Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Guest Author Suzanne van Rooyen: Shifting the Story

By Suzanne van Rooyen

Today I'd like to welcome Suzanne van Rooyen to the blog. She's here to talk with us about something I've seen asked many a time: How do you turn a short story into a novel? Sometimes you just don't know where a story is going to end up until you write it, and that path can lead in some interesting directions.

Suzanne is a freelance writer, author and occasional musician. Despite having a Master's in Music, Mind and Technology, she prefers writing twisted tales of the SF persuasion and playing in the snow. She's the author of the cyberpunk novel Dragon's Teeth released in November 2011 by Divertir Publishing, and has a handful of short stories and non-fiction articles published across the globe. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Take it away Suzanne...

My novel Dragon's Teeth started as all stories start, with a grandiose idea that needed shaping and whittling down, to be distilled into chapters and syntax. Only my original idea wasn't going to have chapters, it was going to be a short story of no more than 5000 words.

There's a huge difference between crafting a short story that has to pack a punch in only a handful of words and being able to develop characters and plots over the span of a novel approaching 100k words. Despite some opinions that consider flash fiction disposable, 'practice' writing and short stories nothing more than a rite of passage on the way to novel writing, short fiction is often times more difficult to pull off than a novel and I have immense respect for those writers who write flash, short and long fiction. Turning one form into another is an arcane art unto itself not to be attempted by the faint of heart.

So back to my idea – soldiers in a dystopian theocracy, rebels rising coup d'├ętat style, eugenics and world denomination – I had the basic premise and so being a true pantser, I started writing without really have any idea of where the story would lead. I wrote about ten pages, finishing what I thought was a decent start to a short story. Problems arose when I tried to finish it. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't condense the tale in my head into a measly 5000 words. I loved the world I'd created too much, the characters needed space to grow and develop, the plot needed breathing room. So I did the only thing I could, I continued writing. What I had planned as a short story became a novella with its own plot arc, character development, beginning, middle and end essential to stories of all shapes and sizes. But it wasn't enough and left me dangling about 30k words short of respectable SF novel length.

Plumping up a novel short on words is one thing, but trying to rework a short story into a novel by taking the original plot and just inserting new scenes to hopefully double or treble the word count isn't advisable. Unless you can wrangle some ingenious sub-plots into the meat of the story, you're more likely to create tangles than a sleek plot arc. I didn't want to do that, so instead I wrote around the novella. Using the short story as back story for my main character, I wrote another story, set 30-odd years later – another novella length story complete unto itself. Thus my three part novel was born, Part II being that original engorged short story.

The danger here was that the book would read like two novellas crammed into a novel, but it doesn't and the reason is some careful architectural engineering. Any story, like any building, needs solid foundations and reinforced walls before you can put the roof on it. My first novella provided the foundations for the walls and roofing that were provided by that second part of the story. Take one from the other, and the story like the building would fall apart, or be reduced to a layer of concrete in the ground. Incomplete and ugly. My two novellas were inextricably entwined, forming one true novel length story.

To further differentiate the parts of the story, I wrote the earlier period in third person, and the later story, which has a hard-boiled edge to it, I wrote in first person. Now what seemed like a mighty fine distinction between eras and attitudes of the characters, my editor promptly told me simply didn't work and only emphasized the division between parts. Grudgingly, I ceased channeling Raymond Chandler, and resorted to a rewrite – converting first to third person. This is no mean task. I'm not sure which is worse, 1st or 3rd or the reverse, but both have their challenges. The most difficult of all for me, was preserving the MC's snarky voice in third person. After several agonizing weeks, I resubmitted much to my editor's delight. The shift in POV had had a dramatic change on the overall structure of the story, making the transition smoother between sections, seamless, as if I'd always intended to write Part 1, 2 and 3 just like that.

I learned two very important lessons while writing and rewriting this book. One – outlining is not the evil creativity killer I imagined it to be and can actually prove rather useful, and Two – sometimes editors do know best, and rewriting from a different POV can a better book make.

About Dragon's Teeth:

You can never outrun your past…

After years of war ravage the globe and decimate humanity, civilization is revitalized in the city of New Arcadia, a cybernetic playground where longevity treatments promise near immortality.

Detective Cyrus, fond of fedoras and narcotics, is hired by Benji MacDowell, heir-apparent to an eugenics empire, to find MacDowell’s long-lost biological father. Employing his network of shady contacts within the underbelly of the city, Cyrus uncovers a murderous web of corporate corruption and political conspiracy with ties to the old Order, a tyrannical organization whose sole intent was perfecting the next generation of genetically engineered soldiers.

Now Cyrus knows too much and finds himself caught in the cross-hairs of super-soldier assassins while the dark secrets of his past snap at his heels, forcing him to confront the truth he’s been running from… and discover his own terrifying purpose.


  1. So interesting to read how this novel came about!! I, too, recently wrote a novel from what was once a short story. The plot changed, the characters changed, but the overall story idea remains the same.

  2. Thanks for sharing your story. I have the same problem and I also changed it from 3rd to 1st person. I already have an idea how to broaden the scope, so I'll see if my betas agree. Thanks ladies!

  3. Wow! Both your story and the pathway to writing it sounds intriguing. So good to hear other author's ways and means of getting the story out of their brains and onto paper.

  4. I just love reading about how stories came to be.Thanks for sharing!

  5. I had a similar situation when an editor wanted me to double a manuscript (which became Haunted: The Ghost on the Stairs). I blogged about my process here:


    (Scroll down for the first post.)

    I did something different though, weaving in some plot twists and subplots, rather than adding a second section. I know many people have more trouble with writing long than with writing too short, so I'm glad to know I'm not the only one!