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The Writer’s Choice: Short Story Versus the Novel

Blood Entwines

Author Caroline Healy writes. She writes literary fiction, magical realism, experimental literature, short stories and young adult fiction. Here, she tells us why she refuses to fit neatly into one box and why she loves all of her genres equally. 

When I tell people that I am a writer, invariably I get one of three questions. What’s your book about? Want to be the next J.K. Rowling? What kind of stuff do you write?

The first two questions I can answer easily enough. The last question usually ties me in knots, my tongue tripping over itself in an effort to articulate.

I wave my hands about, saying things like literary fiction, magical realism, experimental literature, short stories. By this stage the other person’s eyes have glazed over. So I end my explanation with the phrase…and I write young adult fiction also.

Bingo! The glimmer in their eye returns and the conversation reverts back to J.K. Rowling.

Genre specific is safer. When you explain your work using terms like…I write crime fiction…I write chick lit…I write dystopian Y.A. novels; people seem to feel more comfortable with categorisation.

I don’t like boxes. I don’t like ticking them, I don’t like unpacking them and I certainly don’t like being in them. I can’t neatly assemble my collection of scribbles, doodles, half-finished manuscripts in a box and categorise it, labelling it with a genre type. So I don’t. I simply write the stuff that I love.   

And boy do I love stories, short ones, long ones, fat ones, skinny ones, ones that can sustain you for an hour or a  day, stories that make you feel warm and fuzzy or cool and contemplative. I don’t mind if it is a collection of short stories or a novel, either will do.

However, short stories are sexy! So we are led to believe with the resurgence of this particular literary form. With Alice Munro winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, Junot Diaz’s collection This Is How You Lose Her and George Saunder’s Tenth of December doing the rounds, short stories are back.  Even if they weren’t popular, short stories are one of the best ways for writers to cut their literary teeth.

I love the challenge, to impart a story over a few thousand words, perhaps even a few hundred. Economy of language is the key, economy and pointed delivery. The joy of writing short stories for me is the brevity, the impact of the words and the punchy delivery. I like to leave the reader wanting more at the end, considering from time to time…whatever happened next?  

In contrast the novel, a much wieldier beast, can cook for longer, can marinade, ripen to just the right flavours. The novel allows me, as a writer, to get deeper in to the characters, to weave a more complex narrative and to plan and design a world that did not previously exist (on paper anyway). I love the marathon of writing, the thousands of words spread across hundreds of pages. It is satisfying to create a longer piece of work, more comfortable, I think, in terms of delivery. For the reader it allows a longer settling in period. The novel can be enjoyed over time, the characters become companions as you commute to work, eat your lunch, sit on the sofa in the evening. The longer works piggyback with the reader and perhaps leave an impression rather than a punch in the face, like the short story can do.

Both are equally challenging and rewarding. In my writing, I can’t work on the two disciplines at once. I can never have a short story on the go and a novel at the same time. I can do two novels, or two short stories in parallel but never interchanging mediums. It is like switching from right brain to left brain, akin to choosing a favourite child. I would never be able to decide which I love best.

It all comes down to story and story is made up of characters. For my most recent book, Blood Entwines, a Y.A. novel about a girl who receives a blood transfusion that saves her life but leaves her with mysterious side effects, I was able to develop my characters and really get underneath their skin, working their motivations, their dreams, insecurities and flaws. For a short story I wrote called I am Eight, I didn’t have that luxury of time both on the page and in development but I still love the characters, love the process of writing.

To answer the question, what kind of stuff do you write? I write everything.

I write whatever story is pummelling for release, be it a children’s book, a piece of literary fiction, a short story collection, a Y.A. series, high fantasy, contemporary or otherwise.

As William Faulkner said, ‘If a story is in you, it has got to come out.’

Caroline Healy writes young adult fiction, literary fiction and short stories. Her work has won several awards and is showcased in journals, literary magazines and short story collections around the globe. She won the Doire Press International Short Story Award for her collection A Stitch in Time. When she is not writing she is teaching dance, drinking tea or eating chocolate. Her harshest critics are her two cats, Lady Emma and Treble. If they don’t like what she has written, they fall asleep across her keyboard. Caroline lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Find out more about her on her website and follow her on Twitter hereFor an extract of her forthcoming novel, Blood Entwines, please click here.

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