Writing Short to Write Epic

Last week I finished writing a short story.  Already, I can see potential for other stories in the same setting, built around the same central character.  The same thing happened with the last short story I wrote.  I suspect this is because no matter what element (a cool image, an interesting phrase, a “what if” thought, a provocative character) I begin with, in the end, what I write is character-driven.  Often I find myself wondering what those characters may do next.

A Few Fixups

A Few Fixups

Often when I talk with new writers (in which term I include not only newly-published writers, but also writers who are writing, but have yet to sell anything), it seems that their vision has jumped far beyond the “mere” short story.  They speak of epics, usually of at least three volumes, although nine are not uncommon.  Since many of these people have not yet written a prose narrative of any length (although often they have reams of notes, world-building concepts, and character biographies), I find myself boggled.

Back in the days of yore (roughly the late-1980’s) when I was moving from simply writing for my own amusement to trying to sell what I was writing, the common advice for new writers was as follows: Write short fiction.  Send it out.  When you start selling, you’ll be in a better position to find an agent or publisher for that novel-length work you have in mind, because you’ll have proven you can write professional prose.

About ten years ago, the markets for short fiction – which had been thinning even when I began trying to publish – began to flat-out vanish or, in cases like Fantasy and Science Fiction, publish less frequently.  Even today, as on-line-only publications like Lightspeed and Clarke’s World are beginning to fill in the void, finding a publisher for a short story is much, much harder.

Does this mean that writing a bunch of short stories that might not find a market is a bad idea?  Honestly, I don’t think so.  Short stories are a good way to hone one’s prose.  They teach you about narrative hooks – something that novels need throughout their length, not just at the start.  They teach you about economical characterization, which is valuable for making even minor characters jump off the page.  They teach you about pacing, about the necessary balance between plot, setting, and characterization.

Moreover, when I have encountered many of those would-be epic writers some years later, they are at precisely the same point, in part because the task they’ve set themselves is so enormous.  Hold on to that thought…  I’ll come back to it in just a bit.

However, first I want to deal with the protest I can hear forming.  Yes.  There are writers out there who seem to have jumped directly to writing novels without having written shorter work.  Often, if you look behind the scenes, “novel only” writers will have actually done some sort of apprenticeship at shorter lengths.

David Weber is a good example.  Even today his “short” stories are rarely under novella length.  However, how many of you know that, long before Weber started writing novels, he produced a lot of writing at a shorter length?  He wrote huge amounts of non-fiction for the publicity firm he ran (initially in collaboration with his mother).  Later he wrote for game design.  Both of these taught him how to write vivid prose.

Even though the markets for selling it have decreased, short fiction need not be “wasted” writing.  Many of the early SF/F novels were actually expansions or collections of shorter works featuring the same characters and settings.  These collections have been saddled with the term “fixups,” as if the collection was an afterthought.  In some cases it may have been, in others –as in my own example – the writer may have been thinking from the beginning about how those shorter stories would eventually provide the elements in a more complex tale.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction makes an impassioned argument in favor of the fixup, noting that as a form it may be the best way for an author to produce work of epic scope.  Their example is from Heinlein, but another good example is James Blish’s Cities in Flight.  Much classic sword and sorcery, including Howard’s tales of Conan the Barbarian and Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, were fixups.

Ironically, as print fiction seems to have forgotten this model, television and movies both have adopted it as a means of building a complex story arc and providing the viewers with both the satisfaction of a complete episode and the sense that a larger tale is unfolding.

Another alternative is writing a novelette or novella that could later be expanded into a novel.  Roger Zelazny did this with several works, including Damnation Alley and The Dream Master (based on the story “He Who Shapes).  I’m sure many of you could offer examples from other authors’ works.

So, here’s a thought for all you would-be writers of epics.  Maybe the best way to your goal would be to try being writers of short fiction.  You’ll achieve your epic scope in small stages, with the added bonus of producing readable tales long before the doorstop book would ever be completed.

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10 Responses to “Writing Short to Write Epic”

  1. James M. Six Says:

    And don’t forget, folks, even if none of the available markets will buy your short fiction, keep track of where you’ve sent those stories so you can send to new markets as they arise. Or, if you truly believe your short fiction is ready and it’s just the luck of the market preventing you from making a sale, put them up as Indie publications and start building your readership. You just might find that people really are interested in reading the next superhero tale of Poker Boy (Dean Wesley Smith) or the latest strange gay erotica (Chuck Tingle) or the continuing adventures of your own ongoing character … and be willing to pay you for it.
    That’s my goal, if I can get myself to stop binge watching old TV shows and sit down in front of the computer to write. (I’m on Season 4 of “Supernatural” … things don’t look good on the writing front for a while, but I’m trying to carve out a bit of time each week.)

    • janelindskold Says:

      Two good points here… The reminder that one can now self-publish short fiction. I think that stories with the same characters would have a better chance of developing a following than a bunch of stand alones, especially if (eventually) a larger story starts to reveal itself.

      And that to write one needs to give up some other time eater — like binge watching TV!

  2. Writing Plans | Seeking the Way Out Says:

    […] on Jane Lindskold’s blog, her Wednesday Wandering this week was about how short story ideas/characters/etc. can grow into […]

  3. henrietta abeyta Says:

    Have you read Kelley Armstrong books Jane???

    • janelindskold Says:

      I’d need to check. I’ve read a LOT of books and I don’t always remember the author’s name.

      • henrietta abeyta Says:

        I read fantasy more than science fiction, but when I read a mythical chapter book I ignore the opinions of who was considered scary in the ancient days. I search for the events of loyalty and peace while I study the hidden messages of caution.

        They’re used to block frightful monstrous creatures, they’re used to support immortal characters, They’re used to guard a mean character’s den. Guardian, Creator, Transformed ancestor, Singers wake up ancestor, a god to a few cultures. Well choose your own belief of them, however no one will be able to weaken my sincere acceptance of their whole family, I have plenty of tolerance to watch their packs peacefully while they’re busy, steadfast loyalty, true compassion, and firm courage which is what gives me the quality to face them calmly. My sympathy shared with the all the wolf species is no joke!

        I’m fine with fast motion, I just don’t like the rough actions people sometimes show, I understand enough dog body language to guess what a wolf may / might be trying to say, plus that with repeatedly reading their fiction stories I slowly discover their more active expression of kindness which are sure misunderstood by most people, I absolutely wish humans would gain patience with animal language. And I read a bit of non-fiction of wolves every once in a while.

        That’s Why Wolves Give Me Quick Comfort, They May Communicate Actively However It’s Quite Rare That The Action Meant Something Unfriendly. Plus when this happens it’s usually caused by big problems of danger or becoming weak, not injustice or disagreement. It doesn’t matter if it’s heard in an animated video, or said by someone you know, It’s The Truth Wolves Keep The Planet Balanced In A Sensible Way. Wolves are one of the animals who avoid trouble in the wisest ways, I’d say.

        Recently I’ve checked a bit of Norse Mythology, Kelley Armstrong wrote a chapter book trio. and I’ve watched one Norse story movie too. Grunwald , Loki, and Odin are who I’ve read about, and watched scenes of with wolves.

        I’m A Prudent Believer Through and through, I’m willing to help people and animals too. Dear Wolves I indeed trust my grandma however I trust you too, AAWWWOOO…… It’s always nice to see you. I’ll always be with you!

  4. Nicholas Wells Says:

    While I’m a bit of a rookie myself, I’d like to say that I’m not sure abandoning an epic completely is required if it just won’t leave you alone. I’ve been tinkering with a complex story for years, but it’s taken years because I’ve been tinkering, rather than fully devoted to it (that and I had to learn how to actually write well). In the mean time, I’ve written a couple of short stories (one I don’t dare release in the current climate, a second published that I may build upon), a couple of poems, and a shall we say, less ambitious novel that’s making the rounds.

    My epic is still in my thoughts, because it’s a story I desperately want to tell. But until I’m ready to, I’m not going to go all in on it like I have my other projects. Once I have my foot solidly in the door, then I can charge full steam toward finishing it. Then I’ll have some momentum built up rather than starting out cold.

    Plus for the moment, I can take long breaks from it without feeling guilty. 🙂

  5. henrietta abeyta Says:

    It doesn’t matter what kind of tale of you I’m reading or watching on screen dear wolves, I’m your friend. Even when the story’s mythical I can see the good in you. Emotionally you’re actually able to give me comfort and soothe me quickly, plus my sympathy of how often your packs and disabled people are quite misunderstood as lots of people have high hope about what the disabled class can do. I’d surely face your packs with real patience. I love you and your cousins in herding and sledding class equally. I’ll never stop reading your stories, even though you’re part of the big dog family you wolves have a clear enough language that can help me gain confidence. With my insight I have a simple time guessing what you’re up to.

    Chronicles Of Narnia
    Firekeeper Saga
    Noble Dead Saga
    The Land of Elyon Series
    Wolves of the Beyond
    Summer King Chronicles
    Horus Prince of the Sun movie
    Princess Mononoke movie
    White Fang 2 Myth of the White Wolf movie

    I hope your recently mentioned wolf-dog cousin Julia is doing already after her difficulty of being neglected and starved painfully enough to need long sleep. Luckily she was one of them helped by Hope For Paws which is a relief because poor girl Julia had so little coat on her she looked almost torn, she didn’t look two years old.

  6. henrietta abeyta Says:

    I could say I love all wolf species as much as Belle enjoyed the Beast after a while. If I wrote an Epic I’d sure let wolves and toucans be two of the main characters through the whole story. With wolves it’s having real self-acceptance, with toucans it’s joy…. Both help me picture the various ways to try to bring peace. Wolves help me visualize moments of when you uplift others and they feel gratitude, toucans help me visualize moments of when you relax as you carefully decide which path to take next. Plus that in real life they’ve both met people. My sympathy is the main reason I howl with wolves in our own language. I’m Too Compassionate To Resist It!

    Jasmine Olson mainly trying to say why she typed what she did on this page above, other than thoughts of epic tales and old mythology included.

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