If a novel had a baby would it be a short story?

A reader once asked me if I thought short stories were smaller versions of novels with fewer plot turns. It is a good question for writers to consider before transitioning from one form to the other. It’s helpful to remember the form you are writing and what its purpose is.

A short story is as much a mini novel as a chipmunk is a baby squirrel. They are completely different beasts, put on earth for different purposes. When a chipmunk grows into a squirrel, I’ll start writing short stories that are condensed novels.

I define a novel as a set of conflicts, illustrated through a series of plot turns, resolved in such a way as to leave the reader satisfied that some Wisdom was served by the narrative. This Wisdom may be love, justice, retribution, fate, or any other force in human experience that will lay the characters of the story down peaceably to rest.

This is a chipmunk. With any luck, it will grow into a bigger chipmunk and nothing else.

A short story should have one resounding point that will stick with the reader after the story is over. That point is revealed at the end of the story. Everything preceding builds the effect of that revelation.

Since the crux of a short story comes at the end, I often construct them backward. The ending is the kernel of the story, and everything leading up to that is set into place afterward, trailing back to the most natural starting point. Only what is necessary to bring forth the point is built into the story.

Novels demand to be conceived going forward. Even with a general idea of the ending, there will be too many shifting sands there for it to be the foundation. The characters have more say in the direction of a novel. They create the resolution as they travel the narrative, perhaps making the ending quite different than first imagined. Building a novel backward prevents the characters from developing into the people they should grow to be.

Short stories and novels demand different skills. Novels require more devotion to the characters, but they are more forgiving than short stories. A novel can survive a small lull in the narrative; a short story cannot. Each word carries more weight in a short story. A few ill-chosen words, or a few too many words, can quickly derail the narrative.

A squirrel, properly crafted and distinctly its own art form.

Short stories were once more popular than they are now. Their fall might be linked to the decline of literary magazines, but it may also have something to do with writers not appreciating how different the craft is from the art of writing novels.

Some short stories appear to have been aborted novels. Have you read stories that seem to come to a crashing halt, leaving you to wonder, “What was the point of that?” When I encounter one of these stories, I question if the writer set out to write a short novel, waiting to see where the story would take him. It took him nowhere, and he ran out of words.

Storytelling is about coming to a resolution or making a lasting point. The story written as a baby novel does neither. Infant novels labeled short stories are a turnoff. A chipmunk is bound to be a disappointment to his parents if his parents are squirrels.

Do you agree or disagree? Comments are open.

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He blinded me with science: The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne

The Mysterious Island recounts the adventures of six Yankees who escaped a Confederate prison by stealing a hot air balloon.  They ride the winds of a monster storm until the balloon fails and deposits them on a deserted island in the South Pacific. The castaways have nothing but the clothes on their backs to help them survive.

One of the castaways is an engineer. All the others have man-crushes on him because he knows how to make anything out of dirt and gumption.

Another of them is a teenaged boy, who, despite his tender age, knows everything there is to know about exotic fauna and flora, including the various medicinal uses of the latter.

The third Yankee is a sailor, capable of building a pleasure yacht by himself, on a deserted island, in about four months.

The fourth castaway is a journalist. He is exceptional at making himself appear wise, though he is of less practical use than any of the others.

The fifth castaway is the black “companion” of the engineer. He is under no “obligation” to the engineer, and could have gone his own way at any time during his long “devotion” to the engineer.  Guess who does all the cooking on the island.

The final castaway is a dog, who turns out to be marginally more useful than the journalist.

Don't worry for their safety. Jules Verne only kills bad guys.

Don’t worry for their safety. Jules Verne only kills bad guys.

Remarkably, the island contains every natural resource necessary for five men with clothes on their backs to develop a western industrial society. The castaways, who, for reasons associated with the tourist trade, quickly become colonists, busy themselves in the production of steel, textiles, and other assorted necessities and luxury items.

What makes the island mysterious is the presence of an unknown benefactor who aids the colonists whenever they encounter a difficulty requiring too much effort to plot their way through. When pirates attack, a torpedo is placed in the pirate ship’s path by the unknown protector, destroying the threat without having to bother us with an annoying display of military cleverness by the colonists.

I wanted to dislike this novel from the beginning. The characters are flat. There is no conflict between them. They are great guys who always agree on everything, and anything they touch turns to gold. Verne’s obvious  and overabundant  love for his characters means there is no tension caused by worry that any of them will come to serious harm.

Readers more sciencey and less fictiony than I am might enjoy descriptions of the processes by which the colonists manufactured the many fine products used to build their empire. To me, a recipe book for smelting iron does not make a compelling story.

And then there was the time lost deciding upon names for the island’s various features. They really could have done this while I was at work.

In spite of all this, I could not hate this book. I found myself looking forward to revisiting the island. Even though some the colonists’ improvements were far-fetched, I wanted to see what else they were able to develop. The characters themselves were secondary to me. I wanted to watch progress. Jules Verne may not have been much into character development, but he sure was adept at showing off scientific progress. That’s how he got me; apparently, I’m a sucker for progress.

In the end, this collection of brilliant and amiable men faces catastrophe. With their mysterious protector no longer able to bail them out, they do what all clever, resourceful men do to save themselves: they rely on dumb luck.

It was disappointing that the characters did not concoct some ingenious scheme to save themselves, but I didn’t really care about them anyway. I was more concerned about the island itself. This once-primitive, now paradise, land was the true star of the show. Only Jules Verne could make me feel this way about a chunk of volcanic rock.

Moby Dick – Part II: I’m with the whale on this one

The following is Part II of my critique of Moby Dick from my old web site. At this point, I had finished the book, which was quite a relief to me. Last week I posted Part I, written when I was only half way through the novel. If you want to read Part I first, click here.

Part II: Finished with Moby Dick

Previously, I shared some thoughts formed while reading the first half of Moby Dick. Though I was not thrilled with the story, I was determined to finish it. I had seen a faint glimmer of potentially smooth storytelling as was really hoping this potential would blossom into an engaging second half.

Having finished the book, I am here to report that my hopes were dashed upon the rocks of long-winded meandering. The novel peaked somewhere between the 10 and 13 percent marks (as read on Kindle), and never came near reaching those heights again.

Moby Dick is bereft of likable characters. If I had to choose, I would say my favorite (i.e. the least annoying) character was Moby Dick himself. He is my favorite because he shows up for only the last 10% or so of the book, which is also good advice for any potential reader. Unlike Ahab, Starbuck, and all the other prominent, hard-bitten sea-farers, he doesn’t talk too much. I appreciate good dialog in a novel, but these sailors are forever spouting some drivel that means next to nothing. Even when they are not speaking, they are thinking pointless drivel. I wonder if Melville attended the same writing workshops as James Fenimore Cooper.

Moby Dick shows up for the climactic final scene, takes care of his business, wagging his jaw no more than necessary to crush a few boats, and then goes home. He wastes no time tripping over insipid attempts to make himself sound intellectual. If only the author could have been half as efficient.

The whale's not much for dialogue. He just takes care of business and goes home.

The whale’s not much for dialogue. He just takes care of business and goes home.

Instead, Melville wanders. At the beginning, it seemed like a major part of the plot would be the unlikely friendship between the Yankee narrator and a partially-civilized cannibal. Yet, by the time the ship shoves off from the dock, the cannibal has become no more noteworthy to the narrator than any other of the harpooners. This may be a blessing in disguise, for if nothing else, it prevented the cannibal from indulging in drawn-out soliloquies.

The author’s focus drifts in the wind throughout the book. Even at the very end, it is still drifting. Melville seems to forget, until it is nearly too late, that the narrator must actually live if we are to put any credence in the story he has just spent way too long relating to us. The narrator is almost certainly floating toward the light when Melville hastily yanks him back into the mortal world with an afterthought of a tale about his unlikely survival of the final battle.

It turns out that the great whale was efficient, but not completely thorough in his actions. He left one man alive to tell the tale. I wonder if he regrets this oversight as much as I do.

Moby Dick – Part I: Somebody should make a story out of this

Having had my mental energy usurped by a recent upswing in the intensity of my day job, it seems the perfect time to reintroduce my critique of Moby Dick from my former web site. It is a two-parter; the first part is impressions of the first half of the book. The second part was written after finishing the novel.

Part I: Half way through Moby Dick

I found a free Kindle version of Moby Dick. Since I am a sucker for finding out what’s going on with the classics, this was a clear incentive to give it a try. I should make it plain that I am only half-way through at present.

Most people think Moby Dick is a long book, but it is actually three long books. The first is a whaling primer, complete with whale classifications, history, and even a couple of chapters on how whaling is depicted in the fine arts. The second book is a defense of the occupation against other mariners, and general society, who may be inclined to look down upon the whaling trade. The third, and smallest, book is a novel, generally touching upon the subject of whaling.

There may be an audience for each of these three books. Unfortunately, the books are all mixed up, hodgepodge, into one. At the beginning of each chapter, the reader takes a spoonful of whale-product pot luck without knowing into which of the three books he is delving.

Three books in one, what a bargain!

Three books in one, what a bargain!

It is common among pieces of 19th century literature to meander into unfortunate asides that interrupt the narrative. Consequently, I am willing to give some leeway on this point. But Melville takes the inch I give and turns it into a mile, educating me on many topics about which I would just as soon remain ignorant, if I could save an hour by doing so. He spent a chapter explaining what’s wrong with the color white.

The storytelling itself (when it can be unearthed) suffers from a major point-of-view problem that would brand any modern author an untutored novice. Moby Dick is narrated by Ishmael, one of the crew of the ship. It does not take long for Ishmael to flee his own skin and flit about as a fly on the wall in places where his body is not present. The narrator describes scenes that Ishmael is in no position to see. Heartened by this omnipotent superpower, the narrator jumps into the heads of Ahab and his three ship’s officers to give us a glimpse of their most intimate thoughts.

You may be asking yourself, “Why has this dolt kept reading, if he finds so many problems with this book?” The answer is that there is one truly bright spot I hope will blossom in the second half.

In the actual narrative portions, when the story is really being told from the first-person, the prose is rather engaging. Melville’s style can be quite charming, as it was for almost three chapters in a row, in between sessions of Whaling 101 class. I’m hoping the last half of the book contains more of this type storytelling and less instruction and thought-reading.

I will continue reading, hoping that Ishmael is satisfied I’m now trained to competently follow the story of a fictitious whaling expedition. If I can also satisfy him that I want a chronicler of events as he experiences them, rather than a mind reader who presents me with every character’s thoughts, we may just be able to get along until the end.