I started writing a novel something like 12 years ago and, as you can imagine, there wasn’t much of a process there. Luckily, reality got in the way and I didn’t finish the thing until 7 years later, after I had spent some time writing short stories.
The problem is, there still wasn’t much of a process to it. I’d run into something I thought was funny or interesting, or get an image in my head that seemed like a good one, and find a way to shoehorn it in. Stephen King’s On Writing says to kill your darlings; I’d written something that was 70% darling.
At this point, I’d figured out a decent methodology for short stories. They weren’t golden, but they also weren’t terrible. And we know that good short stories contain the same elements as a good book: characters and a plot that complement each other; plausibility; a good setting, etc.
So what went wrong?
For one, 3,000 words will hide your screwups better than 60,000.
You can’t half-ass the planning.
Short stories are more forgiving. This means that if, say, you only flesh out one character and let the other ones languish as sidenotes, people are less likely to kick up a fuss. If readers get one scene with a dude behind the counter of a pie shop, they aren’t going to be like ‘hey, everything this dude does is just a response to things other people are doing.’
Sure, writers are supposed to think about these things anyway because good character make do, but let’s be honest: how often do you bother, when it’s something short?
Setting is another case where, theoretically, you’re spending as much time thinking about why such-and-such happened and how that set up the current situation—but practically speaking, that’s insane. A short story might only have one fleshed-out setting. (Alright, this isn’t impossible for a novel, but how many do it?)
I’m not saying that you should abandon short-story shortcuts. You shouldn’t spend longer planning for a story than you do writing it. But you do need to be aware that figuring out a novel goes beyond short story planning.
If you look at what I’ve said so far, it sounds like I’m saying that all you have to do to adjust for a novel is more of the same thing. Do you normally flesh out one character? Flesh out six. Only build one city? Build the country. Instead of having one plot, have a couple of side plots that feed into an overarching main plot. Simple, right?
What’s missing here is the gestalt—how do these things all come together?
If main character Y happens to have a side plot where they want to buy a dog, are readers going to want to follow Y around as they visit animal shelters? What if the story is about interstellar politics?
The thing with a short story is that there isn’t—or shouldn’t be, anyway—enough space for wholly tangential side plots or extra characters. Yes, there are boring short stories, but we’d expect them to be overdescribed or otherwise drawn-out, not have an entire section with zero bearing on anything else.
Whereas with a novel, we’re looking at multiple groups of people doing multiple things over a more expansive period of time. There’s a lot more room to explore ideas which otherwise wouldn’t get more than a brief nod—but there’s also a lot more room to go off on a random track. As a reader, do you find it frustrating or enjoyable to read an arc that ends up tying into nothing, and is never mentioned again?
So when you’re planning a novel, it isn’t as simple as ‘here, let’s make this bigger.’ It’s more like ‘let’s widen this andmake it deeper.’
(But don’t overdo it, either.)
Much as I love Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? struck me as trying to do everything in too small a space. It’s a barrage of social commentary, only some of which gets full attention—the most incomplete arc being, in my opinion, John Isidore’s.
Backing me up on this—or so I like to imagine—is the lack of time given to him in the movie (Director’s Cut of course). Even though the treatment of mentally disabled people is very relevant to a story that’s about the nature of humanity, there isn’t a lot to explore that wouldn’t distract this book’s readers in one way or another.
(who wants to play Spot the Replicant?)
In A Scanner Darkly, the subplot with Donna could be considered a sidenote—but her transformation arguably adds a different angle to the main theme of identity. We can ask bigger questions about Arctor as a result of what we see in his interactions with her, and gain a broader understanding of the drug-using subculture that this book is very much about.
Lessons from doing it wrong
The last time I tried to pull together a whole novel, I did the whole ‘okay, this is just a short story on a large scale so let’s make a bigger plot, toss in a couple more characters.’ I didn’t think about how having the characters move from place to place would affect the reader’s ability to visualize a setting, or how goddamn boring it is to have to read through yet another getting-our-feet-wet scene. My problem wasn’t just random tangents, but also repetition of the same idea without new insight: the failure to go deeper.
I ended up with 30,000 words of actual happenings and 50,000 of bunk. I didn’t have a lot of material, and I hadn’t worried about it because it hadn’t occurred to me as something to worry about. In the past, I’d padded novels out with random shit; or written short stories, where shorter—tighter—is better.
None of this is to say that you shouldn’t write short stories before writing a novel. I still think it’s a great idea, especially if you’re looking at publishing. But when you’re going from writing short stories to tackling a novel, don’t expect the transition to be seamless. Plan to ask yourself tougher questions and hold yourself more accountable for your strategy.