Wednesday, September 14, 2011

When Novel Ideas Masquerade as Short Stories

I’m coming off a summer of insane productivity. For me.

And although I’ve done some work on two of my novel-length projects, the name of the game has been short stories.

Five of them in the 4-6k range, all speculative fiction. Two were written before the summer, and I’ve been revising and soliciting feedback on them. The other three were drafted this summer. One was accepted by an anthology. The remaining two I hope to have submission-ready by next month. Fingers crossed.

I’ve started to workshop the pieces with like-minded members of my local meetup writing group – a breakout group of those who were actively pursuing publication and were already at a certain level with their craft. This group of ladies has provided some hugely helpful feedback (even though we all write very different things).

Something that has been consistent in their comments is that each short story could be so much more. Sometimes that means I have to flesh out the world or the story a bit more. But most of the time it means they think I should be writing a novel instead of a short story. That my short stories are novels in disguise.


I’ve talked before about my difficulties in writing short – and believe me, I’m aware of the irony that my other publishing credits are flash fiction.

What’s a girl to do? Well, I’m not opposed to writing novels, obviously. In fact, my “natural length” is probably more novel than short story (and writer Juliette Wade has a great post on this: Natural Length and the Fractal Nature of Stories). The problem is I’ve got two speculative fiction projects already queued up. So converting any of the stories in this current batch into a longer work won’t be happening any time soon.

Then there’s the advice that writing short can be a great way to jumpstart your career (see Lydia Sharp’s post The Benefits of Writing Short and The Long on the Short post from Magical Words). And that’s what I was trying to do with these stories that I’ve turned out this year.

So, as I revise, I’m working hard to do the following:

1) Streamline story elements as much as possible without compromising my view of the story world

This may mean simplifying plot points or removing certain features of the world – especially if they open up a whole host of questions that my story doesn’t address. I often add in aspects that I think flesh out the worlds in a shorthand way, but oftentimes these are the same things my writing group calls me out on. As Juliette Wade points out in Worldbuilding for Short Stories: “in a short story, you have very little room to explain or explore. Everything you do has to be done in as few words as possible.” So Poe’s assertion that every element of a short story should work in concert to achieve a unity of effect is something I need to keep in mind.

2) Find ways to develop character without developing character

Calm down. I’m not advocating one-dimensional characters. But in SF/F stories, where worldbuilding and story action demand a not insignificant portion of the story, that doesn’t leave you with a whole lot of room to devote to your characters. This is where voice is so important – and it’s no surprise that all the short stories I’m working on are written in first person. I vowed at the beginning of the year to write in first person to help me really sink into my characters and that’s proven doubly helpful in terms of developing character without slowing the story action down.

3) Analyze all the themes/issues/plot points and decide if they are best served by the short story form

This is always tough. I have to decide if I can fit everything into one story. Or, if I remove some elements, will the story be stronger? If not, maybe I should just save it for a novel. I fear this is already the case with one of my short stories, but I will give it the old college try at keeping it short. Besides, more than other genres, lots of SF novels started out as short stories, and I’m just following the trend…

Have you ever been told you have a novel masquerading as short story? Did you end up paring your story down? Or did you turn it into a novel? Happy writing!

10 comments:

Annalise Green said...

I have this problem too! It might have something to do with the fact that a lot of my short stories are condensed novel ideas. So inevitably the feedback asks for more, not less!

Personally? I think it's better to have this problem than to write novels that should be short stories. I see this ALL THE TIME!

Glad your techniques have been working for you! Congratulations on achieving your goals and remaining productive. :)

Laura Marcella said...

I had a short story I wanted to write so much but it just. wasn't. working. Then I turned it into a scene in my novel. Voila! That's where it needed to be. Problem solved and I was happy with it. But getting to that solution was frustrating, LoL!

Gail Shepherd said...

I'm not writing short stories, but I've also found that switching from third to first person can give your ms. "Instant voice." My second novel is going to be written in 1st person pov, and it's already got a lively, engaged, highly personal voice because I'm channeling my MC in a whole new way. So your point #2 is very well taken.

Steph Schmidt said...

I've turned flash pieces (200-300 words) into full feature novels. Never actually given any thought toward actually trying to write short stories. I don't have the patience to read them because I always finish the good ones wishing they'd been longer. It doesn't hurt to save the stories that could be fleshed out into a novel for later when you're not as busy ;)

anonymeet said...

Hooray for your productive summer!

I'm intimidated by short stories, though I used to write lots of them. I haven't yet had the courage to give it another try!

Laura Lee Nutt said...

Almost all my short stories turn into novels. I guess I get to liking the characters too much and start delving into more of their lives and personalities, and then I can’t stop.

I had a short story once that an editor told me she liked but didn’t want to publish because it felt more like a novel concept. It was earlier on in my writing, and I never fleshed it out. Maybe someday I will, but right now, I don’t have the time. I’ve got too many other projects that I’m balancing. Still, I appreciated her interest, even if the tale wasn’t self-contained enough for publication as a short story.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

I've had several agents and editors tell me that one of my picture book manuscripts needs to be a mid grade novel....So I'm slowly working on it.

kelworthfiles said...

I'm not sure if I've ever taken an idea that I thought was a novel and turned it into a short story, but I've been working with short stories lately too - in fact, I've dedicated September to doing short story revisions - and one's worked out pretty well so far!

It's nice to meet you, fellow Campaigner, and congratulations on the awards!

Laura Marcella said...

Hi, Blue! I have an award for you over at my blog today!!! You can get it here: http://lauramarcella.blogspot.com/2011/09/sorting-through-your-past.html

Hope you're having a great week! :)

Shelley Sly said...

New follower here. :) I've had several ideas start as short stories and then end up as novels. It just turns out that I have too many story lines for them to remain short stories.

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