Graduate Essay: Linden A. Lewis, “How to Create a Novel from a Short Story”

LindenALewisOFFICIALAuthorPhotoLinden A. Lewis is a queer writer and world wanderer currently living in Madrid with three American cats who have little kitty passports. Tall and tattooed, Linden exists only because they’ve stopped burning witches. Linden graduated the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2016, and their first novel, The First Sister, will be released by Skybound Books in Spring 2020.

I was in the query trenches for over a year when I realized I needed to focus on something else. The novel I had poured my heart and soul into brought only rejection after rejection—or even worse, silence—and I was falling deeper into what I thought of as “writer’s depression,” or the belief that I would never write something good enough.

With a heavy heart, I stepped back from that novel and picked up a short story I had written the year previous. I still loved the characters, still wanted to explore the world and its themes, and thought it would, at the very least, distract me from the incoming nos I received from prospective agents. Little did I know that this story would be my ticket to publishing.

Step 1: Get feedback

I was very lucky to attend the Odyssey Writing Workshop, a six-week intensive program that is basically a bootcamp for writers. Thanks to the workshop, I had six stories with feedback from my fellow classmates and the class wizard, Jeanne Cavelos, to consider when I began brainstorming a new novel.

The short story I wanted to focus on, “The First Sister,” was a romance between a voiceless priestess and her spaceship’s captain during wartime. Like all of my short fiction at Odyssey, I had received excellent, detailed feedback on things like how to unify my themes, how to increase the stakes, how to worldbuild so that the universe made sense, and how to approach point of view so as to best tell the story.

With a novel in mind, I took all the feedback from Odyssey and collected it into one document, making an outline of suggestions, as well as a list of things I wanted to change. This document would be my roadmap when creating a novel outline.

Step 2: Expand the world based on feedback

linden with jeanne
Linden with Odyssey Director Jeanne Cavelos

Short stories are short because there aren’t a lot of characters to interact with or places to go or things to do; otherwise, they’d be too long. Since long was my goal, I let myself daydream about the world around the spaceship. Who were these warriors? Who were they at war with? What was their culture, and how did it conflict with their enemy’s? Why did this priestess’ religion forbid speech?

I came up with anything—and many things that didn’t make it into even the first draft—to fill out the world. I didn’t limit myself at all. I added more characters and gave existing characters more goals based on more detailed backgrounds. I wrote what I now call the Worldbuilding Bible, a 30-page document of information on science, locations, and the histories of the two societies in humanity’s far future. And when I finally started writing the novel, I had a ton of characters on the board who would be sure to create conflict.

Step 3: Outline-ish

There is the age-old debate about pantsers versus plotters: should you write by the seat of your pants so the action stays fresh, or should you plot out your novel at the risk of it feeling forced?

I’m a big fan of both, and while I absolutely create an outline, it is open-ended and quite short. Each chapter has maybe one sentence about it. For instance, “Chapter 1: Priestess meets the new captain of the ship.” That’s it. Since I’ve done a lot of work at the worldbuilding stage, I know that the captain is young and untraditional, while the priestess is accustomed to an entirely different way of living. It’s built for conflict, and I entertain myself by not knowing what they’ll say to each other until I get to that moment when writing.

The one thing I do pay attention to when making my short outline is the overall structure of the novel. I stick to a Three-Act Structure format, and I aim for moments of respite between conflicts that intensify as we reach the climax. Odyssey helped me learn how to create these moments and stick to this structure, and now it’s second nature to me as a writer.

Step 4: Finish It!

Sure, maybe this seems simple, but it’s probably the hardest part. It’s all about motivation, and each writer has to figure out what motivates them to finish writing that novel, that chapter, that paragraph, that line… For me, it’s letting someone else read the finished work for the first time. I hand the first draft over to my beta readers and wait for the screams of shock that I hope I get. I always love a good plot twist.

linden readingSometimes during writing, I’d get stuck on something I didn’t think to create during the worldbuilding, so I’d leave myself a note for the next draft. Something like, “She wore a dress made of [interesting scifi fabric that doesn’t currently exist].” Then I’d move on. The most important thing was that I finished the first draft of the story so that I knew each beat of the story and what the characters wanted. Once I’d told myself that story, I could move on to telling future readers that story.

At least I knew, from having written the short story, that I’d be interested in seeing the novel through to the end. In fact, now I only consider writing a novel in a world where I’ve already written a short story. If I’m so bored of the characters and world by the time I’ve reached 6,000 words, there’s no way I’m going to be able to pump out a full-length novel without wanting to set my computer on fire.

Luckily, in the case of The First Sister, there were no bonfires necessary.


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