I asked Lisa Mannetti to write a little something about short fiction, and to her credit, she knocked it out the park with a piece about novellas. If you haven't read her two-novella collection, Deathwatch, I highly recommend it. In the mean time, enjoy this latest guest post.
by Lisa Mannetti
Long before I sat down and began writing "Dissolution" or "The Sheila Na Gig," I was very well-acquainted (oh, let's be honest I was smitten, I was passionately in love) with Stephen King's collection, DIFFERENT SEASONS. I think it contains some of his best writing. I'd also paid very close attention to what he wrote in the afterword about the marketability of novellas; and although when he wrote his tales, there were markets for horror novellas, by the time I wrote mine, those markets were pretty much moribund. And of those that were still extant, no one was exactly working up to carpal tunnel syndrome to notify me via email that life would never be the same if he or she couldn't publish either or both of these novellas. I more or less guessed--or say intuited--that might be the case when I sat down to write each of them.
So why did I proceed?
One answer is that I love a challenge; a second is that I was also madly in love with Stuart's voice in "Dissolution." The cadence and rhythm I heard is what first caught my attention and propelled me inside his story. Similarly, that very odd line gave rise to the rest of "The Sheila Na Gig," (which was actually written before "Dissolution"): "Her head was canted sideways, her wrinkled mouth, dripping milk." It was such a powerful image it literally hauled me into Tom's world. Naturally, I loved the maggots in "Dissolution," but I was equally drawn to the scene in which Stuart hears the girls playing, and calling out "Fly, Abby, let's fly," on the wheeled sheep toy that Gabriel Wickstrom had constructed so they might have at least a simulacrum of normal movement. This was another image I could see so clearly (even though the upper hallway was from one friend's house and the elevator from another home I was in and out of during my childhood); and as I heard the scene and wrote it down it gave me a lot of insight into Gabriel's character.
Which brings me an interesting point: since I don't write from outlines and often have no clue which characters (say, Gabriel and Ruth for instance) might turn out to be far more important than they seem when they first stroll onto my literary pavement, how can I even know whether I'm writing a short story, a novel or--ta-da!--a novella?
"I just know," is a really crappy answer--but it also happens to be the exact truth. Even though I may not have more than an idea, a situation, a couple of characters in mind, and a very vague direction I intend to head toward for an ending, I always know if I'm writing a short story, a novella or a novel. And I only know that because a few times I tried making a novella into a story (and vice versa), or worked on novels that were stretched or compressed. It's a lousy feeling. And instead of that wonderful sense of discovery (which for me is the reason for writing the book--I want to know what's going to happen next, too) and seeking around and exploring and getting all psyched up, mentally it feels exactly like trying to put a square peg in a round hole. Nasty sensation. Akin to either cramming one's feet into very tight shoes or careening around in a pair of shoe boxes instead of actual footwear--the fit is just all wrong.
I write by intuition (rewrite is different, of course). But the excitement of the story process for me is in figuring out how it should all work as I'm constructing it. It often takes longer, I run into lots of blind alleys, but it keeps things fresh for me as I work.
Sure, if an editor asks me for a short story, I'm sort of aiming for that--and I think in the mysterious place of the unconscious---the word goes out that this piece is going to be big, medium or small--just like sizing coffee, popcorn or clothes. And certainly, I'd be the first one to say that sometimes themes that are important to my subconscious do get reworked in other stories, novellas and books, because unconsciously I still need to deal with that theme--but that's different from bringing a book to the chop shop or torturing a story on the rack.
My mother always said when I was a kid she'd call me from work and I'd tell her, "I can't talk now, I have to see how this story turns out." I guess because she was in the sciences, that floored her. It floors me that the kid is still in charge and still can't wait to find out ‘what happens next' when I write. I've never gotten over the first thrill of anticipating the swoops and turns of the wooden Dragon Coaster here at my local amusement park.
So. At present I'm working on a novel, I'm tentatively calling The Hunger Artist, and there's a second novel waiting in the wings after that. No square pegs in round holes for me; no jumping into a girdle to squeeze down a size or padding to give a story its booty. Nope. Also waiting to come on stage are two more novellas and a couple of short stories. The shorter pieces are every bit as mentally seductive (for me) as carnival rides--brief gaudy moments of delight. The novels make me think of the extended pleasure of those old "Grand Tours."
And, if you let them, I do believe books, stories and novels shape themselves; they know whether they want to be Ferris Wheel rides, weekends on Cape Cod, or treks to Everest. They know how long the journey needs to be and how much you need to pack. If you just let them...you find out they know the agenda.