Personal Best

The terrific Kyle Minor posted a question to his Facebook last week: Can MFA Programs Teach Novel Writing? It was so popular that The Missouri Review blog weighed in as well.

As someone who hasn't done an MFA, I am more curious bystander then participant in that particular discussion. The question of the MFA aside, I admit that it feels more natural for me to write short stories than novels. I've written a few novels in my life (three unpublished ones, and I'm working on a fourth, with hopes that this will be the one I'm proud enough to have published), and I have to admit they take years and they're difficult. You wind up a better writer at the end, and then you have go back to the beginning and make sure you were as good a writer then, too. If something changes on page 148, it might also change on 52 and 245. I guess I like to think of writing novels versus short stories as running a 5 or 10K versus the marathon. The short run, 3 or 6 or even 10 miles, can be run by brute endurance and strength. Of course, it may take months to build up the endurance, but almost anyone, without any special training, can run 3 miles once in their lives.

Marathons, on the other hand, are a complete beast altogether. They require strict training, dietary restrictions, an understanding of pacing and sprints and warm-up/cool-down. Did you know that many runners even experience the equivalent of a heart attack after a marathon (but recover in 24 hours)? That's how brutal a marathon is—it can give you a minor heart attack, even if you've trained properly.

Writing a novel is a lot like running a marathon. There's more commitment and diligence involved, more training. Of course, most marathoners break marathons into a series of smaller runs in their mind, and maybe that's the key for short story writers making the transition into novels. Your novel is the equivalent of say, fifteen short stories (at 15 pages each = 225). How long does it take you to write fifteen short stories? How long does each take individually? If you put them together in a collection, how much rewriting would you have to do to ensure that the quality of writing is consistent throughout?

This is a simplistic analogy, but I guess it always amazes me how many novels are written, regardless of how easy Stephen King says they are. (Doesn't he write a book in 3-4 months? Of course, they're not National Book Award winners, either.) I don't know if I'll ever compete in a marathon (although the half-marathon is definitely on my horizon—ironically, I've written and published two novellas). But finishing this novel is my goal for the next year, and I hope it becomes my personal best.

Do you do anything different when you're writing a novel as opposed to when you're writing a short story? How do you revise? What are your expectations, time-wise, for completing a first draft?