About a decade ago I had the notion that I’d like to tackle the novel again. I had written a couple of bad ones just after college and then applied to MFA programs with the goal of figuring out how to write a good one. Once there, however, I discovered the power of short fiction—both as a literary form and a workshop tool—and so for several years I cut my teeth on it, assuming I would one day return to the novel better prepared to meet its demands. When that day came, though, I found that I’d grown comfortable in the story’s cozy dimensions and that the novel had become a terror of open space. Stepping into one was like stepping into the vast concavity of a sports arena, or staring up at the dizzying heights of a skyscraper. The solid ground seemed to sway beneath me, and I clutched at whatever was nearby. In this fashion I made three or four novel attempts that crumbled after about ninety pages, and they produced such a sense of loathing in me that no amount of willpower could induce me to continue or revive them. It was one of the hardest periods I had been through as a writer, and I wondered if I was capable of writing a novel at all, let alone a good one.
Around this time a friend, Ryan Blacketter, sent me the manuscript of what would become his own first novel, Down in the River (Slant, 2014). I knew he had written only short stories until then, so I was impressed at how well built his novel was—how sturdy its foundation, how varied and efficient its architecture, how high its pinnacle. When I told him how much I admired it, he thanked me, then said, “I’ve thrown away a thousand pages, but none of them were wasted.”
At first I thought he meant the number as hyperbole. Kill your darlings and all that. But he meant it literally, and when I understood this, my reaction surprised me. Rather than feeling intimidated by such a gargantuan number, I felt heartened. All I had to do was write a thousand pages? I might not know how to build a novel, I thought, but I knew how to put my butt in a chair and words on a page.
So I did, and the resulting novel, The Step Back, will be released on May 11 by Ooligan Press. But it took me four years to produce a workable manuscript—and another half decade to revise it—and I threw away well over a thousand pages in the process. As Blacketter said, though, none of them were wasted.
The novel, I’ve come to realize, is as different from the short story as the short story is from the poem. It isn’t a matter only of size, but also of form. Moving from one to the other is like building cabins and then deciding to erect a skyscraper. No matter how functional and aesthetically pleasing your cabins are, you can’t just keep building them, one on top of the other, or build an enormous one into the clouds. It will collapse, as my first few attempts did. You need new materials, new tools, new blueprints. And you need to learn how to use them.
Writing a thousand pages let me accomplish that learning. It let me explore every nook and cranny of the form, inside and out, from several angles, seeing what worked and what didn’t. The result was a more holistic conception of what a novel is—an intuitive awareness of what goes where and how to hoist it, a sense of proportion about where to put the sixty-ton beams and where to use the framing nails, and why you need all those stories, floor after floor, in the first place.
There’s probably no avoiding this process. If you want to run a marathon, you have to put in a lot of miles before you make your first real attempt; if you want to write a novel, you have to put in the pages. Some writers might have enough talent to avoid throwing away so many, but they’ve honed that talent by writing and writing and writing. And they still have to learn the story they’re telling, get to know their characters, back out of dead ends, and revise, and revise—and revise. As Flannery O’Connor says, “Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.” And she’s talking about a successful one.
What she means, I think, is that writing a good novel takes an enormous amount of work—especially the first time, and especially if you’re accustomed to writing short stories. Still, there are a few things I wish I had known as I was making the transition. If you’re in a similar position, these strategies might inform the process for you—and save you some hair and teeth for your book tour.
The quality of Blacketter’s novel impressed me because I had read many other first manuscripts from friends and acquaintances that were not as well built. Most of them started out nicely, then got bogged down. Short story writers know how to get things moving, but then, not knowing how to fill so much space, they begin to chronicle minutia, pursue tangents, and otherwise delay important action.
I understand why. Short stories are often devoted to rendering an instability—that is, creating a situation where a balance of forces produces a kind of volatile stasis. In Alice Munro’s “Boys and Girls,” from the collection Dance of the Happy Shades (Ryerson Press, 1968), for instance, an adolescent girl at a fur farm resists the traditional feminine role she’s nudged toward. The nudging and resistance produce a kind of stasis, but a very unstable and temporary one.
In a short story you push on the stasis until it topples into change or revelation. As soon as it does—or, often, as soon as the toppling becomes imminent—the story is over. The impulse for short story writers, then, is to make a project longer by maintaining the stasis, by delaying the inevitable toppling. Rather than letting the farm girl open a gate for a slaughter-bound mare, as Munro does, triggering the story’s end, we might feel compelled to fill another thirty or forty pages first.
It doesn’t work. In a novel, that moment of toppling is only the beginning. You need to move beyond it, to meet the scope of the project with a story that is appropriately large rather than trying to inflate a smaller story to meet the edges of the form. Here’s how:
Short stories are often structured around a limited time frame—a day, an hour, even a moment. Other elements, such as backstory and association and metaphor, are woven in to increase the story’s scope and meaning. A common impulse, then, is to increase your page count by weaving in more backstory, more association, more metaphor. Sometimes it works, as it does in Ben Fountain’s debut novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco, 2012), which is structured around a single day at a football game. But for many writers this technique only delays important developments in the story, killing its momentum. If you’re struggling, instead of holding off the important developments, try getting to them quickly, as you would in short fiction, and then simply ask yourself what happens next. In other words, make the story longer by pushing it forward in time.
My novel, for example, begins when a family has lost their dog. This story line ends with the revelation that the mother, after finding a love she’d always assumed was unavailable to her, is abandoning the family for a woman on the other side of the country. That’s the toppling that would conclude a short story, so it was appropriate for me to confine it to the first fifteen pages rather than expanding it into fifty. Afterward I simply kept looking at the family, asking, And then?
And then the father, miserable and humiliated, locks himself in his office to work and drink whiskey. And then the older son, suddenly unmoored, gives up his dream college to join a crummy Division III basketball team. And then the younger son, a basketball prodigy who feels abandoned by everyone, descends into apathy and rebellion. And then the mother, fulfilled in one way, must reckon with the sacrifices it has required: the forfeiture of her career, the loss of her home, the distance from her children and lifelong companion.
And so on. I never had any idea what would happen next until I got through the section I was writing and asked, Now what? I found an answer every time, and I wrote toward it as efficiently as possible so that I could ask the question again.
As you push the story forward in time, your protagonist will likely encounter more people. If those people remain static, however, your narrative will remain narrow. In a novel, encounters aren’t enough. Secondary characters need to do more than make appearances or push on your protagonist. They need to have their own desires, challenges, and changes—they need to have their own stories. In this way you widen the single-lane road of your short fiction into the thoroughfare that a novel requires.
A common technique for this is to write from several points of view. Again, sometimes it works, as it does in Celeste Ng’s debut, Everything I Never Told You (Penguin Press, 2014), which passes the point-of-view torch among the family members of a missing girl. But for many writers this technique can be another form of empty weaving, of filling pages without letting anything important happen. Just as when you increase a story’s length, every addition to the breadth should have a dramatic purpose. That means looking beyond your protagonist when asking, And then? Each time you pull secondary characters back in, make sure there has been a new development in their lives, that something important has changed or been revealed. You can do this whether you take on multiple perspectives or not, and in both models it’s usually the difference between treading water and turning laps.
This technique helped me build stories for each family member as my novel unfolded: The mother joins a political advocacy group and gets engaged to her lover, the father quits his job and has a heart attack, the older brother fails to make the basketball team and reinvents himself as a sports reporter, and the younger brother quits basketball in favor of drugs and delinquency. But it also helped me develop the new characters my protagonist, the older brother, encounters: a politically minded upperclassman who humiliates him, a sunny Humane Society volunteer who challenges his pessimism, a pretentious photographer who shocks him with her coldness. In each case I got to explore the yearnings, histories, vulnerabilities, and secrets of these characters. And each time it jolted me with the energy of a new story coming alive rather than the oppression of an old one dragging out.
It’s natural to grow tired of a character, or at least to crave a little variety. Hearing updates from friends and family, getting to know interesting new people—these are sources of great joy both in life and in literature, and it can reinvigorate you during the doldrums of a longer project.
In order to accomplish any of this, the original toppling has to be big enough to do more than crash; it has to send a shock wave, shake the earth. It has to be heavy enough to plunge through the story’s surface action and threaten the moral or philosophical bedrock it lies upon. That is, the original toppling needs to offer a big question or dilemma about how to live, which the rest of the novel can then develop, complicate, and deepen—but not answer, at least not until the end.
In Alice Walker’s oft-anthologized short story “Everyday Use,” for example, a young woman returns home to claim and preserve artifacts that her family still uses, including two quilts. The question that emerges is whether heritage is something academic or experienced—a compelling question but one that Walker expertly develops in a dozen pages. In her famous novel The Color Purple (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982), on the other hand, the question is much bigger. An adolescent girl is raped by the man she believes to be her father, who takes away both children she gives birth to, letting her believe they have been killed. How do you move forward in the face of such brutality? “You got to fight,” her sister insists, to which she responds, “All I know how to do is stay alive.” It requires many more pages to demonstrate the full scope of that dilemma, paving the way for a story of appropriate scale.
Like Walker, most authors establish their big question early in the novel, usually by embedding it in the action. Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (Vintage Contemporaries, 1984) opens on a young man practicing a kind of urban hedonism after a major loss, trying to “stop grieving” and “compound happiness out of small increments of mindless pleasure.” Can you really move from grief toward happiness that way? The rest of the novel pursues that question by letting the character progress through all the wrong answers. In Revolutionary Road (Little, Brown, 1961), Richard Yates opens with characters acting out their roles in a community theater, much as they’re acting out their roles in the oppressive suburban conformity of the mid-1950s. When catastrophe descends—upon the play and elsewhere—should they acknowledge it or keep pretending everything is swell? For the rest of the novel, every new action and character deepens that question.
Other authors approach the task with more directness. In Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death (Delacorte Press, 1969), Kurt Vonnegut opens by reflecting on the big dilemma he faced while trying to write about the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, during World War II: “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” The rest of the book explores the dilemma between such meaninglessness and the human need for meaning through the travels and travails of Billy Pilgrim. In Wonder Boys (Villard Books, 1995), Michael Chabon opens with a digression about a writer who has committed suicide, making the narrator, a writer himself, “wonder if people who wrote fiction were not suffering from some kind of disorder—from what I’ve since come to think of…as the midnight disease.” The rest of the novel explores the narrator’s dilemma between continuing his interminable novel and giving in to the despair that this disease describes. In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead Books, 2007), Junot Díaz opens with a similar digression, explaining the persistence of the Dominican fukú curse: “no matter what you believe, fukú believes in you.” The rest of the novel explores the dilemma between the danger of confronting such a force and the danger of looking away.
These aspects do more than deepen the story; they bind it together. The novel is an unwieldy form. It’s full of many large, distant objects that might otherwise seem unrelated. You need a star to pull them all into orbit. Once I saw the big question at the center of my own novel—how do we balance our own interests against our obligations to others?—it was easy to find purpose in each development, each character, each scene, while expanding the story’s length and breadth.
All of this can be too daunting to take on whole. But you don’t frame out a skyscraper all at once. You build it floor by floor. Likewise, you can take on one chapter at a time in your novel, confining each chapter to a scope you’re comfortable with. Write toward an important development or from an important tension just as you would in a short story, with the goal of leaving the character in a fundamentally different position from where they started.
That “different position” is essential. When people think of episodes, they often think of the serial stories of broadcast television: Seinfeld, The X-Files, Law & Order. Usually the structural imperative of each episode in these shows is to disrupt order and then restore it. That way viewers can come back to a recognizable landscape in the next episode, even if a week has passed or they miss a few episodes or catch it in syndication.
The novelist’s goal is the opposite—to disrupt order until it shifts irrevocably. Those shifts accrue, contributing to the larger arc necessary in a novel. In The Color Purple, for example, the narrator’s endurance topples into love for a singer, which topples into the discovery that her husband has been withholding her sister’s letters from Africa, which topples into the motivation to escape, and so on. These shifts push the protagonist into new perspectives and personalities, which gives shape to the novel’s larger narrative arc.
When television mimics this, which it does more and more as people binge-watch through streaming services rather than waiting for weekly installments, the results are often captivating. This constant shifting can be seen in everything from The Wire to Breaking Bad to Fleabag. Each episode works toward a season-long, irrevocable change. Treat each chapter of your novel as a season.
Follow Your Instincts
It can be equally daunting to face all the decisions this requires of you. Anyone who has ever shopped for a baby’s car seat knows the despair of too many options when facing an important decision. It can overwhelm and defeat you. To write a novel is to do this over and over again, to encounter one crossroads after another, each sprawling with endless possibilities. Rather than stopping at each one and giving in to a paralysis of indecision, simply choose the option that looks most appealing and be on your way. That is, rather than torturing yourself over what should happen next, accept whatever occurs to you, commit yourself to it, and don’t go back to change it before you’ve reached the end.
You might fear a kind of randomness will result, and sometimes it does, but you can allow a little randomness when you’ve got a thousand pages to burn. The greater dangers are the rigidity and confusion that can arise from too much rational straining at these moments. The subconscious mind that dispatches your ideas is often capable of far better complexity and cohesion anyway. This is what many writers are referring to when they say they feel more like a medium than like a creator, that their characters have started speaking to or through them. These writers have learned to turn up the flow from the subconscious by listening to and trusting its transmissions. To do that you have to stop worrying. There’s a reason that one thing and not another occurs to you first, even if that reason is mysterious in the moment. Besides, whatever direction you choose, the instincts you sharpened while writing short stories will serve you well. You’ll know how to establish desires, present obstacles, build stakes, lead your characters into confrontations, and otherwise guide yourself to the next crossroads.
Some writers bypass this by mapping out their route before they start. There are benefits and drawbacks to this approach, but I’ve found that making maps is pointless if you don’t know where you’re going or how to get there. There’s no “correct” route anyway. As long as you know how to read your compass, you only have to keep moving forward, and you will eventually reach the destination. You can devise better routes after you arrive.
Or you can throw it all away. It’s not a baby in a car seat. It’s just pages.
Throw It All Away
There’s a terrific scene in the movie version of Wonder Boys that captures the essence of novel writing perfectly. The protagonist, working on a typewriter, punches in the page number at the top of a fresh sheet—261—before consulting the previous page and adding the last digit—2611. The first number seems reasonable, the second preposterous, at least until you’ve written a novel yourself. Equally perfect is the scene near the end of the film when all those pages are lost, blown away in a swirling wind while the writer watches in horror. It’s a terrible moment, but as the pages settle and disappear, the mood shifts. Suddenly he is free.
Writing my first draft was a process I referred to as “shoveling shit,” since that’s about how pleasant it was. Knowing I would throw it away was the only thing that kept me shoveling, and when I finally did it I was relieved. The second draft was better, but I could still hear the wrongness in it clanging like a bell, getting louder as I advanced. In all, I wrote about six hundred pages, trying as hard as I could, before I took a sharp left turn and found the first lines of my actual novel. I didn’t know that’s what they were at the time, but I could feel something shift when I reached them. Suddenly the writing turned easy and amusing, and I had the tools I needed to pursue it. Those six hundred pages had been worthwhile.
Chabon seems to have experienced something similar himself. Before starting Wonder Boys, he spent five years and fifteen hundred pages on his own interminable novel, which he ultimately abandoned. “When I dropped ‘Fountain City’ and started to write ‘Wonder Boys,’ that was really the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “I felt like I couldn’t dump the project, even when it was fairly clear to me that it wasn’t working.” But he did dump it, then gave the experience of writing an interminable novel to his protagonist in Wonder Boys, which he cranked out in seven months.
Díaz had a similar experience as well. He spent years working on a failed sci-fi novel before Oscar Wao stumbled onto the page for him, helping him see the similarities between science fiction and the political history of the Dominican Republic. He threw away the sci-fi novel, then kept throwing away pages—more than three hundred of them just to move from the first chapter of Oscar Wao to the second. The other chapters took similarly gargantuan efforts: “I must have thrown away forty or fifty versions of each of those shitty chapters,” he told this magazine in 2007.
Vonnegut, similarly, admits it took him more than twenty years to reach the dilemma that burns at the core of his masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five. “I don’t think this book of mine is ever going to be finished,” he reports telling a friend’s wife in the opening chapter. “I must have written five thousand pages by now, and thrown them all away.”
Who are we, then, to think we can clock a cool three hundred and call it good? Learning to write a novel requires more than a single attempt at a single draft, just like learning to write a short story. But that’s good news. You don’t have to be a genius. You don’t even have to know what you’re doing. All you have to do is roll up your sleeves and get to work.
J.T. Bushnell teaches writing and literature at Oregon State University. His debut novel, The Step Back, was published in May 2021 by Ooligan Press. Follow him on Twitter, @JTBushnell1, to see what he’s reading.