When I need a vacation from writing short stories, I write a novel. When I need a vacation from writing the novel, I write short stories. The two carry on a dialogue, discussing craft and the writing life. For years, the novel was dominant, with its loud, broad-shouldered personality. Novel was so self-assured—something of a bully, really—while Story scurried about, mouse-like under the furniture, speaking in a whisper, fearing Novel would step on it.
Then something unexpected happened. At first, I couldn't accept it, since I'd always considered myself a novelist who wrote stories on the side. I began to realize that readers preferred my stories to my longer works. Most all of them were published, while I had several unpublished novel manuscripts languishing in my study closet. My stories won awards; my novels were nominated but didn't win. I was baffled; I faced a writerly identity crisis. Of course, I was delighted with my successes, literally shouted for joy the first time I pulled off a “true” short story after many failed attempts, aware that it is a demanding form.
Perhaps Story was the quieter party in that on-going discourse because it's a perfectionist, concentrating so intently on accomplishing that “one single effect,” as Poe had it, that it can't waste breath or energy on digression. While Novel holds forth for hours on end like a drunk uncle. Don't get him started on his wild youth, recounted in a dozen different voices.
Not that it requires more discipline to write a good story. Each form demands its own discipline. Sure, the novel affords more latitude; it can ramble and include shopping lists if need be, as a story generally can't; but it requires long-term, day-to-day discipline and patience, not only in terms of time spent at the desk but also the “peace and space” (Solzhenitsyn calls it) required to get to the desk over the years it may take to complete one. You may despair or lose faith in the project and must learn to work through it. Both stories and novels call for revision, but revising a novel takes months, even years. Short stories impose a far stricter word diet: no surplus carbs or calories. They demand brevity and focus. Descriptive imagery, for example, shouldn't just set the scene but should create atmosphere which colors characters, narrative, and theme at once. Back story is better suggested with a brief memory or a few spoken words than delineated in a scene. Character, setting, atmosphere, plot elements must all work together to achieve that denouement wherein, as John Gardner wonderfully puts it, “meaning is revealed and emotion felt.” The novel, of course, strives to achieve this, too, but more relaxedly.
Early on, I thought I would write huge novels in the vein of George Eliot or Dostoevsky. But as I continued writing stories I found my novels growing shorter and shorter. I realized that works don't have to be “long” to be “big” or tackle big issues. Consider the work of Chinua Achebe or Jean Rhys. Story had begun to tutor Novel: “Why do you need such a drawn-out character description when a single telling detail will do? Just note the rakish tilt of his cap....Why this long flashback? Can't Emily briefly recall the anger in her father's face that day she contradicted him? Better yet, describe it in a few words to her boyfriend, which will help define her voice and his response help reveal their relationship.” Sure, you can lavish on more description and back story in a novel, but Story instructs us that they best advance plot, delineate character, and add thematic nuances.
The short story has taught me that words carelessly or excessively used can distract and detract from a narrative. Now it would seem the short story is firmly in control, instructing the novel to sit up straight and pay attention. “You had a scene showing the character's restlessness two chapters back; you don't need another in this chapter.”
My last two novels, Beneath the Coyote Hills and, recently, Welcome to Saint Angel, read like protracted short stories. Coyote Hills was drafted in a white hot rush as my stories often are. Saint Angel was like one of those pesky stories that won't come right. You know there's a solid kernel there, but it eludes you. It took seven complete rewrites over many years for me to pull it off, pruning it from 500 pages in the first draft down to 280 in the final.
So what does the novel have to teach the short story? You can write in multiple voices and points of view (not too many); experiment all you like and take risks. Flannery O'Connor's and Faulkner's stories are as bold as their novels. Think big! The short story needn't be meek and quiet. Being small doesn't mean you can't be buff.