take nearly as long as a novel. And small presses aren’t as concerned with your previous output or sales records, unlike agents and bigger houses. They are simply looking for quality work.
But before you even start shopping for a publisher or DIY platform, you need to figure out whether you are more comfortable and adept as a short story writer, or you are really a novelist by nature. I once thought of myself mainly as a novelist, but lately I've been writing and publishing short stories, and I find it very satisfying. But I've been writing for a long time, and that's just me. The voyage of self-discovery never ends.
Short stories - which can range from "flash fiction" at 1,000-1,500 words to roughly 5,000 on average - invariably require very tightly structured composition, regardless of the genre, since you’re aiming for limited attention spans, meaning the reader has most likely chosen this format for convenient, expedient consumption. It’s the entertainment equivalent of a snack – but that doesn’t mean it can’t be just as nourishing and filling as a longer work. It can still go down feeling like a satisfying meal in and of itself.
Novels, on the other hand, allow an author to indulge more creative experimentation and explanation. But even if you’re writing an epic, you never want to bore the reader with unnecessarily tedious details.
The difference is that any extraneous meandering in a short story will be much more apparent since your space is so much more limited.
It's a Jungle Out There. Or Maybe Just a Farm?
So ask yourself: what kind of “animal” is your story? Is it a panther pacing restlessly in a cage, or a tropical fish swimming blissfully in a jungle pool? Is it a pig sloshing around in a tiny pen, or a horse running free in a pasture?
The idea is to either give your story enough room to roam, or restrict it to a confined space, depending on the artistic agenda. In either case, you will need the strength and discipline to keep your narrative reined in accordingly.
A good editor will let you know when you’re wandering outside the perimeters. But an experienced author will gradually develop the instincts to realize when less is more, or not enough.
It’s simply a matter of practice. More or less.
PHOTO: EVAN P. CORDES