Are you a novelist, a short story writer, or both?

I’m currently reading Ann Patchett’s new essay collection, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, which chronicles Patchett’s journey to becoming a writer. Of the short story form, Patchett has this to say:

Love the short story for what it is: a handful of glorious pages that take you someplace you never knew you wanted to go.

As both a novelist and a short story writer, I can tell you that I love the way stories happen: you write a sentence, and then another sentence, and a few weeks and twenty or so pages later, you have arrived at a totally unexpected destination.

How does this differ from writing a novel? With a novel, while I don’t know exactly where I’m going or where and how the novel will end, I do usually begin with a general sense of direction. A sense of direction is important, because a novel requires a lengthy investment of time—for me, two to four years. So I begin with a setting, a character, and a problem that needs to be solved or a question that begs to be answered.

In my forthcoming novel, Golden State, for example, I began with two questions: 1) What would happen if California tried to secede from the nation in the present day? 2) What if the narrator’s estranged sister suddenly reappeared in her life? The novel was built from these questions, which married the personal with the political in a way that was very enjoyable to write and, I’ll admit, quite challenging to orchestrate.

With a short story, I feel more free, because I know my investment of time will be much shorter. I often don’t know what the problem is when I begin, or even who the major players are. I start instead with language—a series of words that present themselves in my brain and somehow compel me to follow them with other words.

Many novelists write only novels. Some short story writers write only stories. But the vast majority of published fiction writers do —or have done—some combination of both. Fiction writers frequently debut with a story collection, which is followed by a novel. One reason for this pattern, I believe, is that short stories tend to be the preferred form in graduate writing programs, so many writers come out of their MFA program with a story collection in near-publishable shape. After the writer gets a few good reviews and catches an agent’s eye with a story collection, he or she either a) decides that it would be fun to write a novel or b) concedes to the demands of the marketplace, which favors novels over story collections.

Writing novels is my bread and butter, and I never feel quite whole unless I’m writing one. In fact, I can’t remember a time in the past twelve years when I wasn’t working on at least one novel.

But there is sustenance to be had in short stories too, and when I am feeling tired of my novel-in-progress, or antsy, or simply inspired in a different direction, I often begin a short story.

When you are feeling at wits’ end about your novel, I encourage you to set it aside for an hour or day or a week and begin a short story instead. It is possible that the writing of the story will push you back, joyfully, to your novel, and that you will abandon the story in short order for the bigger project. But it is also possible that you will sink blissfully into the freedom of the story, and that you will emerge, days or weeks later, with “a handful of glorious pages.”

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