Saturday, November 21, 2009

Short Stories vs. Novels

My short story, “Io Saturnalia,” set around 200 AD, appears in the January issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, now arriving in your mailbox (if you subscribe) or on newsstands. (

For the first ten or twelve years of my professional life, I considered myself strictly a writer of short stories  and those stories were indeed short.  Few ran more than ten double-spaced pages and most were well under that.   I was so intimidated by the novel that I knew I could never fill three hundred manuscript pages with one story line.  Twenty-five hundred words were a snap.  Seventy thousand? 

No way.

With short stories, a plot with a twist would occur to me.  I would think it all out in my head, then create characters who would jump through the hoops I placed in their paths.  Seven or eight pages later, I could type “The End” and send it off.

Then the short story market began to dry up.  Mystery magazines folded left and right, and the women’s magazines—Redbook, McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, etc.—cut back on the fiction they ran each month until they quit running fiction altogether.  I was faced with writing longer or no longer writing.

The last short story that hadn’t sold was set in a fictionalized version of Brooklyn College and featured a male NYPD homicide detective.  When it was rejected all around, I added a few complications and doubled it into a novelette such as one of the two remaining mystery magazines printed every month.

This didn’t sell either, but by then, I had concocted more plot twists and, because women were starting to move into the NYPD and were being promoted up the ranks, I decided to change the male protagonist to female.  The third try came in at 35,000 words—a real book-type novelette.

Someone had recommended an agent and he called me after reading it.  He liked the college setting, he liked Lt. Sigrid Harald, he liked the plot, “But nobody’s buying novelettes these days.  Do you think you could double it?”

At this point, I went back and interpolated a subplot that finally got the manuscript to 60,000 words, which was the average length of a mystery novel in those days, and One Coffee With became my first published novel.

Because it still followed the plot of the original short story, it kept the same killer.   After I was well into the book though, and it was time for my original villain to do the dirty deed, she flat-out refused.  She dug in her pretty little heels and insisted that she would never, never, never kill someone.

I took a second look and realized that she was right.  As she had evolved into a more rounded character, she had indeed become someone who could not kill.  Of course, I could have gone back and reworked her character, but I rather liked her as she was.  To my surprise, there was a minor background character wildly waving his hand.  “I could do it!” he volunteered.

He was right.  He could.  Not only was he more willing than the young woman, he had a better motive, and a much better method.  I only had to change a single line to put him more in the forefront.

That was when I finally realized that for me, short stories are all about plot while novels are more about character.

Short stories still come more easily for me, but after twenty-seven novels, I’m beginning to think I may have a handle on that form as well.

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