Short story writer takes the long haul

I’ve written dozens of short stories, but I’ve never completed a novel. Oh, I’ve ventured a few, but I’ve never seen them past 15,000 words.

I’m just a short form writer. Poems? Easy to produce. Flash fiction? You got it. Short stories and novelettes? Now we’re talking months of time, but I can manage it. But sixty to a hundred thousand words? Not me.

Not until now.

The challenge: over the next few months, I am going to start and complete a novel.

It is not going to be a good novel. It’s going to be a first novel. It’s going to be full of fits and starts and many failures, not to mention lots and lots of prose that makes me want to weep (not with joy). But I’m going to figure out how this long-form works. I’m going to write a beginning, middle, and end — with a few set-piece scenes in the middle to keep the whole thing going. And it’s going to be fucking long.

Before I haul out on this breathless adventure — one hand carrying a laptop, the other holding a lantern and blue-glowing elvish sword to fend off the grues — I’m making one last pit stop here, in the Land of Generous Writers. Any advice for an inveterate short storyist making the transition to novel length?

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27 thoughts on “Short story writer takes the long haul

  1. no real advice, rachel, just wanted to say kudos. and that i’d like to take this plunge too, before long.

    wait, maybe some advice, but take it with your eyebrows up, since i’m no expert: find your character(s), and write scenes. perhaps as a way to cheat the form, or at least assuage some of the anxiety that accompanies ‘sitting down to write something long.’

    • Yeah, I’m planning to start with a vague outline.

      I keep trying to cheat the form by writing linked stories, but somehow my brain understands what I’m trying to do and wanders off to have coffee instead of coughing up the linked stories.

  2. all the best for the long haul!

    a piece of advice: set a daily word goal, to keep at it. it probably will take a bit until the longer story starts to develop this pull that brings you back to its pages.

    and a link: 2 years ago, there was a weekly feature up in the daily telegraph: “a novel in a year”. the first page is still up: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/3649184/A-novel-in-a-year.html
    back then, i copied a good deal of the features, contact me if you are interested in having a look. (e-mail: editor@blueprintreview.de)

  3. two things: some of us weren’t meant to write novels. ben percy used to say it was like the difference between sprinters and runners. there’s a different ratio between white muscle and red muscle fibers. think of alice munro, lee k abbott, etc. secondly, i also believe that the advent of the mfa has tricked people into thinking they’re primarily short story writers when they may not be. obviously it’s much easier to parse a story within the parameters of a semester, but, as much as i love short stories, it kind of forces people to write short stories when they may be the type who has to write reams and reams for an idea to cohere. a famous editor wrote recently how all these new novels were falling flat after 40 pages because the mfa programs are teaching people to work within the constraints of those particular increments. this is not an anti-mfa thing, it’s just interesting to think about how it as an institution has shaped so much of contemporary art making.

    • I think you’re right about the influence of workshop on short stories, which is something I’ve heard a number of people observe.

      I don’t *think* I’m one of the misled, though. My basic response to any workshop is to have a subconscious creative rebellion. If I’m in a short story workshop, I write poetry; if I’m in a poetry workshop, I write short stories; if I’m being told to write science fiction, I only want to write realism; if I’m being told to write realism, I only want to write pulp.

      Never, however, have I wandered off to go screw around writing a novel.

      This may tell me something about my capabilities. Maybe I am a sprinter. But I’m only 27… I refuse to give up and call that truth before I’ve given the longer form as much as I can give it, you know?

  4. You’re going to wind up rewriting the first chapter, and that’s OK. As the book moves along in the writing, you’re going to discover things you had never imagined happening. When these things occur, you’ll have to match them up with the beginning. It happens every time.
    Also, at some point, probably about 120 pages in, you’re going to know how the book ends. You’ll have an idea of that last chapter, and that’s when the writing might get easier. Because you’re just connecting where you are to that final moment. But it also could be harder, because you may be in a hurry to get to that final moment. If this happens, try to be patient and go slow.
    Also, don’t worry about the details of things. You can always go back and fill in the small details. It took me a little while to realize there’s a details stage, but there is. It’s after the story has told itself to you in full.
    Good luck!

  5. Hi Rachel,

    This is exciting to hear! I want to wish you the best of luck with this! I love novels and want someday to teach novel-writing workshops. It’s such an amazing form.

    I, too, thought I was only a short story writer; in school I was known for very short pieces. But I spent the Noughties writing novels, and now I think I’m mainly a long-form writer. (Now it’s hard to write short stories! The last one I wrote was like 70 pages long.) I find myself wanting to write novels all the time…

    I’ve finished two complete novels, one 100,000 words, one 35,000 words. I have two more that are nearly completed. And I’ve written maybe five other bad novels, as practice.

    So I’m no expert, but I have learned a few things about my own writing from this. Maybe some of it will translate, help you out:

    Novels take a long time to write! I just wrote a finished one in 75 days, but part of the challenge of that novel was to write it very quickly (and it’s a short novel). Otherwise, I’ve found that they take me about a year, start to finish. (And even 75 days can feel like a long time, when you’re in the middle of it.)

    This is to say, novels don’t offer the quicker gratification that stories and poems do. (They offer a more long-term, deeper gratification.) This can feel frustrating.

    Keep a record of your work. It keeps you honest. (Unless it makes you crazy in which case don’t keep it.) It also helps you see your progress: I’ve found that daily tracking of time and word counts keeps me focused on the big picture. (I also learned from it that I write 200 words/hour–on average, and looking at the whole process, including drafting and polishing–which helps me plan how long it will take me to write future novels. I like having some idea of how long a struggle I’m in for.)

    Stay focused and dedicated. When I wrote my first real novel (after many practice ones), I worked 3 hours/day for 9 months. I felt like I’d never finish. But I kept at it and it got done. Now I know that it’s just a matter of time. This has made it much easier to finish them.

    Take notes: ideas of things that need to happen later, problems you see developing, little things you need to remember at some point. A novel’s a big thing to keep track of.

    When I get toward the end, I always have a long list of problems I need to fix, or little things that need adjusting. It’s nice to have that, and then go through the list, taking care of those things.

    I’ve found it impossible to write novels without following a clear draft process. In fact, novels taught me how to draft (with stories I just worked on them until they were “done”). I start with a rough outline, then flesh it out with a bad first draft. I let myself write any kinds of crap–I don’t care how bad the writing is, just so there’s something there, and I can see how each section might work (and to spot any potential problems). After then, I write a better second draft. This might be the longest part of the process, because I have to work very slowly, transforming the crap of the first draft into something readable. And then I fix any remaining problems with a third draft. After that, I usually need one or two more drafts, plus polishing, to finish.

    Having a full plan in front of me takes a lot of pressure off. Of course many writers work chapter to chapter, polishing as they go, but I can’t imagine myself being able to do that. But part of the fun of writing a novel is that it teaches you what kind of writer you are.

    Finishing is tricky and takes a long time. By which I mean, I find it hard toward the end to tell how much longer the writing will take. I’ll have the thing 80% done, or 90% done, or 95% done, and I’ll know I’m close to finishing, but then it always takes longer than I think it will. And then it takes me a few days to realize when I’m done.

    Oh, I work on paper, by hand. Using print-outs, typing in edits on a weekly basis, usually on the weekend. Novels are so long that I can’t see them if I work on a computer. What I do is make little booklets, staple-bound, and work in them. It helps me feel like I’m writing a book! I put pictures in it and turn it into a little object I love picking up and flipping through. This slows things down but it’s crucial to me that I fall in love with each book that I write. And I find that slowing things down makes me a better writer. (I’d probably do 400 words/hour on computer, but they would be worse words.)

    Some people of course have no problem using computers, but even then I imagine it would be helpful to print the thing out and reread it from time to time. I’ve found rereading (on paper, and usually aloud) to be key. It always shows me where my problems are.

    OK, I hope this is useful. Good luck, Rachel! Let us know how it’s going!

    Now I’m off to go work on one of those two unfinished novels… Might be able to finish it by the end of April… Or May…

    • Great grist!

      This is a “write fast and bad” challenge, so I’ll be doing the limited timespan and lots of words thing.

      I have written a 20,000 word novella (which should see publication one of these days, it’s been sold for about a year now) so that’s not much shorter than 35,000. (That seems like a hard length to get published, 35k.)

      When you work on a novel, do you stop working on other projects? Do you not work on any short stories? That seems really hard for me. I like having a lot of projects going at once.

      • I wrote the 35,000 word thing because I thought it would be easier to publish!

        It’s about 145 MS pages. I see lots of stuff under 200 pages being put out by small presses these days.

        My first novel was about 400 MS pages, and I had more than one (small) publisher tell me that it was too long for them to consider. Wouldn’t be able to make any money off it…

        The two novels I’m working on now are both longer (~300 pages), so I think it’s good to have a few shorter things on hand as well.

        As for working: Yes, when I’m working on a novel, that’s all I work on. Like Greg said (below), immersion is really important. For me. But I find myself not wanting to work on anything else—just the novel. I get obsessive.

        Cheers, Adam

  6. The advice I’ve heard that seems to make a lot of sense is to treat each chapter like a short story, in that it has a natural arc, a rise and fall, and all that. In that way, a novel is not this big unwieldy prospect but just a linked series of the very thing you’re used to doing.

    Revision, I imagine, helps remove the stitches and smooth the edges.

    • The only problerm with this advice is that -and this is a generalization- stories end, but chapters lead to another chapter. And actually, ending a chapter leading into something else was one of my tricks to finish the two unpublished novels I’ve written.

      • Paula’s above comment reminds me of some excellent advice that Curtis White once gave me, which I’ll try to summarize here. At the time I was really struggling to understand how longer narratives are structured, and I found Curt’s advice extremely useful in doing that. Indeed, it eliminated the major obstacles that were preventing me from switching from writing short stories to writing novels.

        But first, a bit of context. I tend to think of chapters as being set-pieces rather than short stories. The difference is subtle but powerful. So, for example, Chapter 9 can be built around the drunken debauchery in a bar that leads to an impulsive group marriage–a discrete event. But, unlike with a short story, this set-piece is part of a larger narrative. Chapters 1–8 tell how the narrator came to arrive at that bar, ripe for seduction.

        And Chapter 10 tells what happened after. For example, it might relate the newlyweds’ disastrous attempt at a collective honeymoon. And how they were beset by marauders.

        The trick then becomes how to get the reader from Chapter 8 into Chapter 9, and then on into Chapter 10.

        Curt liked to say that the main challenge in writing a novel is figuring out how you’re going to keep the reader reading. Readers are impatient and skeptical; they always have something else to do. So how do you convince them not to put your novel down and go do something else?

        It turns out there’s a pretty simple solution to that problem.

        Which I’ll get to in a second. But first, I want to comment that can either reveal or conceal information. Which is what a novel–and all narrative writing–essentially is: the gradual concealing and revealing of information.

        The author’s problem is: which information? And in which order? Chapters are one way of creating that order. They divide the information up, allowing the author (and reader) to approach it in a more manageable fashion. And yet they can’t be *too* discrete, because things have to keep moving on.

        So the set-piece can be its own little story, but it also has to be perceived as being part of a larger, ongoing narrative. Which can be a string of stories.

        My problem, back when I studied with Curt, was that I was able to write lots of little stories–scenes and espidoes and the like–but I wasn’t able to make them add up into anything larder. They were too discrete.

        And Curt saw that even though I was writing these nice little scenes and episodes, I really wanted to write novels. And so he gave me some advice.

        Curt compared writing a novel to telling a series of jokes. Now, there are at least two different ways to tell people jokes.

        The first is to tell a strong of disparate jokes, one after the other. In this case, the jokes don’t add up to anything; they’re just jokes. Ideally, they’re all good, but in reality they can be either good or bad.

        In this case, the audience will probably listen only so long as they find your jokes funny. When and if you flub a certain number of jokes, the audience will probably tune out. They’ll change the channel. They’ll put down your novel.

        But there’s a second way to tell jokes, which turns out to work very well when you’re writing a novel. And that is to tell a *story* that *includes* the jokes–that embeds them. This way, you still get to tell your jokes, but you also get to take advantage of how narrative can easily incorporate suspense.

        Suspense is pretty easy to generate: you simply withhold information from the audience, and simultaneously point out that you’re withholding that information. (You imply or state that you’ll reveal that information, eventually.)

        It’s a simple trick. See Dan Brown’s writing for numerous examples. He’s a master at it! He’s always writing things like, “The character turned and looked. What he saw was the most shocking thing he’d ever seen. He gasped! “But that can’t be true!” he cried.” …And then Dan Brown cuts to a different line of action, and you know that you need to keep reading to find out what that shocking thing was. (The shocking thing is usually the solution to some puzzle Dan Brown’s created. And he’s better at doing this than my poor parody here implies.)

        Bringing this back to Curt’s point: If you use suspense to hook the reader, and keep them reading, then you can tell them any jokes you want as you go along. (You can include any number of episodes.) Even if you flub a few, you have the larger structure to keep things going.

        So even Chapter 9 turns out to be pretty weak, the reader may still want to find out what happens next. So they’ll continue on to Chapter 10.

        Along the way, you do need to renew the reader’s interest. You can’t let them think that you’re never going to reveal any of the promised information. And so you can either reveal some information, or create a new intrigue–more suspense.

        If you create too many intrigues in a row, though, and never reveal any promised information, then the reader may eventually lose patience. (See The X-Files, which I’ve never watched, but which I hear from friends had this problem.) One solution to this problem is to have each new solution create a new intrigue. Dan Brown does this expertly. So does J.K. Rowling. (And so does Thomas Pynchon–the basic structure’s the same.)

        For more on this topic, see Philip Stevick’s very useful book THE CHAPTER IN FICTION: THEORIES OF NARRATIVE DIVISION (1970 Syracuse University Press). See also Michael Kelly’s 2007 novel ULRICH HAARBURSTE’S NOVEL OF ROY ORBISON IN CLINGFILM–now there’s a writer who understands the uses of the chapter, and chapter breaks.

        …As you can see, I never mastered Curt’s advice, but I’ve vowed to keep trying.

        • this is very useful.

          I have a friend who is a YA novelist who says that she sat down to analyze several of the big hits — the rowling, the dan brown, the stephanie meyer. And whatever else can be said about these texts, she says their manipulation of suspense was extremely skillful — that it wasn’t just on the chapter level, but that sentence by individual sentence seemed to be structured in a way that would create intrigue about what the next sentence would hold.

          i think that’s a trick that — when applied rhythmically or lyrically — creates really smooth, beautiful prose. but it doesn’t seem to need to be rhythmic or lyrical to create the kinds of drama people find interesting.

          • I find Brown and Rowling very useful. And I like their work; I think they’re very good writers. (They’re good at doing certain things. They’re less good at doing other things. But there’s a reason why they’re successful—and that reason is that they are masters of suspense!) (Rowling is also very good at creating characters of type, and at manipulating her reader’s emotions. Brown is less good at doing these two things—but he’s better at making puzzles, and in pulling the wool over his reader’s eyes.)

            I haven’t read anything by Stephanie Meyer yet, though I intend to.

            For more on how to create suspense by concealing information, see Shklovsky’s THEORY OF PROSE, the most useful book ever written. (Yes, it’s even more useful than THE BIBLE.)

            David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson are also very good at explaining suspense, in terms of film. See their FILM ART, as well as Bordwell’s NARRATION IN THE FICTION FILM.

  7. I’d suggest http://writeordie.drwicked.com/ , but you write by hand…

    I haven’t read Brown or Meyer. I strongly suspect the Brown isn’t something that’s to my taste at all.

    But I agree that Rowling is a skilled writer. I think she’s very good at some things. I do not think she’s a better writer than most people who are on the mid-list. It’s fun to analyze why she’s so successful, and I’m sure the areas where she’s talented are part of that (I think she’s very good at weaving a world you want to enter, and that people are hungry for that, whether the world is a wizarding school, an adventureland in lord of the rings, a future utopia like star trek, or a fantasy of a tight knit network of supportive friends when americans are increasingly isolated (Friends)…).

    However, I also think that it’s likely that Rowling, Brown, and Meyer struck lucky with themes that were percolating at the right point in the collective subconscious. An anthropologist friend of mine recently wrote an essay about the weird conspiracy ravings of david icke — http://strangehorizons.com/2007/20070402/trimarco-icke-a.shtml — where he analyzed how the odd paranoia mirror capitalist and colonial exploitation in some ways (minus the anti-semitism). the real problems of class struggle and colonial oppression get rendered in this metaphorical language about lizard people, which is odd but pertinent in some way. and i think rowling, brown and meyer have managed a similar — but less dangerous — trick by finding places where collective cultural needs and preoccupations intersect with the images of their fictions.

    which is straying a bit from my original topic, but i guess i’m allowed…

  8. Here’s some advice (p.230-232, starting with “The last thing I try…) from Samuel Delany from his book About Writing (I’d imagine you’ve already read it, Rachel):

    http://books.google.com/books?id=FYD26bt8Wz0C&printsec=frontcover&dq=about+writing&cd=1#v=onepage&q=the%20last%20thing%20I%20try&f=false

    Among other things, he challenges the idea that stringing short pieces together will cohere into something resembling a novel.

    Delany also remarks here about the practice of using models, something he touches on throughout this thoroughly useful book.

    Mind, Delany’s advice is not for the faint of heart:
    “Undertaking a novel is scary. If you have no idea what you’re about, you probably shouldn’t try it. The best idea, if you’re going to write one and you feel you haven’t already got a sense of the novel as structure, is to read some good ones with an analytical eye and see if you can figure out how they work.”

  9. Hello Rachel,

    I don’t have any advice for you. I’ve written four books and have them on the market and every one of them has been a failure, but I do enjoy writing, so I continure to write. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll actually write something someone wants to read.

    You may be one of those gifted writers that will make it big. I hope so. Good luck.

  10. No advice, and I’m a bit late, I realise… came wandering over here via Jeff Vandermeer. This thread has been really interesting and, I suspect, will be quite useful to me too.

    I would love to know how it’s been going. Is the novel coming?

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