Wednesday, February 13, 2013


by Chris F. Holm

My first short story came out in 2007. In Ellery Queen's "Department of First Stories," this was. Since then, I've published (pops over to his site to count 'em up) twenty others, with one more due out sometime this year. In that time, I've also written (stops to think, but thankfully is not so far gone as to need reference materials to answer this one) five novels: the three from my Collector series, plus two others I'm shopping now. (Confidential to any editors reading this: you'd like 'em, I swear. Email me and stuff.) So I guess I oughta know as well as anybody what the difference is between novels and shorts, idea-wise. And mostly, I do. Except for when I don't.

Generally, the way I tell the difference between a short-story idea and a novel idea is this: a short story is small enough that the whole thing fits inside my head; a novel isn’t. If I can see all its angles and suss out all its beats without sitting down to write it, it’s a short. If, until I take a crack at it, I can't find its edges - if it’s so damn inscrutable I'm like an archaeologist who just unearthed a single tooth, digging in the sand with a toothbrush and no idea if that's all there is to find or if I'm sitting on a T-rex - it’s probably a novel.

Or it could prove just a tooth, which explains the secret stash of false starts I've got tucked away in the deepest recesses of my laptop hard drive.

But that's not the whole answer; it can't be. Because one of those five novels I mentioned? It's based on one of my twenty-odd short stories. "The Hitter," to be specific. To me, the novel and the short are very different animals, but the fact is, the basic idea behind them is more or less the same, which sort of torpedoes my edges-and-dinosaurs theory. (Note to self: come up with better name for said theory. That one is stupid.)

So if the idea is more or less the same, how do they differ? Perspective. Scope. Voice. The short is told in first-person, and is therefore very limited in its narrative. Loads happens off-camera, so to speak, and the antagonists are far from fully fleshed. The novel is told in third-person, and thanks in part to its many point-of-view characters, its story is far more expansive. What was initially a claustrophobic tale of one man's undoing is now an elaborate, high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse. With luck, I kept the stuff that worked in the short (it was nominated for an Anthony and selected to appear in THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2011, so something must have), while at the same time creating something all its own.

The fact is, I'm not sure why one idea spawned two stories, one long and one short. The simple answer is, I thought I was done with it, and then one day I realized I wasn't. So maybe my answer to this week's question should be: I don't know how to tell the difference, or even if there is one, but lucky for me, the ideas themselves seem to. And as long as they keep coming, they can be anything they'd like. (Except maybe interpretive dance. No one wants to see me in a unitard.)

Speaking of short stories, it just so happens I've got a brand spankin' collection out for your Kindle or Kindle app. DEAD LETTERS features nine tales of crime, horror, and, uh, whatever you'd call a story that takes place at the North Pole and stars an elf-detective. Included are my homage to Donald Westlake, "Action," which first appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine; my aforementioned "The Hitter"; and a brand new, never-before-seen horror yarn called "One Man's Muse." Also included are "The Putdown," "A Native Problem," "The Man in the Alligator Shoes," "A Night at the Royale," "The Final Bough," and "Green." If you wanna check it out, you can do so here:


Meredith Cole said...

Chris--I love how you describe how to figure out whether a story idea is "big" enough to be a novel.

Congrats on your new story collection! Looks great!

Chris said...

Thanks, Meredith!

Catriona McPherson said...

I agree with your 1st/3rd distinction,Chris, inasmuchas I write novels in 1st person and "Don't write a mystery novel in 1st person" is my top tip to anyone listening.

Chris said...

Ha! I should have mentioned my Collector series is written in the first-person. I think it suits a novel fine -- just not THIS PARTICULAR novel. But it does, on occasion, paint one into a corner...