Another Word: Grains of Salt, Lumps of Gold
Overthinking everything is a cheap hobby. There’s no start-up cost, and you don’t need a library card to do the research anymore, because Internet. It doesn’t require heavy equipment, so you can do it on the bus or the beach.
When I encounter a shiny new idea or a radically different new perspective on something, what I like to do is hoard it, like a dragon. I want to Smaug it on down to my treasure trove and get overthinky AF: find it a nice place among all my other pieces, see what it matches up with, polish it, admire the sparks and glints and rough patches.
I’m not saying this makes me a deep thinker, necessarily. Sometimes it just makes me a slow one. But I find value in the practice because discarding one’s first and second conceptions of a thing can, sometimes, get you down to something more solid.
One such nugget tumbled my way recently at a Timberhouse writing retreat in Ottawa. We were a medium-sized group of professional writers with lots of adult beverages, so naturally we got to talking about the ups and downs of authorial careers. Someone got to polling the group on a specific publishing challenge. Many answers were things they’d heard before, or already tried. Eventually they said, in frustration: “Everybody tells me to do the thing that worked for them!”
Pounce! Drag that nugget down to the cave!
Everyone tells you to do what worked for them.
Isn’t that the nature of advice giving? Is there something fundamentally short-sighted, or lacking in empathy, about only telling people the thing that worked for you? Is embellishing beyond what you’ve experienced simply mouthing off?
This interests me for all sorts of reasons, but in main because I teach writing. I’m basically a paid advice spigot.
Every semester, someone in my UCLA Extension Writers’ Program courses asks if they are better off building a career and rep in short fiction before turning their hand to writing novels. This is a topic that comes up so reliably that I keep my talking points on file.
The short answer? Both paths have validity. Novels make a bigger splash; stories splash more frequently. There’s no guarantee that selling ten or even forty shorts will get you the profile you desire, because so much in publishing is outside your control. But stories-to-novels is the route I remember going, and—just as the Ottawa friend said—it’s what I instinctively want to tell people to do.
What I like about a stories-first model boils down to the idea of practicing craft. Every story is a protagonist, a conflict, a new voice. It’s a beginning-middle-end, an exercise in worldbuilding, and a chance to play with theme. Every finished story gives you experience: perhaps most importantly the experience of finishing. (How do you know when you’re finished? is also an FAQ). So: going with stories teaches you an incredible amount about writing. Much of that learning applies brilliantly to novels.
Buttttt . . . lots of it doesn’t. Plus, some people just can’t do it that way. Why? It’s how they’re wired. If this isn’t right for you, it isn’t right! (How do you know if it isn’t right for you? Yeah, this gets complicated fast. Back to the thinking cave! I promise the place has a beer fridge.)
No writing advice—no anykinda advice, really—is one size fits all.
Other times, in my classes, someone asks me a new question. The latest wasn’t should you go from stories to novels. It was: how do you do it?
Memory is unreliable. I pondered, vaguely recalling my past self writing books, sending them to beta readers, then knocking off a few short stories before returning to the book rewrite, notes in hand. There are four trunk novels, going back to my teens, interspersed with my first fiction sales. There wasn’t, I realized, a nice clean line from one form to the other. I wrote both forms, but finished stories and sent them out. They sold even as I wrestled with books, eventually finishing Indigo Springs. My bibliography doesn’t reflect my chronological output. The binary answer isn’t the answer at all. Shocker, right?
One of the little glints that advice nugget from Ottawa sparked up is that when you suggest a course of action to someone who’s looking for guidance, when you advise someone, you’re giving them a possible roadmap. The goal isn’t really for them to do as you say, or do as you did. It’s for them to conceive the first step on the path they’re going to ultimately forge for themselves. Advice is an offer of something that makes it possible to try. The thing that makes me breathe fire about one-size-fits-all prescriptions are that they only illuminate one possible path.
With that in mind, here’s some of what I tried telling that student who already writes short stories, about how to get to a novel:
Pretend the creative process is orderly.
I would suggest that you write short stories, most under 5,000 words, because if we’re going to be unrealistic, we might as well commit. Imagine writing shorts until you mastered all sorts of fundamentals: nuanced characterization, rising action, character conflict, scene writing, gracefully moving people and objects around your fictional stage, playing with language, understanding metaphor and sophisticated imagery, and writing complex, subtext-laden dialogue.
Because this is fiction of the fantastic, there’s another skillset to explore: establishing the world, showing off the future technology, whipping up lots of dreadful for the horror stories, designing workable magic systems. Using the otherworldly to illuminate our reality. Exploring the human condition through the lens of the unreal. I would have you write stories until you felt somewhat competent at these things.
Next, in this imaginary world where you have been writing and submitting these stories and I am some kind of weird all-powerful mentor, I would have you go from the 5,000-word format to the 7,500 to the 10,000. At 15,000 words, I’d say I want to see at least one subplot in this!
Remember, this is unrealism: you have all the time, no shortage of ideas, and some compelling reason to obey me. Maybe, in true dragon style, I’ve locked your sentient collectible Sailor Moon figurine in my beer fridge.
In this fantasy universe, when you get a novel idea that is indisputably too big in scope for a short story, you know it. There are no doubts. Would it be cool to live in that world?
So, you write things that are shorter than novels, but they get longer, more complex. Some of the stories start to take place in worlds you developed in previous stories. Characters start rampaging through multiple pieces, charging through ever-lengthening storylines. Chapters emerge in the novella with a subplot. And now your inner voice is screaming that it is time. Here’s the idea! Bust out 80,000 words and don’t come back without a Hugo. (Always honor those inner screams! Unless they’re suggesting things that will get you hospitalized or arrested.) The thing is, you’ve been developing the skill of going longer, getting more complex. Keep applying that lesson.
I think storywriters underestimate the significance of longer. Think about sprints versus marathons. Getting stitches versus open heart surgery. Honeymoons, not quickies. A novel has at least ten times as much space in it for beauty and surprises, for emotion, for people. That’s ten times as much character development, ten times as much description, ten times as much story. It’s longer—that’s obvious!—it’s also deeper and wider. Bigger stage, bigger cast, bigger complications.
I say this because one of the most significant issues I notice, when accomplished writers of short fiction tackle their first novel, is that they slam into the story like they’ve got a jackhammer and twenty pages in which to get the job done. What if what I’ve suggested so far doesn’t spark any excitement?
Here’s a different roadmap: read the first chapters of ten or more novels. Divide them evenly between books you adore and a bunch of compelling new ones. Go for variety, and notice the pace. Notice how the main character and the problem probably get set out within your book’s early chapter, but they don’t necessarily bang along very far into the plot.
Get a sense of the speed at which you’ll be driving. See where the authors use their words. Look for stuff you’d never include if you had to bring it in at 5,000 words. Then imagine chapter one of your book.
Alternately, have a go at one of these: draft a piece of your prospective book in a way that makes you feel like you’re moving at that slower pace. Try drafting the opening chapter of a book you never intend to write. Take an unfinished work of yours—surely one of those stories imaginary me made you write to save Sailor Moon didn’t come off—and try to expand the first two pages into twelve. Make them ridiculously long. What do you add? How much of it is worth having?
I have peered down all of these roads, and taken some. I’ve gotten lost a couple of times. I can find more, if they all look like they lead to swampy ground. The real hope is that—within all that copious pondering—I’ve laid the stone for someone’s first step.