Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

[process] On short stories and novels

I just wrapped the first section of Green at 65,000 words. (Oddly, the length of the entire novel Rocket Science Powell's | Amazon ].) As I noted before, this corresponds to the full 6,700 words of the original short story published in Aeon. I used the short story as a very close writing outline for this section of the novel. Everything that follows will be much looser.

Following the New Model Process, I need to go back and do some internal edits and expansions. Previously, I would have made a few production notes and plowed onward at all due speed. Believe it or not, I'm writing slower here than I used to.

This part of the novel is almost exactly mapped to the short story. I added a number of scenes which were only implied in the short piece, but there's only one real twist away from the earlier text, and that's to introduce a new secondary character who will be important later in the book. I had to change some of the action to support that. Still, if one read the two side by side, the correspondences would be obvious. For example, here's a few lines from the short story:
The hallways were empty. Many doors stood open. Papers and small things were scattered on the floor.

People had fled the palace quickly, I realized.

Here's the beginning of the corresponding passage from the novel draft:
The hallway was empty. A loose scattering of papers was piled against one wall, along with an empty slipper. People had fled in panic. I wondered what our fight within had appeared to be from the outside. I shut the door and checked the gap at the bottom. From this side, the wood appeared to be scorched, while the carpet before it was also scorched, and abraded in a pattern of rays that seemed as if an explosion had taken place within.

What had I survived?

I was fairly certain we'd come from the left. The endless practice in the dark Below with the Dancing Mistress lent me an excellent sense of recall for matters such as being led blind. I retraced my steps to the end of the hall, out into a wider gallery lined with bookshelves and decorated side tables.

This, too, was empty. The ceiling here was high, three or four stories, with a long clerestory above serving to admit the light of the sky. Thin banners hung from the beams, dropping thirty feet or so to just about the height of a normal ceiling.

Though we were further from the flashpoint of the interview room, people here had fled in panic. A dropped tray sat among a spray of crystal and a pool of wine. Three leather folders were crumpled against the pedestal of a table supporting a statue of a wide-mouthed red god. Or demon, perhaps. Its eyes were bugged out like those of a frog's, and seemed to follow me as I walked.

The key transition here is from the "implied" of the short story to the much wider reveals of the novel. The short story never gives any details about the interior of the building. In the next sentence after the one above, she's outside. In the novel draft, she goes on for several more pages before being outside. Some of that is description, some of it is action, some of it is dialog, some of it is inner monolog. Yadda yadda.

The point is that the details unpack, and unpack again. If I wanted or need to, I could go back into the detail of the novel and unpack another layer. What kind of wood? What weave of carpet? Did the air smell scorched, ionized, or of gravedust? How afraid was she of what she might find in empty halls? What noises lay behind the doors she passed?

Fiction is fractal. It unrolls and unrolls and unrolls. Where flash is a cameo, the short story is a miniature. Novelettes and novellas give breathing room, while the novel is a fresco on a wall of infinite size. The hardest thing about transitioning from being a short story writer to being a novelist, as I am still doing, is learning to unroll those layers. Right now, I'm learning to stop unrolling them — I've gone from underwriting to overwriting. The New Model Process is tuning me back in.

There's a real thrill to paring it all down to the tiny stubs of meaningful prose that a short story slithers upon. I'm still growing into the thrill of the mile-high chicken legs with which a novel strides across the raddled landscape of my imagination.
Tags: green, process, rocket, writing

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