What Big Teeth You Have

I’ve mentioned before the fiction workshop I’m taking this semester, specializing in linked stories. (If you want to follow along with the course, check out our class blog.) The basic idea of linked stories is that they’re too connected to be wholly separate stories and still have the same impact (that is, they function as stories alone but become more powerful in combination) but too distinct to be a novel(/novella). If this sounds like a slippery definition, that’s because it is. There’s a whole messy space between collections of unrelated stories and novels that’s inhabited by linked stories, story cycles, novels in stories, composite novels, etc.

I took something of a hiatus from writing anything complete from 2003–2005 (during which time I considered, among other things, becoming a high school band director) and picked it back up on a whim when a friend of mine instructed me to do NaNoWriMo. (I do mean instructed. There was no, “Hey, I’m going to do this thing. Want to do it with me?” There was only, “Do NaNoWriMo.”) It was a messy month—I came up with my concept at the last minute, realized when my planned plot concluded that I only had half of the 50,000 words, and only finished because Thanksgiving Break afforded me the opportunity to lock myself in the bathroom, away from distractions, and pound out 7,000 a day. But I finished a project that I lovingly called the SVN, because titles have never been my strong suit.

The SVN involved five different viewpoint characters, and although that messy first draft didn’t make the best use of them, by the time I’d been through several revisions (for three years, although I had other side projects, it was my focus) each of those characters had an arc, all of which converged in the penultimate scene.

In other words, the SVN could, in a way, be considered a collection of linked stories, interwoven with one another.

I wrote another NaNoWriMo novel in 2008 (my next serious project) that had two viewpoint characters who spent the majority of the plot not knowing of each other, much less their connection. Again, their arcs joined up as the story neared its end; again, I could rephrase that as, their stories joined up as the piece neared its end.

My current project is a single viewpoint chronological narrative—free of murkiness—but it occurred to me that it’s the exception. Of the novels/sort-of-novels I’ve written, almost three-quarters have been, to some extent, separate but linked stories.

That said, they’ve all be much closer to the novel end of the spectrum. There are separate character arcs, but they’re all structured around the central conflict, whatever that is, and even when the characters don’t yet know each other, it’s clear to the reader that they’re all directly tied to that conflict, so they’re only ever as distant as a friend of a friend(/enemy of an enemy, etc.). I consider those pieces to be novels … but I suppose it’s rarely quite so simple.

I’ve adamantly defended my novelist identity; the idea that I might be dipping so much as a toe into that murky in-between water seemed, until about 3:15 this afternoon, impossible. It’s disconcerting. Because do you know what’s in murky water?

NO. YOU DON’T.

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