SFF in Conversation

SFF in Conversation: Talking Novels with Haralambi Markov, Sunil Patel and S.L. Huang

SFF in Conversation is a new monthly feature on The Book Smugglers in which we invite guests to talk about a variety of topics important to speculative fiction fans, authors, and readers. Our vision is to create a safe (moderated) space for thoughtful conversation about the genre, with a special focus on inclusivity and diversity in SFF. Anyone can participate and we are welcoming emailed topic submissions from authors, bloggers, readers, and fans of all categories, age ranges, and subgenres beneath the speculative fiction umbrella.

Today, it’s is our pleasure to host a round table conversation between writers Haralambi Markov, Sunil Patel and S.L. Huang about the challenges short story writers face when transitioning to novel-length stories and vice versa.

SFF in Conversation

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Instructions about writing often focus squarely on the specific problems at hand—pacing, narrative design, characterization, scene transitions, and worldbuilding. All adjusted to the form at hand: more often than not, either a novel or a short story. But few conversations ever steer towards the fully intersectional challenges short story writers face when transitioning to novel-length stories and vice versa. (Blessed be the versatile writers who think in and work with all lengths with ease.)

To this end, short story authors Haralambi Markov and Sunil Patel, who’ve recently finished early novel drafts, join novelist S.L. “Lisa” Huang, who in turn has now branched into short fiction, in a writing conversation that you don’t often see or hear about. This roundtable talk digs into the conceptions and expectations you bring to one form from the other out of habit and provides insight into how the mindset and writing process alter based on the specific length a writer chases.

QUESTION: Why did you try writing a novel?

HM: I don’t think there’s a writer who hasn’t gone through a transformative experience at the hands of a novel. The very physicality of novels—the beautiful cover art, the reassuring weight in your hands, the smell of paper, new and old—has some bewitching property to it. It’s the tactile aspect of novels that first made me want to finish a novel myself. How amazing would it be to create something that could exert the same power over another reader?

I didn’t really think novels would demand hard work, planning, and overseeing the big picture to write a cohesive whole that would make sense from beginning until end. Those are lessons I learned from the first two novels I completed—one in Bulgarian that is nothing more than a series of events with no arcs and a second one in English, which jumps through genres like a game of hopscotch. Both were beyond salvation and in between, I worked hard and grew as a short story writer.

It took me three more failed attempts at novels (by then, I had learned a lot about short fiction and mistakenly thought the processes behind the two forms were the same) until I successfully drafted my current novel The Mythology of Us. By now, the “why” had changed—I no longer just want to hold a physical book, but wish to understand the form and its possibilities to tell deep, nuanced stories; the types you can hint at in short fiction.

SP: I had been writing short stories and online diary entries for years when people first began saying they couldn’t wait to read my first novel, I would definitely be on a bookshelf one day. (Because short stories are nothing, as you know, you’re only a Real Writer if you have a book. But that’s a different conversation.) The problem was I had no ideas for a book. I loved reading books, but I couldn’t comprehend writing one. I was comfortable in the short form.

Then after my life-changing Worldcon in 2013, where I realized I should be writing SFF with intent to publish it, I was having a conversation with some friends about representation and asked if there were any Indian superheroes. There were a handful of minor South Asian superheroes in Marvel and DC but no one on the level of Batman or Spider-Man. And so I decided that I would write one. And she would be a teenage girl. So that some teenage Indian girl could browse the shelves at the library and pick up a book about a superhero that looked like her. And so Untitled Female Indian Superhero Project began brewing in my head. I had absolutely no idea what the book would be about, but it was the first idea I’d had that needed to be a novel.

SLH: I was writing novels before I grasped that stories could exist at different lengths.

Like many writers, I grew up on books. Writing down stories of my own was just something I did alongside reading. From before I can remember to age 19 I wrote millions of words, all beginnings, middles, or ends of novels.

You might notice none of them were actually novels! By age 10 I was already guilting myself about not having finished A Book. It didn’t occur to me I might write at lengths shorter than A Book. I knew short stories existed, but I distinctly had to make the decision to try writing them, whether because I’m naturally a long-form writer (true) or because I’d just had more exposure to novels (also true). When I did try the occasional short, I crashed and burned—my attempts sprawled into yet more first chapters of yet more unfinished novels.

When I was 19 I finally finished my first novel—how excited I was! I’m now on my eighth. (The 19-year-old book and its sequels are trunked; my current series has three books out and the fourth upcoming.)

So, despite needing to learn to complete them, it was never a decision for me to write novels. It was instead a decision to write shorts. The crashing-and-burning as a kid had convinced me I was Just Not a Short Story Writer, which I had made some peace with, but it also felt like a challenge—could I learn to write short? The impetus to try was last year’s fairy tale subversion call by our gracious hosts. I adore The Book Smugglers and I adore fairy tale remixes, and I said, “I have GOT to write something for this!”

Now I like writing short almost as much as long.

HM: I relate very much to what you say about feeling as though you’re just not meant to write that form. The first novel I finished and revised burned me out for two years. Then I fell into a steady rhythm of drafting and revising short stories that brought me out. Since then my focus has been on short fiction and I immediately identified as a short fiction writer. There’s a fundamental difference in the approach to and experience of writing short fiction compared to novels, a lot of which has to do with the length and word count as a tool and metric. This can trick you into thinking you will find success in one but not the other. Especially if you’re early on developing as a writer.

QUESTION: Having now succeeded in writing the form that challenged you, what is the biggest breakthrough or epiphany you came to? How has your understanding of the form changed for you?

SLH: The number one thing I credit with enabling me to write short fiction is reading more of it.

I’d read the odd short, but my entire life had been novel-reading, and my brain fell into novel pacing naturally like I had well-worn grooves in my consciousness. I don’t think I really understood the short form until I had a period in my life when I got enchanted with reading it. I found the online SFF markets and for quite a long span read almost exclusively shorts—not on purpose, just because that fit into my life at the time.

There was no writing-related motivation in this. I’d become comfortable with the identification of Not a Short Story Writer, so I was appreciating pieces I felt weren’t my style to write, and I almost wonder if I enjoyed them more for that. But then when I went to write “Hunting Monsters,” I shocked myself by having the pacing of a short waiting inside me wholesale. The form made sense, suddenly, it a way it never had before.

Novels are a hard thing to fit entirely in one’s head, so I’m not sure there would be an analogue in that direction, though I’ll pass that to Haralambi and Sunil to discuss! But shorts are contained enough, I think, for immersion over time to have built those patterns of understanding for me.

SP: Lisa, I love the description of having an innate sense of novel pacing like well-worn grooves in your consciousness… because that is how I felt writing short stories. Maybe because I’d learned to write by writing short stories, so even though I had read far, far more novels in my life than short stories, it was when writing short that my internal sense of storytelling kicked in. Short stories, short plays, short narratives of my own life. The longest story I had tried to tell was the first act of a play. I never outlined my short stories, even though I often had a general sense of the ending by the middle at least. I simply trusted myself to come up with the natural shape of the story.

Mary Robinette Kowal’s Short Story Intensive course changed everything for me, as she taught me that outlining was not the complicated and rigid process I thought it was. In under 24 hours, I went from idea to outline to first draft of a coherent short story. This was about a year after I initially had the idea to write a novel, and I now understood that I was capable of writing fiction off an outline. And yet…a novel is really big. And I still had no fucking idea what the hell actually happened in my novel besides there was a superhero and a supervillain and they fight and um.

The second breakthrough came at the Writing Excuses Retreat, where I attempted to hash out the plot of my novel in a group session with Dan Wells. By that time I had cemented various plot points in my head by using the same techniques I used to figure out plot and character in my short stories, and by “techniques” I mean freewriting and letting my subconscious decide random bullshit for me and seizing the best bullshit. But how could I figure out the shape of the novel the way I knew the shape of a short story? The only way was for someone to give me a damn shape to use: Dan Wells’s Seven-Point Story Structure. I plotted out the character arcs for the three most important characters, and then I took three seven-point outlines and mixed them all up into one giant outline… and suddenly I had the skeleton of my novel. All I had to do now was flesh it out, connect the points scene by scene with the bare amount of description. “Character A and Character B have a scene together where they do stuff” was perfectly acceptable! I could figure out the stuff when they got there! (Or, in that specific case, I figured out the stuff while writing the outline.)

And now I didn’t have to fit the entire novel in my head. It was all there on the page, and it gave me the confidence to start writing. I wrote the first 10,000 words of my novel over the next two days.

HM: Sunil, exactly! I had to figure out how NOT to try to fit a novel in my head, which is my go-to process for short fiction and I never understood this completely until drafting my current novel.

Novels are big. It’s the first thing you learn about novels as a reader. It takes days, sometimes months to get to the final page and once you do, you can’t hold everything in your mind at the same time. Yet, I thought I could hold a whole novel in my head when outlining, because I’ve done it with short fiction.

Characters, motivation, arcs, world, and structure—it’s all in my head, clear, known and well considered. Given that I have so many restrictions and strategic choices to make, it’s not that hard to cultivate a habitat of storytelling elements and have them function as an ecosystem. I can outline a story with enough precision to get every scene function on several levels.

I thought I would have the same intimate knowledge with my novels, but the sheer scale and depth of the novel form doesn’t allow it. I had to understand outlines can’t be a blueprint but a suggestion at best—knowledge of where to go. The rest would come from the interaction with the parameters I set for world, story, and characters.

When writing a novel, I had to let go of several aspects of my process I developed for shorter fiction—obsession with language on a sentence level (that’s why rewrites exist), tracking my word every scene and the dash towards the end.

Short fiction is intense. I don’t know whether this holds true with Lisa and Sunil, but when it all clicks inside my head with a short, I just run through the first draft. The faster, the better—eyes on the prize. I found that coming into novels with that mindset just leads to burnout.

SP: Although I did burn through the first 10,000 words very quickly, I knew I couldn’t keep that pace up. I’m glad I began that way, though, because it gave me a good base and strong momentum. I decided on a pretty relaxed schedule: 300 words a day on weekdays, 500 words a day on weekends. When drafting short stories, I had found that I could knock out 300 words in a session fairly easily, and by writing in small chunks, I wasn’t asking too much of myself (and thus setting myself up for disappointment), and I was bound to come to each session with something to write. I didn’t concern myself with the quality of my prose and I used brackets liberally rather than interrupt my session trying to think of names or describe locations. The short sessions gave me a sense of everyday accomplishment, but I found that I did enjoy the occasional long session where I wrote between 2000 and 3000 words, finding a groove and coasting along the plot. The funny thing is that that “huge” wordcount was still only a small percentage of the novel entire, whereas if I’d tried that drafting short stories, I could have been finishing first drafts way faster!

I had an outline, but I constantly made up things that weren’t in the outline. Constantly. New characters, new personality traits, new scenes. One of my favorite scenes in the book happened because I asked myself what would be surprising and cool to me as a reader at this point and then I wrote it. Will it stay in the book? Does it create a plot hole? Like you said, Haralambi: that’s why rewrites exist.

HM: And some connections would be completely surprising, but so satisfying—a true epiphany.

QUESTION: Outlines have surfaced time and time again as an important tool in writing, so it makes sense to continue with them. How has the function and usefulness of outlines changed when tackling novels for Sunil and Haralambi and short stories for Lisa?

SP: You want to talk about surprising connections? I discovered that two characters in my book were actually the same character. Again, I got to a certain point and thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…???” I knew it contradicted a specific thing I had said about the character earlier in the book, but I also knew I could go back and fix it. Writing a huge story over several months was a completely new experience, and having that balance of a defined structure with the freedom to veer off course was invaluable. The outline was my safety net, which I had never needed for short stories because I could knock out a draft in a few days or weeks (or, in the case of my one outline-written story, a couple hours). Less time investment meant I could rely on the story in my head and not feel like a failure if wild experimentation led me down a stupid path.

The outline can only help so much, though. There are so many more moving parts to keep track of in a novel: a short story plot engine generally has, like, one gear but a novel has about seventy billion. Remember how I said I built the skeleton of my novel using three characters’ arcs? I, uh, totally forgot to fill in the pieces of one character’s arc, so when it came time for her to make a plot-crucial decision, I realized I hadn’t set it up at all, and it felt way out of character for her. I knew one option here was to proceed forward with the character as I had written her and have her make a different decision…but then the rest of the book would fall apart and what did I write this outline for anyway. So I sucked it up and pretended I’d done the groundwork, putting her back on the right track. The goal here was to move forward, forward, forward to the end. I had to finish the damn thing, or I’d have nothing to work with. That focus came at the exclusion of many other elements; for instance, I had begun with a prologue that then flashed back, but when I finally caught up to the prologue, I had forgotten what the hell I’d written months ago and had ended up in a different situation. Who cared, though, right? No one would ever know because no one would see this shitty draft, and I would fix it. I could always fix everything later if I could just get to the fucking end.

When I did finish, I updated my outline to be workshopped at Taos Toolbox, representing the novel I actually wrote, not the one I planned to write. In discussing outlines with a fellow Taosian who was attempting her first novel, I bolded everything in my new outline that wasn’t there in the original outline.

There was a lot of bold.

SLH: Er, I actually don’t really outline when I’m writing novels, so it seemed even less natural when I started writing shorts. I write shorts like Haralambi—intensely, usually in one sitting. So I’m afraid I don’t have much to add here.

But hearing Sunil talk about outlining shorts, I might want to try experimenting with it!

HM: What’s interesting to note here is that although I try to crank out a short story draft in a sitting or at least in a few days, I do extensive prep work before getting to the writing part. The story sits in my head for a good week or so before I outline and when I do outline, I note down my scenes in great detail. It’s my personal hang-up about holding control when I write and I can only go through the writing process knowing what I’m doing beforehand. This helps me avoid big rewrites later on.

In drafting my current novel, I had to learn to let go of my fixation on all control, because it’s unrealistic to expect to know everything about your story on this scale. This, in turn, changed how I used outline during work—from the definite step-by-step blueprint it turned more into a list with the most important key moments. How the story chained each moment together I had to figure out more on the spot and with each new big chapter behind me, I added more and more notes on the previous ones and the ones ahead to strengthen the ties.

As much as I’d like to have figured out everything in advance, you need to have some room to breathe and let characters and situations play off each other. It allows your brain to stumble into great connections that only crystalize character relations and bring the world into a better focus. There’s also connective tissue scenes as I call them where you slow down and set up events to come later or explore a character relationship.

These scenes can be a delivery scene, receiving news, a chance encounter, a routine your characters go through, a flashback, or an intimate conversation. In and of themselves, these scenes don’t change the status quo of the story, but they add more texture and context, and smoothen transition from one set of events to the next. This is where my outline couldn’t help me and I just had to roll with what felt natural and amend my outline retroactively.

QUESTION: Let’s jump off what Haralambi said about needing room to breathe in a novel and taking those pauses for connective tissue. What was it like to move from the more precise form of a short, which doesn’t allow for anything extra, to this more expansive structure? For Lisa, what was it like to move from the more sprawling structure of novels to the more intense, concise nature of shorts?

HM: In one word—interesting (with some terror sprinkled in for good measure). With short fiction, I tend to pack paragraphs with a lot of information as I condense what’s happening and that’s not a viable method to sustain a novel-length narrative. In drafting The Mythology of Us, I had to ask myself am I condensing too much? How long should crucial scenes be compared to those that are not as vital? What should be dramatized versus omitted? How can I justify these quiet scenes that I call connective tissue?

The answers also depend on what I’m trying to accomplish with this novel. Do I want it to be very fast-paced and action-heavy? Do I want it to slow down and carry itself like a myth that is told over an open fire? Those answers re-adjust these settings.

With novels, I think there’s unlimited freedom to do whatever you want. You just have to pass 40,000 words for your work to be technically considered a novel and beyond that, you can do everything with structure, length, pacing (as long as it works). I find that I easily get lost in this freedom.

SP: SO MUCH FREEDOM!! When I’m writing short stories, I often have a target wordcount either because of a market’s restrictions or my own sense of how long a story I want to write. Sometimes a story I intend to be 4K balloons to 6K right before my eyes, and that’s irritating, especially because I’m not that great at making massive cuts to short stories; they end up filling their length. But when I was drafting a novel? Look, the longest thing I’d even written before then was a novelette, and that was only 8100 words. So the idea that I could write something 70,000 words long was unthinkable, and that number was so far in the future that I wasn’t consciously aware of it like I was for a short story. It wasn’t a matter of keeping the story from being under that number; it was a matter of every word I typed taking me one step closer to that number!

I simply followed the outline and let the story take me where it went. I relished in the occasional “breathing room” scenes where I realized I needed some buffer space between two scenes in my outline. Some of these became some of my favorite scenes, which reminds me of the experience of writing my first full-length play after only having written shorts. I had the stage divided between two locations, and I had two adjacent scenes in the same location, so I had to invent a whole new scene in the other location to allow for a set/cast change. And it’s these scenes you create on the fly that can be some of the best because they happen while you’re deep in the story, and your subconscious understands what needs to be there better than when you were just thinking of the story in high-level terms at the outlining phase.

SLH: Moving from novels to shorts was like…becoming bonsai tree? So restrictive, but in order to make something beautiful. I had no room for opening fight scenes, no room for characters to boil slowly into who they’d become, no room for multiple complicated threads. Characters had to be portrayed on introduction in a distilled way—their whole flavor at once, no long scenes getting to know them. Plot arcs had to be concentrated, without the messy ball of myriad things that needed fixing and myriad questions that needed answering.

But the restriction was also freeing. It gave me the tools for such intense focus, which in turn has allowed me to get under the skin of concepts that might have gotten lost among the “noise” of a full novel. Once I figured out the rhythm of shorts, it felt almost sinful, this boiling down of my characters and themes to their very cores—like I’d figured out some dangerous secret.

QUESTION: Now that you’ve branched out into new territory, are you fully converted? Will you go for novels more than stories and vice versa for Lisa?

SP: Fully converted is such a strong term! A fully inaccurate term, in my case. While I felt a sense of accomplishment after finishing my first novel, I didn’t work on it for many months because, well, I didn’t know how. I know how to revise short stories, but I have no idea how to revise novels. They’re too big! See above, re: moving parts! They don’t stop moving just because I stopped writing. I have begun the difficult revision process, and through it I will learn how I revise novels. And then, presumably, I will attempt to write another one, with more confidence behind me. But it’s going to be a while before I actually “convert” to novels. I am far more comfortable in the short form, but novels simply have more reach and impact, so I know that in the end, that is where my energy should lie.

HM: I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing short stories, but chances are I will put my energy and focus into working with novels as a long-term career focus precisely for the reasons Sunil has listed. Novels simply have a wider reach and make more of an impact. I already have several projects lined up after I’m done with this novel, which might take forever to revise. I find it so interesting to navigate through this large body of moving components and made sense. Learn something new about the story and watch it grow organically. Just now, I created a brand new character who will make appearances through most of the novel. You don’t have the same process of discovery in shorts and that to me is interesting.

SLH: I will never not be a novel writer! I still 98% identify as a novelist and am quite happy that way. But I get such a rush out of writing shorts that I doubt I’ll ever stop. Short stories are a great break from the novels and a wonderful way to explore specific ideas. I think I’ll keep on with what I’m doing now: write shorts either when the mood strikes me or when an editor asks. It doesn’t take away from my novel-writing; if anything, it makes the novels fresher and more fun!

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S.L. Huang

S.L. Huang justifies her MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction. In real life, you can usually find her hanging upside down from the ceiling or stabbing people with swords. She is unhealthily opinionated at www.slhuang.com and on Twitter as @sl_huang. Out now from Book Smugglers Publishing: Hunting Monsters and Fighting Demons

harry-bw-large

Haralambi Markov is a Bulgarian critic, editor, and writer of things weird and fantastic. A Clarion 2014 graduate, Markov enjoys fairy tales, obscure folkloric monsters, and inventing death rituals (for his stories, not his neighbors…usually). He blogs at The Alternative Typewriter and tweets at @HaralambiMarkov. His stories have appeared in The Weird Fiction Review, Electric Velocipede, TOR.com, Stories for Chip, The Apex Book of World SF and are slated to appear in Genius Loci, Uncanny and Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling. He’s currently working on a novel.

Sunil Patel

Sunil Patel, a Bay Area fiction writer and playwright who has written about everything from ghostly cows to talking beer. His plays have been performed at San Francisco Theater Pub and San Francisco Olympians Festival, and his fiction has appeared in Fireside Magazine, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Flash Fiction Online, The Book Smugglers, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, and Asimov’s Science Fiction, among others. Plus, he reviews books for Lightspeed and he is Assistant Editor of Mothership Zeta. His favorite things to consume include nachos, milkshakes, and narrative. Find out more at ghostwritingcow.com, where you can watch his plays, or follow him @ghostwritingcow. His Twitter has been described as “engaging,” “exclamatory,” and “crispy, crunchy, peanut buttery.” Out now from Book Smugglers Publishing: The Merger.

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