[process] Tools in the toolbox

Richard Parks, a couple of days ago, blogged regarding the career and craft contrast between short stories and novels. Go read it, the post is worth your attention.

Back? Good. Did you notice my comment on Richard’s post? Here it is again, in case you missed it:

One comment I make about the connection (or lack thereof) between short fiction and novels is that they’re like cabinet making and framing carpentry. Related in some obvious ways — wood, saws, hammers, whatnot — but very different arts requiring very different skills. Some transference of skill is possible, but there are people who are cabinet makers, there are people who are framing carpenters, and there are certain people (myself included) who can do both. One does not, however, inherently or readily lead to the other.

The question is usually framed as something on the order of, “Do I have to publish short stories in order to break in as a novelist?” It’s usually asked by an aspiring writer of some crusty old novelist (well, crusty if we haven’t showered recently), usually at a convention, perhaps during a panel session, perhaps in the bar. I think Richard’s post does a terrific job of answering the question, but I want to pick at my cabinet making versus framing carpentry metaphor again.

In a sense, that metaphor is obvious to the point of crude. Writing short stories and writing novels are both crafts that require mastery of character, setting, plot, style, usage and so forth. Those tools, while not identically deployed, are sufficiently similar as to be almost interchangeable, at least up to a point. A hammer is, in a sense, a hammer, after all. But the creative wood we work in each pursuit is a different grade, cut to different tolerances, and used to very different ends. And its the uses of those wood that influence the uses of those tools.

Take character arc. A novel is a journey, almost always. If nothing else, there’s hundreds of pages for the reader to pass through. Hundreds of pages for a character to emerge, be established, develop or elucidate their stakes, try and fail in hopefully spectacular ways, and eventually seek a resolution and a validation. There’s room to breathe, room for expansion and digression, room for the character to grow and change in unexpected ways, influenced by other characters, by the plot, by their own inner demons.

If a novel is a journey, a short story is a quick stopover. Grand events are almost always off the page in a short story, present in the backstory or by implication, or perhaps briefly glimpsed in the course of the story. The characters arrive all but fully formed, fleshed out from the moment they hit the page. They don’t have time or room to develop a full arc. Short stories typically focus on a single or very limited set of plot elements, and the characters’ responses to them. The character arrives extant, encounters the situation, resolves it perhaps with a moment of enlightenment or epiphany, and moves on past the ending to some other, hidden part of their life.

The writerly tools and skills required to propel and motivate a character through that novelistic arc are very different from the tools and skills required to march a character through a short story arc. The sheer scope of things places different demands on the characters and the author alike.

The same distinction applies to plot, setting and all the other bones and bits from which we assemble story in all its manifold forms. All of which is to say, Parks is right. If you have what it takes to be a good short story writer, write good short stories. Use those tools well. If you have what it takes to be a good novelist, write good novels. Use those tools well.

I suppose where the question still applies as an open issue is a newer writer feeling their way into the craft who wonders which way to go. Assuming you have roughly equivalent talents in both directions and your quandary is over which way to jump, it becomes a question of personal preference and career direction. That’s a huge discussion of its own, in its own right, a topic I’ll address at another time.

Your thoughts? Questions? Comments? Better metaphors?

3 thoughts on “[process] Tools in the toolbox

  1. I think your metaphor is a good one. I dread when this debate comes up in conversation because the real truth is what you and Parks both said: the only way to make a career is to do something you’re passionate about, because that’s what you’ll be best at, and being best at it is the way to make a career.

    If you’re going to fake orgasms, you will always be a faker, and you won’t have honest connections to your partner(s). If you’re willing to experiment and maybe sometimes not have an orgasm but just enjoy what you’re doing, and sometimes come so hard you kick a hole in the wall and the neighbors call the cops, the chances are your raw truth is going to attract your partner(s). How’s that for a metaphor?

    But seriously, I agree they’re similar tools applied to different ends, with different raw material to work with. I think sometimes aspiring novelists have this idea that because short stories are shorter, they’re easier. They think they can just use their noveling tools to half-ass some magically great short stories and gain some kind of name for themselves, thereby generating “buzz” for their longer work, but like Parks pointed out, short story writers aren’t famous, not even most of the really good ones. In 2009 at WFC, I sat next to a man who wrote one of my favorite short stories I’ve ever read (http://www.strangehorizons.com/2009/20090323/spider-f.shtml) and the name Sean Markey didn’t ring any bells. It wasn’t until I asked him to describe some of his work that I recognized that I was sitting beside someone I’d been dying to meet.

    Also, no one is going to buy your novel because you published short stories. They’ll buy it because it’s good. So if you were practicing framing carpentry and then tried to make and sell your first cabinet, I have a feeling that horrible Frankenstein’s monster is going to get recycled. Maybe you’d be able to sell frames, because you’re a framer, but your cabinet wouldn’t be any better than a ten year old’s.

    Yeah, the more I think about it, Jay, it’s a pretty good metaphor. My first cabinet was really ugly, and no matter how many frames I’d built, my cabinets didn’t start getting better until I’d made like five or six…

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