Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Short Story vs. A Novel

Recently, a reader asked me about “the short stories that had led to writing each of your novels.” The question presumed a set path in developing fiction, a road starting with an embryo short piece that, incubated and nurtured, develops into a book-length work. It reminded me that when someone had asked Ernest Hemingway, “How do you write a novel?” He answered, “You first clean the refrigerator.”

I was not “cleaning a refrigerator” when, on Nov. 3, 1993 at 2:48 PM, I started typing away. My fingers did not take a rest for 9 months until I had a 640-page draft.

Penning that first novel was not the result of long years of contemplation, collecting material and clearing space in the attic for a desk on which to pour out my authorly ambitions--nor of having the seed of a short story. I had never even kept a journal in which I aired my grievances against neighbors or my pet peeves against humanity…. There was no short story that needed harvesting.

Instead, that first novel--painted on a large canvas of world stage, populated with a host of characters and pretzeled with subplots--burst out of me with all its multi-layered literary nuances, psychological exploration, and social message. Only after that maiden draft was completed did I begin to hone my fiction-writing skills through writing workshops, how-to books, feedback from new writing buddies, and being mentored by successful authors.

Throughout that process I met professional writers--journalists and poets--who had been dreaming for years to “one day write a book-length work.” The more I heard those comments the more I grasped the enormity of the task I had accomplished. But I also realized that my mind was simply wired to think in terms of 120,000 word stories. If anything, my most monumental task for each novel has been to rein the story from becoming too long. With each novel I must tame the material down to a publishable size. (In the many revisions of my recent novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN, at one time I cut 90 pages and 25 more another time—not in large chunks, but rather through brutal trimming of subplots, scenes or events.)

It was only at writing workshops, by way of exercises, that I was introduced to the short-story form and to the personal essay structure. The 800- to 3,000-words pieces I write in between novels are delightful fillers, like sorbet that clears the palette between heavy dishes. However, none so far has had the seed to grow into a full-length novel.

On the other hand, trying to find short stories hidden inside my book-length tales is equally difficult. The two forms are of different species. No matter how much you feed a Chihuahua, it will never grow into a Great Dane.

You may enjoy reading samples of my short pieces at
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Novelist Talia Carner’s most recent novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN, won the Forward National Literature Award in the “historical fiction” category.