Pushing the Boulder: Making the leap from short story to novel

The act of writing is a lot like the Greek king Sisyphus’ endless task, to push a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll down and have to start all over again. It’s a long, often thankless task and it’s all too easy to give up. We write on faith, believing that our words will carry us over the top.

I’ve been thinking a lot about novels lately. It’s been a decade since I gave up on my first novel and put off writing for six years. I’ve spent the last four years writing short stories exclusively, eventually going to the Clarion Workshop in 2010. In that time, I’ve written more than forty stories and 120,000+ words and yet I still stand in the foothills, shadowed by the mountains before me.

The same tools that help you scale the hill apply to the mountain, for the most part. Character motivations are generally the same; they drink, eat, shit, fuck, and want something. They face challenges, albeit bigger and more complicated. Pacing is much different, though. Where the climax of one can be reached often in a single effort, scaling the mountain takes more planning, with more detours and obstacles standing between the character and.

I love short stories for many reasons. At a pace of roughly one story a month, I’ve been able to dabble in all sorts of different things, from fantasy, horror, and science fiction, and things that slip between the cracks. Feedback from beta readers comes faster, within days or weeks, providing encouragement and confidence for an inconsistent ego. Positive reinforcement, sooner, kept me going when I otherwise might have given up.

Like the mountain, novels are a different beast. Unless you’re sending work to faithful beta readers, chapter by chapter, it can be months or even years before your efforts are validated. It can seem insurmountable when observed from page 1, with no end in sight.

It takes a leap of faith in yourself to scale the mountain, especially for the first time. The journey will be long, uncertain and difficult, with treacherous passes and pitfalls never imagined. The risk is greater, but so is the reward.

We write in a vacuum, but that doesn’t mean we’re alone. I have a great support group. These are fellow travelers who’ve been in the same position, perhaps also for the first time. No one’s going to carry you, but they are there to cheer you on when you’re feeling lost, or that the journey is hopeless.

There’s no way that I would or could give up writing short stories. During the transition to novelist, my short story output will slow but I suspect that switching back and forth will give me the headspace needed to work through nagging story issues. Multi-tasking is a useful tool for anyone — just don’t use it as an excuse to procrastinate. We’re pushing boulders here, people, and they’re damn heavy. Juggling between them may help to loosen any muscles that are taught from exertion.

Finally, always remember that everyone tackles the mountain in different ways. Some of the tools in our pack are borrowed and some of our own making. Compare notes, read books (I’m working through The Breakout Novel now), and figure out what makes sense, but don’t abandon what works for you. Trust yourself, and you’ll do alright.

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  1. Anonymous
    04/05/2011 at 12:40 pm Permalink

    Excellent. I can totally rely.

  2. Shadow
    04/05/2011 at 2:17 pm Permalink

    Great advice and good luck!

  3. Erika Holt
    04/05/2011 at 2:47 pm Permalink

    I have been pondering the same things lately. I absolutely use short story writing as a way to procrastinate and obtain faster gratification. I have resolved not to write another short story until a draft of my novel is complete.

    Thanks for the post!

  4. Leanne Tremblay
    04/05/2011 at 11:29 pm Permalink

    This is so true! For me, I’m going the other way–jumping out of my novel WIP to work on the odd short story. I find it hard, but a great exercise in craft. Thanks for the post.

  5. Pam
    06/05/2011 at 1:21 am Permalink

    This was something I needed to read today, as I begin contemplating the novel road myself. Like you, I don’t want to leave the short stories behind – there’s fulfullment and happiness in them that I don’t want to give up. Now, how to figure out how to do it all : ).


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