Sunday, December 13, 2020

Guesswork

I found out this week that Donors was nominated for a Pushcart, which both very exciting and a huge surprise. (Since we're this close to the holidays, I'll also just shamelessly plug the paperback edition of All Due Respect's 2020 anthology, which makes a damn fine gift or vacation reading.)

Donors was the kind of story that will drive you crazy as a writer because the bones were pretty well there from the first draft. Compare that to my current work in progress, a novel which has been a long series of stops, starts, restarts, outlines, character sketches, and every other trick in the book to try and get it to catch. Why is it that short stories can seem to hit the page whole, but novels feel so much more like guesswork?

I've been thinking about that question a lot lately. What I've come up with feels pretty basic, the kind of stuff that's in any halfway decent book or course on creative writing. But since I clearly need the refresher, I'm going to go ahead and share.

A short story is not a novel.

This sounds pretty obvious, but it took me way too long to really grok the implications of this. For myself, the biggest difference is that I can hold a short story in my head. That means I can work out most of the major details before I ever sit down to write.

I can't do that with a novel. (This might just be my own limitation, but you play the cards you're dealt.) With a novel, I can't quite see the way through. It's like standing at the base of a mountain and staring straight up. I get a sense of the thing as a whole, but as for the actual path to the top? I have no idea. When it works that can be part of the fun, but when it doesn't that blindness is maddening.

A situation doesn't drive a story.

My story ideas often start with a situation (usually one I'd like to avoid). With a short story, I know I don't have a lot of time to set things up. I've got to establish the situation quickly so we can get to the characters, because it's their reactions to the situation, driven by their desires, that propels the rest of the story.

In a novel, you've got a lot more time and space. That can be a lot of fun while you're establishing a situation, but it can also be a problem if you haven't figured out your characters. Oh, they'll look like characters. They'll sound like characters. They'll move around on the page as you write in great detail to make sure everything is just so before the action kicks in.

Then cometh the inciting incident, and your main character has to decide: Will she leave the safety of home and enter the unknown? Or will she stick to the status quo? And that's when you realize you have exactly no idea what it is that she wants, or why she'd give a shit about the unknown in the first place.

It's easy to get caught up in setting the stage, especially when starting a novel when there's a lot of space to do so. But a stage is only ever a foundation. It's only there to support the characters.

Ideas don't always play well together.

It's hard to use absolutes when talking about writing, but in my experience short stories tend to focus on a single idea. Not always, but more often than not.

Novels, on the other hand, tend to have one Big Idea and lots of little ones running around. Again, it's the advantage of all that extra space. The trouble arrives when those little ideas get a bit too big for their britches.

In my current WIP, one of the supporting characters, Sam Spandler, works a dead-end-job in the middle of nowhere. I liked Sam, and got curious about him -- what made him tick? What kept him where he was instead of moving on?

He's hiding out, I thought. Hiding out? But why? He stole an identity. He was *hired* to steal an identity. He's helping somebody else to disappear.

Before long, Sam's backstory choked out what the novel was actually about. Instead of recognizing that what I actually had was the plot to a different novel (and one where Sam could be properly treated as the main character of his own story), I kept trying to cram him in to the one I was writing. It wasn't until I'd gone through several failed drafts that I finally realized the problem.

Headaches and opportunities.

It's probably not a coincidence that the things I love most about writing long-form are also the things that give me the biggest headaches. The room to play and explore are part of the fun. So is getting lost.

Finally, I'll add that I found Jessica Brody's Save the Cat Writes a Novel hugely helpful as I was untangling some of these problems. Like any good guide she helps point the way but still leaves plenty of space for discovery.


 



People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...