Shorts vs. Novels — A View From the Trenches

Hey all — it’s guest blog time! This one is from Nancy Fulda, who has an extensive short story list, and an anthology — and who also just won the Jim Baen Memorial writing contest this year! She’s transitioning from shorts to novels, and I’ll get out of the way now and let her talk….

Shorts vs. Novels –

So I’ve published at Asimov’s, Apex, and Jim Baen’s Universe. At this point I’ve got a feel for what makes short stories tick. I’m also muddling through the middle of my first novel: A colonized world story in which giant roving caravans circle the planet to remain in the habitable twilight regions — and I most definitely do not yet understand what makes novels tick.

I’m starting to realize, however, that some of the habits I picked up writing short stories have become my enemies in this novel thing. Here’s what I’ve observed.

Infodumping
Every new writer knows that infodumping is the cardinal sin of the short story world. Very few magazine editors are willing to wade through three paragraphs detailing the cultural nuances of nomadic amphibious aliens. I didn’t either, when I read slush for Baen’s Universe.

Accordingly, I learned to leave out exposition wherever possible. In fact, I tend to edit out exposition subconsciously. I never even think of putting it on paper.

Turns out, that’s not such a good skill when it comes to novel writing. The books I love most immerse me in a world utterly different from my own. Arrakis, Pern, Barrayar, Chalion… I crave deep information about these planets, and fortunately the author always delivered. When I’ve critiqued novels for friends, I generally want to know more about the world they’ve created, not less.

So: Infodumping, no longer evil. I know I’ve got to be smart about it. I can’t launch into a ten-page history lesson and expect readers to go along. But I can reveal a lot more than I did when I only had a few thousand words to work with.

Scope
I have this habit of writing stories that are too big for my word count. Interstellar empires, confrontations between Good and Evil, the downfall of a terrorist organization: I occasionally attempt to cram a trilogy’s worth of events into a 10,000 word novelette.

(Don’t try that at home.)

My failures in this regard were so spectacular that I quickly learned to narrow my scope. One character. One problem. Perhaps a side conflict or two for variety. No more than that, or the story becomes hopelessly convoluted, and too long to sell.

When I started A New Kind of Sunrise I instinctively tried to stick to this principle. The result was a story that felt flat, uninteresting, and was spread far too thin to be exciting. I went back to flesh it out and discovered the great joy of novel-writing: There is time to explore a character in context. Mikaena’s struggle to understand her world still dominates the story, but I can also place her in a complex network of relationships and observe the way she and her tribemates affect each other. It’s intriguing. And it’s something I could never properly explore in 4000 words.

Characters
Speaking of characters, I’m realizing that flat characters don’t go over very well at novel length. In the past, I’ve often settled for vanilla-flavored secondary characters because, heck, it’s a short story. There’s no time to develop a supporting cast anyway.

Imagine my shock when I noticed that in a novel, secondary characters get more screen time than the protagonist of a 2000 word short. I can’t afford to leave them lackluster. And I can’t rely on the plot to keep readers from noticing the cardboard sheen of those fellows in the back row, either. Holy Schmakoley… fixing this is going to take some work.

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I’m sure there’s more. I’ve still got a lot to learn about novels. Shorts, too, for that matter. But I find it helpful to realize that shorts and novels are different, and that the skill sets required for each do not completely overlap.

It makes me feel like less of a wuss for struggling so hard to finish this novel.

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