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'Nuggets or Novels?' Guest Post from Jane Langan

chicken nuggets in a basket with a mayonnaise dip
Picture Credit: Leonardo Luz

It was only when I came to do my masters that I realised that I’m a bit unusual, as far as writing goes. Most writers tend to stick to one thing – short stories, novels, poetry – whereas I try to do all of them. For me, each feeds the others. So, when I was thinking about what to write for Ruth’s Guest Post, I thought I would attempt to explain how and why I do this – it turns out this is easier said than done!

When I write, it starts in the same way. A nugget of an idea, or snippet of overheard conversation, or something I have seen that has struck me as unusual or strange.

Then, and this is hard, as I have never really thought about the mechanics of how I turn something small into something bigger, how I decide whether it’s a poem, flash fiction, a short story or a novel.

I suppose it’s the scale of the idea. How many ways can I flip it, how many characters can I see. But the first step is always to write one line – for example: What if the leaves stopped falling in Autumn? Or your cat started talking to you? Or when you went to sleep all your clothes fit you, and now they don’t? Or the thing you thought was an illness was a superpower?

So, I have the nugget. Some nuggets are still sitting in the back of notebooks never to be more than a nugget, others get played with. Some have become novels, others short stories and flash fiction.

My first three novels I wrote without a plan – I had a vague idea of where they were going and how I wanted them to end. I then followed Stephen Kings advice to ‘just write,’ and let the characters take you on the journey. This happened when I wrote my 2nd and 3rd novel. I was totally invested in the characters and they led the story, rather than the other way around.

The novel I’m currently writing, I have a scene-by-scene plan. Like a storyboard, although it has already grown and changed since I made that plan and I’m adjusting as I go. The reason I’ve taken this approach this time is because it is more complex. There are more characters and two timelines running consecutively. I’m also hoping this will mean less editing at the end, although that’s a pipe dream.

Short story writing is a different skill and some people purely focus on that – I’ve just read Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls – A brilliant writer who authored short stories, essays and novellas. Novelists may be a little sniffy at this, but there is a separate art to a shorter story, an efficiency of language and skill in using less characters. Some short stories have been later turned into great films, for example: 2001 a Space Odyssey, All About Eve, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Swimmer, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Total Recall, Minority Report, Brokeback Mountain – I could go on.

Some of my short stories, I suspect could be longer, but I fear that if they were, they would become less impactful. For example, I wrote a story call The Gin Twist, which is in my anthology – The Solstice Baby and Other Stories. It is only about 650 words long and is speculative fiction. I wanted it to be sharp and succinct, with a frightening view of a possible reality.

My poetry, however, is constructed differently – I tend to free write about what I’m feeling or thinking about in the moment, then finesse it into something that makes sense but also feels nice on the tongue. If, (and this is a big if) I were ever to do spoken word it would be something I could articulate nicely. And hopefully, like flash fiction, it is something that tells a story but in a more succinct way – mostly. However, I also enjoy messing about with different styles of poetry writing, setting myself challenges. Can I write a sonnet, a limerick, a nonsense poem? One of the poems I’m most proud of is a breccbairdne which is a poem written in an ancient Irish poetic form.

I said at the beginning of this that all the forms feed the others. How do they do this? Flash fiction encourages succinct, impactful storytelling. Poetry tends to be more lyrical and looks at how language can be used. Both of these things overlap easily into the longer forms of short stories and novels. Novels, however, need one more thing, persistence – as writers, people will tell you ‘Oh, I’m going to write a novel, I have a great idea.’ And I’m sure they do. The thing is, writing isn’t like in the films where you sit at your messy desk surrounded with books gazing out the window contemplating life, until suddenly a fully formed manuscript is completed and accepted by a publisher. Writing requires the same work as any job, it requires time to cogitate and time to create. It must be nurtured and looked after and you need to have a very thick skin. Rejection is real, even for the most talented writers – you hear stories of very famous authors who were rejected hundreds of times before they were given an opportunity – So, writing is about persistence, sheer bloody mindedness, buckets of creativity and stubbornness. Some days I have that, but mostly it’s sheer bloody mindedness and stubbornness that keeps me writing.

Thank you, Ruth for letting me take over your blog. And thanks for the upcoming review.

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