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Carving a story from blank marble

June 28, 2013

By Mary Hutchings Reed

In my new novel, ʺWarming Upʺ (SheWritesPress, 2013), amateur sculptor Dr. Haverill Richardson, therapist to the main character, is unable to take the first swing at a hunk of marble because he doesnʹt know what itʹs going to be when he is done carving.

Heʹs heard — as have many of us — that sculptors let the work emerge out of the stone, wood, marble or clay in front of them, the material telling them what it is or will  become.

Some writers are like Dr. Richardson, afraid to start until they have the whole novel plotted out. Iʹve never worked that way, and to me, knowing in advance whatʹs going to happen would take some of the fun of discovery out of the process. But the question of form is an appropriate question to ask at the beginning of a project.

Are you, in fact, writing a novel? Or is what you want to explore better addressed in a short story? A poem? A work of creative nonfiction? How do you know what form your work should take?

We started this column with the presumption that everyone has a book in them — but as my friend Joanne Cleaver, president of Wilson­Taylor Associates, a Chicago strategic communications consulting and training firm, said the other day, ʺAnd there it should stay.ʺ

Sheʹs not a mean person, just honest. She believes, however, in the healing power of story:everyone has a story to tell, she hastens to add — it just might not be a book­length one.

Depending on how the process has been going for you, in this, our 15th month of writing together, you might be thinking that I should revise my premise: Everyone has a story in them, and if I misled you into thinking  that that story had to be in the form of a novel, I apologize.

Itʹs the form I started with, the one Iʹve studied the most intensely and the one I use most often for my own stories, but your story may not be a novel.

Most academic writing programs teach writing by teaching the short story. Graduate students in MFA programs hone their skills on the short story (usually 1,000 to 20,000 words) and produce a book of short fiction before attempting a novel. A short story is not simply a training ground for a novel. It teaches sentences and rhythm, point of view and descriptive detail, but it is altogether a different form, with different demands than novel writing.

The short story is a very tight format with its own ʺrules,ʺ and is much less forgiving  than a novel. Every word of a short story must belong; obviously, a novel, ranging up to 100,000 words, probably has a few extraneous words, no matter how ʺtightʺ or economical it is. For that reason alone, I prefer the imperfection of the novel form, and the greater freedom it permits for tangents. A novel is a fine first work for a writer — if the work is meant to be a novel.

What makes one story a novel and another a short story? A short story, like a novel, will have a crisis or turning point of some kind and a resolution or epiphany, but it will usually be less complex than a novel, involving only a single plot and perhaps only a single incident. There will be only a few characters and they will  be set in one geographic location. The short story will cover a short period of time. It may start in medias res and end abruptly, or in a very open­ended way. A short story allows the writer to go deeply into a very thin slice of life; a novel allows the writer to range widely, expanding the number of issues and sub­issues which he or she might address.

The biggest difference between a short story and a novel is length, and the very form shapes the readerʹs expectations. A novel has a more leisurely pace, obviously, than a short story, although it still must build tension sentence by sentence and page by page. The novel can linger a while in a characterʹs thoughts, dwell on a description of the setting that directly bears on the story, spend more time on the antics of minor characters. A short story that uses its limited words in those ways will seem rushed, too crammed with information, and not, ultimately, entertaining to read. On the other hand, novels that should be short stories (or even, novellas) will  drag—perhaps the character, though interesting, just isnʹt complex enough or nuanced enough to sustain a whole novel, or not enough happens to them that is out of the ordinary or interesting or worth commenting on.

One of the best things about a short story, is that because it is short, itʹs done and ready for publication long before a novel. You can get one of those coveted acceptance letters (or emails) from a literary journal, or even a check (reportable income!) from a commercial magazine. Seeing your work in print re­ignites oneʹs enthusiasm for the lengthier process of writing a novel.

An interesting exercise, if you feel like taking a break from the novel, is to take one of the incidents youʹve already written involving one of your characters, and rewriting it as a short story. Then, the publication of the short story may serve to set the stage for publication of your novel… a few years hence!

Chances are, you know right now what the manuscript in front of you is going to be. But if you donʹt, donʹt worry. Just keep writing. Thereʹs a famous story about the admirer who ran up to Michelangelo and asked him how heʹd crafted his masterpiece, the statue of David. He is reported to have answered, ʺI saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.ʺ

Keep writing, and set your story free.



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