Books for Everyone!

June 2014

Short Story or Novel?

For many years I aspired to be a short story writer. I wrote several short stories and asked friends to read the drafts of those short works of fiction. Their comments, friendly and unfriendly, were uniformly:

“It feels like it’s part of a much larger work.”


“It does not seem like the story ends there -- at the ending.”

Alas, after many frustrating attempts, I finally reckoned with the stark realization that no matter how much I wanted to write a short story, I could not write one, at least not a good one. And I’d studied so many short stories and even enjoyed them! Among my favored authors are: Edgar Allen Poe; O. Henry; Louis L’Amour; Washington Irving; F. Scott Fitzgerald; Anton Chekhov; Guy de Maupassant; Ambrose Bierce; Jack London; Saki; Joyce Carol Oates; Mark Twain; Max Schulman.

It occurred to me that it was not a matter of the amount of study which qualified or disqualified me to become a short story writer. There were in fact some fiction writers who created short stories merely for the purpose of churning parts of those works into novels. Raymond Chandler was one of them. He was a master craftsman of character, tone, and setting within the detective story, as well as an excellent writer. His prose is forceful and lyrical. He was, however, a frightfully bad storyteller when it came to the novel.

Chandler even called his process of transforming parts of his short stories into a novel “cannibalization.” My short stories were not even worth cannibalizing, although I doubt that I would have committed such artistic atrocity. This re-allocation of literary living space by Chandler led to a lot of confusion, rambling, and even incoherent passages within the narration of his novels: amalgamations of themes and subjects from three or four short stories do not a tight tale make. For Chandler, however, style, or the way in which the story is told, always mattered far more than plot, narration, or subject matter. And Raymond was an artisan of a unique, at times, dazzling, and utterly original style.

The redistribution of text from one work to another by an author strikes me as artistically indecent but Chandler, who was quite a character himself, had no problem with this process; he profited nicely from it. It is my belief, however, that each body (of fiction) has its own unique parts, each of which is, pardon the already overused and misapplied term, “organic” to that body of work. Form fits function, be the organism a bloodhound or a short story; and form follows function, meaning that the writing from a short story cannot easily fit into a novel (and, of course, vice versa).

If a writer is going to take the time to create a plot with characters, themes, tone, and settings, then he could at least come up with original text for that body of work: this structure or literary skeleton deserves its own flesh and blood. After all, the entire body of literary works of any said author is called his corpus. Each form of fiction requires its own architecture, its own building in which to live and, hopefully, thrive.

From a young age, I read fiction primarily from a structural perspective: I looked at how the story was written far more than even what the story said. My objective was to learn literary architecture more than to be informed or amused. My thoughts were provoked not by the subject matter as much as by how the subject matter was organized. It was an early occupational hazard. I compare it to the tendency of any competent physician who looks at a female and sees the tone of the skin in terms of her blood flow and overall health; or of a dentist who, after successful training, can no longer attend a dinner party without looking at someone’s teeth and mentally assess the need for braces or other corrective action, even cleaning.

To me, the organization of text for the short story is analogous to the shape of a building; the shape therefore must be primarily based upon its intended function or purpose. And the shape of a short story is a far cry from the shape of a novel, thereby making rather useless, at least for me, the process of cannibalization. And the way in which I “shape” a novel is novel in itself.

Not too long ago, I was sorting through copious pages of written notes in their manila file folders. Those notes were from research that I did about twenty years ago. There were factoids and pieces of information that jumped out at me for use in scenes that I planned to compose. It was as if I’d placed a zillion pieces of a jigsaw puzzle onto those lined pages and diligently stored them in files so that, many years later, I could start putting the fictional puzzle together. It is a most unusual form of creating fiction, but I most definitely enjoy it. I do love puzzles!

Long ago, even before I had a clue as to my puzzle-piece (or even “quilting”) method of early composition, I dedicated several years to the study of the craft and the art of fiction writing (in French and American literatures) at the George Washington University. I fared far better in the novel-writing class than in the short story class of my English instructor, Professor Claeyssens.

His playwriting class was an unexciting chore for me, but I did learn that a character’s lines in a modern play are not dialogue or even real speech: they are opinions, “messages” of social significance, and witticisms, put to some sort of rhythmic structure that is not even remotely akin to Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter.

It was from this larger-than-life professor that I learned the distinct and very basic difference between a short story and a novel:

A short story is a moment in time. (I can see his hand vertically slicing the air.)

A novel is time worked out across a vast landscape or huge canvas. (The hand moves slowly in an arc, horizontally, over an imaginary fruited plain.)

In a short story, the slice of time is finite and the sense of inevitability intense because of the brevity of the work. In a novel, the sensibility of time is expanded, contracted, exaggerated, and sometimes even suspended to meet the needs of a plot, an entity which contains many subplots and a far greater need for narration. The feeling of inevitability is woven into the story; time is manipulated to develop that feeling. In either the novel or the short story, however, there is always an inner ticking of the clock, the passage of time toward The Inevitable. And the “inner” speed of the plot must move at a constant rate.

It is possible that I yearned to write short stories because they require less research, but research is something that is part of my natural curiosity and desire to write. I immensely enjoy the painstaking endeavour of research but my creative abilities do not function well within the shorter form of fiction known as the short story. I believe that I am basically incapable of writing fiction without subplots, and the short story does not contain subplots. The single effect must be achieved by the writer of the short story. There is no single effect to which my creative self aspires in the world of fiction!

My inability to create short stories fundamentally boils down to the way that my mind perceives reality as a potential for art. I cannot escape the formation in my mind of the intricacies needed for a longer piece of fiction. The obvious always escapes me; or I escape the obvious. I was unaware of this truth about myself for many years, if not decades. (For the longest time, I did not realize that THE DAWN was published on Labor Day: Get it -- labor, childbirth, and the pen/knife to divide the tome into Volume I & Volume II.)

I am often completely unable to grasp the obvious and the simple whenever there is poetic truth to be gained from a real-life situation. My mind heads straight for the poetic (universal) truth and bypasses any uncomplicated understanding of that situation. When I realize that I do not comprehend such a simple occurrence, my mind then heads straight for logic. And I find the situation totally illogical! It is absurd! It makes no sense!

Befuddled, my mind then tries once more to unravel those few untwisted strands of reality. It is mentally exhausting! Believe me, it is quite an occupational hazard!

My sorely limited ability to understand or even see the obvious undoubtedly started early in childhood, but the first time that I recall it manifesting itself to comic effect was during adolescence. I was listening to the radio with a girlfriend, appreciating for perhaps the twentieth time Tom Jones singing “Delilah.” After the song was over, I asked, “Why did she stop laughing?”

“Because he killed her, you idiot!”

Several years later I was in a theatre audience, watching Witness for the Prosecution. When that witness collapsed, I asked, “Why did she faint?” Some voices carry. Mine inadvertently turned this dramatic production into a comedy.

I think that one reason why the obvious escapes me (although the most obvious reason probably still escapes me) is that I am too focused on the deeper meanings and more complex aspects of something. The laugh is always on me because there are many times in life when something is simply simple; it lacks any depth, complexity, complication, or even very much meaning. Sometimes the obvious is as plain as the nose on my face, but I go looking for the subcutaneous tissue layers. Not finding anything buried underneath the mundane obvious, I then deem that thing absurd. But I still persist in wanting to comprehend the mundane obvious on some richer level! My pursuits are rarely trivial.

It is incredibly difficult for me to believe that something that is a millimeter deep does not have underlying strata of meaning. Mining those strata is grist to my mill! When someone tells me, “It’s that simple,” I reply, “Imagine that.”

The problem is that I cannot imagine that, no matter what that is. Life can be complicated, which is why I work so hard to make mine as simple as possible. Constructing a simple life, however, is often a complex endeavour. There is no need to complicate matters any further! I believe in simplicity and even strive for it; but I also believe that anything simple reached that state by being complex. It is more than likely that I have a different definition of “simple” than the one that many other people have.

As a writer, I take note of things that are unimportant to other people or which go unnoticed. I fully agree with the following statements within this literary criticism by Marcel Proust:

“ . . . For owing to his instinct, the writer long before he knew he was going to be one, habitually avoided looking at all sorts of things other people noticed, and was, in consequence, accused of absent-mindedness . . . while all the time he was ordering his eyes and his ears to retain for ever what to others seemed puerile, the tone in which a phrase had been uttered, the facial expression and movement of the shoulders of a particular person at a particular moment perhaps years ago, who was otherwise unknown to him . . .”

There are also the factors of perception and planning to be considered when writing fiction: I have learned from creating half a dozen marginally successful short stories that the type of mental analysis and synthesis needed for “constructing” a short story occurs largely before the pen hits the paper. The mind must more or less form the story (much like a scene in a novel) before it is committed to the blank page. Revisions and edits can only do so much if the basic form has been botched, and you then realize that you have conjured up several stories, inadvertently lumped into one! If you are spending hours removing material from a single scene within a short story, and the scene is still not short enough, then you’re wasting your time on the scene! The unwieldy wordings may be the beginning of a novel.

And so here is my advice to anyone who attempts to write a short story, but finds there are just too many scenes unfolding; and characters that appear out of nowhere, but they do not belong in this plot; and themes that do not belong within this piece of fiction: Take a deep breath; slowly exhale; sort out the various strands into distinct threads; and accept the fact that your mind is working on a landscape of vast dimensions (perhaps that fruited plain) that cannot be fenced off into a beautiful, exquisite, intricate cottage garden.

A fictional oak cannot become a believable bonsai tree. Neither can the bonsai tree grow into an oak. Each creation has its unique splendour and form. So while F. Scott was able and willing to knock out artsy enough short stories, as well as non-artsy, mediocre (but even more marketable!) ones, to earn much-needed cash; and while Louis L’Amour often used some settings, characters, and themes from his clever but inspiring short stories to create mainly short novels, I heartily accept that I will never be a short story writer.