alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions

From Crocodiles to Butterflies (aka Short Stories vs Novels)


Thanks to the Indiana Arts Commission, I recently received an Individual Artist Grant for 2013-2014 to support my work-in-progress, a Young Adult fantasy novel about some very bad ponies and the end of the world. As part of that grant, I’ve agreed to write about what I learn as I shift from writing short fiction (500-6000 words) to writing novel-length fiction (60,0000 words and up).

The first thing I’ve learned:
I’m happier.

Even though I have only ever dreamed of writing novels—even though short fiction doesn’t satisfy me as a reader— somewhere along this crooked path of becoming a writer, I veered from my novel goal and detoured down short story lane. It was a crooked, treacherous lane, and I soon strayed into a mire of crocodiles, quicksand, and biting insects.

Photo by Neerva Bhatt, via Flickr

I set out to write my first novel way back in 2005. It was a mystery novel about art fraud in Philadelphia. I made it to 53,000 words, and realized that I don’t have the kind of brain that does mystery plots. My consolation prize was that it had two great villains who I’m still kind of in love with, Yuri and Vassily (aka The Fur Brothers).

What that novel didn’t have was an ending. I thought I should probably get some practice at this ending stuff. I set a reasonable goal that I thought would take care of the problem: I would bang out three short stories with good endings: problem solved.

I figured it would take me 3 months, tops.


Dear Reader, I may have been a bit fuzzy on how to end a novel, but I didn’t even know what a short story was for. I never read any, except the ones assigned in Lit classes. The result? I languished in the Crocodile-Quicksand Badlands trying to figure this out for THE NEXT EIGHT YEARS. Eight years when I could have been writing novels.*

A combination of circumstances and some good things happening with my short fiction last year, have set me back on the broad well-paved thoroughfare of writing novels. My little cart of words trundles smoothly along, while I enjoy the pleasant country views, good company, and the occasional butterfly drifting by.

Photo by Khoa Trần via Flickr

In June, I attended Kij Johnson’s Fantasy & Science Fiction Novel Writer’s Workshop** at the CSSF in Lawrence, KS. After being told everything that was wrong with our projects and spending two weeks ripping out what we had and starting over, many of my workshop-mates were grumbling and daydreaming about returning to their comfort zone: short stories. They felt that there at least they knew what was going on.

Fishbowling at CSSF--with Brooke Wonders, Dale Ivan Smith, Rebecca Wright, and Emily Hall

Fishbowling at CSSF–with Brooke Wonders, Dale Ivan Smith, Rebecca Wright, and Emily Hall

Not me.  All I could think was: “I’m free!”

For many, writing short stories is “easy.” My Clarion West instructor Margo Lanagan recently said that “Short stories involve less angst than novels…It doesn’t require so much heavy lifting, psychologically.” I have the utmost respect for Margo, but that’s just crazy-talk.

I honestly feel like I have been let out of a cage. At last, I can leave all the aggravations (see: sharp-toothed reptiles, biting insects) of short stories behind. It’s true that writing a novel still means dealing with a full complement of the parts I don’t like about writing, but it has so much more of the parts I do like.

On the other hand, I’m still on the first draft. So what do I know?
I guess I’ll find out.

Stay tuned for next time when I’ll talk about Common Problems of First Novels.

If you’re a writer, what’s your preference? Flash? Short Story? Novella? Novel?
If you’re a reader, what would you rather read? Short stories or novels?

*The moral is: Don’t let this happen to you. You want to write novels? Write novels. Just make sure you finish them.
** This is a fantastic workshop. You should go.

Author: Alisa Alering

I write stories. I read stories.

10 thoughts on “From Crocodiles to Butterflies (aka Short Stories vs Novels)

  1. Yes! All the yes. I loved CW, and I’v written some short stories I’m proud of and like quite well. But it is not my wheelhouse. I like having the freedom to explore my characters and my themes that a novel allows. Plus, there’s something so incredibly satisfying about making a cohesive, novel length outline, something so calming about shuffling around index cards and plot lines. Even the revision process of novels vs short stories works better for me. It’s just so meaty and rewarding, where the short story is like a stab in the ribs. (Or the bite of a sand flea.)

    Congratulations on the grant! And good luck with the novel. Let me know when you’re in the market for beta readers.

    • Eliza, I noticed you’ve been directing your efforts towards novels recently. I did a lot of good work at CW, but I was so fretful. There was no time for delightful dilly-dallying on the shores of story development, it was all brutal efficiency. Finding ways to cut out all the stuff I enjoy as a reader so I could fit a story into the right number of pages. No wonder I was cranky. I figure even if the revising process for novels gives me boils, at least I get to spend all that lovely, stress-free time drafting before I have to face all the problems of my own making. Welcome to the Secret Clubhouse of Writers Who Know What’s Best for Them. Have a butterfly!

  2. Awesome article, and something I can totally relate to. I feel like novel writing encounters all the same problems as short story writing, but gives you the opportunity to build a nice, sturdy raft before you wade into the water.

  3. Hi Kimberley,

    One of the things I like best is the lazy drifting time that raft gets you. Nobody–well, nobody except Dean Wesley Smith–expects you to write a novel in two weeks, but I always feel like such a dunce when I’ve been working on a short story for three days and don’t already have everything figured out. Have you always known novels were your best medium?

  4. Alisa, very well said. I agree, but of course, you know I feel similarly, since we discussed this at Kij’s workshop. Novels feel big, open and wide compared to short stories. Because they are, of course. I’m glad you discovered novel bliss, and even gladder you are running with it.

  5. I expect to hear your footsteps running beside me, Dale. How’s it coming with Burning the Brand?

  6. Now titled “The Hardscrabble,” it’s been off to a slow start, with more outlining craziness. Enough of that I say. Now that Cascade Writers is behind me, it’s time to draft in earnest and follow the trail of drafting you are blazing!

  7. I can’t help noticing the similarities between your path and my own (albeit without the successes you have had with your short stories). I began my first (serious attempt) at a novel around 2005, got it to a very loose first draft, and then worried I needed to get short story credits under my belt to have any novel taken seriously. I’ve only just now begun to look at the novel again, so it’s good that I came across this article.

    • Darren, I think I’ve learned a lot from writing short stories–but I’m not sure that I couldn’t have learned it from writing as many total words in progress towards novel(s). The short story advice is good for many people, but not absolutely everyone. Have you looked at that 2005 draft recently? Is it still exciting to you? Or do you feel like charging ahead with a new novel idea?

      • Yes, I have been looking at it recently and it still excites me. I guess the problem is there is a lot of bad writing that needs correcting and the sheer size of it puts me off.
        Bizarrely enough, my major project at the moment is based around short stories, which must make me some sort of sadist 🙂

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