One not easily achieved. You can’t train for a marathon by hundred-yard dashes, and you can’t “pad” a short story and call it a novel. Before you take on the “big time,” ask yourself:
1. Are you prepared to take at least a year? A short story may be ready in a week, but a novel is fifty times as long.
2. Are you already writing daily? “Hobbyist” short-story writers may get by on a few days a month. Novelists have to work virtually every day until completion, lest they lose track of their plots (or miss publisher deadlines).
3. Are you prepared for the inevitable periods of boredom? There will be days when your fingers dread the effort to catch up with your brain, when publication seems as remote as the Andromeda Galaxy. If your favorite thing about short stories is their “shortness,” you may not last through a novel.
4. Are you capable of creating complicated problems, many-faceted personalities, and multiple characters? One or two characters with simple plot problems work for short stories. But with a novel, this may mean you run out of story before you have sufficient text for a book. So create a problem that is extremely difficult to solve and confronted by multiple complications. And consider including four or five significant characters. No more than six in anything besides “bit parts,” though, lest readers get confused over who’s who.
Readers get really confused if people are hard to tell apart. Don’t name your characters Louise, Lois, Lee, and Lyle. And for each individual, create (without spelling out dialects) a distinct way of speaking; many manuscripts invite the complaint, “everyone sounds alike.” Review dialogue passages—if you remove all speaker attributions (“Maureen said”), how easy is it to keep track of who’s talking?
(Check elsewhere in “Writing Fiction” for dialogue hints.)
5. Can you accept that plot sometimes defies plans? Say that, three-quarters of the way through, you realize the story is taking a direction that will force you to kill off your favorite character, or change your intended ending. Do you:
- Insist on doing things the way you planned, making the story sound forced;
- Go back and rewrite the story—or scrap the whole project for something new—declaring months of work wasted; or
- Grit your teeth and do things the way the plot demands?
Experienced writers nearly always pick the third option—and nearly always admit their stories are better for it. Are you brave enough to do the same? If not, maybe you’d be happier sticking with short stories, where it’s easier to see the end from the beginning and where major rewrites discard only days of work.
And with a novel, the work doesn’t end even with publication:
6. Are you prepared to help sell your own book? A magazine story rides the periodical’s name to a guaranteed number of readers. A first novel by an average citizen has to sell on its own merit. Moreover, few publishers have much time or budget for promoting individual titles, so the work falls on the writers. Are you prepared to create and submit press releases, find reviewers and sales venues, and advise everyone to read your book? Moreover, are you prepared to talk about your book, about its plot and characters?