I recently got together with some friends to do a writing group for short stories. The basic rules are that we bring our finished stories to the meeting to read them out loud and then we critique them. We’ve only had a few meetings so far, but doing this got me to craft my first short story. This is something that I’ve wanted to do for a while but never strayed from my novel. As was the case when I started with novel writing, my main issues were structure related.
One of the things that I’ve struggled with when writing a novel is not knowing how much writing will result from the general outline I’ve made, abstract though it may be. The content of my novel was often too big or too small afterwards. Some good advice I was given from the writing group was to just write the story and then see where it lands. Hard to do, for all those writers like me that like an outline (even if it’s very informal) but nonetheless, I took the advice and went with it.
I was content that the resulting short story wasn’t too big, which is what I was originally worried about. In fact, after reviewing it, the story could get a little bigger, and the resulting word count could as well. Beside having a short story to work on, there are a couple of benefits I’m getting from this. One, the short story is back story for one of my characters in my novel. As I get more experience and practice from writing more short stories, a number of them will be based on characters from my novel. It just makes it easier for me while I’m working out the structure and size for a short story. And as I’m doing them, I’m thinking about my novel the whole time. I learn more about the characters when I’m writing about them, and this is especially true for characters that aren’t usually in the driving seat, so to speak.
The second benefit is that I’m getting a good understanding of the content that results from my outline, which in this case I did after I was done writing the short story. I didn’t have an outline beforehand, just a general idea of what was going to happen. But doing the outline afterwards was helpful to me because it gave me an opportunity to see the structure for the whole story all at once, as well as the resulting word count. In general, I like doing an outline first, even if it’s very informal. It was a good exercise for me to write it first and see what resulted. Also, a short story structure is obviously different from a novel, and as such it was good for me to see the differing outline.
While thinking about those benefits, I wondered what other exercises would be supportive for my novel. In this case, I switched from novel to short story. But what about switching genres? Could any of my characters get along in a different setting or time? Trying to see what my characters would be doing a hundred years earlier makes me immediately think of trying my hand at steampunk, although that’s not the only genre to try for that.
This has me thinking about my characters, first and foremost. I have one in particular who would feel more at home in the Victorian Era, and even dresses like it now. How would some of the others fare? What genres would they most likely be in if not for the one that I’m currently putting them in? I’m smiling as I write this because all indications in my head right now are pointing directly at steampunk.
Even without using my characters, it would be a good exercise to try doing scenes in other genres. But there’s something about sticking with your characters that gives insight into them. There are parts of them that might come out in the different settings that the other genres offer. Some strengths that some characters have that aren’t being showcased in the novel that they’re currently in.
One exercise I’ve thought about before is combining my characters with some of the more prominent ones already existing today. This can be in novels, graphic novels, movies, etc. In a world where my written story lives with others I’ve read, it’s conceivable that some characters might meet up in a cooperative effort.
It’s a bit like treating the characters as if they’re actors on the stage. “Okay, folks…”, I say. “We’ve been working this play too hard. It’s time to try something different and take a break. The crew has some stuff they made from another play which was some science fiction type of production. How about we do some scenes?”
I can imagine the reactions from my characters, some enthusiastic, others throwing down their manuscripts and walking off. Ah, she’ll come around, I say. I’ll do Victorian next time.