Graduate’s Corner: The Sprint or the Marathon? by Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn is the bestselling author of a series of novels about a werewolf named Kitty who hosts a talk radio advice show. The ninth book in the series, Kitty’s Big Trouble, has just been released from Tor Books. She’s also written young adult (Voices of Dragons, Steel) and stand-alone fantasy (Discord’s Apple, After the Golden Age). Her short stories can be found in many publications and anthologies, and one of her short stories has been nominated for the Hugo Award in 2011. She graduated from Odyssey in 1998, and returned as writer-in-residence in 2009. Visit her website at www.carrievaughn.com.


I never made a conscious decision to transition from writing short stories to novels or vice versa. As a teenager, I started writing very short stories. Over time, my stories got longer and longer, until I suddenly realized my work in progress was nearly 30,000 words and wasn’t finished yet. I was in the middle of it before I realized I was writing a novel. By the way, I highly recommend working in ignorance, as this removed much of the anxiety surrounding the writing of a first novel.

I know a lot of people consider themselves either novel writers or short story writers, and have either never written in a different format, or have had trouble with it. Their stories always expand into multi-volume epics, or they never get past a few thousand words. I’m a great advocate of working in as many different formats as possible–being able to do so gives you more tools in your toolbox. If you get an invitation to an anthology, you’ll be able to deliver. If you want to dive into the prestigious (and more lucrative) novel market, you can take that plunge.

How do you tell if a story idea is a 5,000-word story, or a 10,000-word story? How do you keep it from sprawling into novel length? How do you know if an idea is a novel? Like just about everything else in the business, it takes practice. After ten years of writing every possible length, I’ve developed a sixth sense about how long I think a story is going to be, based on the number of characters and how many scenes a story needs.

My very first collection comes out on August 16th: Kitty’s Greatest Hits contains most of the stories related to my series of novels about werewolf Kitty Norville that have come out over the last few years. It’s got everything from true short stories to a 23,000-word novella. Here’s a representative breakdown , in terms of structure:

“Kitty’s Zombie New Year,” 3300 words: three major characters, several minor. Takes place over the course of a few hours, with only one event driving the plot.

“Conquistador de la Noche,” 12,000 words: three major characters, four minor. Several scenes over a stretch of time.

“Long Time Waiting,” 23,000 words: two major characters, many minor. Takes place over months, with a flashback to a century previous. Many scenes with a slow, progressive, building plot.

A short story may have just one scene, or a series of scenes surrounding the same event, with only a few characters to manage. A mid-range piece may have more of an arc, take place over a stretch of time, and involve a series of events. Novella length and longer–go to town! You’re not just telling a story about one event, you’re building a world and its history. Many events and threads come together to tell the story.

Here’s an exercise: Take a short story, any short story, and think about what you would need to do to expand it into a novel. Take “Kitty’s Zombie New Year,” for example: Right now, the story has one zombie interrupting a party. Once Kitty figures out where she came from and what happened to her, the story’s over. But what if the one zombie is part of a pattern? What if similar zombies start showing up all over the city? What if the guy who bought the zombie powder that turned his ex-girlfriend into a zombie is only one of many people who bought the powder, and the real villain is the person making and selling the powder? Suddenly, this starts to look like a novel idea–many isolated episodes are actually connected, and the novel involves figuring out how.

Conversely, take a novel and figure out how to get a short story out of it. Perversely, I made my Odyssey class in 2009 look at The Lord of the Rings. The answer is: you can’t tell the story of The Lord of the Rings as a short. You just can’t. But maybe you can take a small piece and go in a different direction. The innkeeper at Bree–what’s his story? Does a survivor of the battle at Helm’s Deep have a story you want to tell? Limit the scope, and learn something new about your novel’s world.


For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.

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