The Challenge of Length

On 12/23/09, Asma posted this comment:  I was actually referring to the process of beginning to write, after an idea has formed in your mind. I have attempted your advice to start in the middle, but usually I don’t know where to go from there or where I’ve come from. If I try to begin at the beginning, I usually don’t know where to start, get bored, or become obsessed with perfection. I usually don’t have this problem with short stories (my reference to length) as the entire plot is so short as to have fully materialized in my mind, and all I have to do is write it down. Longer pieces are my real difficulty.

This is excellent timing, because I’m poised to start on a new book.  For me, writing a beginning is the end of the phase that I hate most, which is shaping in my mind and in notes enough of a story to get going with.  A non-writer friend was surprised that this stage wasn’t fun, more fun than anything else – fooling around, trying one plot notion after another, being creative.  Instead, I feel like I’m in a big empty house with no windows, and I whirl from room to room, facing only blank walls.

Eventually, an idea glows out of a white wall, and I write it down.  With maddening slowness, more ideas emerge.  I’ve called them forth, of course, but it doesn’t feel as if I’ve done anything.  It feels more like all the ideas in the world are off at a party, and occasionally one of them hears my plaintive voice from a hundred miles away, and it condescends to visit me.

Here’s how I’m getting started, in generalities:  I want to write another mystery with some of the same characters from the last one, and I want to associate it with a fairy tale.  So I reread a bunch of fairy tales and wrote notes about what I might do with some of them.  With each I reached a point of stuckness and couldn’t go any further in my imagination.

Finally I found a tale that fits the setting I have in mind and decided to write a mystery sequel.  By now I’ve written eight pages of notes, and I still don’t know who the villain will be and how the story will work itself out.  It’s not bad not to know who’s evil in a mystery, because I won’t telegraph the answer to the reader.  Still, I like to have a dim idea of an ending to aim toward.

Then I thought of a larger problem that I can wrap the tale in, and I know, more or less, how the larger problem should end, so I’m ready to begin, even though most of the story is a muddle.

I lost my way writing both Fairest and The Two Princesses of Bamarre, and I wandered in notes and wrong directions for months or more before I found the story.  This was very painful.  I don’t want it to happen again, but it may, and it may on this next book, and if it does I will be miserable, probably for a long time.  So far in my writing career I haven’t gone astray enough to abandon a book before finishing it, but even that could happen.

This kind of misery is the lot of many writers.  We try beginning after beginning.  We start in the middle and then slowly figure out what went before.  We get bored (I do).  We get trapped trying to make a little piece perfect.  Then we slog on.

The most important quality for a writer to cultivate is patience.  A long piece of fiction is the work of months at the very least.  Sometimes a ten-page scene will take a ridiculous time to straighten itself out.  We put up with this because we belong to the insane writing branch of humanity.

The second most important quality is kindness to self.  Poor me (for example), suppose I need to write at least a page today, but nothing is happening.  Maybe I’ll feel better if I stare out the window or take a shower.  Poor me, I am so dumb that I made a mistake in Chapter Three that makes Chapters Four, Five, and Six impossible.  But I forgive myself, because otherwise I will have to leap out of my skin.

The third quality is doggedness.  I am going to finish this expletive-deleted story no matter what.

Specifically about story shape – I like compact ideas as the basis for long novels.  Simple plots don’t have to turn into short stories; they can become big books.  Robin McKinley wrote the novel Beauty and Donna Jo Napoli wrote the novel Beast, both based on the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast,” which is only fifteen pages long in the version I own.

I love to work with an uncomplicated tale, because then I can embroider and heap on details and twists.  My The Princess Test comes from “The Princess and the Pea,” which is one of the shortest of fairy tales.  I thought, Well, who could possibly feel a pea under all those mattresses?  And what was she doing, soaking wet at the castle door?  Why did the king and queen invent a pea-mattress test as proof of princess-ness?  How many other crazy tests can I add?  Answering these questions produced many pages of story.

So here’s a prompt.  Take a rudimentary story, like Rumpelstiltskin, or a nursery rhyme like this one:

    Little Miss Muffet
    Sat on a tuffet,
    Eating her curds and whey;
    Along came a spider,
    Who sat down beside her
    And frightened Miss Muffet away.

and write about it.  If these don’t interest you, pick your own.  I’m not saying you should write a novel, although it would be cool if you did.  Just write about how you might add depth to the stories and complicate them.  Take Miss Muffet for example.  The spider sits next to her.  Is it the same size she is?  Is the rhyme about an invasion of giant spiders?  Aaa!

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. It's a comfort to be reminded that large stories can be born from such short ones, as the "Beauty and the Beast" examples you gave did (and many of your stories as well!). My ideas for novels get so long and twisted, and wander off the face of the earth and back… but remembering that having a basic plot to use as a map makes the whole process seem less scary and chaotic.

  2. What I can't seem to get, is what happens right after my begining. I sometimes don't even know where I'm taking the story, but I have a tiny idea for a plot. The story I'm working on is tmost well-planed out I have, but I'm still on page three. Any ideas?

  3. We get assigned a lot of short stories in school, but whenever I try to write one, the plot always gets too long and complicated and the story doesn't feel fulfilling, as though I've touched on too many things in too little time. Nobody seems to mind, but I'd still like to know how to write a short story under ten pages. Any suggestions?

  4. Thanks a lot for the help! This will definitely help me. The first book of yours I read was Ella Enchanted. I loved it. Probably over a year later I read Fairest. I liked the Arieda's part a lot. I also enjoyed how Aza's culture involved singing. Well, when I recently reread Ella Enchanted for the first time since reading Fairest, I realized that Ella's friend was Aza's sister! It all fit. She was from Ayortha, she sang, her name started and ended in the same vowel. I didn't have Fairest with me at the time, but the first time I had a chance to I checked and it was her sister that had gone off to finishing school.
    Did you base Aza's land, distinctive names and singing on Arieda's character? That was a wonderful way to intertwine stories. It fit so seamlessly together. I will remember to go back to my stories when looking for an inspiration.

  5. Wonderful. It's nice to know that writing in general is hard work, not only for amateurs. Your blog really helps a lot! I had one question….which age group is your mystery aimed at? I would love to read it…when it comes out! GOod luck with your second mystery. I'm sure it will come out lovely. And I hope – I don't mean to come out as demanding, but – I really hope you begin work on another fairytale retelling soon. Your writing style is uniquely refreshing and sucks the readers in, and I love reading it. Next Target : Ever. I read the excerpt on the harpercollins website, and it really sounds intriguing. Now, only to get hand of a copy…

  6. I'm wondering when you are writing a novel do you have to describe where it takes place in the first chapter or can you drop little hints here and there and later on go into detail of what the town or city looks like?
    Thank you so much for this blog it has helped me so much.

  7. Maybe A Writer–Let me think about your question for a future post.
    Pippin14–Try limiting the plot complications but include lots of detail in terms of setting and how your characters think and behave.
    Mary–Yes, much of FAIREST comes from Aza.
    F–The mystery is for eight to twelve year olds, but my husband loved it, and he's 62! It is very loosely based on "Puss and Boots," so it's a kind of retelling.
    Gail Z–I'll post about your question, but it will take me several weeks to get to it.

  8. What's weird is, my problem is never the beginning or getting bored. I love starting something new. My problem is generally time. I just don't have enough, because I have to write between homework and school and about a billion other things. And usually I'll get a solid beginning, and then I have to stop for something else, and when I come back to it, half the time I've forgotten what I wanted to happen.

    And I simply cannot do notes on the plot, because when I try to make my plot that black-and-white, it kills it for me. Also, I hate feeling even remotely constricted when I'm writing. So the only notes I take are things like names and birthdays–things I want to keep track of.

    I'm weird, ha. Oh well.

  9. Oh wow, someone on WordPress linked to this bog today and I am so happy to have found it. Thank you for sharing your advice about patience and ten-page-scenes that take too long, especially on the eve of NaNoWriMo when the frenzied folks taking part are gearing up to write write write, and I am instead settling into the long slog of editing and spending days on a single page while I guide and temper my first novel into completion—the novel I am, expletive deleted, going to finish.

    (Thanks for all hours of enjoyment your books have given me, Ella Enchanted in particular. I must confess there are many of your books I have not read, but what an exciting thing that I can now discover them for the first time! I'm going to look for a copy of The Princess Test immediately; it sounds like so much fun.)

  10. Is this 'Beloved Elodie' you are talking about? Which fairy tale are you baseing it on? I want to base a mystery on a fairy tale (The tale of two castles is amazing, and gives me a completely new look on the fairy tale), but I can't find one that can help, which the answer isn't a;ready in the fairy tale. I though of doing the twelve dancing princess, but now I'm not so sure. Help?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.