Thursday, July 05, 2007



I write mostly short stories - concise, complete, beginning-middle-end pieces with one or two plot points, one or two (or at the most three) main characters and maybe a satisfyingly twisty ending. I take a week or so to get one out, sometimes longer, sometimes much shorter. The "thought time" - the time I spend ruminating about an idea - can be much, much longer, years even. The end product is usually no more than a page or two for flashes, and not much more for the rest.

But I have been thinking about a novel. Yes, it's a big project. Yes, it makes putting together a precise if not precious little short story collection look easy, and yes, I must be out of my mind. But the idea is there, lurking in my head like a well-behaved child, quietly playing in a corner, smiling when I look directly at it.

I did start something, a first page of a mystery set in Connecticut, I think, with lost dogs and lost children and at least one spooky old house full of secrets and dread. I like my Main Character and I like the vacation premise, a nifty device which limits the amount of time that MC can hang around and get the meat of the story on the table. I like the setting as I myself have recently vacationed in that part of the world. I like lost people and lost stuff and old secrets and spooky houses.

But writing a novel is hard. Even the "thought time" is hard. I know I just want to tell a story, and when I tell the story in short form, I get to the point pretty quickly. But in a novel, I have all this room. It's like being a container gardener who enjoys the little pots of color and scent but is now thrust onto an acre and told to grow food. I *did* write that first page, it *is* intriguing (well, to me, anyway) and I really do want to push forward. But the landscape is daunting.

So maybe I need to do something I have never done before: outline. Outline the big story, and then fill in the smaller stories, maybe. Make character lists in which I describe them so they don't change hair color or family ties or gender mid-story. Sketch out locations, descriptions, where the tension is, where the body is. Okay, *who* the body is - and why they are now just worm-fodder.

But I am afraid to outline and then lose interest, because once I know the whole story, what's the point in telling it? Is this what all novelists face? Do they plod on anyway? Is it really more work, more trouble, more tedium than it's worth?

Maybe. Maybe I'm just really a short-story writer with a screwy idea. Maybe the novel form is more difficult than I imagined, harder than anyone who hasn't tried it knows. For all those folks who sneer and say, "Huh, I could've written this!" after reading a novel, I just want to publicly say, "Oh, yeah? Well, show me!"

Because it's hard. But it's not impossible. At least, I don't think so yet.


My new Florence Knoll couch. Okay, not new - used. Very old in fact, and re-upholstered and really modern looking. Sort of a purpley color, little pointillism dots of red and blue. Very firm, and just the right height. Long enough to stretch out on for a nap, too.

The fireworks last night. We always pick up a chicken dinner and drive to a parking lot and watch the fireworks show put on by a local high school. It was really nice, complete with patriotic music and a local band playing, inexplicably, old Jefferson Airplane hits.

The "Easter Bun" our friend Greg gave us. He lives in the Cayman Islands and gets all kinds of cool Caribbean foods. The Easter Bun turned out to be a particularly delicious kind of fruit cake, perfect for slicing, toasting and slathering with butter. Ideal with cups of tea. What a treat!


Bernita said...

Og dear. Now I'm going to have to go down stairs and root out that fruit bread from the bakery and slather it with butter as a substitute to stop the drool.
You are so right about "thinking time," Kate.
I don't think you'll get bored and lose interest - that's just one of those excuses our minds throw at us - but you won't know unless you try.

Ric said...

Kate, One interesting thing about novels - even if they are tightly outlined - is time for your characters to grow. As they grow, as you put them on the page, they will take over, adding little bits of their own, enriching the process and the product.

There is nothing so satisfying as looking up from the keyboard to see your heroine has added something you never thought of. Amazing when it happens. Don't think it can happen when writing short stuff - too tightly controlled.

Go for it.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

As for the novel - I agree with Ric - GO FOR IT!

As for outlining, to each his own. Many novelists outline, some extensively, some briefly. Others, like me, don't outline at all. But by all means keep that cheat sheet with character and location data to remain consistent.

I also agree with Ric about the satisfaction and sometimes awe when a character takes off in his/her own direction. Just go with them and see where they lead. I've never been disappointed yet.

bunnygirl said...

I outline, but it's a very basic, bare-bones outline. I've described it elsewhere as a "road map" approach.

Let's say I want my characters to get from New York (beginning) to Los Angeles (the end!). There are some cities (key plot points) I want them to go through along the way.

I don't much care what sights they see (minor plot details), what restaurants they eat at and what hotels they sleep in-- good characters will make up these details as they go along.

So in general, I give my characters just the high points of their trip. What they do while getting from point to point is their own business.

I map the trip only so no one gets lost. If my characters try to charter a plane for Sao Paulo I can look at the map and say, "WTF?? Your next stop is supposed to be Denver!"

I don't know about your characters, but mine really will run away with things if I let them, and meander aimlessly all over the landscape. They need a map.

Good luck with your project, no matter how tightly or loosely you outline, or whether you do it at all.

Kate Thornton said...

Wow! Lots of replies in such a short time!

Bernita, go for the slathered butter. If ever there were a fitting descriptive for what to do with butter, slather is it!

ric, thanks so much. I am looking forward to exactly that!

Sue Ann, I don't know if a detailed outline will work for me, but I guess I'll find out (and congrats on your recent book deals (yes, plural!)

Bunnygirl, I love the "road map" idea - so much so, that I intend to steal it and see where we are going. I suspect my characters will hijack the action if I let them, so a map might be a good idea.

Tia Nevitt said...

I'm closing in on the ending of novel number 3 now, and while I did have a loose outline, I mostly let character motivations guide me. I would get to a point in time and write out what everyone was doing. Even though I wrote the book in 1st person, everyone else's actions would have great bearing on the plot. It helped me keep my interest in my novel high.

writtenwyrdd said...

Froooooot cake! Froooooooooot cake! Me love it, me want it. (See, you have now released my fruit cake piggy darling inner child monster, who happens to adore fruit cake over all other treats.)

I'm in the process of outlining the current WIP today. I end up jotting scene notes in the thing as I go, and the outline becomes the really bad messy rough draft that no one else could ever understand.

We all have our weird processes, so why cannot you join in and have some of the fun?

Usiku said...

You're only a short story writer if you allow it to be so. Anything untried and uncompleted can be hard and daunting and even to repeat something tried and completed can still be difficult and require dedication and discipline. It is possible. Now it's up to you.

Jim Melvin said...

My six-book epic fantasy series is almost 750,000 words. Yet to me, writing this series would be far easier than, say, writing 750 short stories of one thousand words each. Once your settings and characters are set, you hit a comfort zone -- like the feeling you get when you work at the same job for a number of years and know everything there is to know. Novel writing is about consistency, as in writing a certain number of words every day over an extended period of time. I doubt a writer with your skills would have any problem with it, once you developed your rhythm.

Kate Thornton said...

Tia - Thanks so much for your experiences. Everyone seems to approach it differently! Closing in on the ending must feel good.

Writtenwyrdd - Lol! I have always loved fruitcake. My wedding cake was an Irish fruitcake, lots of nuts & raisins, very little hard rind-y things, soaked in whisky. Now *that's* a cake! And thank you, if there's fun to be had, I do want to join!

Usiku - I have always enjoyed writing short stories, but being a novelist is not really a new idea to me. I wrote (and co-wrote) several fantasy & adventure books back in the late 1980s-early 1990s, but it seemed more like practice with the written word than and end in itself. The short story form simply had more appeal to me, and such immediate satisfaction, too.

Jim - What good points! And thanks so much for the kind words - I am more energized about the project than ever.

Thank you all for sharing your experience and advice - it is much appreciated!

Sonnjea B said...

I outlined the basic plot points to make sure I didn't get off track, then let the characters dictate the rest.

But now on to the important topic: where, short of a Caymans-dwelling-friend, can one find an Easter Bun?

Kate Thornton said...

Sonnjea b - thanks for asking - wish granted!

Hello from Julia said...

i just have to say that you have great taste in furniture!

Kate Thornton said...

Thank you, Julia! We love living the mid century modern life and have collected our few pieces carefully.