Tag Archives: sybil baker

Short Fiction vs Novels (and a Book Giveaway!)

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


Win This Book!

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)
ISBN: 1936196034

Talismans is available through C&R Press, SPD (Small Press Distribution), and forthcoming on Amazon.



Sybil BakerBIO: 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


Filed under Advice, books, Fiction, Give Aways, Novels, writers

Blog Tour: Author, Sybil Baker

The Life Plan‘s author, Sybil Baker, joins us today on Writers Inspired to share her writing processes, experience with a small press and her history with Virginia Tech.

rockpointreadingbakerSybil Baker spent twelve years teaching in South Korea prior to accepting a position as an assistant professor of English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga after earning her MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. During her extensive travels throughout Asia, she became increasingly interested in the allure and alienation of American travelers and expatriates, and this has heavily influenced her writing. Her novel The Life Plan was recently published by Casperian Books. Her fiction has appeared most recently in upstreet, and the anthologies And Now for a Story (Casperian Books) and Motif: Writing by Ear (MotesBooks). Her essays have recently appeared in Alehouse, Segue, A Woman’s World Again (Traveler’s Tales. In 2005, she won the Grand Prize in Seoul’s essay contest. Her essay on American expatriate literature appeared in AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle in September 2005.


Enjoy this interview on the novel writing process and be sure to check out the very cool book trailer at the end.

Sybil will be answering your questions all day, today, Friday April 3 – so don’t be shy!

Interview by: Mary Jo Campbell


Sybil, thank you for stopping at Writers Inspired today on your book blog tour, promoting your new novel: The Life Plan.


We hope you can share some of your novel writing and publishing and marketing experiences with us.

MJC: I see from your blog and website, that you’ve been writing both fiction and non-fiction for some time.  Have you written and/or submitted previous novel drafts for publication, before The Life Plan?

SB: I submitted earlier drafts of The Life Plan to a few agents when I was living in Korea, and while I had some positive response I didn’t find an agent who was interested enough to take me on. When I moved back to the States, I thought I’d try small presses before querying agents again, and I was fortunate that Casperian wanted to publish the book. I also wrote a novel more than 15 years ago that I sent out to a few places back then—it was very different than this novel—much darker and more “literary.” Again, that novel had interest from a few places but not enough to pursue publishing. While I was living in Korea, I wrote regularly but did not submit my work for years because of the time and expense. Now that so many places take electronic submission I expect it’s easier to submit internationally, but when I lived there I had to use snail mail, purchase International Reply Coupons for return postage, and pay a lot for postage—so I spent most of my time writing instead of submitting.

MJC: Your world travels obviously influence your fiction, but can you tell us how globe-trotting helps you market yourself as an author?


SB: First, I have friends and family who live all over the world—from Italy to Afghanistan, so I have a built-in international network to promote my book. For example, in May we’re visiting family in South Africa (where my husband is from) and my mother in law is planning several parties and promotional events for my novel.


Second, as evidenced by the success of Eat, Pray, Love, I think women’s global fiction and nonfiction is gaining in popularity. My experiences living and traveling abroad have allowed me to join that niche market and help me market myself as a global fiction writer.

MJC: Do you have a regular writing schedule? Give us an example of “a day in the life of Sybil,” while writing The Life Plan. Are you a fan of outlining your fiction or just starting with an idea and seeing where it takes you?

SB: When I started The Life Plan in fall 2004 I was also working on a short story collection, and so for about nine   months I alternated between the two projects. I wrote the first draft of the novel and its revisions when I was teaching at a university in Seoul.

I usually set long-term goals and then break those down in to weekly or daily goals. So for example, I may decide to develop an outline or draft in the summer, then break that down in to shorter daily or weekly goals. During my semester breaks I’m able to work longer hours and so can increase my weekly or daily writing goals.

When I’m in full writing mode and have a complete day to myself, I usually wake up, make coffee, check email, check the news, then spend mid to late morning writing. Then I’ll go for a run, do some yoga, and write more in the afternoon. If I’m teaching or have other things going on, I try to squeeze in a few hours in the morning or evening.


I’ve become a believer in some kind of outlining or plotting before writing the first draft. Outlines are like a map to help you stay on course—of course you have the power to throw the map away or take a different road, depending on what is happening in the novel.

MJC: As writers, we tackle the sensitive topics, hoping to bring a universal truth and understanding to our readers.  I read that you are a graduate of Virginia Tech.  Do you think you would ever write about the horrific shootings that happened there either from a fiction or non-fiction view?

SB: It’s strange because not only did I graduate from Virginia Tech, but as a freshman I lived in the dorm where two of the shootings took place. Cho Seung Hui was a Korean American who grew up just a few miles where I did in Northern Virginia. I was living in Seoul at the time and the Koreans were horrified at what had happened—they were sure Americans would hate all Koreans after that.

I hadn’t thought about writing about it since I’m one of many graduates, but now that you mention it, I should write an essay about it as I’m connected to what happened in so many different ways.

MJC: What’s next for Sybil Baker? Any appearances, links or promos you’d like us to know about?

SB: After this blog tour I’ll be in South Africa for a month then will be back in the States—I’m planning on reading this summer at any place or anyone that will have me, and I’d love to work with any book club that is interested in the novel. If the book club is within driving distance, I’ll make a personal appearance; otherwise, I’ll be happy to appear via Skype. There’s a book club page on my website for any groups who are interested. And please check my blog or Facebook for updates on readings and blog visits.

Here are my links:


For book clubs: http://www.sybilbaker.com/bookclubs.html

My blog: http://sybilbaker.blogspot.com/

Website: www.sybilbaker.com

Book trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-RVu8VbHEbY&fmt=18

Thanks so much for having me!


Filed under Advice, Author Interviews, books, characters, Fiction, Get Published, Inspiration, Novels, Perseverance