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.