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11: What is the difference between writing short stories vs novels?

This week, J Thorn and Crys Cain delve into the practical differences and approaches between writing different lengths and forms of stories, as well as the challenges authors face switching between the two.

References

Transcript

Crys: Welcome to the TASM podcast. I’m Crys Cain with my cohost J Thorn. How’s  it going, y? 

J: Hey, Crys I’m doing great. How are you? 

Crys: I had a productivity breakthrough or I’ve broken through a productivity slump. And I don’t think that anyone would realize that I thought I was going through a productivity slump, because I looked back on our transcripts, and it’s really just all about how workaholic I am, which just further compounded the problem that was really happening. 

So the deal was, I was feeling like I wasn’t getting anything done. Especially the last two weeks, but for a while now. And I feel like everything’s just been super hard. It’s been super hard to move forward on everything.

And Tuesday morning, was up early. I got started on work early. I got two podcast edits done. I wrote 2100 words and it’s nine o’clock in the morning. And I am feeling like I have done absolutely nothing. 

J: Wow. 

Crys: And I realized that was wrong. 

J: Yeah. 

Crys: I talked to a couple of friends about this and they’re like, what? That’s so much. And I was like, yeah, my brain’s broken. 

I realized what had actually happened is that I had stopped keeping my “I done it” list, which is the end result of a to-do list. And that is a record of all the things that I have done throughout a day, because I can barely  remember what I did five minutes ago, let alone three hours ago, let alone yesterday.

To the point where I literally have to prepare, when you ask what’s happening, what’s going on? I have to prepare to answer that because I don’t know. I literally don’t know what I have done or what is going on in my life. 

Tuesday I started tracking my “done it” list again, and I ended that day with such a more realistic understanding of what I accomplished. I was able to actually turn my brain off of work mode. 

I think that is part of what the problem was, is that I was never allowing myself to exit work mode because I felt so guilty because I felt like I wasn’t actually doing anything, no matter what I was actually accomplishing.

J: Yeah, that’s an easy cycle to slip into for certain people. I do that too. And I’ll tell you where it hits me is like I will, I end up waking up at two or three in the morning and I’m wide awake and I’m starting to work on my to-do list. Like physically, I know okay, go back to sleep.

And I just, I can’t. It’s… nope, I’m up now. And I’m thinking about it. And then of course, what do I do? Then I reached for the phone and then before I know it I’m like, I’m one of those people who’s sending emails at 3:37 AM. And and it’s hard. Like once, once that like little crack opens up, like the flood waters just come in.

So I totally feel you. I know exactly what you’re talking about. 

Crys: Oh man. Yeah. Workaholism is not healthy. And yet it is socially acceptable. 

J: This is work. This is your work. This is your brain on work. 

Crys: Brain on work. Somebody needs to make that parody. Actually it probably exists. I’m going to go look for it. 

J: I’m sure. 

Crys: So we are shifting tracks a little today. We’ve had a lot of mindset questions, and that’s our jam. We really enjoy talking about those. 

This one’s a bit of a shift. We’re going to talk about craft a little bit. 

So I’m going to ask you: how is writing a short story different than writing a novel for you?

J: It is totally, completely different and exactly the same. 

Crys: Wonderful. 

J: Yeah. 

Crys: Backstory. J has been doing a short story… project… experiment this year. Can you give the background on that? 

J: Yeah, definitely. 

Before I started writing my first novel in the mid two thousands, I started writing short stories and and I’ve always enjoyed the form. I’ve always enjoyed reading them. 

They’re hard to market. They don’t make a ton of money unless you’re selling to the best publications. And it’s just, it’s really hard. It’s really hard to, it’s not impossible, but it’s definitely a challenge. 

So over the years, you know, I really focused more on novels and last year, I think you and I were having a strategy talk. And one of the things I said that I really want to be known for is I want to be known for someone who can write and teach people how to write really good scenes. Tight, concise, short pieces of fiction. 

And clearly, that’s what short stories are. They’re a scene or a couple of scenes, but they’re really lean. You don’t have a lot of real estate. You have to get right in. You have to have some kind of twist or something that keeps the reader hooked. 

In December, I guess it was, December, January we were mapping out what the next 12 months of the platinum level mastermind group was going to be. This is the group, the select group of like 12 or 13 who meet with us on Saturdays, every Saturday. 

And I wanted everyone to be able to work through something. And so I kind of came up with this framework of, but what if you committed to writing either a short blog post or a non-fiction or a very short story, like 2000 words, 2500 words, every week.

And we would all do it. We have a big spreadsheet. We keep track of our word count, kinda cheer each other on. And people could pick one or the other. Right before I was about to do it, I was like If I’m the guy running this, I should be telling it to. So I made a very last minute decision is okay, I’m going to write a short story every week for one year.

I had heard Ray Bradbury talk about this a number of times. And he joked and said they won’t all be bad. If you write 52 short stories, chances are one or two of them is going to be good. 

So I approached it as a learning activity and started first week of January. And as we’re recording this, we’re approaching the end of May and I’m on track, I’ve written one every week. 

 It’s been a challenge, but it’s also been fun. So that’s the overview. That’s kinda the backstory on it. 

Crys: Yeah. So what is the different part then? Or actually, is it easier to state what’s the same about it? Which is easier to state? 

J: I think… there’s a lot that obviously there’s a lot that’s the same. 

If you look at the basic components of storytelling even something like a simple three-story method, if we’re talking about the conflict, choice, consequence, you can find that in any story, a hundred words a beat, whatever.

So from that standpoint, it’s just a matter of scale. If you have a beginning of the middle and end of your novel, you need to have the same thing, but in a short story. 

So the basic components or the building blocks of any story are the same. 

Now, the big question is, okay, then what’s different?

Obviously the length. A short story, depending on how you classify it is, it could be 10,000 words or less 5,000 words or less. A novel could be 60, 70, 80, a hundred thousand words. 

So clearly there’s a lot less real estate to cover. But I think there’s also subtle differences in storytelling. And I’d like to hear if you’ve, if you pick up those nuances before I talked about what my experience has been.

Crys: Well, the differences for me… I think a lot of the time are extremely limited number of characters. So you have to narrow down and focus in on the smallest unit you possibly can to tell the story you want to tell. Everything extraneous has to be cut out.

There’s… depending on the author, but there’s generally less place for floweriness in your prose. You just don’t have the space because often you are limited by word count if you’re writing to a publication. 

I don’t know. What things pop to your mind when you’re thinking about the differences?

J: Yeah, all of that. I think too, there’s also an approach. Mindset. I know we said we’re not talking of mindset, but there’s a mindset element to this, which is you don’t have, like you said, you don’t have the luxury of backstory and deep character development and world-building. You have to start fast. 

And of course, genre dependent, but what I mean by starting fast is you have to hook the reader right away.

You don’t have a lot of time to do that. And I think whether it’s attributed to Mark Twain or some other historical figure, I’ve heard, it mentioned a number of times, but ” I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.” 

This idea that it’s harder to write shorter stuff because you really do have to be succinct.

It’s hard, especially for novelists. If you’re used to writing novels and you have tens of thousands of words, hundreds of thousands of words, you don’t feel compelled to fixate on them. I mean, we should, but we don’t Right? 

And so I think for short stories, even in the revision process, I find myself asking,  should that be a “the”? Or “a”? Or I start fixating on like, should I use the pronoun her or Sally?  

It can be tedious. But I think at the same time, it forces a writing discipline that you don’t necessarily get in novel writing. 

So you have to have that mindset of this is going to be bare bones and it’s, I don’t have an opportunity to have this really satisfying character arc. It has to be more about what happens in the story. 

I think the other part of that is if you’re used to writing, strongly, character-driven stories as opposed to plot driven, although I don’t necessarily believe that’s a dichotomy, but if you really focus on character a lot, I think that’s harder to do with short stories.

Crys: JP and I have been doing this tarot story project that we expected would take us one week and it’s taken us over a month. But I found that using Three Story Method for scenes, I can do that 100%. I had trouble doing that with anything that is a full story. 

And I found that really interesting because sometimes a scene is a short story, but when I’m looking at it with the mindset of a short story versus a scene, I had difficulty using Three Story Method with the 3Cs, which is conflict, choice, and consequence. 

And I think a lot of times that’s because I trust that within the scene, I do have that space to set up a lot of what is known before we get to that conflict, so I have a lot more freedom because I know that the reader comes to it with something in mind already, and that they are going somewhere after the scene is done. 

Doing this project, because I’ve beat myself over the head a bit because I cannot, for the life of me use the 3Cs to structure large scale fiction.

And I realized it’s because it’s quote unquote, too simple. In that I simply need more dots on my… the child picture where you draw a line from.to dot. I simply need more dots to be able to see the form. And then I use Three Story to back it up and make sure that it’s solid and that it actually fits the spine, and is strong.

J: Yup. Yeah. I can see that I’ve even gone the other way in that I’ve been studying this and writing about it for so long now that a lot of the Three Story Methods stuff is just ingrained. And not necessarily long fiction yet, but like with the short stories I’ve been writing, I don’t necessarily sit down and figure out what those 3Cs are ahead of time.

I am like, okay, I’ve got this locked in now I’m just going to write, and then I look back and make sure did I hit them? And did I make them strong enough? And that’s where revisions come in. 

But I think that’s ultimately like where I would love people to be. Whether you plot or pants is irrelevant. Knowing that methodology is ingrained and it’s buried in your subconscious and you can tell your story without thinking about it, it’s like the equivalent of when you learn how to ride a bike. 

If you’re thinking about I’m losing my balance, so I got to turn the wheel this way, like you inevitably fall. Whereas if you just say, no, I got this. I’m just not going to focus on that stuff. You tend to stay on the bike. 

 It’s kinda like that for me. 

Crys: I have a question because I know that with your work with JD when you wrote the short story with him that’s available as a mini master class on the Writers, Ink podcast website, if anybody wants to check it out, we’ll link it in the show notes, the podcast. But he prompted you to write several endings for the short story you wrote. 

Is that a practice that you’ve started to incorporate in just about every story you tell or is that something you’re skipping for these quick one a week short stories? 

J: Yeah, I don’t because the production schedule is so fast. I don’t have the time to, to re you know, have. Four or five endings on a 2,500 word, short story. 

But that practice though, is so valuable. It’s not easy to do. I was like, you’re the writer and you wants to be like, okay, I wrote the ending it’s done.

But if you push yourself past, that’s really where the gold lies. So I think in, if I were writing a short story and I was going to submit it to publications, I would do that and because I wouldn’t be spending five days on it. I might spend five weeks on it and therefore I would have the bandwidth to do that.

So yeah, for the really quick, short stuff, even like the conversations we’ve been having around Vella and what that’s going to look like on Amazon, I’m trying not to overthink that because I think part of the mindset and part of that medium is just really fast, organic storytelling. It’s just not the same as writing a novel.

It doesn’t have to be. So I’m trying not to like, I’m trying not to reel myself into those restrictions artificially, because it’s what I’ve always been doing. Yeah. 

I think that second guessing whether that’s the ending, the beginning, a Pixar Pitch, if you can come up with multiple of any one of those at any point, you’re probably going to be better off.

Crys: Yeah, I actually wasn’t even thinking about the format of serial storytelling as another comparison to the different ways that stories are told. But that is a really great comparison in that you’re writing a story that is expected to go on for a very long time with very cliffy ending things. 

Not only is the story structure itself  different,  the energy of the author, writing that story is going to be very different from the way that you write a short story, which you can write in a week. Or a novel, which some authors can write a week, but most people take a lot longer to do. In that you’re probably ready to get chapter or more a week and publishing them very quickly afterward.

So your goals are going to be different in each way, different way that you tell a story. 

J: Yeah. And it’s so context dependent. I’ve said so many times how important an editor is, but like with Vella, I’m not really sure how an editor is going to fit into this process or if they will. Honestly. I don’t think that’s an expectation of that type of reader. 

I think they’re much more willing to forgive typos or miss punctuation because they understand that, you’re cranking out one a week. It’s not like you had six months to proof a novel, and now you miss something. Like, okay, if you didn’t use an editor for that, maybe you deserve that feedback.

So it really, yeah it’s really the whole storytelling thing is so fascinating. It’s why we do this. It’s why we talk about it. It’s why there’s communities for it. 

There’s so many levels to it and so many different approaches and and some of those are consistent across medium and others aren’t. 

I think that’s what fascinates me so much about shorter form fiction too, is the breadth of experience that a reader can have and how you as an author can find the delivery mechanism that really appeals to you.

Crys: As we’re talking, I thought even of our friends Will Pepper who writes choice fiction. If you think of back in the eighties, the Choose Your Own Adventure novels, which we can’t call his because that’s a trademarked name. But that’s the style of writing he’s doing. And that’s another completely different way of telling stories.

And I think for so long, writers have limited themselves to short stories and novels because those were the only things that were selling traditionally. Barring the eighties and the Choose Your Own Adventure novels or Choose Your Fate novels. 

We’ve been limited to making money in these very specific ways of telling stories and that those barriers are falling apart. In the best of ways.

J: Yeah, it is. And what’s really fascinating about that, this is not a spoiler because I know this will air long after the Writers, Ink episode does, but I interviewed Lee Child recently for Writers, Ink, and anyone who listens to that podcast will know that I have a prepared question that I ask every guest at the end, which is: where do you think publishing is going?

I usually ask it to people who are in the industry, not necessarily celebrities who aren’t publishing regularly, but Lee Child, right? Like the guy, decades. 

What he said was not what I expected him to say. And what he said was he feels like the future of publishing and storytelling is coming back to the oral tradition.

He’s like, you think about it, like that’s how stories were told for tens of thousands of years. And it’s only been a couple of hundred, maybe a few thousand that the average person read stories. 

So here’s Lee Child, like Jack Reacher, is saying yeah, I think we’re going back to more oral storytelling and people still need to write that, but like the delivery mechanism.

When you look at what’s happening in oral storytelling, whether it’s podcasting or audio books and people’s attention spans and the way our world is right now, it makes a lot of sense to be thinking about the ability to write very very hooky stories in very small segments. And whether that’s delivered via a Kindle app or through your earbuds, that’s where we’re headed.

Crys: Yeah, I love that. What would be our question for our listeners spinning off that excellent ending right there? Can’t get better than Lee Child. 

J: Yeah, right. I would love to know what people prefer. Do you prefer to write short fiction or long form fiction and why? Which one do you prefer and why?

I think that’s interesting to hear. People’s individual tastes. 

Crys: Thanks for joining us this week. Comment below! If you would like to be part of the conversations in real time, you can join us at The Author Success Mastermind.

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