Short Stories vs. Novels
a guest post by Sybil Baker*
Runners often identify themselves as either sprinters or marathoners. They may do both, but are usually better at one or the other. The same is often true for writers—some like Alice Munroe, Flannery O’Conner, and Donald Barthelme did their best work in the short story form, others like Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, and Cormac McCarthy seem to be particularly suited for the novel. Of course some writers like William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald were gifted enough to write masterpieces in both forms.
Most writing workshops are geared to the short story, and as a result, most aspiring writers start with the short story form. The problem is that writers often think that the short story is just practice for novel writing, and I was no different in suffering from that delusion. The truth is both forms are exacting and demanding, but in different ways.
A short story is a concentrated effort—its energy must work toward what Edgar Allen Poe called a singular emotional effect. Every sentence, every word must count. A story can be deceptively simple and yet must work on many levels and layers.
When I first started trying to write a novel, it was because the idea I had was too large and too complex for a short story. Naively, I thought that if I just wrote more pages, that I would magically have a novel. Instead, what I ended up with was a mess. I knew nothing of a novel’s structure, the importance of plot points or the building blocks of scenes. I also found that the more I wrote, the weaker my writing got—I did not have the sustained energy to make sure each sentence was carefully crafted the way I did with my short stories.
Only when I decided to learn and study the structure of novels did I successfully write one. Novels require stamina—you have to love your characters enough to live with them every day for a year or longer. With short stories, I love my characters but don’t have a desire to learn about them beyond the confines of the world of that one story.
My linked short story collection, Talismans, started off with one story. Years ago I wrote a story about Elise and her mother and thought I was done with them. But then a few years later I found myself writing about a character living in Korea trying to understand her past. To my surprise, that character was Elise. I discovered that Elise was not a one-story character, but rather someone I wanted to learn more about through the short story form. And so I wrote more stories about her, which ended up spanning her childhood to her early thirties. And yet never once did I consider writing a novel about Elise. Her life seemed to be best told through stories—each one separate, with its own arc and singular emotional effect.
With Talismans, I was able to experiment with point of view, voice, tone, and style in a way I did not think would work in a novel. But I was able to follow Elise’s emotional and physical journey not just through each story, but her journey into acceptance and adulthood. Each story allowed me to focus on a different time and aspect of Elise’s life. I was able to write about her childhood in Virginia, her falling in love in South Korea, then traveling through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar as she tries to understand her past.
Writing a “novel through stories” is not easy. You have to make sure each story stands on its own yet also contributes to the overall themes and narrative arc of the work as a whole. Whether you are a sprinter or a marathon runner, inclined to short stories or novels, its useful to respect the similarities and differences of the forms and to appreciate their own special artistry and beauty.
*Leave a comment or question by midnight tonight (Dec 13) for a chance to win a copy of TALISMANS
by Sybil Baker
Elise understands her father–a Vietnam vet who abandoned her when she was an infant–about as much as she does her church organist mother and the rest of their suburban Virginian town. When even that thin thread of connection is suddenly severed, Elise is flung across the world, to Southeast Asia. Tracing the steps her father took through the war, Elise searches for a connection–with his ghost, with other travelers, with the foreign culture and environment she experiences. In a series of linked short stories, Talismans follows Elise’s journey to learn what she must hold onto, and what she must leave behind.
Genre: Literary Fiction/Short Story Collection
Trade Paperback: 181 pages
Publisher: C&R Press (December 2010)
BIO: Sybil Baker grew up in Northern Virginia and graduated from Virginia Tech where she was the features editor and humor columnist of the student newspaper, The Collegiate Times. After a few years working around Virginia, she moved to Boulder (Colorado) where she earned her MA degree in English from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
After five years in Colorado she moved back to Virginia and worked there as a technical editor before moving to South Korea in 1995. For the next twelve years she lived and taught English in South Korea and traveled extensively around the world, especially in Asia. So far she’s been to more than thirty countries, including Mongolia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, Indonesia, Peru, and Turkey.
During her travels, she became increasingly interested in the allure and alienation ofAmerican travelers and expatriates, and this has heavily influenced her writing. Her novel, The Life Plan, was published by Casperian Books in spring 2009. Her short story collection, Talismans, was just published by C&R Press this month, December 2010.
Sybil Baker’s fiction and essays have appeared in numerous journals including Transnational Literature, Upstreet and Segue. Her essay on American expatriate literature appeared in AWP’s Writer’s Chronicle in September 2005. In 2005, Sybil completed her MFA in Writing from The Vermont College of Fine Arts, and in 2008 moved to back to the States to teach creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga where she is an Assistant Professor of English. She currently lives with her husband, Rowan Johnson, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Sybil Baker’s website: www.sybilbaker.com
Sybil’s Blog: An Ex-expatriate’s Musings on Writing, Teaching, and Travel