Voices

Is it better to be a short story writer or a novelist?

By Paul McVeigh

28 July 2015 - 14:51

Are short story writers getting a raw deal? How is writing a short story different? Northern Ireland's Paul McVeigh, author of The Good Son, compares.

Each form has its own challenges

Some writers believe short stories are harder to write than novels. They may put this down to every word having to count in a short story, while the narrative is allowed to meander in a novel. Although this is true to an extent, the novel has major challenges, too. How do you bring a reader on a long journey and keep them reading right through to the end?

The length certainly matters. Producing a 3,000-word short story is not the same investment as producing a 90,000-120,000-word novel. The short story, novella and novel are all different forms, so length is just one of the issues – the short story is not a very short novel, nor is a novel a very long short story. Each form has its own attributes and the best way to see how short stories work is to read as many as you can. Reading interviews with great writers talking about the subject can be really useful too. The Paris Review and The New Yorker have wonderful archives with interviews and short stories by the best writers of the form.

You could perhaps draw the following analogy to compare the two: a short story would be like producing a photograph, while a novel would be more like making a film. A photographer will be thinking about every tiny detail in the frame and how it conveys meaning. It can be a character portrait or a moment captured in time. The novel, like a film, can take us on a journey, capture many lives, cover lifetimes/generations, discuss a society or the history of a culture. For example, when I wanted to capture what it was like for a whole generation of children to grow up in Northern Ireland knowing nothing else but The Troubles, I knew that this had to be done in a novel. To describe the day-to-day life and the cumulative effect of living in fear, on one boy, his family and the community at large, the reader needed to spend time with that boy, in that community.

The planning process can differ for each form, but there is no formula

Time works differently for me in relation to writing a short story and a novel. I don't sit down and draw up a plan for a short story. I tend to have an idea and hold it in my head, sometimes for months or sometimes years. For example, when I was a student, 20-odd years ago, I had an image of a son tickling his mother's legs after she had returned from a long day standing at work. An image is not a story, however. Over the years, I added to this image – snatches of dialogue, thoughts and feelings, an event I experienced, and finally, an image from a story someone else told me, which provided the key to my own story. When I sat down to write it, it took an afternoon. So, depending on your point of view, the short story took an afternoon or 20 years to write.

With my novel, I plotted the story in chapters. I found a useful device of sectioning the story into the nine weeks the protagonist had in his summer holidays between primary and secondary school. Over many re-writes, I moved ideas around in these sections. If I added something while writing, I had to follow through the cause and effect of this throughout the novel, and I needed a plan to chart the ripple effect of every action.

There are pitfalls specific to short stories

Starting too early in the story is a common mistake we make when we first write short stories. An excellent piece of advice given by many writers is to start as late as you dare in the timeline of your story and get out as quickly as you can when it's done.

Writing short stories is not a stepping stone for writing a novel

I was writing plays and comedy when I was invited to write a short story by an editor who'd seen my work in a theatre. Having only written dialogue for the previous ten years, I was really intimidated at the thought of writing prose at all. Despite this, I could see a short story in my mind. It was imaginable. I think that's why a short story can be a good place to start when setting out to write prose. You can experiment with voices, characters, points of view, and so on. If the story isn't working, you can abandon it and move to another idea. Starting by writing short stories is not to suggest that a short story is merely a stepping stone to writing novels. The short story is a glorious form in its own right, and mastering it can take many years.

Most writers will tell you that learning how to write necessitates a lot of reading. The great thing about short stories is that you can read one a day and glean ideas on form, style and plotting. You will most likely be juggling your writing time with many other things, such as your job and family, but you can always fit in a 30-minute read.

Short stories seem to be more popular outside the UK

If you stopped people randomly in the street and asked them about their reading habits, I'd wager you'll meet people who don't read at all or very rarely. Ask UK readers to name you some short story writers, and I reckon few would be able to do it. Short stories aren't huge in the UK. The form seems much more celebrated in the Americas.

When I was in Mexico with the British Council recently, we were interviewed by all the major newspapers, television and radio. When we came off stage after our readings, there was a group of photographers snapping away. I've never seen anything like that before. One of the Mexican authors I read with, Monica Lavin, told me that that kind of attention was not unusual, but that it it did not have an effect on sales, which were still very poor.

It is difficult to get a short story collection published in the UK, unless you are a well-known author. Certainly, getting any money for that collection is even harder. Most new authors I know who have been lucky enough to have their collection published have done so with little or no advance. Novelists can still get six figure advances. I know two personally who did so in the last year, but this is rare in the industry now. The average debut novelist is getting far less. Estimates vary, but don't expect much more than GBP 2,000 – and that's from big publishing houses. The overall average is probably a lot less. It's hard to swallow, such little remuneration for a piece of work that more often than not has taken years of hard work.

A few short story recommendations

I'm a huge fan of Hemingway. You should visit some Chekhov, Flannery O'Connor and Raymond Carver to name a few essentials. As for contemporary writing, I strongly recommend Irish authors such as Kevin Barry, Colin Barrett and Claire Keegan, America's George Saunders, Karen Russell and Laura van den Berg, Canadians Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, Australia's Cate Kennedy, and, in the UK, Helen Simpson, David Constantine, Jackie Kay and Jon McGregor. I could go on for days.

Follow Paul McVeigh on Twitter.

The UK is guest of honour at the Guadalajara Book Fair in November - December 2015. We will be sending 30 of the UK's finest writers to the event.

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