Many writers test the waters of fiction with the short story form before moving on to writing a novel. MFA programs usually immerse writers in the craft of short fiction, so that candidates emerge from the program with a completed short story collection and many hours of short fiction workshops under their belts, but no idea how to write a novel.
As with most of the writers in my MFA program, I wrote short stories all though my MFA years. When I got out of graduate school, I wanted to write a novel but I had no idea how to start. After publishing my first story collection through the AWP first-book contest, I plunged into writing a novel with little understanding of how to make it work.
That first attempt at long form fiction presented a huge learning curve. The book had lots of pretty sentences but not enough forward momentum. I relied too heavily on flashbacks, for one thing, shifting to the past whenever I hit a roadblock in the present. That novel, Dream of the Blue Room, did indeed find a publisher, a small, now-defunct publisher out of San Francisco, and was later purchased and re-issued by Random House. There are some things I still like about that novel, notably the raw passion I put into it, the tangential nature of the plot, the free-wheeling associations. That said, it’s probably too fragmentary to pull readers along in that compulsive way I want to be pulled along when I read fiction. And too much is going on. The story takes place in China and in Fairhope, Alabama, going back and forth between the two. At the time I was writing it, I had just come off several months working in China, and I was bringing two pieces of my life together, seeing how they mixed.
This, by the way, is a technique I highly recommend: taking two seemingly disparate things and putting them together. From this friction arises something unique, a kind of story no one else is telling in quite the same way. A novel may be “fresh” or new without being accomplished. That sense of newness is not to be taken lightly. To write something that causes readers to think, “Hmm, I’ve never read anything quite like that before,” is a joy and accomplishment in itself, even if you look back years later and think of all the things you would have done differently if you had it to do over again.
I learned a lot in my first novel, lessons I put to use in the second novel, The Year of Fog, which went on to reach hundreds of thousands of readers around the world. Every subsequent novel has been an education. While the process never gets easy, I do have a much clearer understanding now of how to create urgency, sustain momentum through a novel’s long haul, and avoid writing myself into a corner. The other valuable thing I’ve learned? How to finish what I started.
If you love writing short stories, there’s no reason to switch to long form fiction. Writing a novel takes a considerable commitment, and I never recommend it to anyone who doesn’t feel absolutely driven to do it. Of course, you can always do both. I continue to write stories, although the lion’s share of my writing time goes to novels. I tend to write a story when the mood strikes, while I am always in the process of writing a novel. Stories are like a mini-vacation, and novels are the house I live in.
Novels aren’t only deeply rewarding to live inside and write. They are also a practical way to create a sustainable writing career. While short story collections are notoriously difficult to publish, publishers are always on the lookout for a great novel. Publishers get especially excited about debut novels, because every publisher wants to discover the next big thing.
If you want to write a novel, here are a few things you can do:
Read widely in contemporary fiction
The first step to being a novelist is to read widely and well. Educate yourself by reading great novels — especially novels being published today. Jane Austen and Tolstoy are wonderful, but if the classics are your only models for fiction, you may find yourself writing at such a leisurely pace you will have trouble attracting an agent or publisher. Dickens wasn’t known for urgency, and most readers and publishers these days want urgency: the sense that something is going to happen, and soon.
Consider the situation
A short story can begin with little more than a flash of language or an image. A novel may start that way too, but pretty quickly you’ll need to understand the situation of your novel: a character (the protagonist) in a moment of change or crisis, with choices to make and uncertainty ahead.
A story will have a situation too, of course, and a story, like a novel, requires a degree of suspense, but writing a short story requires only a tiny fraction of time commitment that writing a novel requires. To avoid spinning your wheels in a novel, you need to know why this particular story is being told at this particular time. Why should the reader care?
Consider the scope
As you write the early pages of your novel, you should think about whether this story is big enough and complex enough to sustain you for 70,000 words or more. Is there enough in the nugget of idea, in the situation, in the protagonist’s desire/search and the obstacles the protagonist faces, to keep a story going for 250 or more pages? If not, your story is better told as a short story or perhaps a novella.
Write through the difficult middle
The next step is to sit down and do the challenging but rewarding work of writing your novel — not just starting it, but finishing it. Starting is the easy part. Most novels begin with a big idea and a flash of inspiration, and most novelists begin with a burst of energy and optimism.
For me, optimism tends to wane around page 50, when I realize I’ve done the fun set-up, getting by on coffee and inspiration, and now have to do the hard work of complicating matters, setting up progressively difficult obstacles, working through the complexities of character and situation.
Writing through the long haul, especially the tricky middle, requires concentration and a willingness to write when you don’t feel like it, when it gets hard, when you don't know where you’re going.
Do you want to write your novel from start to finish in 2021? Join me for Novel in 9. In this course, you will begin your novel in January and finish you draft by the end of August, devoting the month of September to revision. You'll get weekly guidance, lessons, assignments, ongoing discussions, monthly word count check-ins, and live monthly meetings. Learn more.