Can't I Just Write 15 Stories About The Same People?: Turning Short Stories Into A Novel.

I've always been a short story writer, but I recently made the plunge and started writing a novel.  At first, I thought: "Oh, this isn't going to be that hard. It's like writing 15 short stories that are all about the same people."  But of course as I've been working on the book, I'm finding it to be much harder than I thought it would be.  Do you have any tips for the short-story-writer-turned-novelist?  ~ Peggy M.

* * *

Dear Peggy,

Hi, Jenna Blum here.  Congratulations for taking the plunge!  Now you can be on what Melville called "the long sea voyage" with the rest of us who write novels.

Good news: when I read your inquiry, I thought: Ah-ha! Peggy has answered her own question.  Yes, you *can* write 15 short stories about the same people and have it comprise a novel. Boom! Handled.

But yes, there are some tricks to it.

First, I have to say how much I love the short story.  It's the first form I ever wrote in (starting at age four:  deeply thought-provoking, incisive, AND illustrated tales about mermaids, princesses, and, during a brief sadistic period in which I wanted to be a barber-writer, haircuts).  It's the first form I was ever published in (age 16, in Seventeen Magazine: a short story called "The Legacy of Frank Finklestein," about the dangers of cliques.  I watched a lot of John Hughes movies).  And I love the purity of the short story.  Many people think of writing short stories as teething rings for writing a novel; in fact, Stephen King says something to this effect in his book ON WRITING.  He advises writing short stories as practice for writing novels--though when I Googled Mr. King to get the exact quote, what came up was this:  "A short story is like a kiss from a stranger."

In Stephen King world, probably that stranger has a butcher knife behind his back.  But never mind.  To me, the short story is the purest form of fiction.  I think of it as a window into a world at a point at which a person is making a decision that will turn her life this way or that. It's not always a big moment; in fact, quite the contrary. Often our lives are balanced on these tiny fulcrums, not noticed until long afterwards. But a short story allows us to look through the window at a person living through one of those moments.  When I was writing THE STORMCHASERS (my second novel), every day, after driving 18 miles to get decent coffee, playing Frisbee with the dog, wringing Facebook dry, and emailing every last friend and acquaintance I could think of, I'd settle down to write by first reading a short story.  Pam Houston.  Amanda Eyre Ward.  Richard Ford.  It was like a cool drink of water for my brain.  During the often precarious long sea voyage of writing a novel, it was helpful to remind myself why I'd always loved writing so much in the first place.

While writing both of my novels, I started them by writing short stories, and I aspired to have each chapter be its own short story.  That way, I could be assured that every chapter had its own internal integrity, a dramatic arc, an ending that didn't tie up neatly but left the reader wanting more.

This seemed to work.  Many of the chapters in THOSE WHO SAVE US, my first novel, were published as stand-alone short stories in lit mags long before the book came out.

So why *couldn't* you just write 15 stories about the same people and leave it at that?

Because then you have a a series of linked stories.  Is there such a thing as a novel-in-stories?  There is, a non-traditional form in which the stories inform each other not because there's a traditional backbone of structure, a narrative arc, but because their layering on each other, their proximity to each other, creates a world.  Sadly, because I am writing this post from Terre Haute, Indiana, I can't pull my favorite novel-in-stories examples off my shelves.  (But as soon as I post this, I'll remember.)

As long as your 15 stories are about the same people, the same world, the same subject, you *could* just group them together and call it a day.

But you want to write a more traditionally structured novel from your stories.  The good news is, you already know how to do this.  If you can write a short story, you can write a novel--because both of them have beginning, middle and end. (Again, I'm talking traditional here, because that's the sort of sadly limited writer I am.)  The short story contains its own arc.  The novel imposes its arc on a series of chapters--or stories.

I would argue you need two things to make this happen:

1. A theme.  We spent a lot of time in my most recent master novel class talking about theme, much to the fear and face-blanching of my novelists. My argument, which I made vociferously and often, was that a good book (like a good story) has to be about something. It can't just be a series of cool vignettes or snapshots.  They have to be held together by an overarching principle.  What are you trying to SAY with what you're writing?

This isn't something that must be stated outright in the novel--in fact, it shouldn't be, because then you are preaching. But the theme is the sieve that everything in the novel, from scenes to word choices, gets passed through to deem whether it should be in there.  Everything in the novel should be geared toward expressing that theme.

2.  MAKE AN OUTLINE.

Outline for THE STORMCHASERS, a.k.a. book on a wall.


I'm not talking a nasty scary outline like you had to do in 7th grade, with Roman numerals. I'm talking taping pieces of typing paper together and writing on them, in longhand, a list of your existing scenes. My outlines consist of a laundry list of chapters subdivided into scenes, rife--especially in the beginning--with question marks.  The Chapter Headings read like this:  Chapter 1.  The scene headings read like this:  "Chapter 1, scene 1, In Which Our Heroine Has A Sad Birthday Because She Misses Her Estranged Twin."  "Chapter 20, scene 4, In Which Our Heroine Has Sex In A Jeep, a.k.a. 'If The Jeep's A-Rockin, Don't Come Knockin.' "


When I'm really procrastinating, sometimes I draw little pictures next to each scene, so the novel looks like a board game, like Candyland. (Or maybe my early stories about haircuts.)


Why do I do this? Because, as my first editor said, "My God, you're neurotic." Also because I find it comforting to see tangible evidence of my plot.  To plot, according to Webster's, means "to chart out in points," and it seems to me this is precisely what you need on a long sea voyage.  When I have the book outlined in front of me, I know I won't write 1800 pages only to sail blithely off the edge of the flat world.  (Instead, I'll write 1800 pages to distill down to 300+ pages, but I'll still have been mostly on course.)


And the overall plot of a novel, its narrative arc, its beginning-middle-end, is what you risk missing when you are writing 15 stories about the same people.


So my best advice, Peggy, is this:  write your theme on a Post-It.  Put it on your wall.  Then write down everything you know about your novel's overall plot (if you're like me, you know more than you thought you did!) and tape that up beside the Post-It.  And write on!  If a short story is indeed a kiss from a stranger, a novel is a long love affair.  I hope yours is everything you want it to be.


Happy writing,


Jenna.


 

 

 

 

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