Friday, 6 March 2015

Writer Helena Puumala talks about Writing the Short Story versus the Novel

A Conversation with Helena Puumala, author of the Kati of Terra Series

Feb 26, 2015 Plato’s Pizza, Edmonton, Alberta

Writing the Short Story versus the Novel

Question – You have written a dozen or so short stories, in addition to four, soon to be five, novels.  How does the experience of creating and writing these differ?

Answer – The obvious difference of course is the length.  Naturally, novels take a lot longer to write than short stories.

Question – Would you say that they scale linearly, to use math lingo?  That is to say, if a short story has one tenth the words, does it take one-tenth as long to write?

Answer – I have never timed it with a stopwatch, or even a calendar, the way a data analyst like you might do.  But looking back on it, if it takes a year to write a full-length novel of 100,000 plus words, it takes about a month from start to finished product for a short story, which would come in at somewhere between 6000 and 12000 words.  So I suppose it does scale sort of linearly at that.

Question – Mind you, you wrote Kati if Terra 2 and 3, each inside of a year.  They were both well over 200,000 words.  So, by that logic, it ought to only take you a couple of weeks to write a 10,000 word story.  :)

Answer – It ain't gonna happen.  As you can guess, things are not that straight-forward.  So, I suppose it's not really linear after all.  You would probably say it is quasi-linear.  A first draft can often be done within a couple of weeks, but the polishing, editing and shaping take at least as long as the first draft does.

Question – Would you say that's true of novels too?

Answer – It is probably pretty similar.  For novels, my schedule has usually been spring to autumn for the first draft, shaping over the winter and publishing in the spring.  Rinse and repeat.

Question – And you often write a short story or two during the relatively slack times, while waiting for beta readers or art work.

Answer – Yes, often at your urging.  But it is good to keep exercising the writing muscles during those lulls.  And being able to put up a short story a few times a year on Amazon is a nice way to get some name exposure and new readers, whom one hopes will move on to the novels later on.  

Question – Well, I have done some data analysis on that, and there does seem to be support for the hypothesis.  But let's back up a bit and talk about what you refer to as shaping a story or novel.  You consider that to be different from line editing or story editing, I gather.  What do you feel constitutes the “shaping” stage?

Answer – That's when you add information, plot or character development to round things out.  But character development is probably the main thing.  It is also a good time to consider your “emotional beats” - their intensity and pacing.

Question – Allow me to interrupt here, to explain to readers the idea of emotional beats, at least as I understand it.  Help me!  Actually, that was a bit of an emotional beat right there, wasn't it?

Answer – Yes, a tiny little one.  Basically, emotional beats are those moments in a story when you bring the emotional life and texture of the characters to the forefront.  Often, they are little things, though they can also be significant events.

Question – One of my favorites is in Kati 1, a small interaction between Kati and Mikal when you  sense that these are real people falling in love.  It's the “how can you keep them down on the farm once they've seen Paree” interaction.

“By the way, where was ‘Paree’?”

Kati burst out laughing.  She felt a warm glow fill her insides.

“You were listening to me think out loud, you!  Paris was the capital city of a country called France in a landmass known as Europe.  For some time it was considered to be the most civilized place on my world; rich in culture, arts, sciences, street life, cafes, restaurants, you name it.  At one time if you wanted to be an artist, a writer, a musician, dancer, anything like that, you went to—or at least you wanted to go to--Paris.  Sometimes it was called ‘The City of Lights’.”

“Did you ever go?”

“No, I never saw Paris.”  She sighed, was going to add something else, then just shrugged her shoulders.  How could she explain?

She felt Mikal take her hand into his and squeeze it gently.  She wanted to look at him and smile, but dared not because suddenly her eyes were brimming with tears which she did not want to shed.  Her emotions were all mixed up in a muddle; joy was vying for space with sadness and a deep sense of loss.

We can all relate to that from our own lives.  It's the way Mikal reacts to Kati's throw-away line about Paris.  He is paying attention to her, even when she is just talking off the cuff about nothing important, and she becomes aware of right then and there and responds accordingly.  That's a good emotional beat, in my opinion.

But getting back to the novel versus the short story, it seems like the novel has much more scope for these small but vital interactions.  How do you pull off “emotional beats” in a short story?

Answer – They are just as important to the short story as the novel, but with the reduced word count you have to be very sharp with your emotional beats.  They have to be precise and powerful.  You don't have the luxury of letting things out slowly, of letting a succession of little things add up to one big thing.  You have to focus on the details of the exact story, not drop in and out of the wider story-arc of a novel.  You have to hint at the character's broader lives and feelings because you can't elucidate them the way you can in the novel.

Question – Like Meg and Mike's “aha moment” in Love and Rebirth on the Prairie

He had slipped his arm into Meg’s, and though the physical contact was happening through two layers of padded cloth, she found his closeness sexy.  She looked up into his hooded face, and saw a grin there, beaming at her.  At that instant they both knew how the afternoon would end.  

Answer – Sure, that's the idea. 

Question -That's a nice description of how story length affects character development.  What about plot?

Answer – It's much the same.  You have to focus on the precise plot points that bring out the essence of the story.  You can't meander in a short story, the way you can in a novel.  The novel lets you explore sub-plots, develop minor characters, add humor and even inject a bit of your personal politics and philosophies. 

Question – So, like you let Mikal pontificate on theories of government or allow a scientist like Jaime fill the reader in on some interesting scientific ideas.  But in a short story, you can't go there.

Answer – Everything has to count.

Question – Does that make the short story inherently more challenging or more difficult than the novel?  Is it more of a high-wire act?

Answer – It's just different.  The challenges are different, but not necessarily harder.  I enjoy the challenges of the short story, but I could never limit myself to that format alone.  I appreciate the ability to range widely, the freedom of motion that the novel gives one.  And particularly in SFF (Science Fiction and Fantasy) you have to build a whole universe, and you just can't do that in  10,000 words.  That probably explains why most short stories tend to be more naturalistic, and focused on one, or at most a few, characters.

Question – From what you have said, and from my general reading, I would say that short stories are primarily vehicles for revealing character, rather than plot driven, though naturally both are needed.

Answer –Well, you don't have a story without a plot, but the restricted word count in the short story does lend itself to focusing on character, on emotions and feelings, and those transition moments people undergo in life, which are mainly emotional and psychological.  Plot plays a subsidiary, though essential role, in creating the opportunity for character growth and change.  It's like the clothesline on which characters and their emotions are displayed.  You don't notice it so much, but it has to be there, or everything else just falls down.

Question – And there hangs the tale, until we speak again.

And here's a comic about writing and reading very short stories:


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