In undergrad, my professors only let us write short stories and/or poetry. Novels were off-limits, mostly because it’s hard for everyone in class to write a whole book and then make time for the other students in class to read and critique everyone else’s work in just fifteen weeks.
At first this irritated me, especially since we weren’t allowed to write anything with fantasy, sci-fi, or other genre elements. Our stories had to be realistic fiction. And there was only one activity in our poetry class where we were allowed to write “persona poems,” in which we crafted a poem from the perspective of a popular mythical or legendary figure (such as Medea or Eurydice — or, in my case, the grim reaper). I still lament that I was never taught to write short fantasy or science fiction.
But I still learned some pretty damn valuable stuff in the four years I spent writing realistic short stories and poems. Stuff that I can apply to writing novels, especially during the editing process.
Crafting Sentences in Poetry
Poetry forces us to choose our words carefully. The point of a poem is to get your message across in as few words as possible, using the right words. The need to do this doubles when you are confined to a rhythmic pattern. There are certainly long poems, often called epics, and there is free-form poetry as well where the author isn’t following any specific rhythm. But even in those types of poetry, every word and every syllable matters.
In writing (and especially in editing) poems, you learn how to select the perfect word. Vocabulary takes the front seat. You learn how to avoid the passive voice, how to choose the verb with the best impact, when to include an adjective and when an adjective just creates clutter, and which words to use in order to convey your tone.
What I took away from poetry lessons was diction. For those of you rusty on your elements of language, diction is the selection of words/phrases to construct sentences. And in poetry, you have to be hyper-aware of diction.
Even though there is far more space to move around in a novel-length piece, when I edit my WIP (or NIP: Novel In Progress) I still find myself thinking: “Wait, no — that sentence is clumsy,” or “This is the passive voice, this verb is better than that one, and the words sound better rearranged this way.” And gradually, my narrative voice takes shape.
All thanks to poetry.
Killing Your Darlings in Short Stories
You may have heard the expression: “Kill your darlings.” This doesn’t refer to killing off characters necessarily, but rather to the act of cutting out scenes because of their lack of contribution to the story overall, even though those scenes may be hard for you to let go of. After all, you spent hours writing them and maybe there’s even a sentence or two that you’re proud of. These scenes may contain your best metaphors, your most eloquent sentences.
But you can’t keep them.
Why not? Because they really don’t add anything to the plot or characterization in your novel. It may be an unnecessarily descriptive passage about a field, or a scene where your protagonist is essentially just walking to the next destination in their quest. Unless something valuable is learned in these scenes — unless they advance the plot significantly or reveal a new feature of your protagonist’s personality or bring attention to a new conflict — then they need to be killed. (And no, walking to a new destination does not count as “advancing the plot,” not unless something important happens to the character or the character makes a balance-shifting decision along the way. And long descriptions of the setting may contribute by building your world, but they don’t have to be so lengthy! Find a way to trim them down lest you bore your reader to death.)
Of course, this can also refer to characters, but it doesn’t mean that you literally have to kill them off as a part of your plot. Instead, you might have to just cut them out of the story entirely because, like those useless scenes, they don’t add to the story. Their presence doesn’t connect to the theme, or change the protagonist in some way, or build tension. They’re just kinda there. Maybe they’re a character you based off a friend or loved one, and you feel guilty tossing them in the garbage. But oh well. Don’t let them dilute your story. If they really mean so much to you, set them aside and maybe save them for another story that they would fit better in.
This is what I learned from writing short stories. Obviously there is much more room to move around in a short story than there is in a poem, but you’re still limited to about 10,000 words. And 10,000 words is not as much as you would think! Depending on the restrictions of the literary magazine you hope to submit your story to, it may be even less than that. For example, PoemMemoirStory, or PMS (and now called NELLE), requires that your story be no longer than 5,000 words, and I’ve encountered other lit mags that prefer 2,000 words. So you have to choose the most crucial scenes, the most important characters, the most exact vocabulary when you write and edit your short stories. Anything else has got to go.
How This All Applies to Writing Novels
“Okay, I get what you’re saying,” you might be thinking. “But short stories and poems are nothing like novels. I don’t need to make a novel short and sweet. I’ve got a bed of 80,000-100,000 words to flail around in! I can be as long-winded and sloppy as I want!”
Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that’s not totally true. You don’t want to bore or confuse your readers, no matter what form you’re writing. If you want to write a coherent story, you have to write succinct sentences and eliminate scenes that are just filler. You cannot meander off in random directions.
You can hone your novel-writing skills if you first practice with short stories and poetry. Because novels, short stories, and poems are all more alike than you might think.
If you want to improve your voice and make sure that your readers can comprehend your story, try writing all three of these forms. Consider practicing with short stories and poems before you tackle a longer narrative. Many a famous writer began their careers writing poetry and short stories and submitting those works to literary magazines.
(Side note: Of course, every writer’s path is different, and if you really don’t want to write short stories or poems you don’t have to. But they’re great practice! Don’t underestimate them, and don’t be a snooty piece of poop when you encounter writers who enjoy writing them.)
Keep in mind that you’re allowed to be sloppy in your rough draft, whether that is a draft of a poem, a short story, or a novel. Don’t let the need for the ~*perfect word*~ or ~*perfect sentence*~ freeze you in your tracks. You can fix it later.
Which leads me to my next point…
Don’t just write: EDIT. Get feedback and constructive criticism from other writers/readers/friends/family. Go through your work for yourself and ask: “What can I get rid of here? What dilutes, rather than enhances, this [novel/poem/short story]?”
More probing questions to help you decide what to cut include:
- “Which of these scenes were really boring to write?” (If it was boring to write, it will probably be boring to read! Cut! It! Out!)
- “Which character just kind of flounders around with nothing to do?” (Be ruthless. Throw ’em in the trash.)
- “Is there a stronger verb I can use here?”
- “Would this scene bore the reader, even though I loved writing it?”
- “Does this scene/character connect with one of the overarching themes of the story/poem/novel?”
A great way to practice is to take part in Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenges every Friday. Or you could create/join a local writer’s group. Or you could seek readers out online, maybe over at the National Novel Writing Month message boards. I personally like to post short fan fiction over on Ao3 and get feedback there. Believe it or not, many readers on Ao3 (AKA the best readers on Ao3) will leave comments saying what did and didn’t work for them!
Don’t be afraid. (Maybe be a little afraid. A little fear is natural and healthy. But conquer it.) Put your work out there. Hear what others have to say about it. Maybe they’ll notice filler that you don’t. Maybe they’ll help you rearrange a sentence that kept tripping you up and always sounded clumsy to you.
Learn from the experience. Train your editor’s eye. Read your finished product aloud to yourself and see how it’s become smoother.
And then, when you’re ready, take everything you’ve learned and apply it to editing your novel.