Thanks to the Indiana Arts Commission, I recently received an Individual Artist Grant for 2013-2014 to support my work-in-progress, a Young Adult fantasy novel about some very bad ponies and the end of the world. As part of that grant, I’ve agreed to write about what I learn as I shift from writing short fiction (500-6000 words) to writing novel-length fiction (60,0000 words and up).
The first thing I’ve learned:
Even though I have only ever dreamed of writing novels—even though short fiction doesn’t satisfy me as a reader— somewhere along this crooked path of becoming a writer, I veered from my novel goal and detoured down short story lane. It was a crooked, treacherous lane, and I soon strayed into a mire of crocodiles, quicksand, and biting insects.
I set out to write my first novel way back in 2005. It was a mystery novel about art fraud in Philadelphia. I made it to 53,000 words, and realized that I don’t have the kind of brain that does mystery plots. My consolation prize was that it had two great villains who I’m still kind of in love with, Yuri and Vassily (aka The Fur Brothers).
What that novel didn’t have was an ending. I thought I should probably get some practice at this ending stuff. I set a reasonable goal that I thought would take care of the problem: I would bang out three short stories with good endings: problem solved.
I figured it would take me 3 months, tops.
[*SOUND OF HYSTERICAL CRYING*]
Dear Reader, I may have been a bit fuzzy on how to end a novel, but I didn’t even know what a short story was for. I never read any, except the ones assigned in Lit classes. The result? I languished in the Crocodile-Quicksand Badlands trying to figure this out for THE NEXT EIGHT YEARS. Eight years when I could have been writing novels.*
A combination of circumstances and some good things happening with my short fiction last year, have set me back on the broad well-paved thoroughfare of writing novels. My little cart of words trundles smoothly along, while I enjoy the pleasant country views, good company, and the occasional butterfly drifting by.
In June, I attended Kij Johnson’s Fantasy & Science Fiction Novel Writer’s Workshop** at the CSSF in Lawrence, KS. After being told everything that was wrong with our projects and spending two weeks ripping out what we had and starting over, many of my workshop-mates were grumbling and daydreaming about returning to their comfort zone: short stories. They felt that there at least they knew what was going on.
Not me. All I could think was: “I’m free!”
For many, writing short stories is “easy.” My Clarion West instructor Margo Lanagan recently said that “Short stories involve less angst than novels…It doesn’t require so much heavy lifting, psychologically.” I have the utmost respect for Margo, but that’s just crazy-talk.
I honestly feel like I have been let out of a cage. At last, I can leave all the aggravations (see: sharp-toothed reptiles, biting insects) of short stories behind. It’s true that writing a novel still means dealing with a full complement of the parts I don’t like about writing, but it has so much more of the parts I do like.
On the other hand, I’m still on the first draft. So what do I know?
I guess I’ll find out.
Stay tuned for next time when I’ll talk about Common Problems of First Novels.
If you’re a writer, what’s your preference? Flash? Short Story? Novella? Novel?
If you’re a reader, what would you rather read? Short stories or novels?
*The moral is: Don’t let this happen to you. You want to write novels? Write novels. Just make sure you finish them.
** This is a fantastic workshop. You should go.