Julianna Baggott on Turning a Short Story into a Novel

Julianna Baggott is the author of a number of novels–most recently, Pure, which you can begin reading on Figment here. Pure is a freaky dystopian story about two very different teenage survivors of a nuclear holocaust. The first, Pressia, is one of the damaged who ekes out a meager living in a survivor’s colony. Partridge is luckier–he lives in the Dome, which protects the “pure” from disease and injury. But neither is satisfied, and they’re about to meet. Pure is the kind of epic story that can only be told in novel format. But Julianna resisted the novel for a long time, being a die-hard short-story writer. Read about her journey from short fiction to novel writing below.

First of all, I should confess that when I started out, I believed in the short story as the Great American Form, and that novelists were writers who simply lacked self-restraint. I believed you should be able to get everything you needed from writer to reader in 25 pages or fewer. I was a real believer, completely devout.

But a few things happened. I had a collection of stories–most of which had been published in literary magazines–that I couldn’t get published. Now, I’d been warned this might happen. In fact, Andre Dubus (the author of Broken Vessels) explained that if you keep publishing short stories, agents will come knocking . . . but they’ll only want one thing: a novel. Dubus seemed to want us young writers not to give in (or that’s how I remember it).

Well, by this point, I was out of college and through grad school, was married and had two small kids at home. And the agent DID come calling and he did want only one thing: a novel. Well, I heard myself telling this agent that I was, in fact, working on a novel and, oddly enough, it was based on the 11-page short story he’d loved so much, a short story called “Girl Talk.” He asked for the first fifty pages, and I told it’d take me a month just to polish those pages.

And so I wrote the first 50 pages of Girl Talk. I had no intentions of finishing the novel. I thought I’d lure him with the first 50 pages and hope that, in the meanwhile, he’d take my collection to editors. After I shipped them off, he wrote back that he loved the pages and couldn’t wait “to read the rest.” And that’s when I became a novelist. I set to work on the rest and fell in love with the larger architecture of the novel. And now I’m one of those writers who finds it very hard to get everything I need to get from the writer to the reader in 25 pages or fewer.

With Girl Talk, which eventually was published by Simon and Schuster, I learned important lessons about the move from the story to the novel.

1. Start with something that has resonance. There was a reason why my agent was drawn to that story–there was more off the page than on it. Or should I say there was more under the page? The subtext was rich.

And then I learned to 2. Use what you have. Not only did I use “Girl Talk” the short story as the basis of Girl Talk the novel, I also saw that there was another story of mine that fit very well into the novel’s backstory–a story within the novel. I knew approximately where I would stitch that story in and that helped give the novel some structure.

But “Girl Talk,” the short story, was a tight story because it didn’t have the things that a novel can take on–like long passages of time, multiple points of view, a large cast, multiple settings . . . And this led me to 3. Look for pleats.

Here’s an example. When Lissy Jablonski was 15, her father disappeared one night with a red-headed bankteller. That is a short story moment. But to open it up for a novel, I looked for the pleat of time. I asked, What if he disappeared not for one night, but a whole year? That ended up to be too long, so I dialed back to a summer. I opened up a pleat in the narrative’s timeline and then I had a novel.

Another example: A big event seen through one person’s point of view might be a short story. But that same event as experienced by three people might be a novel. That’s a pleat opened up in the point of view of the narrative.

Most of my novels use short stories I’ve already written. The Miss America Family has two. Which Brings Me to You might have two or even three. The Anybodies, written as N.E. Bode, has one of my earliest stories tucked away in it. The Madam and My Husband’s Sweethearts were written as screenplays first. And Pure has characters from a couple of short stories, stories that didn’t work so well as stories and needed the larger landscape of a novel–in this case a dark, ashen dystopian landscape.

So, in the end, I didn’t really turn my back on stories, though I don’t think I’m as adept at them as I once was–and I still write poems. But once I turned into a novelist, I came to enjoy the airy, roomy  architecture. And, well . . . maybe the novelist was inside of me all along.

One thought on “Julianna Baggott on Turning a Short Story into a Novel

  1. Dear Julianna,

    It’s funny that you only wrote a novel because an agent asked it of you. My current novel (a work-in-progress) was born because a friend of mine read a 3000 word short story of mine and then asked, “But what happens to the main character?”

    I told her the story was over and she simply wouldn’t accept it. I’ve been plugging along ever since, but I’m happy.

    Just wanted to share that with you. 🙂

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