Mentor of the Month: John Steinbeck: Short but Big

Of Mice and Men is one of Steinbeck’s most known works. It has been made into several movies, a play, and has been read in high schools and colleges across the country.

It’s also, in a word, short.

In these days when fantasy novels stretch to 12+ volumes of 1200 pages each, and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and The Historian stretch out over 800 pages, a short novel is almost a relief. You can read it and finish it within a few days and have a totally satisfying experience.

What struck me about Of Mice and Men was the level of control that Steinbeck maintained. There was nothing about this story that wasn’t structured to have an impact. The parallels he created in such a small space of pages only served to make the gunshot at the end that much louder. Every scene was deliberate. Every response intentional. And I didn’t think about it while I was reading it, I just went right along with the characters.

Over the last couple years or so, I’ve been working on a fairly short novel. While I’m starting to think there’s too much that I’ve forced into the small space, it was a great learning experience. I played with characters and plot and scenes. It weighs in at about 50,000 words, which I think is right around where Of Mice and Men is…only mine is no Of Mice and Men. But I did get a lot out of working on something so short that I couldn’t have otherwise.

I managed to finish an actual novel. I wrote a lot. I revised a lot. (It could use more.) Short is less scary, but I’ve discovered it doesn’t take less work. Steinbeck could not have gotten the smoothness and deliberateness of Lenny and George’s story without lots of work. At least, for me, a shorter word-count goal made me feel more accomplished! My first novel weighed in at a fantasy-epic novel word count, and I didn’t touch a word of it for revision purposes.

Have you ever written something larger than your ability level? Have you tried writing something shorter? Do you find longer novels more satisfying? Does size really matter?

3 thoughts on “Mentor of the Month: John Steinbeck: Short but Big

  1. Most things I write are larger than my ability level, but I write them anyway.

    If done well, I do find longer novels more satisfying for no other reason than you are forced to live within the story's world for longer and if therefore feels more “real” to me.

    Personally, I can't do long. I'm impatient and always want to get to the getting without a lot of scene setting or internal monologues or flowery language. I've got a novel right now that is almost all dialogue because writing the stuff that isn't dialogue is just less interesting to me. I know later I'll have to do back and add in more action and other stuff, but that first time through I just get the guts on the page.

  2. I've read short books that seemed way too long and long books that flew by. But the people who can get the story told well and memorably in few words have my admiration.

  3. I love John Steinbeck. Social commentary embedded in great writing. He's a good one for your focus. I do think short novels require more discipline and ruthlessness. CUT CUT CUT

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