MICHAEL CUMMINGS spends his days making sure you get your cat memes. A recent transplant to the Bay area, the rest of his time is spent either with his three girls, reading, or writing. Occasionally you can even find him blogging over at datanode.net.
KEN SCHOLES is the author of the internationally acclaimed Psalms of Isaak series (comprised of Lamentation, Canticle, Antiphon and Requiem), published in the U.S. by Tor. His short fiction has appeared in various magazines and anthologies for the last decade and is now collected in two volumes, Long Walks, Last Flights and Other Strange Journeys and Diving Mimes, Weeping Czars and Other Unusual Suspects, both published by Fairwood Press. Scholes has an eclectic background that includes time logged as a soldier, sailor, musician, minister, nonprofit executive, public procurement specialist and label gun repairman. Scholes is a native of the Pacific Northwest and makes his home in Saint Helens, Oregon, with his wife and twin daughters. He invites readers to learn more about him and his work at www.kenscholes.com.
Writing short stories and writing novels are often completely different disciplines. It takes a different mindset, a different frame of thinking to write a novel versus a short story. Most often, as a writer you know how to navigate the two different paths to telling a story. Occasionally, though, you find yourself with a story that felt like it was a short story, but that with a little bit of work and a lot more writing could be transformed into a novel, or even a series.
Ken Scholes, author of the Psalms of Isaak series, is all too familiar with making this kind of transition. His short stories “Of Metal Men and Scarlet Thread and Dancing with the Sunrise” and “Of Missing Kings and Backward Dreams and the Honoring of Lies” were to become the foundation that his five book series, The Psalms of Isaak, were based on. Still in a writer’s fugue from finishing book five, Hymn, Ken has some advice to offer in figuring out if the short story you’ve just written could be expanded into a novel.
For the sake of this discussion, you have already written a short story. Through feedback or gut instinct, you’ve begun to consider that your story may just be the seed from which you could plant a novel. But that brings us to the first question – figuring out if your story has the elements necessary.
Michael Cummings: Some short stories are just novels in hiding. What are some of the key elements to help you identify that in a story?
Ken Scholes: When I first discovered the series hiding out in my short story, “Of Metal Men and Scarlet Thread and Dancing with the Sunrise,” I had no idea that it might become a series of short stories or a novel or a five book saga. When I saw that image of Isaak painted by Allen Douglas I realized there was a much bigger story. And I knew that I would write three more short stories each based on key moments in a much larger tale. I had no plans to write the entire tale.
But when the second story didn’t sell to the market where the first had placed, my plan fell through. Both the editor at the magazine and my friends and family all urged me to go write what became Lamentation.
What I look for now that I am mining my short fiction with intent is first a character or group of characters that stand out and feel like they have some life beneath the surface. In this case Rudolfo and Isaak. And in the second story — which was unpublished until Diving Mimes, Weeping Czars and Other Unusual Suspects collected it — Petronus is added to the mix. Jin Li Tam also emerges as a character with more potential here. In the first story she was largely a prop. I don’t know how to describe it any better than this: The character has to be big enough to carry a novel or at least their part of a novel. And the writer has to be interested enough in that character to keep writing them for much longer than just the 5,000 word short story that introduced them. My relationship with the characters in the Psalms of Isaak is a decade-long group marriage of characters in my head. It is not for the faint of heart so choose the voices you’ll be living with for a bit.
The second thing I would look for is a world or setting interesting enough to sustain a novel. And included within, its history, arts, magic system, tech level, religions, families, cultural and societal customs and challenges to those customs, and all of the other things that go into the background of a bigger story. The world that I discovered when I wrote “Of Metal Men…” was far richer than I expected, with a mysterious history and strange bits like the Age of Laughing Madness and the scientist scholar P’Andro Whym and the Wizard King Xhum Y’Zir and his seven sons. I saw the kernels of that world with its messenger birds and its mechoservitors and its kin-clave in the short story, and once I committed to the novel the world emerged even more so.
Next I would look at whether or not the story fits the front-end or back-end of a larger work. In mine, the events of the short story sync up to the beginning of the novel and the mystery of the short story – who destroyed Windwir and why, and what about this metal man Isaak – is just barely set up. But I know of other writers who have expanded short pieces into novels where the short story’s plot is the crux of the novel’s climax. So where does the story fit within the novel? How much of it will need to change? And then figuring out through all of that whether the problem in the short story is big enough to be the novel’s problem or if it’s just one part of a larger problem you need to look for.
Last I would look at the track record of the short story. Was it well-received? In my case the story came out and did well. And I’ve been able to use the short story since as a marketing tool for the rest of the series – it just came out in Lightspeed this month. But if you have two shorts to pick from and one was a story that nearly landed you on an award ballot and the other is one that nobody really cared about, expand the one that did the best out in the world. Unless of course you have more passion for the other project because sometimes passion needs to trump business sensibility.
MC: Is there a different “feel” or sense of depth to the world building in these stories?
KS: Yes, I think there is for me. I think in some stories the character, setting and problem all rise to the surface in such a way that they rattle the cage and asked to be more. And I think it’s a reader sensibility as much as a writer sensibility because we crave worlds, especially in the fantasy and science fiction genre. I remember Tim Powers telling my Writers of the Future workshop, “None of you are at home in this world or you wouldn’t work so hard to create other ones.” So when we feel something different in a short story’s setting, something that feels alive and rich, it’s worth paying attention to. And if we’re going to mine our short stories for potential novels and we find that the setting is amazing as can be but the characters are lackluster then we can always look and see if there are better characters that we can drop into those places to deal with those problems or a whole new set of problems based on those new characters.
MC: In reading the short stories that you expanded to make Lamentation and later books, I noticed that there were plot threads that were alluded to, but never directly resolved in the short story. Do you think that’s common in these stories?
KS: I think some of that has more to do with my work in general from about 2004 onward. When I was just starting out I was trying to tell tidier, neater stories with everything more wrapped up but as I progressed in my writing I found myself telling more and more stories where a portion of the conflict is resolved but there is enough movement in the character to imply an ending and leave off with a sense that they will reach it. And in those stories, I try to leave some things to the reader’s imagination and leave some curiosity or wonder behind. That became handy when I wrote Lamentation and especially the later books though it wasn’t planned initially. Some of that has been my own personal evolution as I integrate a new level of realism to my writing – life is rarely neat and tidy and stories need to be neater and tidier but not necessarily pristine or it can threaten the suspension of disbelief. And some of it is just taste. I like a story that doesn’t quite end at the ending but implies more movement to come. Any of those unresolved tidbits become wonderful handholds for lifting a novel because they’re all little trails you can go exploring as long as they tie you back into the story. Just a few weeks ago, I took a pistol I put on the mantle back in Lamentation and used it in Hymn.
MC: Having decided on taking the short story and expanding it, we face new challenges with the story. Scenes that worked as sketches in a short story may need to be expanded and embellished – or dropped altogether. Do you have any advice when reviewing scenes?
KS: I can tell you what I did which I’m told was a little creative. My goal was to use as much of the existing material as possible as long as it fit with the story that I was telling. I was able to use the entire short story “Of Metal Men and Scarlet Thread and Dancing with the Sunrise.” But I was not able to use all of the second-story because those events formed the end of Lamentation which evolved a great deal after the beginning of the novel when Rudolfo’s Gypsy scouts find the metal man weeping in an impact crater.
On the day that I started drafting the book, I cut and pasted both short stories into a new Word document and changed the font color to red. These were all scenes written in Rudolfo’s POV with approximately five or six scenes per story. I changed to red because I knew that I would need to pay extra close attention to these words and make sure that they synced up with the rest of the book. So all of the first short story stretches out over several of the early chapters in the novel.
But by the time I reached the end, I had far more than just Rudolfo’s point of view. I had Petronus and Neb and Jin Li Tam and even Vlad Li Tam. I still had a trial for Sethbert and the ending scene of the novel is the end of that second short story (with more layered in) but lots had changed. In the second short story Petronus arrives to the Ninefold Forest after the war announcing himself as the last pope. But in the novel, Petronus is one of the main characters who involves himself after seeing the pillar of smoke on the sky and traveling to Windwir. And I knew far more at the end of the novel about these characters than I did at the beginning. Some of them, like Neb and Winters, didn’t even exist when I wrote the short stories. So I ended up modifying a large portion of the second short story in order to create a much larger trial sequence involving multiple POV’s. And because I knew more about Rudolfo’s childhood I was able to change the scene where he discovers that he’s going to become a father.
So I guess my advice is look at each scene and be willing to let it go if it isn’t the best for a novel. Your short story that you are mining for this novel will always be the short story you wrote. And be willing to let it stand if it’s the right scene for your book. Let the novel be as different or the same as it needs to be in order to become its own critter.
MC: Of course, a story is nothing without the characters that populate it. The format of a short story, though, doesn’t usually lend itself to prolonged character building. Do you have any advice on taking a less developed character when making them central to a novel?
KS: From the standpoint of the initial 6,000-word short story versus the 750,000-word story it became all of my characters were less developed at the outset but the two that were the most interesting were Rudolfo and Isaak according to the folks who love that story. I would look at any and all characters in a short story and give a little thought to what else about them might be interesting or important to the story. For instance, there is a metal man that Sethbert has dancing and singing for Rudolfo in the first short story. I had no idea when I wrote it how important that metal man was going to be in the second novel but we next see him in the prelude to Canticle. What I’ve discovered is that my creative process – my inner redneck muse, Leroy, if you will – sets things up for me in my short fiction that later become integral. And once I saw how to find a series or novel inside a short story it was also easy for me to see how to plant short stories, novelettes, novellas and even novels for later like little seeds within the book. I have several projects that are telegraphed intentionally throughout the Psalms of Isaak in the event that the series becomes successful enough to keep writing in that world. I am a big fan of sitting with my characters and pondering them. I have a sense of them and I write toward that sense.
And don’t be afraid to mix and match. I ripped off the entire Czarist lunar expedition that culminated in the Marshfolk’s Homeseeker mythos from an earlier short novel that I had outlined called The 100th Tale of Felip Carnelyin: The Ship That Sailed the Moon. And that, of course, is the first of a trilogy that I will write one day called the The Tales of Felip Carnelyin. And I found a great deal of the universe for my series already existed in some of my short stories like “The Second Gift Given” and the yet unpublished trunk story “Seedling” from as far back as 1997. Leroy has been working on this project for a lot longer than I realized, it seems.
MC: I find that re-reading the story has revealed more than I remembered writing originally. Conflicts that went unresolved because they weren’t relevant to the conclusion of the short story, or were outside the scope of the short story, suddenly become big picture relevant when looking at larger themes. I know you’re a big proponent of the three act structure in writing. Can you talk a little bit about how you applied that structure to transforming your short stories into a novel?
KS: Yes and I was touching on that a bit earlier when I talked about finding out where in the novel the short story is taking place. In mine, I had one story that was very much the first act where Rudolfo is committed to the problem – a smaller problem in the beginning of the book that turns into a big war – and one story very much in the third act that also included my denouement. Once you know where in the bigger story arc your short story is then you can decide how to evolve your problem into a bigger problem or how to reverse engineer your big problem into the best structure and figure out the smaller problems and complications and conflicts along the way. I’ve been so saturated with three act structure that it’s largely how I think and I fall into the “if it isn’t broke don’t fix it” category at least when it comes to some things. And if a story showed up in my head wanting to be told differently (like a lot of my short stories) I would roll with it. Part of the feeding and care of our muse is keeping them happy and sometimes mine likes to change things up. But I like my three acts.
First and third acts are easy for me and I think that that’s probably true of a lot of us. Second act is really tough for me and that’s usually where I bogged down and have to spend a lot of time thinking and pondering and running my characters through the “what if” cycles.
Another structural bit that I do drives some of my writing colleagues a little batty. I use a screenwriter’s sensibility at the front-end and decide how big of a story bucket I am going to carry. I have come in within a few thousand words of my word count estimates on the first four books. On the last book I came in about 15,000 words over but I knew it was a possibility since I was resolving the series. But I decide at the front end how long it’s going to be before I write it and then I build my story to fit that. I figure out my ending and my beginning and then do a series of forward thinking and reverse engineering to get the rest of the story.
Right now I am learning how to outline a little bit better so that I can fine-tune this and cut down on the middle muddle that inevitably bogs me when I’m drafting. So if I’m writing 100,000-word novel, I give myself 25,000 words for my first act and by the end of that act we have a sense of the characters and they are committed to the problem that needs to be solved. Then I go through 50,000 words of complication and disaster, putting my characters in trees and throwing rocks at them until they either catch the rocks and throw them back or fall out of the trees. Somewhere in the midst of them beginning to fall or beginning to throw, I transition into my third act and the last 25,000 words with at least a scene or chapter of denouement for each character at the end. Of course it fluctuates and takes on a little bit of a life of its own but I do think we can all do well to learn to both understand and manage our creative processes…and challenge and change them as we adapt along the way.
MC: Thank you so much for taking the time to help out today. While the ink is still fresh on Hymn, I highly recommend everyone take a look at the rest of the Psalms of Isaak series by Tor. Lamentation, the first book in the series, takes the short story discussed in this article and fleshes it out into a full novel.