This past summer I published a short story that generated some feedback from readers, much of it the same. Happily enough, they said they wanted to see 200 more pages to the story; I’d flung a world at them that was similar to our own, but askew in several ways, most dramatically in that this world’s children all metamorphosized, sooner or later, into fantastic and mythical creatures.
Readers and publishing pros I know wanted to know why this was happening, something I knew in my own mind but hadn’t explained in the confines of the story, which only runs for 1,200 words. My goal in the story was to show the big and subtle changes that the main character—precociously named Hannah Pace—emerges with at the end of the story, but readers wanted to know what happened the next day. And the next after that. It was a flattering response. I smiled and wrote back, not communicating that this was all I’d intended. I was on the cusp of getting started on a new novel about a 500-year-old mummy in the 22nd Century (take that, genre purists), and I didn’t need ideas like lengthening a one-off short story into a long piece crowding my vision.
Well, it didn’t just crowd my plans, it upstaged them and then threw them out of the theater. I mean, yes, Hannah becomes a dragon, and this is appealing to readers for many reasons, several of which have been expressed to me already. But I also had an ass-kicking mummy…
I sat back and took stock of my situation, noting that it was not exactly a bad situation to be in at all. I remembered that I shouldn’t get stuck on ideas; in this case, the idea that I had another book to write first. I knew our baby would be due soon, and getting into writing the mummy novel was going to take a lot of research. Hannah’s story would be drafted more straightforwardly. And Hannah herself beckoned me.
I put the mummy on the back burner. It’s a great story, a series, really, though I know better than to try selling that part. I turned to my short story and read through it another few times, then pored through my notes on the story in one of my lovely journals. How was I going to expand the story?
This wasn’t pulling taffy. I couldn’t just make a larger version of what I’d already written. I needed more details, a deeper delve into the conflict, more backstory on the characters, everything. So here’s what I did to scale up to novel-length, and I’ll add here that for YA, I aim for about 70,000 words.
First, I started off by reviewing the characters. Every character even mentioned in the short story got a page in my notebook. Taking a look at my initial cast of actors, I threw in the details from the short story and then started expanding on their characteristics; things I knew about them but hadn’t articulated in any way, to myself, or within the original story. I knew at that point that I’d need more characters than the six I had, but I was willing to leave open the gaps until I’d re-examined the plot.
So next I asked myself how the smaller story I wanted to tell—Hannah’s experience of going through her first transfiguration—could tie into a larger, sustaining story. One of the questions I ask as an avid reader is “why this narrator?” Writers select their POV and protagonists for good reasons, or at least, they should. I had to ponder if the more complicated plot I was imagining was still Hannah’s story to tell, and after a few days I had my answer: yes. Now I’d envisioned a plot structure that asked large enough questions for a longer format piece, but that was still honest to its source in the short story.
I looked at the themes from the short story, and expanded on them, but also dropping items that became insignificant in the bigger picture. Same for subtexts. The plot brings in so much more material that I needed to keep a focus on the messaging of the new content, lest I lose what was so appealing when I wrote the 1,200-word story.
I told myself to be willing to get the first draft done and then return to the original story for comparison, but until then, I’m not going to look at it. This needs to be its own tale, even if it is the product of a predecessor. For example, I hinted at some darkness in the short piece. I’m going to show the darkness in full-length detail now.
After investigating plot, themes, conflict, and subtext, I went back to my character list, and added the personalities I needed. I spent a long time working on a new antagonist. I think it’s just the ticket, a great foil for Hannah.
I have some more preparation before writing, and of course, I have an 11-day-old baby who is cute as a button and demanding of my attention, but I’ll hope to get started with the writing on October 15. I think I need a 2-week ramp up to NaNoWriMo this year (I won’t chat and decalre myself a winner if I finish by the end of November), but I’ll still blog NaNo tips this year like I did in 2010.
I’ve certainly narrowed down the focus of a story when I realized it wasn’t its own novel. Expanding has been a strange exercise, in comparison. Let’s cross our fingers that my readers were on to something and I can make this work. I have a nagging suspicion that it’s going to be terrific, but I know, I have to make it terrific.