Let me take you back to last December and the decision I made.
Over the Christmas break I decided I would start 2020 by shifting my writing focus away from my novel and towards short stories. Having spent so long writing the novel, the idea of taking some time away from it was appealing.
In other words: we’re on a break.
Although I was progressing well with the novel (on average; no two writing days are the same), a few things were beginning to niggle at me. Common, maybe even smart, advice in this situation would be to keep going and to get to the end of the first draft. But when it comes to my writing, I’ve learnt to listen to my unease: some distance might help.
It wasn’t the novel, it was me.
I will return to the novel—maybe next month, maybe in a few—and I will get to the end of the first draft. (I love the characters and the story too much to abandon it.) Before I do, there are some other stories I would like to tell (and get published).
That’s right. I’m playing the literary field.
You might be wondering why I don’t just write the short stories alongside writing the novel. It’s a fair question. But I tried doing just that, sometimes starting my writing day with a short story before moving onto the novel, or vice versa. However, I found whichever I came to first grabbed my interest for the rest of the day. It became much harder to immerse myself in another story.
I also discovered I became more concerned with the word count for both the short story and the novel. With my time divided, I wanted to ensure it was quantifiably justified. I started to lose that age-old battle of quantity versus quality (the latter should always be the victor).
So why do I want to shift my writing focus to short stories?
The decision was based on a three-pronged approach, but more on that in a bit. [Unless you scroll down, thus skipping my obvious attempt to build suspense. It’s not like I can stop you.]
FIRST, A SHORT STORY… ABOUT A SHORT STORY
I initially had the idea of writing some short stories that are connected to my novel in the summer last year. Idea might be too generous a word; it was more of a huh-that-would-be-nice notion.
My novel is set twenty years after an alien invasion and subsequent plague has decimated the population of the world’s many races. [No dwarves or elves here, rather entirely new races of my own design.] I began to wonder what life was like for these races prior to the apocalypse. I wanted to know more about the world that was lost.
Around the same time I came across an advert (well played Facebook and your paid advertising) for Grindstone’s short story competition and I decided to enter, thinking I could cheekily repurpose my prologue (set twenty years before the rest of the novel, during the apocalypse) as a short story.
I tried for almost two months. Yet the 3,000 word limit proved too finite for me to squeeze all of my world building into. I came to realise I didn’t know enough about the world set in this time. I also fell into the trap of editing as I wrote, instead of writing through to the end and then editing. I’m not sure why I did this. Perhaps it was the pressure of trying to make it as brilliant as possible…
Long story short (sorry, I couldn’t resist): I missed the deadline, frustrated and disappointed.
After a fortunately-timed holiday to Barcelona and Tarragona, I returned home, refreshed from having had some much-needed time away from writing, and focused my full attention on my novel. A couple of weeks later, without any intention, I had a sudden deluge of new ideas: a collection of interlinked short stories, set during the apocalypse and told from the perspectives of different characters. Each short story would be standalone while contributing to a larger overarching story of civilisation’s collapse.
Characters and their stories were almost queuing out of my ears.
I realised I could use these stories in the same way J.R.R Tolkien used The Hobbit as a prelude to The Lord of the Rings, introducing Middle Earth and some of the characters that would later appear in trilogy. Or how Andrzej Sapkowski established the world of The Witcher with two collections of short stories ahead of the novels.
The more I thought about these short stories, the more they excited me. The more they excited me, the more I wanted to write them. It became harder to focus on the novel.
THE DECISION TO SHIFT MY WRITING FOCUS
As I teased earlier, my decision was based on a three-pronged approach:
- To complete the process start-to-finish on a micro level
Writing isn’t as straightforward as placing one word after another until you reach your word count. At least for me it isn’t. Writing is more like this:
Writing the first draft*; putting it aside and starting something else (apparently this second part is very important); returning to the first draft and making corrections; sending the manuscript out to alpha readers; receiving feedback and implementing it, perhaps through multiple drafts; sending the manuscript back out to beta readers; a final redraft; sending the finished** manuscript out to publishers.
Or so I assume. But that’s the point. Except for my assignments during my MA, I’ve not yet gone through all of these stages. I’m probably missing steps because of this. Which is why it makes sense to go through this process with short stories first, learn from it, then go back and attempt it all with an epic novel.
Not only that, I can learn what kind of writer I am. While writing my novel, I’ve flirted with the idea of being a pantser and a planner/gardener and an architect and so far discovered I’m somewhere in the middle. Writing short stories will offer me the freedom to approach each story differently. I may plan one, scene-by-scene, start-to-finish. I may write another without an outline, using only ideas as they come to me. (Spoiler alert: this is exactly what I did with my first short story.) I can also experiment with style, narrative points of view***, tense and so on. I can learn what works well for me and what doesn’t. I can discover who I am as a writer. This brings me nicely to my second point.
* That already sounds far more simple than it suggests. The first draft, as Joe Hill said, is more like scaffolding. Unless you’re a thorough planner, you are discovering the story as you write it, well before it has been tempered by multiple drafts into its proper shape. That means redundant scenes, disappearing characters, abandoned plot points, and everything else that makes it a steaming mess.
** The manuscript won’t be truly finished until after publication; even the editor of a literary magazine will want to improve upon the stories it publishes.
*** One of the things niggling at me had been whether the novel should be narrated third-person limited, as I had so far written it, or if I should switch to first person. I hope experimenting with these short stories will help to answer that.
- To prove to myself that I can do this
If I’m able to complete all those steps and discover how I achieve my best writing, then I can prove to myself that I can write and I can get published. Before that, however, I will be able to prove to myself that I can get my novel, or what-sometimes-feels-like-an-endless-task, finished. The difference in the word count and the time it takes to reach it (as well as all the other differences, like more characters, scenes, plot points, and so on) won’t seem as daunting if I know I’m capable of getting it done on a smaller scale.
Getting my name out into the literary world, hopefully on multiple publications, might even help me land a literary agent or publisher. Before looking at the manuscript for my novel, they too will know that I can do this.
- To aid world building
Each short story will be told from the point of view of a different character and will focus on different races (2-3 maximum), take place in a different setting, tell of different events (maybe over different points in time as well). Even if the short stories were never published (though I really hope they will be; more on that below) they would still influence the novel by helping me realise (and present) a more vibrant world.
From out of the hazy distance right into the clear focus of the foreground, each short story can provide the novel with those small, delicious details, shape characters and setting (on a single, cultural, and national level) and influence the events of the story.
MY AIM FOR THE SHORT STORIES
Now would be a good, if belated, time to reveal that the short stories I am writing are more like novelettes. They will have a word count of 12 to 17,000 words, which equates to roughly 30 to 50 pages, depending on the size of the print. Though I do want to include a couple of shorter short stories too. Grindstone, I’m coming for you.
Because that’s my aim: to get the short stories published.
As each short story will be standalone while contributing to a larger overarching story, this allows me some flexibility when trying to get them published. I can try to get them published individually in various literary magazines, or together in a novel or short story collection. I may even want to consider self-publishing. For now, though, I think I will attempt a more traditional route.
For my first short story [as in the first short story I will attempt to get published, not the first short story I will write: I intend to submit the best from a selection of two or three] I am currently considering entering the Writers of the Future contest, which is open to unpublished and aspiring writers. Perfect. Having read Volume 34 last month and sampled the high quality of short stories published, I believe I am more than capable of this.
More on this in a future post, though. First, I need to do all of the above—along with one other thing.
In particular, short stories.
My birthday haul (no longer stacked up alongside Cassie but rather shelved, ready and waiting—emphasis on the waiting) will have to wait a little bit longer. It’s a nice problem to have.
With the exception of the exceptional Downward To The Earth by Robert Silverberg at the very start of the year, I have turned my reading attention to short stories. I have shared the following quote from my literary idol so often my heart now beats the very words:
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”
Stephen King, On Writing
While some of the tools used to craft a novel are the same as those used for a short story, there are differences. In order to learn them, I have been reading as widely as possible (though still favouring speculative fiction, in particular fantasy and science fiction, as my short stories will fall under the two), from Margaret Atwood to Ted Chiang, Shirley Jackson to H.P. Lovecraft, as well as anthologies like Rogues edited by George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois and literary magazines such as Asimov’s Science Fiction. Anthologies are great way to learn from an even wider variety of voices, while it’s important to read literary magazines to see what kinds of stories they are publishing and if any of my own might be a good fit.
This also means learning to walk the tightrope-fine line of writing stories that interest me and writing stories that I can get published. Hopefully the former will lead to the latter. Either way, it won’t hurt to learn how others got to where I want to go.
[Dramatic January skies above West Wittering, perfect beach walking weather.]