“The Grand Symbiosis.” Dennis McFadden on training…

In the last installment of “Why The Short Story?” our conversation among writers, Vanessa Gebbie asked us to consider whether or not we thought the short story is training ground for the novel. Here then, is Dennis McFadden’s response:

Dennis: Is the short story a “training ground” for the novel?

Unquestionably. Undeniably. Until the cows come home.

Bear in mind, however: the novel is every bit as much a training ground for the short story.

Having begun my own writing “career” with the novel before moving up to the story, it’s not difficult to conclude which was the training ground for which. In fact, based upon empirical evidence posted a while back in this very blog, I would suggest that writing novels is a wonderful training ground for writing satirical, anti-English propaganda pieces. And writing satirical, anti-English propaganda pieces (at least in that particular empirical example) is a great training ground for writing short stories.

And what about the writing of blog-post-essay-rambles (while one’s fiction sits in want of affection)? Not to worry. Can’t hurt. Can only help.

In other words, practice, practice, practice…

Or, as Patty put it, work, work, work.

The only way to become a writer is to write. The only way to become a better writer is to write more. And the only way to become the best writer you can be…well, you get the picture. The more you write, the more you perfect your craft, and the better your product will be, be that product long or short. (There may be, and probably is, a point of diminishing returns, but dementia will probably intervene before that point is reached.)

All writing is a training ground for all writing. Novels or stories, or stories or novels, or anything in between.

Of course there are plenty of differences between the novel and the story, in addition to the obvious matter of length. The novel is far more inclusive, often more complex, and the art of excision, while still practiced by the novelist, is hardly as critical as it is to the writer of stories. The differences can be—and have been—endlessly debated, and Vanessa also brings up the sensible question of unlearning the rules and conventions of one form in order to successfully write the other. Exactly. It seems to me then that it is because of those differences that the best training ground for a novelist is not the short story, but the novel—particularly the first, second and third drafts of the novel he or she wants to write.

For all their differences, the short story and the novel are also tantalizingly similar, and when you throw in that bastard stepchild called the novella, the precise relationships—beyond training ground—are as slippery to grasp as a trout in a brook. Particularly in the arena of linked stories and novels.

The relationship among my own might best be described as symbiotic. Years after I’d written my first two novels, I revisited them and was able to extract a couple of fairly decent short stories, which were essentially condensations of the books. This took place long before I learned in a recent essay by Don Koia in the New York Times Book Review that John Updike abandoned his first novel, Willow, two-thirds of the way through (how does one measure two-thirds of an incomplete entity? Never mind…), but later “mined” the unfinished novel for short story material. So, were those novels training grounds for those stories? Or were they more like blocks of wood from which those stories could be carved?

Right now I’m working on a novel based on a short story of mine (no mining pun intended). Does that mean that the original story was a training ground for the novel? Maybe. Or maybe it means simply that I liked the characters, place and plot enough to go back and spend more time with them. Maybe it means that the story, in this instance, was an outline to be filled in and fleshed out, a seed from which the novel could grow.

Furthermore, when this particular novel was nearing completion, I realized, alas, it was lacking. It needed additional depth and resonance (I often realize, also with an alas, the same thing in the early drafts of my stories), so I thought I’d develop some minor characters into major actors, give them their own scenes and plotlines. A few dozen pages into the new sections, however, I felt I didn’t really know them well enough, so I decided to write a short story—a prequel to the novel—to get to know them a little better.

A few years ago, I liked a story I’d written about a dirty old man so much I kept on writing, and ended up with a novella (I think that’s what it was. Or is). Then I kept on going—picture Forrest Gump running—and wrote three more novellas from three of the other characters’ points of view, featuring the same people and plot. And what did I end up with? A novel? Four novellas? Four extended stories? Beats the hell out of me. Beats the hell out of every agent I’ve tried to peddle it to as well.

Training ground? Sure, maybe, call it that if you will, or call it raw material, background, drafts, seeds, outlines. Whatever it is, it’s all practice, it’s all work. Call it all a part of the grand symbiosis.

→So, friends? What say you? Do you think writing the short story trains you for writing the novel?←

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