AWP 2012 Panel Review: The Long and Short of It

R106: The Long and Short of It: Navigating the Transitions between Writing Novels and Short Stories 
With Bruce Machart, Hannah Tinti, Melanie Thon, Erin McGraw and Kevin Wilson

The first panel I went to was bright and early at 9am Thursday morning, and it was by far the best one I attended. It was clear that everyone was well-prepared and excited about the topic they were discussing which, as the title states, was the difference between writing a novel and short stories.

Each person on the panel had wonderful and insightful things to say, though some seemed to focus on things very specific to themselves rather than offer general advice but I think that was a positive. It is always good to hear how a published author gets things done, even if it doesn’t fully apply to you. You never know what might trigger something in your own mind and help you later on.

Some of the best and more memorable comments came from Erin McGraw, Hannah Tinti and Kevin Wilson. Though at the start of this panel, I had never heard of these people, by the end I had already jotted down a note to purchase their books.

Erin McGraw made the very basic assertion that  “Novels are not stretched out short stories and short stories are not shrunk down novels,” and I think that it needed to be said. She also noted that “the story we are telling dictates its form. Short stories, McGraw said, surround a singular informing incident, whereas novels follow a transition in a person’s life.

And when it comes to the difference in writing, McGraw said that with short stories you jump in and keep going. But novels are a much “sleepier” process, where after you write it, you must “come back and make it good.”

McGraw also suggested an “early moment of flirtation” with your ideas to see what form they will take and how they will develop. “Don’t make decisions too soon,” said McGraw, because the idea then becomes predictable. “Once we are sure, doors close.”

Hannah Tinti made similar comments, though she was more focused on a writer’s “intuition” dictating the form of a story. She said that she knows right away whether a story will be a novel or a short story, the minute an idea strikes her.

Tinti said that regardless of form, first drafts are you “just vomiting on the page.” But there are also distinct differences between writing novels and short stories, asserted Tinti, explaining that short stories are like jumping off a cliff, except you can see the water that you are headed for. Novels, on the other hand, require you to “work longer in the dark,” as thought you are trying to “put an octopus to bed” with each time you manage to get one arm under the blanket, another pops up.

I thought Tinti was the most interesting of the speakers, with great ideas, funny analogies, and a very frank way to speaking. It was after hearing her speak that I looked up her published work, which includes the short story collection Animal Crackers and the New York Times Bestselling novel The Good Thief. I just recently purchased her novel and I can’t wait to read it!

She also had a great suggestion about writing in general. It’s not one that I think I’ll use, but you never know who it might inspire. Tinti said that you don’t have to write chronologically, that sometimes you have to write the scenes that are most pertinent in your mind and fill in the blanks later. Specifically with short stories, Tinti said she usually writes from start to finish, working sentence by sentence. But in novels, she suggested that you “write looser” and not to kill yourself sentence by sentence because you’ll end up cutting or changing it later anyway.

Kevin Wilson also made a very strong impression on me with his good humor about his unique style of writing. His suggestions appealed to me the most, saying “with short stories, it is always a conceit”–a “what if” scenario that he then works a story around answering. He admitted that with this method, he fails roughly 3/4s of the time, and he has made peace with that, saying that “accepting failure is the easiest way to get to what you should be working on.” But when he gets it right, writing a short story is like “stealing a car and then crashing it.”

But when he tried to write a novel, explained Wilson, a conceit doesn’t work for him. The story needed more than that, it needed to arise from the characters–he had to care about the characters. He added that writing a novel is more like a long car trip that eventually crashes at the end, but with a much longer, meandering drive in between.

Being a big fan of conceit-based stories, I also picked up Wilson’s short story collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth and can’t wait to get started.

The panel ended with a quick Q&A, which brought up some great questions.

In terms of the business of writing, the pressure of signing a deal and being under contract to finish your novel by a certain deadline, Tinti simply stated that “Everybody turns in  late.” She said that you do everything you can, beg or cry, to hold onto the novel until you feel that it’s finished, until you feel comfortable. “Don’t give in to pressure,” she said, because if it isn’t your best, people will criticize it and you will get bad reviews, and you will know it’s not your best.

Tinti also echoed McGraw with her answer to the question about the difference between short story and novel content, saying that “short stories are one emotional moment in [a character’s] life and how that changes them.” But a novel is “how their life has changed them as a person.” She added with good writing in either case, the reader should enjoy the ride of the story without being distracted, and then suddenly they arrive, much like driving with a GPS.


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