The Long and the Short of it.

Posted: January 16, 2018 in Regarding writing
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Ok so this is actually Margaret Hamilton standing next to the computer code she helped write for NASA’s Apollo program, but you get the idea!

So, my 2018 writing resolution was to step back from writing short fiction and to focus on a novel and, hopefully, a screenplay. It’s now the middle of January and I currently have four short works in progress and have done very little towards novel prep, and nothing towards a screenplay!

So, to further procrastinate, I thought it might be a good time to discuss the difference between short and long form, the positives and negatives inherent with each.

Each format has its appeal, each format has its limitations.

The first thing to discuss is perhaps financial reward. Most writers dream of becoming best-selling authors, of million pound, multiple book deals, of Hollywood throwing millions of dollars at you to buy the film rights etc. Now let’s be honest, the chances of this happening are thin, for every Stephen King or JK Rowling there are thousands of writers who never make it, but of those who do it will probably be the novel that makes their fortune.

There are exceptions of course, back in the 1980s Clive Barker became a household name on the back of his Books of Blood anthologies, and writers like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman can still shift anthologies, but these are the exceptions, and even the three writers mentioned above found their greatest success with novels, screenplays, comic scripts etc.

Of course, it’s worth remembering that even most authors who write novels will never make the big time, and it’s eminently possible that having some short fiction published could lead to greater things.

So, lets look at some plus points to short stories over novels. There’s a sense of immediacy for one. One of the problems I’ve had recently is a surfeit of ideas, and some of them have demanded to be written there and then. Depending on its length a short story doesn’t take too long to write, a few days, a few weeks, hell on some occasions I’ve written a complete first draft in a few hours. By contrast novel writing is akin to marathon running, with the best will in the worst you’re probably not going to churn out a novel in a few days or weeks without calling in sick from work and snorting a lot of cocaine to enable you to write 24/7. No, writing a novel takes time, and whilst writing is a lonely job/hobby at the best of times, it’s even more isolating if you’ve got to keep your motivation going for months, sometimes years without validation. That’s like running a marathon alone, with no competitors to chase and no crowd cheering you on, and all the while you brain will keep generating other ideas to distract you. Evil, evil brain…

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Few short stories will take so long to write that you have to abandon them for a new idea, and the other good thing about short stories is that after you complete them you can release them into the wild whilst you start work on something else, because that’s perhaps the other advantage of the short form, there’s potentially a much bigger market for short stories than there is for novels; anthologies and indie publishers aplenty, and in the end isn’t it better to be a writer with publishing credits than the person who wrote a novel that went nowhere? Of course, there’s always the self-publishing route, and I’ve gone down that myself, but it’s not the same as someone choosing to publish you.

How about short stories versus novels from a craft perspective? I remember Lawrence Block saying that you could get away with a lot more flaws in a novel. When you’ve written 90,000 words an editor will likely be more forgiving of some creaky dialogue or some clunky exposition because it’s the whole that matters. When it comes to a 2,000 word short story on the other hand, every word matters, and the whole thing should be as meticulously crafted as a swiss watch. Or, to go back to the running analogy, if you’re sprinting you need to run as fast as you can for as long as you can, but running the marathon? You’re more likely to be able to get away with slowing down for the odd mile, just so long as you make your time up later.

Which isn’t to say you can afford to be sloppy with a novel, just that the long form can be more forgiving.

So, in conclusion I’m not sure you can argue either is really better. Sure, you’re probably more likely to accrue fame and fortune with a novel, but the odds are still stacked against you (sorry, if its any consolation they’re stacked against me too). At the end of the day the form you choose may be out of your hands. Perhaps you have a short attention span, or perhaps you only come up with ideas that require 120,000 words to do them justice, or maybe all your ideas only require flash fiction to get them across.

Ideally you’ll find a way to do both, working long term on a novel, whilst allowing your imagination free reign to drum up the odd short story while you’re slaving away on your epic fantasy trilogy, this will allow you to hopefully get the odd publishing credit to keep your motivation up, and hopefully writing those finely crafted short stories will make you a better novel writer into the bargain…maybe…

That’s my plan, but first there’s a short story I need to finish!

Beatnik Literature

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