I was listening to WRITING EXCUSES (as one does, or at the very least should), really enjoying Mary Robinet Kowal’s feature on short story writing. The panel was trying to wrangle a metaphor to describe the difference between short story writing and novel writing. Brandon Sanderson used a golf analogy, comparing the short came (putting) with the long game (driving). Kowal wasn’t entirely satisfied with that, besides not finding much appeal in the whole golf angle (which I agree with), and it got me thinking about writing metaphors in general.
Certainly, writing a short story is different, much different, from writing a novel. Weirdly, the latter has always seemed less intimidating to me. I’ll happily gallop off into a writing a novel, less looming. I have the space in the novel to write towards something and to figure it out as I go. A short story, however, doesn’t have that space to roam and I approach writing one like I’d approach a feral cat.
The tools are roughly the same, sure. Sentences and paragraphs, characters and settings and problems. But they are not interchangable. A short story is not a short novel. It doesn’t work that way.
So here’s a metaphor I came up with, one I like quite a bit:
The difference between short stories and novels is like the difference between an entree and a menu. The requirements of the chef are the same — your knife skills must be precise, your ingredients fresh, your palette adept, your artistic side well-developed. The difference is in the application.
When it comes to an entree, all the components on the plate must not only be expertly prepared but they have to work together. There’s no room for a bad side or a flabby main — it’s immediately obvious, dooms the entire entree. A menu on the other hand is a collection, hand-picked by you, of appetizers, entrees and deserts, chosen by the chef to create an experience. The menu will reflect all of your ingredients, your skill, your philosophy, your loves and even your dislikes by their quiet absence. While there might be concessions made based on clientele or the resources available (not so different from having to consider genre or audience), the goal is to have a menu that you are proud to present your guests, one that represents you and what you want to show to others.
The entree is a snapshot of your talent, knowledge and craft. An entree may showcase a specific, perfected technique, or deconstruct a beloved classic you then serve three ways. But it’s brief, and can feel like it’s without context. The menu, however, is your invitation to the guest to experience your ideal dining experience. You have space to expound, to delight, to provoke, to play. If you do your job right, your guests will come back having lived with you for a time and knowing what makes you tick, what makes you sing.
And now I’m hungry.