Short vs Long Writing

Girl, charcoal on paper, 2007,

In one week of working with writing clients and in my own writing, I came across the following theme three distinct times (usually a sign that a blog needs to be written about it): the differences between writing an essay or short story and writing a novel.

Often times for writers, a novel will begin with a short story, a series of short stories, or an essay. This is what happened with my novel Earth; I’d been writing short stories for years and a coach suggested they were all chapters in a novel. And so they were, but not without a tremendous amount of rewriting…which is the subject of this blog. What IS the difference in the way an essay or short story is written and the way a novel is written, besides length?

A client this week is revising her memoir. It all started with a short essay she wrote in one of my Art of Storytelling classes ( That essay became the beginning of her memoir. She wrote a rough draft of the memoir in a record of one year; it was her FIRST book! At any rate, when we revisted the first two chapters, we realized they were written more as short stories than as a memoir.

Also, another client wrote an essay about her brother, and as she was working on it a flood of stories came to her, waking her up in the middle of the night, as they often do. I told her I thought the essay and her dreams were a sign that she should write a memoir. She asked: Can this essay be a chapter in the memoir?

Yes and No is the answer. Yes, the material can be worked into a memoir, and No the exact essay would not go in. Why?

When we write essays we often stick with a single event as our focus, and to fill in the context we go into backstory. For example. I’ve just reworked an old essay of mine, The Wedding Video and turned it into fiction. In it, the protagonist is home watching the video her parents made of her wedding. To get the context, I had to go into backstory to explain who her parents were and what situations led up to her marriage. If I turn The Wedding Video into a memoir/novel, I will usually (and this is what my clients are doing), take the backstory out and make it frontstory. I’ll develop each section of the backstory further, and turn what is one paragraph into WHOLE CHAPTERS. One page of backstory may in fact when developed become six or seven chapters!

The best advice I was ever given and I often give others — write your first book in chronological order. Don’t be clever with the order of events until it’s all written down — only then can you play with the present and the past to greater affect. So, when turning your essays or short stories into novels, try this:

1. Look at the backstory. What event in the essay happened first chronologically? Pull it out and put it first. Write it in more visceral detail.
2. Continue with the next event and do the same.
3. Watch what happens to the short story as it turns into a novel — most often in filling in the details of the backstory and making them frontstory, the entire gist or theme of the piece changes and leads you down a different path. Allow this. Follow this. It’s an exciting part of the fiction process, this letting go of control…

For more information on writing coaching, check out my website

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