Writing: Building from short stories to novels
The other day I was talking with a friend about some writing stuff and I mentioned I used to write short stories, long before I wrote novels. And I did it for a reason. Writing shorts is what taught me how to write novels, really.
This will be full of things that look like rules or advice. They aren’t. None of this applies to anyone but me, unless it happens to resonate with you. If any of it does – take what you want, and leave the rest. But it is being written from my brain’s perspective. This is how I think, and how I work, and I do not think that means anyone else should abide by it. But also I am not going to preface every bit with this so I’m just getting it all out of the way with a blanket warning here first. We good? Good. Let’s talk writing.
When I decided to start pushing to write for money (which came after a whole long period where I refused to write and that is a different story) I found myself thinking of novels. Many of us do. Novels allow you unlimited freedom to create whole worlds and delve deeply into characters. I just didn’t think my skills matched the necessary levels to do so. So I decided to try something else.
I decided to try my hand at short stories. Now, I’ve always loved a good short story, and they fascinate me because the idea of telling a full story – hold on sidebar:
[A lot of modern short fiction I see seems to be just scenes these days. Not brushing it off but when I say short story I mean it tells a story where it intros a char (or more) and has a beginning-middle-end that tell a complete tale.]
The idea of telling a full story in a short space seemed like magic. I wanted to take that on first. So I started trying to fit an entire story in as small a space as I could. I knew people did this, so I figured I could study some, and try my hand and get there. I set myself up for a self-imposed boot camp of sorts, thinking that if I built things out logically I could get where I wanted to end up.
So I worked on telling a story in only 2k words. A full story. I managed it and after a while it felt natural. The first short I felt really happy with that way (though it wasn’t the first story I sold due to odd timing – it was in consideration but anyway) was around 1700 words long. I still like it.
I had to work tight, and naturally, as evidenced by this endless post, I am a wordy bastard. Working that small taught me to really pare a story down to only what it needed and not a word more. I called it “Turning the screws” with all that entails, pain-wise as well. It hurt to lose each word over 2k but I forced myself to cut and cut again, and shape and massage the text until a story just worked that small.
Then I started working on 4k length stories, and placing those. Suddenly, working twice as long felt indulgent. I honestly felt like I had to vamp for 2k of each story for a while. Who needed the extra space? Pfft.
And then the ability to add color in, details, space, and mood in larger doses clicked and 4k felt natural.
So I moved to 8k.
You see where this is going. Yup, to 12 and then I ended up being offered a novella trilogy, with the idea of each being between 20-25k long. I said yes, just for the challenge.
And then I decided to try a novel.
I did the same thing with comics (sort of, I did a long-ish form webcomic as well around the same time but that was too long too fast for my brain) working on 4 and 8 pagers, then 12s and then going full issue and now 136 (or something like that) for an OGN.
For my brain inching up the size really works, and here’s why:
The ability to pare things down to essentials allowed me to figure out what to use more space for. It meant I didn’t just write long because I could, I wrote long because I needed the space for that story. Learning to make a story work at all these different sizes meant, and continues to mean, that I can often look at a novel idea and sketch out the story in a bunch of sizes adding to it as I go. Well if I go X-long I can add a plot, or another voice to the story, and if I go Y-long I get this extra bit, but maybe I lose something too because I know what tightness can bring.
That snap, that terse, spare, lean story has its own power. Being able to do any size and feel comfortable with them allows me to craft scenes better too, being able to fit things to space and knowing how to work in that allotted space.
Knowing the ground, as it were, allows me to plan for every inch of use I might need, even if I do it on the fly.
So, also, I need to mention, one of my fave things in revisions is the Drop In. If you don’t know, a drop in is when you need to fix a scene and the best way is to drop in a line, a paragraph, sometimes a whole scene. They can be tricky because you have to make them work seamlessly with the writing before and after them, and yet also use them to shift things, and add information (or emotion or whatever you need the drop in for). I love them, they’re like solving a puzzle.
They also are easier because I can narrow my brain focus to “I need to do all these various things but I only have the tiny space allotted” because the longer a drop in is, the more damage it can inadvertently do to timing/existing structure/etc.
Anyway! Yeah that’s why I feel that I needed to start small and build in a linear progression, learning how each size could be used. Those lessons don’t leave and I’m able to write like water – fill the space required exactly, without sloshing around or leaving emptiness where it shouldn’t be.