When A Story Explodes


I’ve been working on “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight”, the commissioned short story I mentioned a month or two back. It was intended to be a 7500 word story.

It’s currently at 16.2K and growing.

Truth be told, this doesn’t happen to me very often. I nearly always have a very sure idea of how long a story’s going to be (usually that length is determined by contract, although occasionally–like with THE QUEEN’S BASTARD–I knew it was going to come in well over the contracted-for length, and even warned my editor of that fact). This is the first time a short story has ever grown this far out of control. Possibly this is due to me not writing very many short stories in the grand scheme of things, mind you, but it’s still a fact.

In this case, the concept was too big for the format. The story idea was never going to fit into 7500 words, not that I knew that when I began. Still, it’s an interesting aspect to being a writer: ideas too big to handle, and what to do with them.

Around twelve years ago now, I started a book I didn’t have the skill set for. Weirdly, that feels very similar to working on a story that won’t fit in the size I intended it to. It’s a frustrating mental space: here’s the idea of what I want to accomplish, but way over there is the reality of accomplishing it. What I had to do with that book was set it aside. What I have to do with this story is–in essence–trust it, or trust myself.

Re-reading that last little bit, I suspect it sounds ludicrous. I’ve got a dozen published novels, a comic book series, and several published short stories to my name. I certainly ought to be able to trust myself as a storyteller at this point. And I do, more or less, but that hasn’t stopped me staring at this exploded story for several hours, wondering if I really know what I’m doing, and whether it’s going to turn out to be something worth what people’ve paid for it. But it’s a fairly constant battle: is this story, which has obliterated the limits of my original expectations, right? Am I indulging myself, or doing the concept justice? Are these words as desperately clunky as I fear they are? Would it be better if I somehow managed to fit the entire story into the original 7500 word parameter?

Now, if this were a story I was writing for an anthology, for example, I’d have to trash it and use another idea, because nobody’s going to say, “Oh, sure, turn a story 4x the contracted length in, we’ll be okay with that.” They won’t: it would mean three other people got booted, and I’m nowhere near cool enough to be worth cutting out three other stories for. It happens that this particular piece isn’t for physical publication, so I’ve got as much room as I need or want for it.

But my inclination as a writer (and as someone trying to lay out suggestions here on what people might do during the pursuit of a writing career) is to essentially follow the story to the size it wants to be. It may very well lead you down dead ends and false starts, but there’s a very good chance you’ll learn something doing it. I’m finding a resonance between the characters that a shorter story never would have allowed. I’ll probably always be afraid I’m not quite doing it justice, but I can at least tell myself–and my readers–that I’m doing my best, and that I’m not strangling the idea in concept by forcing it to a size that wouldn’t suit it.

It’s hard, it’s really hard, to know if you’re just indulging yourself or if what you’re doing is necessary for the story. There’s a four page section I wrote in this which I utterly adore, and which utterly doesn’t belong. It’s beautifully written (if I do say so myself). It’s evocative. It shows you aspects of the characters you won’t get anywhere else. And, depressingly, it isn’t necessary. It even goes so far as to do some of the wrong things, and that kills me, because I love it.

This is where the phrase “kill your darlings” comes in. I don’t strictly believe in killing your darlings, because sometimes your darlings are darling because they’re perfect for the story. But sometimes they’re darlings just because they’re very well written. Miserably, that doesn’t mean they’re also helpful to the story. “Hot Time” is already exploded; it doesn’t need another four pages of explosion that take it in just slightly the wrong direction.

It’s an evolving process, this writing job. It changes constantly and you change with it. Embrace that when you can. Be willing to experiment, and be willing to make mistakes and be wrong. I think it’s worth it, even through the frustration.


3 comments to When A Story Explodes

  • My current WIP likes to take tangents on me… I finally have just given in and let it go wild, skip ahead, then go back and hammer it back to where it needs to goes–because fighting it is a huge stress point and I can’t defeat the urge that something important must be unfurling…. Though my current WIP was supposed to be a SS to just give myself something to write on… Its at best a 2 book series and at worst 4 (compared to that, your explosion is more of a pop than a BOOM)

    Looking forward to HTOTT and I trust you to know what’s best for the story.

  • This is one of the hardest things for me as a writer, even after 14 years, 13 books, and several stories. When do we trust our characters and narratives, and when do cut them off and say, “No, enough”? Those moments when the story takes on a life of its own and begins to create itself, as it were, is one of the truly wonderful things about this profession. When that happens, I know that my tale and its characters have come alive, have become something more than words on a page. But riding that creative wave can be terrifying, because it threatens at any moment to overwhelm the original idea, to blow a word limit out of the water, or to take the story someplace it truly can’t go.

    Good luck with the story, Catie. I envy you the creative energy you’re tapping into, although perhaps not the process of getting it back under control.

  • My WIP was supposed to come in at 30,000 words and ended up around 80,000. Short stories, I’ve written a bunch of and I pretty much know that they’re gonna be short stories when I start them, but never really worked on a novella length story. When I started it I was sure it would be where I wanted it…then, it went nuts. There was more and more than needed to be told. I understood that it was epic, but I wasn’t aware just how epic. I just rode the wave and knew that it was supposed to be this way. Needless to say it didn’t make it for a novella anthology, but after reading through it, I’m far from upset about it. I’m pretty confident that after some polish It’ll get sold somewhere. It’s gonna be a good read, and something I’d definitely read in a Romance novel. I can’t wait to have it done and out there for people to pick up.