How to make the leap from writing short stories to constructing novels
I’ve always loved short stories. As a young child, I would read collections of ghost and horror stories, such as the ones released by Pan in the seventies, and suffer the inevitable sleepless nights. When I was slightly older, I began dipping into science fiction anthologies; later, teenage pretentiousness drove me to the more literary end of the short story spectrum, where I found much dullness, but also some bright, surprising gems. I still think it’s hard to beat the compact perfection of a well-written short story – it can put infinity in the palm of your hand, and who could ask for more?
So when I started writing, it was probably inevitable that I began with short stories. Even now, they feel like the most natural form, for me. But there are some tales that the short form cannot accommodate: epics that slowly play out over time and geography, convoluted plots that twist and turn, stories involving multiple characters one or more of whom may evolve in unexpected ways. Sometimes, you need length. But short stories and novels are different disciplines – how does one make the switch? Truthfully, I am still working out the answer to that question. At present, however, my feeling is that short stories may be closer to poetry and novels closer to essays, and this has implications for how I approach the two forms.
Briefly, I think the shorter form is closer to poetry in that it excels at capturing evanescent, and perhaps inexpressible, elements of human experience, and that it can do this by very careful use of language. This language may emerge through a process that feels more like instinct than craft, in that it is not always under the author’s conscious control. In any case, for a short story to really work, what is not said can be as important as what is written down; indeed, the most impactful aspects of a short story may only be discovered ‘between the lines’. This makes certain requirements of readers; they may need to read attentively, be aware of the entire meanings of words, and be open to subtlety. It also makes requirements of authors; they should trust their instincts and their readers (in other words, beware of over-editing). In summary, in the short form, clarity – making it easy for the reader – can take second place to the beauty of what cannot be said (and such beauty as emerges may be despite rather than due to the author).
With novels, however, it may be unreasonable to expect high levels of reader attentiveness to be maintained over two or three hundred pages. Also, without attention to ‘nuts and bolts’ writing – structure and plot – it is easy for the writer to lose control of the story as it develops into a 100,000 word beast. That loss of control is likely to make for a poor read. This is why I think novels have something of the essay about them; the writer needs to lead the reader down a path to a satisfying conclusion. In the long form, then, we should not have beauty without clarity. We should not dumb down – readers don’t want or need to be patronised — but we should be clear. Novels therefore – even for pantsers such as myself – probably require at least a little forethought and planning, and almost certainly much editing along the way. In summary, with a novel it may be best to have an idea of where you are going when you begin, and be willing to jettison much of your work as you craft its final form.
Planning a novel does, however, set up an unpleasant tension. The creative impulse dislikes constraint. If it is given too narrow borders in which to play, it may stop playing — and although clarity is important in a novel, beauty remains desirable too. Critically, the reader still must be able to find important elements of the novel between the lines, in what is not written. (And each reader will find something different – as Umberto Eco once said, the novel is a machine for the generation of interpretations). The task for novelists therefore is to maintain control and structure without crippling creativity, without blocking up the well from which they draw beauty, and without being too simplistically explicit.
And that’s difficult. For example, I have a an idea for a trilogy: an original concept, planned and plotted, carefully structured. But the creative part of me dreads embarking on it, because it feels too chained up and nailed down. Beauty sulks at the bottom of her well; she refuses to fill the bucket I lower. And the pantser within me sympathises. I need, perhaps, to offer a different bucket, one that is less carefully shaped, one that gives beauty the opportunity to find the form it wants. As I said, I’m still working things out!
(c) Marc Joan
About The Cartoon Life and Loves of a Stupid Man:
As an independent comic book store owner and the heir to a pharmaceutical fortune, Philippe Favrier lives a life that straddles the real world and the realm of fiction. Struggling with mental illness, Philippe relies on his wife, Marilyne – a successful surgeon with her own haunting secrets – and a groundbreaking drug his father developed. Bound by their shared pain, they navigate their haunted lives, forever shadowed by the heart-rending loss of their baby, Antoine.
Their fragile world begins to crumble when Philippe catches a disturbing glimpse of an unfamiliar profile in the mirror. And his uneasiness is further fueled by an anonymous comic strip that arrives at his store, featuring a character bearing an eerie resemblance to him.
Is Marilyne hiding an affair? Is she connected to the comic strip that’s tormenting him? As he probes deeper, Philippe is drawn into a web of deception, where the lines between reality and imagination blur – until his investigations into Marilyne and the malicious comic artist at last reveal the tragic truth.
THE CARTOON LIFE AND LOVES OF A STUPID MAN by Marc Joan (Deixis Press) is out now.