In the trenches: Short Story vs Novel


open book

There’s some advice that’s been floating around in the sff genre (and possibly elsewhere) for forever: if you want to write, start with short stories.

In fact, when I mentioned I had written a novel, way back when, to some writers, they were aghast that I had even considered trying the novel format before cutting my teeth on a couple of hundred short stories first.

“You’re brave,” said one writer, enviously.

“It cannot be any good,” another one said.

I can’t speak to the second comment, of course – well, I could, but it would sound like bragging, and that really isn’t the point, anyway.

But brave?  I told that writer that it didn’t take courage to write a novel: quite the reverse, in fact. The novel gave me room for error.

There’s enough area in novel territory that quite a few small mis-steps scattered widely enough apart won’t even register on most readers, and you’ll catch them in the rewrites and edits, mainly. But the framework is probably all right, if you make to the end with all your faculties intact. Really. If the plot fails, you won’t finish it. If the characters are not true, you’ll be the first to lose interest.

A short story? Either you hit all the marks, right from the start and all the way through, or you fail. Sure, there might be little wording changes to tweak, or even point of view shifts that need rewriting, but the essential stuff? It has to work, right off the bat, or you’re sunk.

Either you can create a real and compelling character in under two sentences or you fall flat. Either your plot is watertight AND meaningful, or the whole ship sinks like a stone.

There’s no room for mistakes in the short story. Not real mistakes.

In a novel, if your first chapter drags a little, well, readers have seen that happen in really fantastic novels. They’ll spot you a chapter or two.

In a short story, you have, at best, two sentences before you lose your audience forever.

In a novel, readers expect character development to take more than three paragraphs at the start.

In a short story, the protagonist had better be compelling from the very first pronoun, or else the pages in the anthology will be riffled right on by to the next offering.

In a novel, if you lose your way a bit, half the readers probably won’t notice, and the other half will be reasonably tolerant unless it becomes apparent you are well and truly lost and have no way out.

In a short story, if the plot fails on even the first or spindliest little leg, readers move on.

And here’s the kicker, in case you hadn’t realized it by now:

Short stories and novels are completely different animals.

Not every writer who can dazzle in one form is even marginally competent in the other.

There are writers who can produce those intricate little gems, fully polished and set in a well-constructed bezel as if they were merely breathing the stuff out.

There are writers who work like a tapestry weaver, slowly building up their vision, row upon row, until the wall is completely covered in the shining cloth of imagination.

And occasionally, very occasionally, there are people who can do both.


The only reason I am here today saying all this is because when I mentioned to a friend that I didn’t like very many people’s short stories, she was shocked.

Like: seriously shocked.

And so she recommended some stuff, and I dutifully hauled myself down to the library and found the collections and settled in, prepared to be taught a lesson.

There were many of my favourite novelists in these books. There were people I’d never heard of, too, but the bios at the start of each story told me that most of them had well-regarded novels out there from well-known publishing houses. The editors in the three anthologies were all famous novelists from sf and/or fantasy.

In theory, they knew their stuff. Good from bad, fantasy from spec-fic, genre from generic.

In theory, I was in good hands.

In practice?

Well, I didn’t find one story – not even one – that I thought deserved the death of a single tree.

And the more famous the author was for their long fiction, the less I liked their short works.

They didn’t create characters I could believe in – not one of them. If they weren’t incredibly stereotyped (and I am not speaking in the “PC” sense here, but in the “fantasy trope” vein) they were so inconsistent as to suggest certifiable mental illnesses.

And that spoke directly to the weakness of the plots, because the reason they needed cardboard, set-piece characters, or to suddenly have a character go off the rails and completely alter both their dearly-held values and their essential temperament, was because otherwise, one would have noticed almost immediately that the plotline was going to fail.


So chuck away that advice. Plug your ears and sing “la-la-la” at the very top of your lungs.

If you are the short story queen – stick to it and send me the name of the next anthology you are in. I’ll give it a go.


But if, like me, you feel as if your writing needs some serious real estate, some wide open spaces, some goddamned room – well, just ignore that worn-out advice, and write your little heart out.

You’re welcome.


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