Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

The Thicket

About a month ago, maybe two, I don’t quite recall, I started working on something new. It came about in an odd way for me, because I knew three things about it before I had set a single word to page:

The title. This is really unusual for me. Titles rarely come so early in the process. Usually, it’s “The WiP” until somewhere halfway through I come up with some shorthand title that I use until it either sticks or until I think of something else—or, in the case of Powerless, someone else comes up with something better. Here, however, I knew the title, which was also going to be the opening line, and maybe even the closing line.

The story. Like, the whole story! Quite often, with longer works, I start off with an idea—Power goes out in small town! Family struggles to survive, AND they have to take care of someone else’s kid!–and little else. My entry into the story is a scene that comes to me from somewhere, and I go from there. As I go, I find where the story is going. In a way, it’s a little like standing in a clearing in the woods, seeing what might be a path over there, and following it. The path is narrow, it’s overgrown and it winds around, but at some point it starts to widen and become more defined, and soon enough I know where it will lead. In this case, though, I knew how it would begin, how it would end, and had it would get there. How strange!

It was going to be short. I also knew from the outset that this was going to be a short, sort of macabre story, the sort of thing I might have cranked out in response to a prompt when my writing group was still a thing. This is also unusual for me, because I just don’t do short as a rule.

The morning I sat down to start writing, I knew all of these things about it, so of course as soon as I started almost all of that went out the window. Five to seven pages grew to ten, then twelve, then beyond. I started dropping names of characters who were already dead (or presumed dead), places that were lost, all hints of something bigger, a world of mystery. Instead of sticking to the trail I was peering into the tangles on either side, following deer paths into thickets and briar patches, and having some fun.

As often happens, I followed the side trails, and eventually the track I was on came out on a new trail and that took me home, though not quite to the place I thought when I started. And now I find myself with fifty pages instead of five or seven, and a conundrum: What the hell do you do with a 50-page “short” story?

Here are the choices I see:

  1. Expand it and turn it into a full-blown novel-length manuscript;
  2. Cut the holy fuck out of it and wrangle it back down to five to seven pages (or at least the few thousand words that might be publishable somewhere);
  3. Write three or four more stories of similar length that take place in the same universe, with either the same characters or some of the side characters mentioned (there’s a dead person in this who I find especially compelling). Each works as a standalone but forms a complete work when put together;
  4. Revise and edit and leave it as it is, a fifty-ish page standalone with an open end.

I don’t know what the best option is here. Option 2 is probably the best from the standpoint of improving my craft. Good short stories are an art that takes the sort of discipline and self-control I often lack. At the same time, I am a long writer at heart, which makes options 1 and 3 most appealing. Option 1 is probably easiest; option 3 is most intriguing. As for option 4, I ask again, what the hell do you do with a fifty page “short” story?

So I guess I leave it to you, readers and writers. What would you do in my situation? Or is there another possibility I’m just not seeing? If you’re a writer, please tell me if you’ve been here and how you handled it. If you’re a reader, what would you like to see? I’d love to know.

[NOTE]You may have noticed a bit of a “woods theme” with this post. The story in question takes place mostly in the woods. And after I finished the first draft, I happened to grab Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon off the shelf to read, so I guess the woods are on my mind!

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