Over the past three or four weeks, I’ve written four short stories. Ordinarily I would spend my semester break writing a novel, but I was waiting on the edit note from my editor (fun story there – see the note appended to the bottom of this post) and, rather than get deep into a long-term project only to be torn out of it by a more pressing long-term project, I opted to fill out my stable of short stories to have on submission at any one time.
I know a bunch of writers who don’t bother with short stories – either don’t write them at all or don’t really take them seriously if they do. I also know a fair number of writers who seem to write exclusively short stories and quail at the prospect of tackling something as big as a novel. I’m here, today, to make the case for writing both.
Why Novelists Should Write Short Stories
I know what you’re thinking. “Do people even read short stories?” and “You’ll never make a living writing stories all the time!”
Well, in the first place, yes people do read short stories. Not a tremendous, vast multitude, maybe, but certainly a hell of a lot more people than, say, read your blog. Some of those people happen to be editors, reviewers, and professionals in the genre you’re writing in. Making an impression doesn’t hurt. In the second place, I have to break something to you that you’re probably not going to like hearing: you probably aren’t going to make a living writing much of anything, novel or story. Most writers don’t. We all have day jobs, and you should think about keeping yours (or finding one that affords you time to write) rather than dreaming about making a mint writing the next Hunger Games. Who are you to turn your nose up at a hundred bucks for a story you wrote over the course of two weeks?
And anyway, neither exposure nor wealth are reasons you should write short stories. You should write short stories because they make you a better writer. At worst, they can be seen as practice runs for plot, character, theme, diction, style, and the lot of it. You get to work your writer muscles at a more rapid pace than you do writing a novel. You take a beginning, a middle, and an end and you paste them together and see if it sings to you. If it doesn’t, you break it down and try again. You can do this over the space of a few weeks or days or even hours.
The short story is an unforgiving form – it doesn’t permit indulgence or dithering or random tangents. You’ve got to stay on target, keep it focused, and make it magical. That’s a challenge. The thing is, though, if you can do it in 5000 words, you can certainly do it in 10,000 or 100,000. If you can’t do it in 5000, how are we to expect better from you with more space? I mean sure, you can do it, but while novelists you can’t write stories do exist, somebody who can do both things is usually better off. Or at least I think so.
Why Short Story Writers Should Write Novels
Say you are a master of the short story or, hell, even the short short (flash fiction, under 1000 words – bing, bang, boom, you’re out). You’re comfortable there, in your little story writing niche. You’ve gotten some publications and so on and you figure “yeah, this is nice.”
Well, far be it from me to suggest you vacate your micro-fiction utopia, but the novel is out there, waiting for you to call. Short stories can only do so much – we all know this. They also struggle for readership and, while very flexible, lack the weight and pathos a staying power a good novel can provide. And if you can write a good story, you can also write a good novel. It requires a different set of gears, yeah – a bigger scope, a broader picture, a more populated world – but it also gives you the opportunity to really see what you can do as a writer. To paraphrase Stephen King, you can “dig something big outta the sand.”
You can do it, too. You know you have it in you. I feel we mostly think in terms of novels – the stories of our lives, the stories of our families and our towns and our nations are novel sized stories. They always have been, though we haven’t always told them as novels (there were epics and romances and myth cycles, and so on). I think every writer owes it to him- or herself to make the attempt. To seek out the mountaintop. You’ve been honing these skills – take them out of the yard and see what they can do.
But don’t abandon the story, either. Do both. Write both short and long.
Notes on the Saga of the Redeemed and No Good Deed
I’ve gotten some fan mail recently (fan mail! w00t!) that has been prodding me over book 2 (or 3, or whatever) in Tyvian’s story. So, here’s the deal: book 2 (No Good Deed) is finished and on my editors desk. It has been since May of 2015. I’ve been waiting for her edit notes so that the book can be polished and revised and then be ready for print. I have been waiting since May and the release date as been pushed back twice now (from Jan 21st to February to now April 12th).
My editor is leaving my publisher for a different publishing job (and good for her – she’s great and I hope she’s happy where she’s going). This means, though, that I have a new editor. This new editor needs some time to get familiar with the book before she can give me notes and she also has been slammed with a good number of other writers from my former editor, so things might take a while. This means the release date might be moved back again (though I really hope not). None of this is really my fault (so far as I’m aware), and I’m every bit as anxious to put the next book in your hands as you are to have it there. I promise.
Oh, and I just saw the preliminary cover art, and it looks really, really cool. Can’t share it just yet, but soon. Very soon.
Thanks everybody, and I’ll keep you posted!
So it’s November now. Up here in Boston, it gets dark before 6pm. My day job (as a college English professor) is just about to shift into overdrive. Student papers stack up on my desk, eyeball high. I’m tired all the time; my brain is a dried out sponge of an organ, barely capable of sustaining gross motor control. Did I mention that I have trouble breathing, too? The leaves, as they fall, kick up some kind of mold or fungus or something – let’s just call it poison – that makes my lungs convulse. I hack like a consumptive; I inhale like an asthmatic.
Weak, depressed, exhausted, I crawl to the internet to see how things are going.
Turns out everybody’s writing a novel this month.
Look, I don’t have any real, actual problem with NaNoWriMo. I love writing novels – I recommend it highly to like minded people. If NaNoWriMo is the thing you need to get your ass in gear on that novel you’ve had kicking around, then godspeed, I say! Good for you! If you need some encouragement to write, then I think this little thing the world has going is just wonderful. Go for it! You got this!
NaNoWriMo has helped hundreds of authors feel more confident in themselves, more devoted to process, and has taught countless people about the dedication and work ethic needed to be a writer. I get that, and I support that.
But dammit, there are times this whole thing feels like torture to me.
I’m writing novels (or wishing I was) pretty much all the time. November, as it happens, is the month I am least able to do so. I’m here, in a little cage fashioned from student work and professional obligations and just plain old health, that sits just out of reach of my keyboard. I’m a professional novelist, and I can’t novel in November. In a word, I’m insane with jealousy.
I’m also worried and conflicted for all you NaNoWriMo folks. There’s that, too. For one thing, novels aren’t written in a month. Drafts are (or can be, if you write faster/shorter than I do), but drafts aren’t novels. Besides, 50,000 words is barely novel-length (well, depending on genre). So, even assuming you succeed in this endeavor, you need to know that you aren’t done. And that’s okay. You haven’t failed; writing is not a race. Keep going! Keep writing! Revise! Revise again! Submit!
But then there are those people out there who seem to do this on a lark. “Oh hey,” they say, with a shrug and a sip of their pumpkin-spice latte, “I figure I’ll give NaNoWriMo a shot. Why not?” As though writing a novel (an actual novel) is something you do easily, with limited thought or preparation, like growing a beard or deciding to wear scarves from now on or opting to talk like a pirate on Talk Like a Pirate Day. As though I, and all the other novelists I know (professional and otherwise, many of whom are themselves doing NaNoWriMo), who slave and obsess and weep over their manuscripts, are really just weirdoes doing nothing more impressive playing the kazoo in a marching band and, what the hell, you’ll do that too. It belies how hard this is.
It’s just a little bit insulting, you know, to have the things you work so hard on depicted as fun diversions people can successfully perform in one month. “Writing a novel? Anybody can do that!”
Novels are works of art. They are hard work. They deserve respect. And if you’re going to be a novelist, you need to do it more than one month out of the year. No, not everyone can do it. No, not everyone has a novel inside of them. The world doesn’t work that way. I, trapped in my rainy cage of fall misery, acutely pine for the freedom to write novels in November. If you are lucky enough to be able to do so, too, the least you can do is take it seriously.
I mean, sure, you can sit down and bang out 50K of whatever you please this month and then shuffle it away in a drawer somewhere. Why not? If it makes you feel good, if it gives you a sense of accomplishment, who am I to judge? Good for you. But you didn’t write a novel. You aren’t a novelist. Not yet, anyway. And that’s totally okay – you don’t have to be to make this month a worthwhile experience. Not all of us want or need the same things.
However, to those of you embarking upon NaNoWriMo this month who intend to write novels (or a novel) in earnest, let me say this: welcome to the fold. Keep writing. Your journey doesn’t end – shouldn’t end – on November 30th. There’s more to go after that – much more. Trust me: writing novels is not a lark or a fad. It’s a state of mind and a way of life.
I’m in the midst of a rough draft of a novel and it isn’t going well. It hasn’t gone well from day one, actually – writing this thing has been like pulling teeth. I know where I want the story to go, but getting it to go there has been very awkward work. I’ll be honest: the book, right now, is a shambles.
But that’s okay, right? Rough drafts are supposed to be terrible. They are you, the author, dragging together a great steaming morass of garbage into one place that, later on, will be mercilessly revised and edited into something awesome. This is tried and true authorial practice – ask anybody. As Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”
You can take that to the bank, friends.
Let us pursue this question one step further, though: assuming we know that the first draft is going to suck and assuming we are aware that it’s purpose is to collect raw material for future drafts, then how much of the first draft do you need to complete before you abandon it and start over?
Let me give you a strictly hypothetical and in no way actual or currently relevant example. Say I’ve got, I dunno, 50,000 words of a rough draft done. Now, going off what my (hypothetical) loose outline dictates, I’m only a third of the way through (which means the book is shaping up to be too long, but that’s not important right now). However, the first third of a novel really needs to be solid in order to support that last two thirds. I mean, if you screw up getting Luke off Tatooine, how much of a story do you have for the later parts? The worse the beginning is, the less likely anything you set up in the end is going to be useful, anyway.
Now, granted, the remaining 70-80K of novel (well, 100K) will probably have its gems, but they’ll be gems buried in a twisted pile of tubular steel – not exactly useful. If I know what’s wrong with the story now (and I needed that 50,000 words to help me figure that out), why not ditch it and circle back? Strong foundations make for strong middle acts, right?
In saying this, I realize I’m flying in the face of a lot of conventional story-writing wisdom. “Finish what you write,” quoth Heinlein. I know, I know – and it is good advice, too. The thing is, though, the purpose behind Heinlein’s second rule is that, until you’ve written the thing through, you supposedly can’t see what needs fixing. But what if you can? Like, I get it, okay? I see where I made the wrong turn and now I’ve gone down this whole other path that leads to pretty much nothing but tea parties and navel-gazing and I needed to go down this other path, where I’d be more likely to find zombie ninjas and fire-breathing unicorns.
For me, writing a novel is a lot like trying to solve a maze. If you make a wrong turn, do you really draw your line to the end of the bad path? I know this one’s a dead end, folks.
If this were a short story, maybe that would be different – how long does it take to write to the end of a short story, anyway? But a novel? That’s another month or two of my life, slogging through the pages to a conclusion that will probably have to change entirely for the book to work. What an incredible waste of time!
Hypothetically speaking, of course.
Much has come to pass these last weeks.
As (most of you) probably know, the first part of my debut novel is to be released this February by Harper Voyager. If you haven’t heard about this, check out this post explaining it all.
Now, things have changed a little since then. In particular, the way the books will be released and titled has changed. Initially, the first two books in my series (now titled The Saga of the Redeemed) were to be released as The Oldest Trick, Part 1 and The Oldest Trick, Part 2. This is because the first two books are really just two halves of the same book and the publisher wanted to keep the price point low for the initial offering (I assume).
Some time later, it was decided that this seemed confusing (two parts to one book that is part one of a longer series? Whhhaaaa?), so they decided to title them separately and sell them as parts 1 and 2. To this, I pointed out that this might be misleading, since readers would think they were buying a whole story when, in fact, it was only half of one. My editor concurred and Harper agreed, and so now it goes like this: the initial electronic release of the books will have a different title for each part, but they will be marketed as part 1 and 2 of the larger work, The Oldest Trick. Then, when the print release happens (by the way: THERE WILL BE A PRINT RELEASE!!), they will put part 1 and 2 together into one omnibus with my original title and, likewise, this will be available online.
Therefore, Coming Soon:
The Iron Ring (Part 1 of The Oldest Trick), February 2015
Blood and Iron (Part 2 of The Oldest Trick), June 2015
All That Glitters (Book 2 of The Saga of the Redeemed), Fall 2015
Hopefully any confusion will be overcome by the sheer awesomeness of my work.
As for the process itself, here’s where I am: I’m waiting for the final copyedit of The Iron Ring and will begin working with my editor on Blood and Iron sometime in the next month. Also within the next month, I will be getting another 1-2 drafts of All That Glitters in the can so that it is at the polishing stage and I can tinker with it until the deadline on May 1st. All of this can happen just as soon as I get clear of my workload for the Fall semester (lousy day job!) and before the workload for the Spring Semester ramps up.
So, yeah, a ton of writing and editing needs to happen over the next month. Accordingly, there may very well be another blog hiatus coming up. I will let you know and keep you posted, as doing so makes me imagine that what I’m doing here is of some kind of value to somebody rather than just the protracted ravings of a cubicle-bound narcissist.
The Iron Ring is getting closer and closer to publication. I’m going over my editor’s revision notes, putting on the final rounds of spit and polish, and soon this little dragster of a story is going to hit the road. You know, assuming there are no cataclysmic failures anywhere along the line. Obviously.
Anyway, I’ve had enough people ask me about this in the recent months that I figured I may as well write about it. “Auston”, they ask, “how do you write a novel?” This is a question that probably has as many answers as there are authors, and if you’re going about writing a novel, you’re probably going to do it differently than anybody else. Writing, as everybody and their sister will tell you, is a personal and solitary process and, as such, it is prone to idiosyncrasy.
This, however, doesn’t answer the question to anybody’s satisfaction. I must, therefore, answer it literally: how do I, Auston Habershaw, write a novel. I feel at this juncture it is important for me to note that nobody taught me how to write a novel. Nobody. It’s something I figured out myself, ultimately, and all the novel workshops I attended through my MFA program and before have mostly taught me how to write chapters, which is a very distinct thing from writing a novel at large. This should not mean my teachers were bad at their jobs by any means, but rather reflect upon the limitations of the semester-based (or workshop based) education system for teaching somebody how to do something that takes years to perfect. I’ve written about 7 novels to date, some of which will never see the light of day (and rightly so), but each has taught me a lot through painful trial and error.
Anyway, the point is that my process might not work for you, but it is a process that seems to produce results, so here we go.
Part 1: The Rough Draft
The first thing I do when writing a novel is to write it. Well, not exactly – I do spend an indeterminate period of time thinking about it and getting the novel into a rough shape in my mind. Main characters, a central conflict, and a beginning/middle/end arc are all loosely defined, and then I start writing. I write the whole thing in one shot. I revise nothing (NOTHING). I don’t so much as fix a comma or proofread a paragraph. I learned early on that, if I did that, I’d get trapped in an endless revision loop of fixing what was, essentially, a tiny part of a large work that might just get cut, anyway. I don’t worry a lot about keeping continuity through the draft – if a character stops working and is messing with the story, I let that character drop and leave myself a footnote explaining why I did it to a future, very skeptical me.
The point of the rough draft is to toss as much junk on the table as possible. The plot usually winds up an ungodly tangle, there are all kinds of pointless tangents, and a lot of things make no sense. That’s okay – the objective is the generation of an entire book’s worth of raw material. It is very hard to tell precisely what will be useful or useless in the future, so I don’t worry too much about it. The point is to get the whole thing done.
Now, I realize there are people out there who extensively outline and, thereby, sort of side-step this. Well, in theory, I guess. Me, I’ve found extensive outlining at this stage hobbles the novel for me – it restricts my ability to improvise and allow the story to grow organically.
Part 2: The Chainsaw Stage
The second draft (and sometimes a third draft, too) involves chopping apart that pile of trash until you’ve got a workable plot and have the general pacing of the novel under control. I call this the Chainsaw Stage, as it often involved hacking out big hunks of stuff you wrote. Other people call this the “Killing Your Babies” stage, as it often involves killing things you love for the sake of the whole. It might be a lovely little tumor, but it’s still a tumor – hack it out.
Of course, once you’ve hacked a bunch of stuff out, you need to fill in those gaping holes you left. This involves writing new scenes that shore up and improve all the stuff you’re keeping. This very process – the act of hacking up and pasting back in – is why I can’t revise until I have a complete or essentially complete rough draft: until I see the story in total, I can’t make responsible decisions of what must go and what must stay. The Chainsaw Stage is only as successful as the Rough Draft is.
These two steps comprise, what I feel, is the lion’s share of the work in novel writing. The first part is tons of fun, though the result is disheartening. The second part is enormously difficult and painful, but the result is incredibly satisfactory. These two parts should (for me) solve all the major problems of the novel. After this point, I know what the story is, I have all the character arcs, conflicts, and resolutions roughly in place, and I have a draft that might actually be readable by outsiders (you know, if they forced me).
Part 3: Buff, Wax, and Polish
The last part (well, discounting what your editor wants you to revise and so on) primarily involves buffing out the stuff you’ve already got. Most of the new scene writing is behind you. Yeah, you might insert a little thing here or there, but generally all the bones of the book are firmly in place. This is when I start to actually worry about style and really start proofreading the thing. This is when I start fiddling with particular words or set rules for the spelling of certain specialized terms (I’m a fantasy author, remember?). I rewrite dialogue a lot (I know what I want them to say, but they can always say it better) and revise action sequences (Quoth George Lucas: Faster! More intensely!).
This stage takes a surprisingly long time, since it is very easy to fiddle. I put it off for two or three drafts prior to this, so finally indulging can be cathartic. I strive to keep myself under control, honestly. Stage 4 kills a lot of the point of fiddling sometimes.
Part 4: Professional Editor
By the end of Stage 3, the book should be about as good as I can possibly make it. At some point it becomes clear that all my edits are lateral moves – nothing is getting better, just slightly different. By then, it is time to submit it. If you’re very persistent and very lucky (as I have been), you’ll actually get a professional to look at the thing and tell you what to change. In my (extremely brief) experience, they are almost always right. You fix as directed.
This is the stage I am currently at. I know there are other stages, but all of those are involved in the professional publication end of this spectrum – copy editing, marketing, etc.. By that point, I obviously already have a novel (and have had one for some time), and the question was “how do I write a novel,” not “how does the publishing business work.” As far as that second one is concerned, I have legitimately no idea what I am doing.
Wish me luck!
Busy day today – sick kid, lots of work, snowing outside – so this post will be brief.
I’d like to dedicate the following song to the good people over at Harper Voyager books. I appreciate everything they’ve done for me, but their reticence to give me an up/down vote on one (or both!) of my novels is beginning to drive me insane. I, of course, desperately hope for acceptance, but I dread rejection, too.
Therefore, I humbly give you this:
Keep your fingers crossed for me, folks.
From time to time over the years, I have had arguments with friends, family members, and teachers over why I write/read science fiction and fantasy. Many of these people have characterized their objections thusly:
Why don’t you write something real?
Let us, for the nonce, put aside the assumptions of reality and how it is experienced inherent in that statement. The central critique there (and I have heard it in many forms from many different people) is that, because the events of science fiction and fantasy either cannot happen or are not currently happening, entertaining their existence is pointless. Better to focus on the here and now and real.
I’m sorry, but I fail to understand how that is in any way superior an endeavor.
I’m not saying it’s inferior, mind you – not at all – but rather that it is essentially equivalent. The focus on the now and the actual teaches us things about who we are and who we were. It peers inward and backwards. The focus on the potential and the theoretical teaches us things about who we might be or what we might become. It peers outwards and forwards. I think that is something as important to consider, don’t you? Time does not stand still. We are (as individuals, as a society, as a species) changing, often in ways unexpected. We need to think about what might happen to us or what will become central to our identities if X or Y is stripped away, morphed, replaced, undone.
Tolkien once wrote:
He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.
Tolkien may be right in the realm of the real world; there is no good reason to destroy society before one understands it, no good reason to dismantle and institution or a device of a belief before you can see how it works. The change we see in the world can be both destructive and creative, and which is healthier cannot often be seen by looking inside or gazing backwards. Because something happened before does not mean it will happen again, particularly not if circumstances change (which they always are). So how, then, can we theorize? Well, by speculating. Hence, speculative fiction, hence dreams, hence, fantasy. See?
Look at these maps. Look scary? It is, I suppose. It is also, in a perverse way, exciting. The world is going to change. How we adapt to it and what becomes of that change is often dependent upon how well and how creatively we dream about the future. It also deals with the past, of course (betcha Holland is going to get a lot of phone calls), but it cannot rest exclusively upon the province of what has been. Ironically, history is littered with the corpses of societies that thought looking backwards was superior to looking ahead. You never go anywhere if you do that, and he who stops moving dies.
In science fiction, we imagine our world as it might be; we apply basic principles of science to the world we know and imagine how it reshapes the world. In fantasy, we can strip away the preconceived notions of history and culture and expectation and perform, if you will, a kind of mock experiment upon the human heart. We learn from both, and to openly decry either as pointless to our culture is worse than wrong, it’s willfully ignorant.
So, yes, I think it’s fine that you have a love-affair with the Old Masters and that nothing gets your heart a-stirring more than a deeply flawed character stumbling through modern life in the latest upscale fiction sweetheart shortlisted for Booker Prize. You’ll forgive me, though, if I stick to my Nebulas and Hugos and World Fantasy Awards. Reality has never been all that motivating for me, anyway.