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Friday, October 15, 2010

GUEST BLOG: Danielle Ackley-McPhail

The Short and the Long of a Novel Idea


I was recently approached by an aspiring novelist. This writer was stymied because he wants to write a novel, but his stories keep wrapping up in about fifty pages or less (assuming standard margin and double spacing, probably about 20 to 30,000 words) which makes them technically novellas. This is a common dilemma for writers, wanting to write a novel, but not knowing how to get started.

Let’s start by looking at the difference between a short story and a novel. (besides word count, smart aleck!)

Well, part of what makes a short story different from a novel is back story; most short stories have just the relevant information to the story being told. Novels, on the other hand, you explore characters and events a bit more, including information that is not necessary to the story, but does develop the character or give the reader insight to why things are the way they are. You can also explore the setting in a bit more detail and that kind of thing.

The second thing that is the major difference between short stories and novels is multiple threads. Usually there is one overall plot to a short story and that is it. Novels though have a primary plot, but a number of subplots that are related in some way but still different from the main goal of the story. Sometimes the subplot will deal with the main character and sometimes it will be a separate story line where another character is the focus and your main character is secondary. So basically think of a novel as telling several stories at once, but interconnected.

To use a metaphor...novels are woven tapestries, whereas short stories are knitted afghans. Many individual threads versus one continuous yarn (for simplicity sake, though there are always exceptions).

Start out with your characters and figure out three things about each one:

1) What is their goal?
2) What do they have to do to achieve that goal?
3) What is preventing them from achieving that goal?

Sometimes there will be multiple answers to each of the above, but don't make it too complicated...Also, don't be afraid to alter things as you go. I start out with an idea and write a bit, then do some research related to what I've written and often that sparks other ideas relevant to what I am doing but different from what I'd planned. My work has much more life in it if I let it develop organically rather than sticking rigidly to my plan.

Another method I have used is to write a number of short stories in the same universe, with the same characters. This has the same basic effect as a novel, particularly if you have an overall theme that continues from story to story, with a secondary theme that resolves itself by the end of the individual story. Each story should stand alone so that if anyone read just that one, they won’t feel lost or that they are missing part of the picture. Once you are done you can go back and link them into one big storyline, revising to take out repetitive detail, or just leave the stories as is and publish it as a collection instead of a novel, but with the same effect.

I’ll give you an example from my own experience:

My novel, The Halfling’s Court: A Bad-Ass Faerie Tale; when I first introduced my biker faeries of the Wild Hunt M.C. in the anthology Bad-Ass Faeries it was meant to be a stand-alone story. Entitled “At the Crossroads”, the story dealt with a faerie challenge, but set in the modern day. Since it was a short story I put more effort into setting the feel of the universe than going in-depth into the characters motivations. Those I kept simple. Faerie biker wants faerie woman, faerie woman goes missing, faerie biker must ride to the rescue. As I said, I never meant it to be anything more…however…the story was so well received when we went back to do a second volume in the anthology series I decided to write in the same universe, this time with a story called “Within the Guardian Bell”, borrowing on both faerie lore and biker lore pertaining to road gremlins. Again, the story was well-received.

I should not have been surprised when shortly thereafter a publisher showed interest in a Wild Hunt novel.

This posed quite a challenge for me because as I mentioned, the stories were meant to just be stories, and now I had to incorporate them into a novel. The character development was not as detailed as I would have done for a novel, but by the same token the writing was tightly woven, making it difficult to interject new copy building on the characters more. I managed, but not to everyone’s satisfaction. From this I have learned that when I am writing a short story I will take the extra space and flesh out the characters a little more than necessary.

In addition to adding character detail and integrating new characters, I had the challenge of pruning away redundant details. After all, the stories originally were linked, but printed separately so enough detail had to be recapped from one to the other so that no matter which story was read, the person reading it didn’t feel lost. This had the added benefit of tightening the writing and smoothing out the pace. When gathering related stories into a collection this is not so much of a concern as it is when you are fully integrating them into a novel, but still be aware of details too often repeated and perhaps edit them out in a few instances.

Now, when I was writing The Halfling’s Court I was aware a third Bad-Ass Faeries anthology was coming up, so rather than have three stories all integrated into the same novel, I instead left a gap in the manuscript where some of the secondary action takes place off-page. I later came back and wrote that scene as a stand-alone story, Seeing Red, which is also the linking story between The Halfling’s Court and the upcoming sequel, The Redcaps’ Queen.

So, as you can see, if you goal is a novel but it seems too daunting a task, try establishing a ‘universe’ through a series of short stories and you never know what might develop!


Award-winning author Danielle Ackley-McPhail has worked both sides of the publishing industry for over fifteen years. Her works include the urban fantasies: Yesterday's Dreams, Tomorrow's Memories, and The Halfling’s Court: A Bad-Ass Faerie Tale. She has edited the Bad-Ass Faeries anthology series and No Longer Dreams, and has contributed to numerous other anthologies and collections, including Dark Furies, Breach the Hull, So It Begins, Space Pirates, Barbarians at the Jumpgate, and New Blood.

She is a member of The Garden State Horror Writers and Broad Universe, a writer’s organization focusing on promoting the works of women authors in the speculative genres.

Danielle lives somewhere in New Jersey with husband and fellow writer, Mike McPhail, mother-in-law Teresa, and three extremely spoiled cats. She can be found on LiveJournal (damcphail), Facebook (Danielle Ackley-McPhail), and Twitter (DMcPhail). To learn more about her work, visit www.sidhenadaire.com.

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