Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Novel Approach by Kate Thornton

Kate Thornton is a retired US Army officer who enjoys writing both mysteries and science fiction. With over 100 short stories in print, she teaches a short story class and is currently working on a series of romantic suspense novels. She divides her time between Southern California and Tucson, Arizona. To learn more about Kate, visit her website.   




THE NOVEL APPROACH

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 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 more than 6 or 7 pages 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. 
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. So how does one start writing a novel? I can only tell you how  did it.

I started something, a first page of a something - mystery? adventure? - with lost dogs and lost children and at least one spooky old house full of secrets and dread. I thought of a Main Character, a middle-aged woman with some problems. I like my Main Character and I decided to put her on vacation. The vacation premise is 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 and I myself have vacationed, so I know what it's like to be in a strange part of the world. I like to read about lost people and lost stuff and old secrets and spooky houses, so i want to write about them, too.

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.


Hang in there. You can do it. I think I just did.

20 comments:

  1. When I outline, I keep discovering more and more layers to add. I admirer your ability to write short stories. Those are much more difficult for me.

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    1. Jackie, I think your approach to outlining makes it more attractive - I'll try it!

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  2. Writing a novel is like taking a journey... a long journey with lots of baggage and lots of stops and you meets lots of people. The short story is a day trip, next to no baggage, few stops, maybe a detour, small car with few passengers. Anyway, that's how I teach The Art of the Short Story class Your journey with your book will take you and your potential readers to great places.

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    1. Gayle your class is tops - and I love the journey analogy. I guess I've been on a really long detour for a few months, but it's time to get back on the train!

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  3. I agree with Jackie Vick that short stories are actually harder to write than novels because you have to convey so much in so little space. I need a kinda-sorta outline for my novels, but I have to be careful that it doesn't set the story in concrete so if a side trip occurs to me while I'm writing, I can go in that other direction. Of course this has its drawbacks: my current project weighed in at a hefty 123,000 words in the first draft. Needless to say, I'm slashing and burning and killing a lot of darlings during the rewrite. You are NOT "just a short-story writer," Kate. You're a WRITER with lots of good stories to tell. This one is just more complex than some of the others.

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    1. Bonnie, your book is proof of how successful your approach is! And I think slashing and burning is the key to writing tightly.

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  4. I also think it's harder to write a good short story, which you do! The first thing I ever got published was a short story in Alfred Hitchcock Mag eons ago. Hard and difficult to say what I wanted to say in so few words--doubt I could do now. I think you've mastered the hard form already.

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    1. Okay, a story in AH - I can add nothing here and I bow to you, Maddie! I love your books, didn't know you had an AH story right out of the gate. Wow.

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  5. I write 300-page novels and recently it's felt as though it's all a hard plod. I am enraged with people who say writing is such fun! I want to back hand them. Sorry to seem negative.

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    1. Mar, anyone who says writing is fun must be thinking about sex or food or something. Writing is work! The only reason we do it is because we are compelled to do so by forces beyond our control. It's not negativity - it's truth! And where would we be without your delightful books?

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  6. Hi, I do a short pre-writing outline that I've adapted from screenwriting techniques. I go from the idea to a short logline then think about theme and then the three act structure. I try to know at least how the story will begin and how it will end but I give myself room to move around. I know what you mean, Kate. I always thought novels gave me way too much room to hang myself in. Like you, I write mostly short stories but I've graduated to what the E Age calls novellas. It feels most of the time like I'm taking little tiny steps but the pre-writing outline really does help me SEE the story before I get going. I also use a short story structure sheet sometimes that helps me get the story off the ground. Here's the link if you want to take a look at it: http://scribemeetsworld.com/wp content/uploads/2015/08/Ultimate_Story_Structure_Worksheet_v7_0.pdf
    Not sure this is helpful for all writers, but it works for me. Paul

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    1. Paul, I love it when you share your techniques with us - I am a big fan of yours. Thank you so much for sharing the structure sheet. And thank you for sharing the idea about novellas - something I hadn't thought about! One of the great things about writing a novel is that if you *do* hang yourself, you can always start over! I know - ugh!

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    2. You bet, Kate. And thank you for those nice words. Keep up the wonderful writing yourself. :) P.

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  7. It is a huge jump to go from short story to novel, especially if you are accustomed to the short story form. I wanted to end all of my chapters nicely and neatly, providing closure instead of creating a need to turn the page. It required focused thinking to stop doing that.

    Good luck! And even if you outline, you can stray from it and surprise yourself. Happens all the time.

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    1. Thank you, Ramona - I love both the compulsion of writing and the flexibility of revision. It's the actual work that makes me want to do laundry or anything else! And I surprise myself all the time - hey, where'd *that* character come from?!

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    2. Ramona, I never thought of the temptation to finish up each chapter like that in a novel - for a short story writer. I'd like to see how you succeeded sometime!

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  8. I loved your post, Kate! I could almost see the "little gray cells" busy with cataloging and shuffling and forming piles of ideas. No wonder you need an outline (well, maybe). It could be like a long row of tables on which you place your piles of ideas, scenes, characters, settings, clues etc., in a certain order. And as for knowing the story already...well you can always knock over one of the tables... or better yet let a kitty and a cat-chasing pooch loose in the room to mix things up! HA!

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    1. I am knocking over those tables! I thought I knew where it was going, but my characters had other ideas!

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  9. Great post. You're so right, Kate. Writing is hard work. If it wasn't, everyone could do it. I'm with those who find writing short stories much harder, because novels give me enough wiggle room to blather, then edit. But between your classes and Gayle's, I learned how to do it properly. As for outlining, like my February 11 post showed, it helps some writers to outline in some way, but others prefer to follow their muse and just write. Do what works best for you.

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    1. Excellent advice, Miko - Do what works best for you - it should be on everyone's desk!

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