The Long of the Short of It

by Stephen Ross
First Published: Sleuthsayers, Aug 26, 2014 READ


  • “It was a dark and stormy night…”
  • “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.”
  • “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.”
  • “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
  • “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”
  • “Call me Stephen.”

The above might give you the impression this little piece is about opening sentences in books. Nope, it was just a nice way to start. This is about book beginnings, but it’s only about the beginning of one book: my book. Like many writers of short stories, I too am working on a long story. I’ve been working on it for several years, and part of the reason I’ve been working on it all that time is because it started life as a short story.

I wrote a nice little story back in 2005: a thriller/mystery. It clocked in at about 6000 words, and I sent it out to the usual suspects. There was no sale. After nine rejections, I moved the story into a new folder on my PC labeled THINK, and there it sat (for several years). I wasn’t concerned, I knew it would be a hard sell, but more importantly, I had the feeling there was a better story that could be had from it. This has actually become my preferred working method: Think up an idea, get some way into plotting or writing it, and then put it to one side for cogitation. And to be honest, most of the time an idea gets put to one side is because it’s hit a roadblock. But that’s another story altogether.

I returned to the short story several times and made improvements. I widened the plot and added a new main character (previously it had been shared between three). I rewrote the story in first person. I twice changed the main character’s occupation. I tried different settings and time periods (the original had been set in New Zealand in 1969). I rewrote it set in Germany in 1950. I then went back to third person and tried it out in England in the 1930s. For three months, I thought of adapting what I had as a screenplay for a locally-set TV drama. For three months after that I thought it might make for a decent novella. Then, finally, I slammed my head into my desk and surrendered. What I had was a novel.

I had been thinking that all along, but I had kept putting it off for the fear of commitment. Writing a novel is a serious undertaking. It’s like joining the Foreign Legion for a tour of duty, or flying to Mars. Once you sign on for the ride, it’s you and the devil, baby.

I spent the summer of 2012-13 mapping out the novel’s plot (Summers in New Zealand are over Xmas/New Year). I moved the story back to 1969 and its setting to California. I then tweaked that by bringing the story into the present day. Despite the story’s original setting and time period, for the bigger story that had evolved, it was a perfect fit. And frankly, there are commercial considerations here. I’m not writing this book to print it out on my dot matrix to pass it around friends. I’d like to sell it, and I want to give it the best chance it has in the marketplace.

Books set in foreign countries are fine, but in my experience, trying to sell a book (to a publisher) in the US, that isn’t set in the US, is like trying to climb the Chrysler Building in nothing more than flippers and a bunny rabbit onesie. Short stories, by contrast, can be set anywhere, as long as you know the setting and can bring it to life for the reader.

So, I devised a decent plot for the book a year and a half ago, why haven’t I now finished writing it..? Because I’ve been working on the book’s opening.

I define “opening” as a book’s first quarter. For me, it’s the most important part of the book, as everything that occurs in the following three quarters must have its roots back in the first. Shotgun over the fireplace in the first quarter — someone pulls its trigger in the last quarter. To most writers, this is a no-brainer. I’m a slow learner.

I’ve written the book’s opening about six times. I say about, because I’ve lost count. And with every new draft, I had the sense I had finally gotten it right. However, a little voice inside me kept saying: “No” (like that “little man” inside Edward G Robinson in the movie Double Indemnity).

The first problem was the story’s origin as a short story — it took me a long time to break free of it. The first draft of the book retained it almost entirely intact, with scenes simply added in and around it.

Little voice said: “No.”

I expanded the beginning and wrote a new, and what I considered to be a perfect, first chapter. The three people who read it remarked the same thing: That’s a nice first chapter, Stephen. But it still didn’t work. And despite my knowing it didn’t, I hung onto it like the pair of us were hooked up to mutual life support.

Little voice said: “No.”

The chapter didn’t work because it was a prologue. It described events that happened thirty years before the rest of the story. Subsequently, chapter two felt like the book was starting all over again. A brick wall for many readers. Eventually, I incorporated the events of the prologue into later chapters, where they were actually relevant to the progressing story.

Another problem I had was that I was holding too much back from the reader about the main character. It was as though I didn’t want anyone to know anything about him. He’s the MAIN character; we should know something about him! We should know his thoughts!

Little voice said (with a hint of weariness): “No.”

A rereading of Stephen King’s On Writing kicked me back on course on this one. To paraphrase King: Don’t keep secrets from your readers. As a side note, I’ve read a pile of books about the craft of writing, and King’s book is the one I keep coming back to. So, after another restart, my main character is now more engaging — he actually does things, and we get inside his head — the book flows a lot more smoothly as a result.

Today (late August 2014), I’m about two weeks out from finishing the book’s first quarter, and almost everything in the first quarter of the book now takes place before the events in the short story, with almost none of the short story (as it was originally written) making it into the book.

I’ve learnt a couple of valuable lessons in the last year and a half. Be ruthless with your writing. Kill your darlings. Give them a pair of cement slippers and row them out into the harbor at midnight. And don’t write a book in denial of the truth, especially when the truth is right under your nose. So, when will this book be finished? Now that my writing pocket watch has come off glacier time, hopefully within the next year. I have a rough draft already for most of the rest of it (I didn’t spend all of that year and a half entirely on the first 20,000 words).

Little voice says: “Och, we’ll see about that, laddie!” (my little man is a Scotsman).

On my tombstone will be engraved either Tenacious, or Fool. Or as a friend cheerfully suggested: Both.