Friday, May 15, 2009


At several recent writing events, I've received questions about the difference between a short story and a novel. This question is usually followed by a statement such as: "If the markets for short stories is rapidly diminishing, why should I write them?"

The answer is simple, writing has been defined as saying the most in as few words as possible. A novel allows the writer to drift off in any direction they wish (provided the new path passes the key test: does it move the story forward). The short story, on the other hand, makes the writer stay on task. Most periodicals and e-zines place strict word requirements on submissions (usually no more than 4000 or 5000 words) and failure to follow the restriction will result in immediate rejection. I've yet to meet an editor who is impressed by the length of a submission. Quality not quantity is the key here. As an editor friend of mine says, "Is that writer selling books by the pound?" I also remember sitting in a restaurant reading a rather lengthy novel by a highly successful mystery writer when a literary agent passed by my table and asked, "What are you reading?" I showed her the book and she said, "Looks like a door stop to me." Bottom line, read the periodical or e-zine to which you're submitting and then look closely at the submission guidelines, they are not there because the editor felt they make the magazine look professional.

So what is a short story? A short story is a convenience store robbery. The writer must get in, get the loot, and then get out in a finite number of words. A novel on the other hand is a caper or bank robbery, it requires much more planning and the writer has the ability to use as many words as he/she feels are required to communicate with the reader. (This leads to another problem: How do I write enough to have my work considered a novel--usually 50,000 words or more?)

I've read a number of novels that were in reality expanded short stories. I can usually tell when I'm reading one of these. I jump ahead 10 pages and see if I still know what's going on. In other words, did the 10 pages move the story forward? If not, those pages could have been deleted.

One of my favorite writers is Robert B. Parker. I am hard pressed to think of any other best selling writer who says as much as he does in as few words as he uses. I usually can read a Spenser, Jesse Stone, or Sonny Randall novel in 3 hours and come away knowing all I needed to know about the characters and the plot.

So, what is the answer to the title question? If you can write as tight as Robert B. Parker, then by all means jump right in there and write a novel. If, however, you are like me and most writers, writing short stories will hone your skills at putting the story on paper in a way that you don't waste the reader's time (if they stick with you and don't throw your book down) by including a lot of good writing that doesn't belong in that particular piece. I recall my first experience with a professional critique group (only I would join a group that consisted of 3 editors/published writers and a single unpublished writer--yours truly). I read the intro chapter of a novel I was working on and sat back waiting for the great feedback and flowing praises from my audience. The first comment I got was: "That was a great piece of crime writing; however, it doesn't move the story along--get rid of it..." I was devastated, but I quickly learned that something I'd learned years ago also applies to a GOOD critique group (by good I mean effective): Your true friends will always tell you what you need to hear; not what you want to hear.

So, write that novel if you want, but even if you never send them out for publication, hone your skills and develop your craft with short stories...

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