Emily X.R. Pan on How Writing a Short Story Can Lead to a Better Novel
"That short story taught me to experiment."
This first appeared in Lit Hub’s Craft of Writing newsletter—sign up here.
This silken spool of thread is your novel. See the bold hue, the sheen sliding across the strands as it turns. What’s waiting to be unwound?
From the time I was old enough to understand what books were, I wanted to create my own. I could picture those spools in my mind. The turn of the threads. The colors they’d be. A simple enough task, I thought: Pick up the pen and write sentence after sentence, page after page… until I reached the end. Except I never did, in those earliest attempts.
Then my second-grade teacher asked us to write a story about an animal, and I crafted a fable for how the panda came to be black and white. It was the first thing I wrote that felt like something real — like trying to cast a spell and discovering it actually works.
I borrowed my father’s computer, laboriously hunting out each letter, forgetting it was homework. What mattered was the spark and the ritual. The hypnotic sound of fingers connecting with keys, words threading into sentences. It brought me a quiet and shimmering glee. It carried me to The End.
The first lesson the short story taught me: There is magic in simply reaching a finish line.
And here’s the thing about a spool of thread: You can see its beginning, but the tail is hidden at the bottom. How do you stretch your mind around all those coils? Easier to begin with something short — a length of string you can hold taut at both ends.
A couple decades later, I’d gotten good at reaching the finish line. I was sending out queries with a lifetime’s worth of wishes gathered under my tongue, too precious to be whispered. I spent my days at work surreptitiously refreshing my email. The initial responses seemed promising; my heart exploded with each full manuscript request. But soon the rejections came. I worked for a publisher at the time, and on the most unbearable days I quietly stole the keys to the book closet and locked myself inside.
Recovering from that was slow and difficult. I began to play with a new novel idea, but it was daunting to imagine pouring myself into another book only to be told, again, that it wasn’t enough. I was still fragile and grieving.
What I needed was a spark. The boost of that finish-line magic.
An old story at the bottom of a drawer began to itch at me. The first drafts were from my undergraduate days, abandoned when the execution didn’t measure up. I adjusted the premise, developed new characters, changed the stakes. I rewrote it from scratch, and it ended up getting published in a literary journal that I loved.
That was a turning point for me. I’d sorely needed the reminder that I could get to The End.
And here was the second big lesson I learned from writing a short story: To be unafraid of starting over from a blank page. To trust in my instincts, and cut myself a new length of thread.
These days I’m a chronic rewriter. I’m much less precious about my words and more open to the possibility of other directions. The phrase “rewrite from scratch” is misleading because any time we do it we’re depending on scaffolding that’s already been built. All that foundational work lives on in the brain.
The great thing about writing short stories is that we’re quicker to identify weaknesses. No need to swim through three hundred pages to discover that a character is too flat. We can see right away if the tension deflates at the peak. Fixing these problems in our short stories is a way of sharpening our knives. Our novels, in turn, become much stronger.
And perhaps most important of all: That short story taught me to experiment. It was a small, contained sandbox in which I could play all I wanted. I didn’t worry about the mess; it wasn’t going to break my printer.
The experimentation was crucial.
That story was different from other things I’d written, and it did not fit neatly into any one category. It was literary and it was weird. A touch fantastical. It carried me back to the shimmering glee I’d felt as a seven-year-old. My new excitement was a kind of electricity crackling in my veins as I realized: I wanted to make fiction that had a familiar smell and an ancient kind of weight, but which proved itself to be something transformed and new when you held it to the light. Perhaps that experimentation is also what carried me to the YA category, where books are regularly mixing genres and breaking new ground, and readers are hungry for something beyond the conventional.
At my events I am regularly asked about the process behind my debut novel, The Astonishing Color of After. I watch people’s eyes grow bigger while I explain how I rewrote it time and again. How its premise mutated, and new characters took over. When at last I’ve finished explaining that multi-year expedition, I’ve always run out of time to say this: That book would not have existed if I had not first written the above-mentioned short story.
That story lit a flame for me, taught me how to believe in myself. Taught me to grip the start of my thread and let it fall freely, unspool. Wind it back up. Unspool it again. The end is always there, just waiting for me to find it.
Read more on the craft of the short story:
On the different engines that can power a story.
How a short story collection is like a zoo.
Jamel Brinkley on the art of the short story: “Everything is happening all the time.”
On the many shapes a story can take.
5 Short Story Collections to Offer You a Spark
RECOMMENDED BY EMILY X. R. PAN
Souvankham Thammavongsa, How To Pronounce Knife
Alexandra Kleeman, Intimations
Aimee Bender, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt
Danielle Evans, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self
Kelly Link, Get in Trouble
Foreshadow: Stories to Celebrate the Magic of Reading and Writing YA by Nova Ren Suma and Emily X.R. Pan is available via Algonquin.