Starting to write a novel can seem daunting. How to get from 0 words to 100,000? Every time I begin a new book, it feels like I’m staring up the side of a mountain, wondering how I’m going to survive the long, long climb. I imagine that, in my metaphorical rucksack, all I have is my love for writing, a few ideas for the story, and an interesting character or two. Sometimes that doesn’t seem like much -- but it’s got to be enough to get me going.
As I’ve become more comfortable with my own novel-writing process, I’ve discovered a few ways to give myself a head-start. (Think: beginning a hike at a 2,000-meter base camp rather than at sea level.) One of my favorite ways to world-build a book is to write short stories. Whether a story spends time with a character or explores my setting, it brings me into the world of my novel and asks me to think about that world in a different way.
I stumbled upon this process through trial and error. About eight years ago, when I started the draft that would eventually become my first completed novel, I envisioned the book as a family saga. So I wrote 50k about one generation, then 50k about the next (somewhere around here a family curse got thrown in, naturally), and then 50k about the next … only to discover that the great-granddaughter (who appeared in generation No. 3) was actually the character I wanted to write the book about. So then I wrote the actual novel about her. In essence, I’d done 150k of prewriting. Ouch!, I thought at the time. What a waste! Of course, as most authors will tell you, no writing is a waste, especially with early books. Those were hours logged that served to hone my craft and help me find the real story I wanted to tell. Plus, I had a rich family history written out that I used to bring depth and complexity to my protagonist’s story.
That manuscript is shelved now, always special to me because it was my first completed book. It wasn’t until my third completed manuscript that I had a novel strong enough to capture interest from my agent and my editor. By then, I’d figured out that writing a whole other novel was not the most efficient word-building exercise, and I’d reined that in to the technique I’m sharing here: world-building through short stories.
What this looks like is completely flexible, depending upon your needs and your style. I find it most helpful to write a world-building short story (WBSS) either about a character or the setting. A WBSS can be a piece of flash-fiction or a fleshed-out, 5,000-word narrative. I like long-form pieces (yes, I’m a novelist at heart), so I’m usually comfortable with 5,000-word WBSSs. But it can also be a useful challenge to myself as a writer to build a story in 2,000 words or less. Go with what works best for you!
Stories About Characters
When writing a WBSS about a character, consider choosing one of your secondary (or even tertiary) characters. This will help you avoid the trap of flat, unremarkable supporting characters. Consider a book that has a crime boss as a secondary character, and this crime boss has henchmen (tertiary characters). You could have one of her men be a Large, Slow Henchman and not much else. But what if you wrote a story about him, and along the way discovered something about his family; what drove him to violent, underpaid work; what his favorite smell is, and his least-favorite part of his body? Now when he appears in scenes as you draft your novel, he will have tics and unique reactions to situations and a history with roots that extend far off the page.
Another benefit of choosing a secondary or tertiary character is that they will likely have a totally different personal and situational POV than your main character. Take L.S. Henchman again, and consider what parts of your book world he would know and see versus those your main character (say, a middle-class professor) knows and sees. When you explore your book world through L.S. Henchman’s eyes, you’re making it richer by default by using such a different lens -- and you can draw upon that richness when drafting the novel itself.
Stories About Setting
When writing a WBSS about your setting, consider it an opportunity to do research. Look for anecdotes or information you might not otherwise have woven into your story. This is a great way to come across other (real) stories that might spark episodes or events in your book. For historical novels, looking into a town’s past might bring you to old newspaper articles about disappearances, celebrations, or conflicts that you can incorporate into your own story. For contemporary novels, reading up on the politics or residents of an area can give you a deeper understanding of your setting in the context of the larger world. (Note: Researching may not be applicable to certain genres, like fantasy or some SpecFic. In cases where there is no research possible, try using WBSSs to set and explore world rules or other things you must create, like topography, language, or social norms.)
Benefits of This Method
On top of the world-building benefits, there are other reasons to write WBSSs. Depending on how much you care to polish a certain piece -- and how well it stands on its own -- you may want to submit it to magazines or websites for publication. I strongly encourage you to submit short fiction to these outlets. Why? 1) It’s practice for pitching your work. 2) It helps you get accustomed to rejection (a fact of life in the writing world). 3) It helps you get accustomed to acceptance (celebrate your successes!). 4) Publishing short fiction will start building your reader base. 5) Publishing short fiction will build your creative resume/portfolio.
Another benefit of writing WBSSs is that they are relatively low-commitment. Say you have an idea for a book, but you’re not sure if it’s enough to charge ahead with and pour countless hours into. (Think back to the mountain I mentioned, and being intimidated by the sheer scale of starting a novel from a blank page.) If you write a WBSS, you’re only committing to a short story. Some of the pressure -- and some of the fear -- is taken away when you think in increments of 5,000 words, rather than 100,000. And if you complete the story and love it, you’ll have 5,000 words of material to draw from for your book draft.
I hope this post inspires you to try the WBSS method. Have you tried writing short stories as a world-building technique before? What other world-building methods work for you when you’re starting a new novel?
Katrina Carrasco is a queer Latinx writer, born and raised in Southern California and now living in Seattle. In her novels and short stories she explores the ideas of passing, performance, and belonging: what is gained and what is lost by conforming to societal expectations of gender, race, class and sexuality. Her short fiction has appeared in Witness Magazine, Post Road Magazine, Quaint Magazine, and other journals. Her debut novel, CIPHER, will be released in Fall 2018 by MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. CIPHER follows Alma Rosales, a queer woman and ex-Pinkerton detective, as she switches between female and male disguises to investigate an opium-smuggling ring.
Goodreads Page for CIPHER: goodreads.com/book/show/34041372-cipher
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