Tuesday: The Book Klatch

TUESDAY From: Elisa Albert To: Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: Short stories vs. novels Let’s talk about short stories vs. novels. Did we all cut our teeth on short stories? How is it to be elbowed … Read More

By / December 5, 2006


From: Elisa Albert To: Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: Short stories vs. novels

Let’s talk about short stories vs. novels. Did we all cut our teeth on short stories? How is it to be elbowed into embarking on a novel, as many of us, I would guess, have been? Where does the idea for a novel come from and how is that different from where the idea for a story comes from? How do you know when you’ve written the end of a short story? How do you know a freaking thing about a novel? Any or all or none of the above.

From: Stacey Richter To: Elisa Albert, Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Karen Russell Subject: Talkers vs. Listeners

I started writing short stories rather than novels because I didn’t have the chops or attention span to write a novel. By the time I figured out how to write short stories and was ready to try a novel, I’d already been writing stories for so long that the form was stuck in my head. Now a part of my mind believes that everything is supposed to be ten pages long. I think that’s why, when I started a novel for the first time, I killed off all the characters in chapter one. I’ve since become a convert to outlining.

Even though my favorite things of all things are certain short stories, in general I like the experience of reading novels better than reading stories, and therefore I feel compelled to try to write a whole lot of novels in order to not be some hypocritical novel-reading short-story writer. I don’t feel elbowed by publishers, exactly, more by my own sensibility. Lately I keep starting different ones. Beginnings are fun. Endings are fun. One thing I think I do know about a freaking novel is that the middle is a bad place. Also, they have subplots.

But here’s my secret belief. There are two kinds of writer people: the talkers and the listeners. The talkers (maybe they don’t even really talk a lot) have a lot of words inside them—a lot of description, a lot of clarifying, a lot of internal dialogue, a lot of inner narration (now I’m walking down the street, they say to themselves), and sometimes they actually do talk a lot. The words inside them have to come out—these people make excellent novelists (whether or not they write excellent novels). I’m sure that Charles Bukowski was a talker, even though he was a poet, so you don’t have to be a novelist, but of course he wrote a bunch of novels too.

The listeners, on the other hand, only have about 25 words inside them, and they don’t think anyone wants to hear those 25 words unless they’re in the exact right and perfect order. These people have a tendency to write short stories or, in extreme cases, poetry. (They also may not listen very well). I’m a listener, and listeners don’t make very good novelists (though they may write good novels). I’d bet that Marilynne Robinson is a listener.

Since I think that easy is better, my goal is always, at the very least, to write short novels. It’s more fun for me to write short stories though. I like to put all the words in the right order, or at least give it a shot. In terms of novel writing though, I’m essentially screwed. I envy the talkers.

From: Aaron Hamburger To: Elisa Albert, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: I'm a talker

I must be a talker, then. For me, the experience of writing a short story collection was like writing ten novels, only I had to fit each one within the space of about 20 pages. Even when I managed it, I felt like there were so many things I wanted to be able to say about the characters that I couldn’t shoehorn into the narrative.

My first novel was an accident. I’d planned to write a pair of novellas about Israel, one about Jerusalem, one about Tel Aviv. But I found that the novella on Jerusalem kept growing like a soufflé (I just took a cooking class and I’m really into soufflés these days) and so I just went with it. And since I didn’t have any idea what to write about Tel Aviv, I never did.

I enjoyed the experience of being able to stay with a group of characters for a really long time and having room to say lots of things about them. Also, I liked having space for them to do everyday things in addition to playing their parts in the main plot. One thing that helped me rein it all in was that I put a time limit on the narrative. All the events took place over a long weekend. As I got further into the writing process, I made up a day-by-day chart of all the action to make sure it all fit. It was also a good way to keep track of what was going on and make sure it didn’t sprawl out of control.

The second novel, which I’ve been working on for a while now, has been more difficult because I’ve tried to do a few things that I hadn’t done before. I tried first person POV, ditched it. I tried to write about a physicist, ditched him. I tried to put in a crime element (and even interviewed the head of the missing persons bureau at the Berlin police department). With great regret, ditched that too. What remains, however, is deeply satisfying, because I haven’t simply repeated what I’ve done before, and I’ve grown as a writer during the process.

With both novels, I’ve found that there’s been a turning point while I’m working on them, when the plot gels, almost like a pudding (here we go with cooking similes again). This can take a year or two of working on it. Before this point, I’m floundering and miserable, enduring several false starts and false eurekas. After this point, everything falls into place, and while there’s still work to be done, it’s all productive work, and much more fun and exciting.

From: Elisa Albert To: Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: Self-loathing listener, here

That would make me a self-loathing listener, fo’ sure. Or not. I dunno.

I love how much control you have over a story, and I like how the idea for a story can hinge on a moment somewhere, a dynamic between people, a mood. Working on a novel for the last year and a half I’ve been repeatedly surprised and dismayed by the fact that a moment, a dynamic, a mood just aren’t remotely enough. And then there’s the fact that you can’t hold quite as tight to your narrative threads, the little details you can cultivate and return to in a story.

On the novel upside, though, it is nice not to have to re-conceive a whole new world every few weeks. Hallelujah for that flash when you figure out what you’re doing. Because until then it is just God-awful work. I wish I were more journey-is-the-destination, but Jesus. Nicole Krauss said something funny, like writing a novel is like going into a room every day to chip away at your self-esteem. Even when a story isn’t going well, you can at least hold the whole thing up to the light, as it were, turn it around in your hands and consider it as a whole. When a novel’s not going well, you’re just neck-deep in tar and it can take whole days just to figure out where you stand, where you went wrong, where you need to go, etc.

My only novel salvation has been a really specific chapter-structure, which I return to and make notes on endlessly.

Whine, whine, whine.

On a more proactive note, talking with two writer friends led me to an example of true omniscient: “Hills Like White Elephants” by Hemmingway. Check it.

From: Angela Pneuman To: Elisa Albert, Aaron Hamburger, Stacey Richter, Karen Russel Subject: Feeling coy about the first person

Wiawaka was great, all paddleboats and screened-in gazebos. They have a sliding scale, so all the girl writers should check it out as an affordable retreat. You have to dry-mop your room prior to checkout, stuff like that, and the rooms are about the size of prison cells I’ve seen at Alcatraz. Homier, though.

I don’t feel like I know what I’m doing writing a novel, and though I still don’t really feel like I know what I’m doing writing a story, either, I used to think every story was my last, and that has faded a bit over the years. Someone—Aaron?—said they felt coy writing in first person. That’s how I feel. Can’t do it, though many stories I love from other writers are in first. One thing, with the novel, I do feel like I have more space to figure out how to think about what I’m doing—a bigger wall to throw things against to see if they stick, or something.

P.S. Clarification: I didn’t mean to sound self-deprecating about writing short stories. I just mean that each story comes with its own set of problems to figure out, and the previous story’s methods don’t work, and probably shouldn’t, and what’s new and unanticipated about the struggle is the part I enjoy the most. Though I guess styles develop out of recursive inclinations.

Novels can accommodate large casts of characters, and lately I’m drawn to that. So I’m writing one. I’m also drawn to multiple points of view, which I’m using, and the omniscient point of view, which I’m not using, but which doesn’t strike me as alienating, as I believe someone said. In fact, it sometimes strikes me as more intimate, but I’m still thinking about why.

Next round: "Do you have to be messed up and dysfunctional to be a great writer?"

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