Dietrich Kalteis and I are joined by Samantha J Wright, (author of The Ison Delusion and The Sands of Carsaig) and Vancouver’s own Sam Wiebe, author of Last of the Independents. Thank you both very much for joining in.
And we also have another great shot from Peter Rozovsky’s noir vault.
MF: I suppose the difference between being ready to write a short story and being ready to write a novel is a matter of one’s thirst and preparation for the journey ahead, a bit like a day trip compared to a road trip spanning a week or more. I feel I am ready to write a novel when I have prepared myself for it. I’ve written some short stories and then felt the need to go on a longer journey that’s more immersive. It can be daunting, but it does give a writer the space to expand his/her craft. I could go on, but I’d like to hear some initial thoughts from you all.
DK: When I started writing, I wrote a lot of short stories, and I can’t say it’s easier than writing a novel, just different. The nice thing with writing the shorter form, if you don’t like what you’ve written, it’s not such an investment in time and not the end of the world if you walk away from it. For me, it allowed me to play around with different genres, find out what I was comfortable writing. And it was nice to submit a short piece for publication while I just kept on writing the next one. And what a thrill when they get accepted. Nothing like gaining a little confidence along the way.
Eventually as I kept writing I gained confidence and also developed a voice. And that only evolved after many written pages. Once I felt I had that voice, I tried my had at writing a novel.
Almost as important as writing as much as you can, I think it’s important to read as much as you can. Delve into the genre you want to write, study and learn from the greats and find out what works for you as a writer.
SJW: When do you know if you’re ready to write a novel? Hm … well, I think that question implies a certain amount of constraint, yet it is one that many people ask. Over the years I have learned that writers (myself included) are very good at putting restrictions, erecting lofty standards and making harsh demands of themselves when it comes to their work. Like many, I have at times become my own worst enemy by developing this mindset. Such thinking can stifle creativity and slow us down. There is no room for spontaneity or asking those what ifs. It’s all shoulds and oughts, can I and will I? Whereas the unfettered creative mind says, ‘I will. I want to. I can. I need to.’ I enjoy art also, but I do not and never have asked myself ‘am I ready to paint this picture?’ I just do it. My best work in both writing and art comes when I am relaxed and uninhibited by mental clutter and questions like, am I ready?
My first novel was not plotted or planned. I just went with an idea that came to me and wrote and wrote sequestered in my room to the point where the world just fell away. This was not with any intention of publishing you understand, but for my own pleasure. And that gave me the freedom to use broad brush strokes and let the stories and characters be who they were meant to be. You know the saying dance like no one is watching? That’s the way we should be when we write. Hard to do when you want to get noticed, but the benefits are huge. In a nutshell it’s all about passion and desire. You start over-thinking it, all you will be left with is an empty commitment that you don’t really have any strong urge to fulfill. Keep it simple, and just go with the flow. You can edit later to craft it into something publishable.
SW: For me, stories fall into two categories: ideas that emerge fully-formed, and more experimental works where I’m attempting something I’m not sure I can pull off. Elmore Leonard mentioned he wasn’t comfortable writing a female protagonist, so he wrote a short story, Karen Makes Out, as a sort of test drive before writing Out of Sight.
The cool part about short stories is that you get exposed to all aspects of the process, including submission and rejection, at a faster rate than novels. So when you encounter those same problems with a novel, they differ in degree rather than kind from what you’ve already faced.
MF: I remember when we talked earlier in the year when you (Dietrich) mentioned how you like to write without detailed step by step planning: it was the difference between wearing a tee shirt and wearing a tie. I’ve been thinking about that lately. Whilst writing my latest novel, I felt as though I was working in a tiny airless cubby hole, a feeling I’ve rarely felt when writing. I found myself continually glancing at my notes and it becoming tiresome. Now I’ve decided to change tack.
Looking back, I think the effort I spent on creating detailed notes was a diversion, a delaying tactic. It felt like I was doing good preparation, but the time could have been better spent actually writing the novel itself. Then I felt a little constrained by the plot-details that I carefully constructed some months before. But now without all that, I feel liberated and the words are flowing. So what compels me to write the novel? it’s when I have an idea that grabs my imagination, and I can’t wait to write it, or should I say, excavate it, as a small part of me likes to believe that all stories are real somewhere out there. Crazy I know! My day job requires me to plan things in detail weeks and even months ahead, and I think this mind-set has crept into my creativity. While it works for some, and even worked for me in the past, it’s no longer working for me. It’s funny how our MO can change over the years, isn’t it?
SW: A novel is a bigger gamble. Jazz musicians learn a tune by heart and then improvise over the chord changes, and that’s pretty much my approach to novel writing. I figure out the eight or ten or twelve story ‘beats’ and a logical way to get between them. It ends up at about a page. Then I throw that in a drawer and write the first draft without looking at it. That way I don’t really flail looking for the story, but at the same time I’m not locked into an unforgiving outline. If I want to linger on a certain idea, or introduce a new character, that method allows for those digressions.
MF: Interesting analogies and points Mr. Wiebe, and they’ve got me thinking … When you refer to beats, would you be talking about the outline/structure of beats as described in this website for example? http://www.gailgaymermartin.com/2013/12/writing-novel-seven-story-beats
If so, that’s very useful advice as it provides structure without rigidity, but when we think about all the great novels we’ve read, do they all adhere to this structure? With practice, I am sure a writer could reach the stage that he/she wouldn’t need to consciously think about the beats/structure as it would come naturally in much the same way a pianist doesn’t think ‘the next key is C, the one after that is E etc, but rather, comes naturally in the rhythm.