Monday, March 22, 2010

From Short Story to First Novel: a guest post by Malena Watrous

Last Thursday, I reviewed If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous. I loved the book, and I've read quite a few interviews with her on blogs, in old media and the one included in the back of the book itself. With most of my questions having already been asked and answered, I asked Malena if she would be willing to write a guest post for this blog instead of doing another interview. I mentioned I was interested in the process of how she turned a short story into a novel, and she quickly and graciously agreed to tell that part of the story here.

One of the questions that I have been asked since my novel came out is what I learned from the process of writing it, and what I would do differently the next time around.  The short answer is that I wouldn’t want to turn a short story into a novel ever again. 

I wrote “Gomi” (garbage), the story that became If You Follow Me, when I was a student in Marilynne Robinson’s workshop at the University of Iowa.  I had gone to Japan to teach English for two years, and had applied to graduate school while I was still abroad, moving straight from rural Japan to a town almost as small in the heartland.  While I loved fiction, and had read little else since I got hooked as a kid, most of my fiction writing consisted of “postmodern” (aka disorganized) fragments in notebooks, pieces I never really finished, let alone revised. 

My published writing at that point was all journalism—restaurant reviews, fluff features and essays—and so I got to graduate school with a weak understanding of the craft of fiction.  The workshops were small, which meant that each person had to submit a finished piece about every three weeks.  These pieces were photocopied and left in cubbies in a hallway where anyone who wanted to could help themselves.  Stories by the people with the reputations for being both the best and the worst writers always went fast.  There wasn’t much else to do in Iowa, besides write and gossip, envy and mock, and have nervous breakdowns.  I never saw so many people crack up as I did during those two years in the cornfields.

By the end of my first year (right around the time I started Marilynne’s workshop) my own nerves were frayed.  I disliked most of the stories that I had been churning out so fast that I could hardly think of new names for the characters.  It had also been a brutally cold winter, and my landlords—who lived in the other half of the building—were constantly on my case for leaving the lights on and running up the electricity bill.  Although they could have just knocked on the door and confronted me in person, they preferred to leave creepy notes that made me feel like I had to skulk around my own house.  One day, I threw out a bag of trash without cinching it shut, and it rained before the temperatures dropped, and the whole thing froze solid.  For some reason, my fear of the landlords led me to bring the “trashsicle” inside, to thaw in my bathtub, which took days while it leaked leaves and sludge and started to stink. 

I was telling some friends about this, glorifying the absurdity, when I started remembering how difficult it had been, when I first lived in Japan, to learn and follow the “gomi” or garbage laws there.  I hadn’t planned on writing fiction based on my experiences in Japan, but once I started that story, I felt seized by the characters and the place and the subject matter in that way that we fiction writers all hope to have happen much more often than it usually does.  I finished that short story in a heat, and it came in at about sixty pages.  Most of the scenes took place near the end of the main character’s year in Japan, in the early spring, when her relationship with her girlfriend was essentially over, but they still had four months to go before they could move out to their separate and uncertain futures.  The garbage, as an image, stood in for their relationship, in the sense that they couldn’t just dispose of it.  They were stuck together, dependent on each other in spite of their incompatibility, because of having moved to this foreign country as a couple.  I also wanted to capture the way that people can know that they don’t belong together but still feel tenderly towards each other.

That was the first story I wrote all year that I was happy with, that felt like the kind of work I wanted to be doing.  I remember that Marilynne Robinson called it “suigeneris.”  I had never heard that word before, but didn’t want to admit to my ignorance, and so I had to look it up to learn that it meant work that is self-inspired, not derivative.  How this thrilled me!  We all want to be doing suigeneris writing all the time, but unfortunately it’s not always so obvious, whereas imitation is always available.  I’d been doing plenty of poor imitations, up until that point.  I was more than a little bit sorry to move on from that story, to leave that world behind, but after a few revisions, I went back to the drawing board (and to my baby names book) and wrote more stories.

I also submitted “Gomi” to the Glimmertrain Fiction Open contest, partly because I loved the journal, but also because it was one of the rare publishing platforms without a word limit, and I hadn’t found many other venues willing to consider a sixty page “short” story. Months later, I was elated when it won second place, even though this meant that only a paragraph of the story actually got published. But that paragraph attracted the attention of an editor with an interest in fiction set in Asia, and after she asked to see the whole novella (let’s be honest), as well as my other stories, she told me what I think I already knew: that “Gomi” was too long and particular, its setting too real and vivid, to work in a collection with a lot of (half-baked) stories set in vaguely rendered America.  She suggested that I should revisit and expand upon “Gomi,” which she thought seemed incomplete.

I went back and read the story again too, a couple of years (by this point) after having finished it, and was left with a feeling of simultaneous excitement and dread.  On the one hand, I could tell that I wasn’t done with the place or the people.  I felt the same crackle of energy that I had felt when I first wrote that first draft in a feverish rush.  It was still alive to me, which meant, I thought—I hoped—that I could get back into it.  On the other hand, I had no idea how to get back into it, or what else I had to say on the subject. The relationship between those women had run its course by the end of the story.  I couldn’t just pick up from there.  So I had to start over, by blowing it open.

I know a lot more about how novels are built as a result of having written one.  I now know that it’s important to raise questions at the beginning, to introduce the different plot strands that will eventually weave together into an interesting pattern.  If I eventually accomplished those things in my novel, it was a long and arduous process involving a lot of trial and even more error.  It was hard to take a structure that was already working in a short form and pry it apart, especially since I didn’t have a sense of a Big Event that was going to happen.

I remember once going to a reading by Aimee Bender, when she was on tour for her novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own, where she talked about how she brought in the conceit of the numbers in a late draft of that novel.  This seemed amazing to me, because the main character in that book is obsessed with numbers—that’s what defines her.  Specific numbers also help to create both the structure and plot for the book.  What was the book, before she figured out the numbers?

But many of the essential elements of my novel came to me—and to it—fairly late in its creation, including Marina’s father’s suicide.  In a short story, there isn’t nearly as much room, or need, for back-story as there is in a novel.  Now, I can’t imagine the book without that plotline.  The device of four seasons was also something that took a few years to land upon, and that helped me to create a container and an arc for the book as a whole, which is really four novellas, each one featuring a different core cast of characters, whose stories hopefully do weave together by the end.

As a writing teacher, I always encourage my students to write discovery drafts, to give themselves the freedom to make mistakes in the service of figuring out what they really want to and should be writing about.  It’s easier to preach than to do.  It would be nice to write a novel with a roadmap, the security blanket of an outline, a sense that these scenes are the right ones, building to a steady and sure climax and denouement.

Next time, I will try to have a novel-worthy plot in mind before I get too far with the writing.  I will figure out a working structure for the novel I have in mind, and write to fill that shape, instead of writing endless scenes (many of which landed on the cutting room floor), with little idea of how they would ever assemble into a coherent whole.  I hope to shave a couple of years off the process. 

But for all the time it took to finish this book, there was something exciting about the uncertainty, about learning to do a thing while doing it. There were many times that I doubted whether I could assemble my material into a shapely whole, but I didn’t doubt that I was writing about something that mattered to me, and I didn’t feel like I’d already read the book that I was writing before.  I think that came partly because I didn’t conceive of it as a novel initially, and so I hadn’t approached the idea with other novels in mind that it might resemble. While the short answer is that turning a story into a novel was arduous, the long answer (and you can see that it took a while to get here) is that I’m glad to have done it the way I did.

Thank you to Malena for taking the time to write about the writing process. Be sure to visit Malena's Web site and her blog too.

If you haven't read her book yet, you can order it from Amazon. As an Amazon affiliate, I will receive a small commission if you make a purchase through this link. Thank you!


  1. It was fascinating to see how If You Follow Me came to be - thanks for the guest post. I think I need to get hold of this book!

  2. I loved reading this, having been privy to various stages of Malena's process in real life-- I'm deep in the book now, totally in love with it, and in awe of how she's turned that brilliant story into a full-fledged novel world.