Today is the Tomorrow We Worried About Yesterday

Ruby FallsNinth chapter almost done, after a week’s delay while my wife and I went on a long-delayed and much deserved vacation. Ahem. Where was I? Oh, right. Chapter 9, and the realization that, not only is there a Chapter 9, but there will be at least as many more before the story is told. I’m not just talking about the number of words, though it is a subject of concern to me. I’m thinking more about scope and emphasis, and to what extent they truly define what a work of fiction is.

I’ve written a lot of short stories. I’ve written more than a few novels. I don’t claim to know a lot about either form, but one thing that, fortunately, I did learn early on is that a novel is not a long short story any more than a short story is a condensed novel. It’s not about the number of words–it’s about scope and focus. The extra words in a novel exist simply because the expanded scope of a novel requires them. You are not allowed to expand and correlate events, you are required. For example, in this chapter Yamada has an extended conversation with the sister he hadn’t seen in nearly fifteen years, the sort one might have with a family member one hadn’t any contact with for fifteen years. On the surface, it seems to be a meandering talk about old news and family drama, but the talk is crucial to the plot bomb that’s going off just a little bit later which in turn is crucial to the climax of the novel. How did I know that starting off? I didn’t. I figured it out in the writing. Novels are filled with such seemingly unrelated details that are not unrelated at all. Short stories? Not as many, as a rule. That scene might have been one I needed to write, but it would have to be cut from the final story. In the novel? It stays. The novel is expansive. The short story is contractive. Or maybe wide-angle lens vs microscope. Both very useful things, but it kind of depends on what you’re looking at.

Speaking of meandering talks, this is one, yes, because I’ve been thinking of scope and sweep and such things, and how much books usually benefit commercially from having them, or being perceived to have them. It was once said of the late Thomas Burnett Swann that he “preferred the microcosm to the macrocosm.” That is, his interests were always on his characters and what was happening to them on a deep personal level, rather than with the sweep of large events around them. That focus, and the mythological themes, were what drew me to his work in the first place, back in my earlier writer days. I think I tend the same way, even in a story involving epic events, and don’t necessarily believe it a bad thing. Yet, as an object lesson, I remind myself that Thomas Burnett Swann is almost completely out of print these days and hardly anyone remembers him. There may be a lesson there. Or it may just be that most writers are forgotten regardless. Either way, there’s no point worrying about it. We work with the tools we have.


*Note: Chattanooga is an interesting place. If you get the chance, go there sometime. The picture on the top left is Ruby Falls, 140 feet high located over 1100 feet under LookOut Mountain. The guy who discovered it crawled for 7+ hours along a shaft that was never more than 2 feet high before he found a place tall enough to stand up. If that had been me, the darn falls would still be unknown. Spelunkers are a special kind of crazy, in my book.

**Note Addendum: I can’t say as much for Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Unless you’re really into tourist traps, steer clear. Though the scenery is first rate.