Perhaps, this was covered in English 101. If so, I missed the class. I thought I’d take a few minutes (or paragraphs, as the case may be) to ruminate about the various types of writing and the reasons for writing. Both for your edification and my own.
Off the top of my head, I count seven different types of writing: literary essays, philosophical essays, scientific papers, novels, short stories, poems, and other non-fiction. I think that covers the whole gamut (And to think that going into this, I was expecting to get away with just listing three—Wow! How my thoughts run away with me!). For the purposes of this discussion, we will ignore literary essays, scientific papers, and other non-fiction. I’ve helped write and publish only one scientific paper, and I don’t think I’ve ever written a literary essay (unless you count my blog—hey, that’s probably a whole new subsection … so there are eight different types of writing, maybe). My experience in poetry is equally limited; it usually only comes to the fore in the context of my other writing. The battle-hardened warrior must solve an ancient riddle to win the prize, and, of course, the riddle is in the form of a poem. Still, I will have a couple thoughts I want to share regarding poetry. I am more experienced in writing philosophical essays, novels, and short stories: I took four of years of philosophy in college, and I have learned the literary ropes, mostly on my own (a few classes here and there, but not many).
Anyway, with respect to these types of writing, I have a couple thoughts. First, there seems to be three ways of looking at any kind of writing. First, one can look at it as a means of self-expression. This is a completely solitary activity. The ultimate goal of the writing need not concern another human being in any way. Such a work can be seen strictly as a piece of art; and what it means is often subject to interpretation. Another way of looking at writing is as a means of communication. The primary purpose here is not as a work made strictly for one’s own enjoyment, but rather, to make a connection with someone else; to bridge that gap between two people and share a thought. Finally, one can look at writing aesthetically, but at this point, I think I’m getting a little out of my depth. Most people claim this last facet is all subjective anyway, except maybe a few philosophers who may not be convinced. I know I can recognize bad writing in a universal sense, and I think most people agree Shakespeare had a way with words. But clearly, it is not cut and dry like a math equation.
Perhaps there is a technical name for these three aspects of writing—self-expression, communication, and aesthetics—but regardless I believe they provide a critical lens through which any writing can be examined, at least, superficially.
Anyway, I’ve reached my self-imposed word limit for the day; next time, I will examine each type of writing (novels, short stories, poetry, and philosophical essays) through each of these lenses. We’ll see which belongs associated most appropriately with which.
The art of writing a short story is distinctly different from writing a novel. There is far less “room” in a short story than a novel; you must make every word count, particularly if you are up against a tight word count. The story must be unified by a single theme or over-arching idea; there is no room for subplots and parallel memes. Depending on the genre, the notion of a twist is also quite prevalent. In fantasy literature, for example, there must be something in the story that takes it an unexpected direction, or flips our expectations upon their head. A piece of clean prose that tells a simple straightforward tale will not cut it. Nowadays, there is a requisite of something unusual, something that makes one look at the story from a clever angle.
One is also limited by characters and viewpoints in the short story. Generally, the writer is limited to a single viewpoint with but one protagonist and one antagonist. There might be a couple other minor characters, but they will be few in number and their roles hardly substantive.
A novel is an altogether different animal. While it is true, that there is usually a central theme for any great literary work, there also can be sub-themes and sub-plots and what have you. These can be developed throughout the course of the work, because there is no word-limit on a novel (although length of a novel certainly is no indicator of quality). Complex literary devices like symbolism and such can be fully employed in a novel; one has plenty of room to develop and expand upon such concepts. In the fantasy genre, the novel, like the short story, must be more than a straightforward tale. We are drawn to the unusual and the surprising. Because of its greater length, the novel has room for multiple twists, each one eliciting a pleasant burst of “ahh!” from the reader. A story of a brave knight rescuing a princess from a dragon no longer cuts it today.
In the fantasy novel, multiple viewpoints and plotlines have become almost standard practice. Rare is the novel with but a single protagonist these days.
So which one will you write? For myself, I’ve gone back and forth. I’ve written a number of short stories, with a few minor publishing successes. However, I got into writing to write novels not short stories. Short stories are great to hone your craft, to figure out the intricacies of fusing dialogue with narrative and what-have-you. And I don’t regret the time I’ve spent on short stories—I even have a number of short story ideas that will probably never come to fruition—but I have decided that I want to focus on novels. Besides, short stories don’t pay enough to support a writer. They exist to fluff the resume. And they are great for honing your craft. But, in my opinion, that is all they can do.