Shorter=Longer

Shorter=Longer? I can see you scratching your head and asking “What the heck does that mean?” In my insular little writer’s world, it translates into the fact that it takes me much much much longer to write a short story than it does to write an entire novel.

I was thinking about this lately because for the first time in years I have a new short story in print (in the December Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, in stores now). “A Wondrous Violent Motion,” like most of my short stories, is set in the world of my Face Down mystery series (w/a Kathy Lynn Emerson). I started work on it shortly after a previous short story, “Any Means Short of Murder,” was accepted for publication by AHMM. That would be April of 2008.

I keep records of my progress on writing projects. Apparently, I didn’t get very far on my first attempt to write a story using the earthquake of 1580 as a starting point. I set my notes and an opening scene aside that same April of 2008 and didn’t try again until June of 2009 when I wrote “just not working as a short story” before once again setting the project aside. On 11/8/11 I wrote: “tried again; no luck.” But on May 20, 2012, at about the same time I started thinking about writing a new sixteenth-century mystery novel, I gave this short story idea one more try. This time it gelled. On June 2nd, I finished the first (or rough) draft at 5,024 words. I did three revisions during the next few weeks, had my first-reader husband take a look and give me feedback, and submitted the story to AHMM on June 22, 2012. The final version was 5,934 words in length. Once I finally got going, the story took me about a month to write, but it took more than four years to figure out how to make it work.

I wish I were better at writing short stories. They’re a great way to feature secondary characters from novels or to play with ideas that aren’t quite meaty enough to stretch to 75,000+ words. Then again, I consider myself fortunate to be able to write short stories at all. Many novelists have tried and failed to write in the shorter form. “A Wondrous Violent Motion” is my twentieth published short story. I guess I must be doing something right. Too bad I don’t know what it is, because I’d love to be able to get an idea for a short story, start work, and have a finished story of 5,000 words or so in a couple of weeks. That’s the way it’s supposed to work! I think I’ve managed to do it that way once. I admit that most of my short stories didn’t take me quite so long to get from idea to print as this one did, but they didn’t set any speed records either.

I’ve had a few novels work that way, too, including the one that I’m currently writing. The original idea dates back to sometime in the 1990s. But I do better in the longer format when it comes to the actual writing. Once I get going, I usually keep going.

a short story from my other historical mystery series

This is the point at which I was going to offer some novel-writing stats for comparison, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that doing so would fall into the old apples and oranges cliché. Aside from being round and edible . . . .

Where does that leave my shorter=longer theory? It still holds up. Since there’s no way to calculate “thinking time” accurately, you’ll just have to take my word for it that ideas come more easily when I have a large canvas to work on. Aside from length, the other big difference is in the number of characters I can use. Although I pretty much ignore the advice given to short story writers to keep the cast at a minimum, I still use far fewer characters in a short story than I do in a novel. Like everything else in the short story format, they have to be established using just a few carefully chosen words. That’s hard. It takes a lot of thought and a lot of crossing out and rewriting.

I can’t come up with a clear-cut comparison between writing time for novels and short stories. That’s too bad, really, because it worked out to just about four months (in chunks, writing three to six hours a day, seven days a week) to write the last Liss MacCrimmon mystery of about 78,000 words and I was thinking that four years vs. four months had a nice ring to it. But of course the whole four years wasn’t spent thinking about nothing but “A Wondrous Violent Motion.”

It just seemed that way.

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4 Responses to Shorter=Longer

  1. John Clark says:

    I confess I like the sorta instant gratification that accompanies writing a short story. After plugging away for 6-9 months to get a book in roughly completed shape, creating a short story in a week or so, seems positively decadent in comparison. Now, if I could do something with them…

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  2. MCWriTers says:

    Kathy, I always say that if I took as long, word for word or page for page, to write my novels as it does to write short stories, I’d still be working on my second book. Writing short is hard. Perhaps that’s why people always joke about how if they’d had more time they could have written a shorter speech.

    I also find that every book is different. Some flow. Some have to be dragged to the page and nailed there. I still have a number of books floating in my head, or started and in a “come back to this someday” file, that aren’t ready to be written yet. And my current book, upon which I’m 200 pages in, seems to want to be split into two books because the plot is so complicated.

    Ah well. If it were easy, everyone would do it, right? Not just those people at bookstore events who say, “I’ve always wanted to write a book, and someday when I have a free weekend, I’m going to.”

    I far prefer those who say, “I always wanted to write a book, but I tried it once and it was hard.”

    Yup. And try writing a short story.

    Kate

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  3. Barb Ross says:

    Yup. I’m the same way. It takes me a long elapsed time to write a short story. My first drafts are always too long and have too many ideas and scenes. I find I have to put the story away to be able to come back and see what the essence actually is and then start the surgery.

    My novels are just the opposite. Always too short. I have to come back later and find all the dialog scenes where two disembodied characters are floating in thin air while talking to one another.

    I do love shorts though and will keep writing them.

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  4. For an interesting comparison of short and long, Charlotte MacLeod’s novel Rest you Merry was a short story first and the original short story is included in her short story collection, Grab Bag. Very funny, both of them.

    K

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