Posts Tagged short stories

What I learned about writing novels by failing at short stories – and how to make a short story into a long one

Lee Martin wrote recently on his blog about how he hadn’t intended to write longform fiction. He started with short stories, and graduated to novels only when an editor suggested it.

I hadn’t thought about it before, but that was also my path. Though I was considerably less masterful at it than Lee, who had a respectable bank of published shorts by the time he began the big one.

I started small, and writerly friends urged me to think bigger, mainly because short stories were a much more difficult sell. At the time, I didn’t think I had a novel in me, though I dearly wanted to find one. And, being a beginner, I had my hands entirely full with the craft basics. I couldn’t control more characters, threads, etc etc.

I also wasn’t good at brevity. This was the first reason I was unsuccessful. Whenever I looked for competitions or magazines, I’d bust the word count by several thousand. Even with strict pruning, I couldn’t bring one in under 5,000 words.

And then there was another problem. I was Miss Misfit. I was complimented for style and originality, but literary folk said I was too fond of plot. It didn’t help that I used concepts from science fiction and suspense. Try genre magazines, they said. ‘Try literary magazines,’ said the genre mags.

Much as I yearned for someone, anywhere, to publish me, I’m glad nobody did because I now see a more fundamental problem, beyond the style and subject matter. Even if I didn’t think I could write a novel, my concepts needed a novel’s scope.

In my work as an editor, I’ve often seen how rushing a powerful idea can make it trivial. Usually it’s most apparent with individual scenes, especially emotional ones – a turning point might look unconvincing if it’s too brief, but becomes a spellbinding showstopper if the writer slows and takes their time over every moment. I think this may be why I never had success with short stories – I was rushing a bigger idea. Blurting it out in a state of panic instead of giving it the space and pace it deserved. So the result was underbaked for literary people, and ungraspably off-beam for genre people. In short, I was shortchanging an idea that needed to be bigger. That’s not to say a big idea can never be a brief story, but I wasn’t suited to that approach.

I’m thinking about this because of Lee Martin’s post and because I’m now putting one of those old stories on a bigger canvas. As you might already know if you saw this recent post about the wondrous paradoxes of a slow writing process, Ever Rest began as 7,000 words and has now grown to around 110,000. You’ll also see from that post that I began with trepidation. In my mind, Ever Rest was frozen in that small space. Was expanding it even possible?

I’m happy to report it was, so in case you’re also in an expanding frame of mind, here’s what I’ve been doing.

Is it still the same story?

Good question. It is because some parts of the core situation are technically the same, like the two Westworlds, Fargos, 2001s, Flowers For Algernons. And here I shall be magnificently vague as I’m not ready to explain more yet.

The how-to bit: making the story bigger

Find the other characters who have a story arc

My original story was a single viewpoint, first person. I looked for other souls who had a significant experience triggered by the core event. Gradually the cast list grew. The original character became two and they are now such distinct people that I can’t believe it wasn’t always thus. The story is now third person, six narrators.

Go beyond the original timescale

Ever Rest original had a timescale of a few days, with flashbacks to childhood and teen years. Gosh, didn’t I stuff a lot into 7,000 words? What if I spent longer in those years? I free-wrote in the characters’ viewpoints, not planning anything, shooting footage until they did something surprising or moving.

Look for missing moments

As I pieced my footage together, I found a pattern of situations that were always worth writing. When character A first met character B, what made them interested in each other? When character X started to change their mind about situation Y, what was that moment? Sometimes it was apparent that key conversations were missing. I didn’t know how those conversations would go; it was more that I knew the opposite – the characters would not be able to keep quiet.

Brief moments become major turning points

This is one of the joys of the bigger canvas. Moments that the original story glided through – or never even looked at – can become turning points, or even twists.

The end of exploration

Some of my explorations went to dead ends. I had plenty of footage that was ultimately dull, though nothing’s ever wasted. Even if a piece of text doesn’t stay in the manuscript, it helps with your own knowledge of the book. There were also plot directions that felt forced, so I took them out again. (Hint: keep all your versions so you can undo.)

The big question is this. With so many possibilities, how do you know when you’ve got an idea to keep? I always found the answer was this.

When it felt like it had been there all along.  

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‘A song that makes sense of my story’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Annalisa Crawford

redpianoupdate-3To introduce this week’s guest I’ll quote the opening line of her post: she says she envies songwriters because they are masters of the concise. She writes short stories and quite often doesn’t know where an idea will go, but finds her way by listening to a song, letting the words flow, trusting the music. A cover version of Mad World gave her a particularly dreamy, haunting tale about a girl struggling with identity. The post captures so well what we do, whether short or long form. From conciseness – a spark or a song – we get depth, a whole world. Anyway, do drop by the Red Blog for the Undercover Soundtrack of multi-award-winning short story writer Annalisa Crawford.

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‘When I’m most lost, a song will show the way’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Ryan W Bradley

for logoMy guest this week says that music is the key to most of his work. The title of his short story collection, Nothing But The Dead and Dying, came from a line in a Simon and Garfunkel song. All the stories are bound by the landscape of Alaska, where he worked for a while in a construction crew. Ennio Morricone helped him recreate its barren desolation. And when he’s been stuck on a story, even to the extent of giving up, rescue usually comes in the form of a random piece of music. He is Ryan W Bradley and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Sleaze, self-obsession and sentimentality’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Garry Craig Powell

for logoMy guest this week brings a distinct tone of mischief. His novel is a short story cycle about a series of characters who are struggling in the male-dominated society of Dubai. Six of the stories were directly inspired by music, but not in the way you might expect. Phil Collins puts him in mind of the pretentious and overblown. Evanescence conjures up the self-obsessed, self-pitying and immature. And Celine Dion, with that film theme? I’ll leave you to imagine. His characters suffer oppression and brutality, but they don’t go down easily. Perhaps that was an unfortunate phrase. Never mind. He is Garry Craig Powell and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Summoning Christmas in July’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Jan Ruth

for logoThis week we have a seasonal Undercover Soundtrack – and one that examines the imaginative lengths a writer has to go to. When you hunker down to read a Noelish tale on a snuggly sofa with snow at the windows and a fire crackling in the grate, spare a thought for the writer, who was probably in flip-flops and T-shirt, shutting the curtains against the sun blazing on her laptop screen. Such was the lot of this week’s guest, who began writing her Christmas collection of off-beat romance stories in July. She says she relied heavily on music to create the mood – and risked husbandly disapproval (though he didn’t mind the unseasonable baked goods that were also necessary). So are we about to drag you through the infuriating radio canon of Slade, Mariah and Bing? No, let me reassure you this Soundtrack is a dignified collection, with Katherine Jenkins and Sarah Brightman. Mostly. Drop by the Red Blog to meet Jan Ruth and her Undercover Soundtrack for summoning Christmas in July.

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‘Thoughts circulating in a lyric or a music line’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Amanya Maloba

for logoMy guest this week admits she is antisocial. She likes to people-watch from behind wide sunglasses, and cocooned inside big headphones. She says her day is characterised by a constant flow of music, which has fed directly into the set of vignettes in the short fiction collection she has just published. I particularly have to thank her for introducing me to one of her special trigger tracks, by Florence + the Machine, as there’s something in it I might need for Ever Rest. And so the muse hops from mind to mind; I hope it will to yours too. She is Amanya Maloba and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

The Self-Editing Masterclass Snapshots will resume tomorrow.

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‘It’s never a bad thing to make the reader feel a bit uneasy’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Jonathan Pinnock

for logoA change of gear this week. This is the first time I’ve hosted a writer who is talking about short stories. A lot of music lurks behind his award-winning first collection, inspiring the plots, mood and characters. Various signature songs have passed through his imagination to become a tightrope-walking couple, a doomed relationship, a person given the eyes of a serial killer and a haunting piece of music derived from nature. His name is Jonathan Pinnock and he’s on the Red Blog today with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Love is the key to these stories’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Andy Harrod

for logoI heard a quote this week that I love: ‘All art aspires to the condition of music’. Meaning, it works beyond its medium; a direct connection with nerves and heart. This quote seems particularly to fit my guest this week. He says he writes from a need to understand, to uncensor, find meaning and connect with self and life. He prefers his music on vinyl (good man!) to better enjoy its sleeve art, and his book, Living Room Stories, is housed in a 7in record sleeve. How could you resist? He is Andy Harrod and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

GIVEAWAY Andy is giving away 1 handmade copy of Living Room Stories and a print of two from tearing at thoughts. To enter leave a comment or tweet the song that represents love for you. Andy will pick his favourite. If you take the tweet option, include the link to the post and the hashtag #undersound. Good luck!

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‘My stories replay the soundtrack of my life’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Brendan Gisby

My guest this week had never realised his fiction was so closely tied to music, nor how much that meant it reflected the landmarks of his own life. Through significant songs he has peeled back the years to channel aspects of his family and upbringing, to flesh out the characters in his short stories and novels. He is McStorytellers founder Brendan Gisby and he’s on the Red Blog sharing his Undercover Soundtrack

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Nail Your Novel – the DH Lawrence way

‘Try to nail something down in a novel,’ said DH Lawrence, ‘and you either kill the novel or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail.’

(This is the first time I’ve come across a quote that put the words ‘nail’ and ‘novel’ together, so I thought it was worth a mention.)

Lawrence was talking about the influence of a story’s narrative voice, and how it has to be deployed with feints and subtlety. By coincidence, I’d just read his short story The Lovely Lady and badly wanted an excuse to talk through why I like it so much. So as the gods seem to be hinting, here we go.

(If you haven’t read it already, it’s here. It’s not that long and I’ll wait for you.)

Ready?

How’s this for an opening?

The Lovely Lady is Pauline. ‘At seventy-two… sometimes mistaken, in the half-light, for thirty…. Only her big grey eyes were a tiny bit prominent… the bluish lids were heavy, as if they ached sometimes with the strain of keeping the eyes beneath them arch and bright.’

Pauline lives with her son, Robert, and her unmarried and distinctly less favoured niece Cecilia: ‘perhaps the only person in the world who …. consciously watched the eyes go haggard and old and tired….. until Robert came home. Then ping! … She really had the secret of everlasting youth… could don her youth again like an eagle.’ How interesting that she only turns this magnetism on for Robert. Never Cecilia. And how creepy.

Here we have characters we recognise by their familiar vanities – and an off-kilter situation. And it’s all accomplished through simple description. First, we’re shown Pauline (most frequently referred to as ‘the lovely lady’) in a way that lets us know how she sees herself. Then we see Cecilia’s view of her. There’s a lot of unrest here; an unstable situation that can’t last. Simple and masterful.

Characters

We don’t get Robert’s point of view. He is a mute adorer of his mother. And anyway this is going to be Cecilia’s story. Cecilia, by the way, is very quickly abbreviated to Ciss, or perhaps I should say reduced as the narrator informs us the diminutive is ‘like a cat spitting’. Tiny details that reinforce her true place. (But we want this to change.)

They all live in a house that is ‘ideal for Aunt Pauline’ – but living death for the other two. That is just as well because they don’t have the confidence to leave. Cecilia is ugly and tongue tied, and Robert, a barrister, is secretly mortified that he can’t earn more than £100 a year, in spite of his best efforts. (Notice the ‘showing’, not ‘telling’ – we don’t get a sentence saying Robert’s an underachiever. We’re shown what that means and how it makes Robert feel.) By day he is at work. When he comes home at night, the old lady keeps him in awe of her beauty and gay conversation.

It doesn’t help that Robert is ‘almost speechless’. Dwell on those words for a moment: ‘almost speechless’. They reach so much further than ‘quiet’.

Psychological hold

The language drums out the unnatural state of this triangle. Ciss intuits that Robert is never comfortable ‘like a soul that has got into the wrong body’. The lovely lady is only seen by candlelight, when she is radiant in antique shawls. She made her fortune dealing in antiques from exotic countries. Are we treading into vampire territory here? Perhaps, but not literally; this is a psychological hold. The lovely lady steals Robert’s youth to keep up the illusion of her own. Meanwhile Ciss is always sent to bed early and can see the confusion seething in his soul.

Longing

‘Every character should want something,’ said Kurt Vonnegut. Ciss wants to marry Robert, but can’t see how to prise him away and fears her dazzling aunt will live for ever – or at least until Robert is a broken husk. Nudging the vampire idea again, but so obliquely. (And she’s Ciss now; never Cecilia. Her status is so insignificant that the narrator doesn’t use her proper name.)

This talk of the supernatural is also storytelling sleight of hand – seeding suggestions for what comes next. One day, Ciss learns something that may give her a means of escape.

From here, the old woman is no longer ‘the lovely lady’, a legendary and exquisite presence. She is Pauline. Not even Aunt Pauline. Ciss has glimpsed the reedy old woman under the brocades.

The relationships thicken

Ciss’s relationship with Robert deepens and she becomes Cecilia again – although he will not break away from his mother.

The final solution is bizarre, poignant and funny, but it works beautifully because of the structures and influences the author has been weaving while we looked the other way. The nailing that was done with the lightest touch.

Thanks for the pic Editor B  

Your turn – let’s talk about The Lovely Lady – or is there another short story you’d like to give an honourable mention to?

The first edition of my newsletter is out now, including useful links and snippets about the next Nail Your Novel book!  You can read it here. And you can find out more about Nail Your Novel, original flavour, here.

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