A Distinction With a Difference

Today’s post will be bit of writing neep (if that term “neep” still has any meaning). Yes, sorry. Our local writing group has been meeting online since the pandemic began and I was directly asked a question about the mechanics of writing a novel vs a short story. Allways a dangerous idea, since I tend to mull over such questions and come up different answers depending on what I had for breakfast that morning. Here’s more or less what I said.

I’ll take a shot at this, bearing in mind I can only speak from my own experience. Any other novelists in the group would likely have a different take. I wrote short stories for years before I first attempted a novel, and that first novel took me five years to write because I didn’t know HOW to write a novel. After five years, I knew how to write a novel. That is, I knew how to write that particular novel. The next one? Another steep learning curve. And the next….

All that said, the most significant difference between short stories and novels is not length, because a novel is not a long short story any more than a short story is a tiny novel. It can be summed up in one word: pacing. For that reason, a novel composed of self-contained flash fiction chapters with complete story arcs is likely to read very “choppy” and call too much attention to themselves at the expense of the larger story, unless substantially revised with the greater story in mind. The main job of a chapter is not to tell its own story but to serve the greater narrative and smoothly advance the storyline. And the writer has to make that happen even if, as is often the case, they themselves do not yet know the whole story. Yes, there are some writers who can sit down and plot out the whole book before they even write Chapter 1. I’m not one of them, and I know from contacts with other writer friends that I’m not alone here.

Sorta sounds impossible when you look at it that way, but it really isn’t, and the process is a lot simpler than it sounds. It isn’t necessary to know the whole story when you start, but what you will need to find sooner rather than later is a direction. That is, by the time you’re a few chapters in, you need to at least know what the greater narrative is and where it’s going, even if you don’t yet know how the heck you’re going to get there. Figuring that part out is the daily work. A chapter usually isn’t a complete story in itself, though it can be, provided that’s what the greater narrative requires.

You’ll likely end up with some chapters that are fine by themselves but don’t serve any purpose in the narrative. Other chapters which you might have written without understanding how they fit in, were exactly what was needed. All that will come under the heading of editing/revising. Neil Gaiman once described it, and I’ll paraphrase, “Making it look like you knew what you were doing all along.” The reader doesn’t need to see that bits that don’t work, nor should they.

Otherwise, perfectly doable. Just like eating an elephant: One bite at a time.

Internal Editor and Writer Dialogues #1: Process

“Three brothers traveled along a lonely road at—”

“Stop. This is sounding suspiciously like a ripoff.”

“Oh ye of little faith. Now, where was I?”

“You were about to say ‘twilight,’ I believe.”

“You believe wrong. May I continue?”

“By all means, but just so you know, the onus of proof is on you.”

“Always is. Starting over. ‘Three brothers traveled along a lonely road at….”

“Wait for it….”

“…odds with each other. One wanted to go forward. One wanted to go back. One wanted to get off the damn road and take a hike through the lovely woodland on either side of the road.”

“Okay. At least you’ve gone off script, but do you have any idea where this is all going?”

“Of course not. You write a sentence. It implies action, or a consequence. Maybe it only sets a mood. Regardless, you write another sentence that goes with the first sentence. Goes where? No idea. Write another. Is there movement? Progress? Do the sentences, taken together, appear to be working?”

“When you say ‘working,’ what does that mean?”

“I mean the sentences belong together and point to something greater. And before you ask, of course you don’t know what that ‘something’ is, at least not at first. Your job is to figure it out.”

“You mean it’s your job. Figured anything out?”

“Yes. Three brothers traveling along a lonely road, bickering.”

“That’s not a lot.”

“No, but it’s something. Other than the something I have to figure out, of course. Now that I think about it, I take that back. You don’t figure it out. It’s a story. It was always there. You discover it instead.”

“Now you’re getting mystical on me. That’s really annoying.”

“I don’t do it to annoy you. That’s just a bonus.”

“You’re digressing, and it’s not as if you have all the space or time in the world. Focus!”

“The middle brother went back the way they’d come. He was still on a lonely road, only now he was alone. He wandered into darkness and distance and was never seen again.”

“Bit of a downer, that.”

“You want happiness and light? Go to the greeting card aisle.”

“I want the rest of the story. What about the other two brothers?”

“The oldest brother was tired of the road as well. He left the road at a promising spot and hiked off into the woods by a lovely stream. He listened to the birds and the wind in the trees. He saw many wonderful things and congratulated himself on making such a wise choice. Then he was eaten by a bear.”

“Seriously, that’s it? That’s your grand adventure?”

“More like a light lunch in the bear’s story. As for the youngest brother, he kept walking on the road. The end.”

“That’s terrible!”

“Because my impatient internal editor horned in during the creation phase. Which makes for a terrible story or no story at all. Next time, wait your damn turn.”

©2020 by Richard Parks. All Rights Reserved.

Writing Time

I know I’ve mentioned schedules before. I also know how often writers complain about their day jobs and how much they’d get done in only they didn’t owe so much time to something else. Having now been on both sides of that equation, I’m here to tell you something.

It ain’t necessarily so.

Something always fills the time. Something always demands it. If it’s not the day job, it’s something else. I’m not going to be specific here because those “somethings” are going to be different for everyone. The point is, writing time always was and always will be time you’ve made for yourself. Odds are no one’s going to give it to you. I personally found that having a day job forced me to be very careful about how I budgeted my time and encouraged me to use what I had wisely. All that went out the window and for a while now I admit I’ve been flailing, thinking I had all the time in the world when that simply wasn’t true.

Took me a while, but I finally get it. I still haven’t totally worked out what I’m going to do about it, but I have some ideas I’m trying out now. One of them might even work. We’ll see. At least I’ve finally recognized the problem, which is the same one any mortal has, day job or no.

Time.

We Are the Champions

Yamada_BTG_cover-V06b-PrimeEven as I started thinking about this subject, I had to flash back on a classic George Carlin routine: “My needs aren’t being met!” The answer to which was: “Then get fewer needs.”

We try. In some ways the tools of being a writer are some of the simplest for any avocation you can name. Most of our tools are internal, so no stocked shop, power tools, grinders, wrenches…just time, space, paper and pen. Which is, of course, rubbish, and you can see the flaws right away. I mean, sure, you can write with a pen and paper, but when it comes time to actually do something useful with what you’ve written, at the very minimum you’re going to need a way to produce typed copy. In theory a working typewriter will do, but in practice you’re generally talking about a computer and email. Perseverance is a matter of personality and just how long one can bash your head against a brick wall, but basic functioning as a working writer is another matter. There are things required. So that got me thinking about what writers really need, as opposed to, say, what we want. Continue reading

Processing…

Yoshino-1I managed about 1000 words on Monday, then about 2000 yesterday. Today…well I guess I’ll find out when it’s time to take stock. Writers love word counts. Writers hate word counts. Or rather, love having them or hate not having them. Even if you’re not working on something, you feel like you should be, and why the heck aren’t you working, you lazy worthless slacker??? Where’s your word count??? Continue reading