When you write a lot of short stories, your process tends to be mainly thinking, walking, intuiting, imagining – and then writing. Or the other way around. After one, two, or a few drafts, you ask your trusted beta readers to look for all the things that are wrong with your story, and you fix those. It might take a long time or not long at all. You might need to put the story away for a while. You might be working on a story that you don’t quite understand yet, and have to put it away for a very long while. But in essence, the process is simple. You think, write, revise. It’s not hard to keep it all in order inside your head.

Novels are a different kettle of fish. You can’t keep a kettle of fish inside your head. Trust me, I’ve tried.

When I first conceived of this novel, I had no idea how much planning would go into it, and I definitely had no idea how much I would enjoy it, particularly the research. It’s fun! You start to develop a familiarity with the available resources in a particular field, to recognise names and dates, and to feel the beginnings of a sort of expertise that is interesting in and of itself. This is very far removed from academia: it feels practical and urgent. After all, it serves a specific purpose. It’s not knowledge for its own sake, but it connects up a network of ideas and hunches that are part of what underpins your artistic creation.

So, it’s very cool. Even painstakingly setting out a scene breakdown for your entire novel is cool. It’s a fragile, interconnected structure that demands every piece of information find its own rightful place, the place where it can make an impact. Everything has to be proportionate. Everything has to be balanced so that it supports the structure’s internal strength. It’s not ‘plotting’, but a feat of imaginative engineering.

Writing short stories trains you to create work in a certain way. It trains you to focus in on intimate, metonymic images. You become adept at suggesting a whole world from a single moment. But a novel asks you to do something utterly different. It asks you to build reality from scratch. It asks you to create a machine that is capable of generating a whole world. And if you want that world to be strange, if you want meaning to reside in the gaps, absences and interstices of that world (as it does in reality) then you are necessarily working with something complex. You need to develop a sensibility akin to an engineer who knows that if her calculations are a fraction of a degree off, we’re all going to die in a fiery explosion. You have to think it matters.


2 Replies to “imagineering”

  1. Missed this post when it first went up. At the moment I am editing my first novel and concurrently revising a short story I put aside a couple of years back and I totally agree with your post. I have struggled with the novel which is an expansion of a short story – and working with a 7k tale is not the same structurally as expanding it to 70k words.

    I have also been sucked into fascinating factual research – the near-future SF novel is set in the London Underground – but find I am easily distracted and keep finding “rabbit holes” only to emerge a while later wondering where my dedicated writing time has disappeared to. Even responding to this post I disappeared into wikipedia “exploring” metonymy – a term I had not come across before!

  2. I agree – the structural challenges are completely different. But part of the problem is perhaps temperament. I know people who dash off novels but struggle terribly with composing a short story.

    And research is very attractive because it feels like you’re achieving something useful. Some writers spend no time at all on research. I quite like the way research feels like you’re taking a long run up to the novel. The problem is that at some point, you have to jump!

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