It's National Novel-Writing Month, when the world's coolest people plunge head-first into crafting a novel from scratch. But how can you tell if your brilliant novel idea is really just a short story that's gotten too big for its britches?
The truth, of course, is that there's no such thing as a "novel idea" or a "short story idea." It all depends on execution, and pretty much any idea can become a novel or a short story, depending on how you handle it. At the same time, it's also true that:
1) Some ideas are easier to turn into a whole novel than others.
2) You might discover that a particular storyline just doesn't work as a novel for you in particular, even if it might have spawned a novel for someone else. (Or it's not a novel-worthy idea for the writer you are today, but it might turn into one ten years from now.)
So how before you waste precious days of your all-too-short month on an unfeasible idea — and remember that, just to mock the feebleness of your ambitions, November only has 30 days instead of 31 — here are some diagnostics that you could apply to your novel in progress, to see if it's really got the novelistic stuff.
I've written my fair share of abortive novels that turned into pretty good short stories. This actually isn't a bad way to come up with a good short story, because after you sift through all the random crud and get to the one nifty idea that supports a few thousand words of sparkling prose. Some of my favorite short stories (of mine) started out that way. But it's not so great if you're trying to win the approval of the NaNoWriMo gods.
At the same time, every failed novel fails in its own way, and that includes novels that fail because they're better off being short stories. So there are no hard-and-fast rules, or foolproof tests, for identifying this syndrome early. The best I can offer is a few hints. So here are some questions you can try asking:
Does your plot lend itself to complications? You can insert complications into any plot, really, but some plots are more naturally open to twists and turns than others — and if you're planning on just having a lot of wheel-spinning, "and then they get lost or taken prisoner a whole bunch," complications that don't actually build your characters at all, then maybe it's time to rethink. I mean, you don't have to outline a novel in advance — some people do, some don't — but if you can't see how this is going to get from "we have a problem" to "we have a solution," other than in a straight line — or if the resolution at the end of the novel is obvious on page three — then maybe you don't have a novel here. Hint: A "shaggy dog" story doesn't always make for a great novel, unless you can make it really funny or fascinating.
Just how episodic is this? And are the episodes things that really come together into one story, or just random events that happen to some of the same people? Do your episodes actually build the characters, so that the reader sees a progression in their competence or their attitudes, or do you just plan on lurching from one event to the next?
Is your protagonist someone with a past? And a future? A lot rides on your main character here — and not to be rude to your protagonist, but some main characters are just naturally short fiction heroes. You can always add more details and more depth to your protagonist to try and flesh him/her out, but sometimes what's awesome about a character is just how she or he confronts one moment in his/her life. So it's never a bad idea to think about your protag, and exactly what secrets from their past you can delve into, and what craziness awaits them in the future. Often, the best novel protagonists have something pretty major happen to them at the start of the story — like Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim being trapped in hell for a decade and finally crawling out, or Seanan McGuire's October Daye being turned into a fish for years before finally regaining her human form. It's the sort of backstory that leaves lots of stuff to work through — and people to confront.
For that matter, is your protagnonist really our protagonist? Or is this just the person you think ought to be the protagonist of a novel? Maybe there's someone hanging around in the background who's way more fascinating, but just doesn't have as much of what you consider to be a novel protagonist's attributes. Maybe your ostensible protagonist is a more traditional hero but just doesn't have your full attention.
Are you really only interested in one corner? Is there one piece of the picture that really interests you, but you're forcing yourself to broaden your focus to include a lot of other stuff? Seriously, be honest. Sometimes there's one part of the narrative that really stands out and feels vivid and fascinating, whereas the rest of it is sort of blurry and generic, and you're hoping that all the stuff where your hero gets lost in the wilderness will snap into focus once you've started writing it. This is probably the big one — if your epically sprawling story only has one shining moment, or one strand, that actually makes you excited to write it, then that's probably a short story — at least for now.
Is this all just an excuse for worldbuilding? Are you more interested in the backdrop than the story taking place in the foreground? Can you spend hours geeking out about the Frost Giants and their occasional wars with the Steam Genies? Do you have a ton of maps of different places, with their endlessly fascinating local intrigues? In that case, you never know, sometimes it's better to write a bunch of shared-universe stories in which you get to poke around different corners of your world.
Does it feel like it might get away from you a little bit? Because if it feels totally under control right from the outset, that could actually be a sign that you're dealing with something small and tidy rather than a monstrous outgrowth of uncontrolled storytelling. Even in the first dozen pages, if you can't feel outcroppings and weird edges popping out of your story all over the place, then that could be a danger sign.
The bottom line, of course, is you often can't tell whether something will support a novel until after you've written tens of thousands of words and discovered that you either do or do not have the strength of conviction to guide this puppy into the harbor. And the "strength of conviction" thing is often a gut feeling that you don't get all at once, but it just creeps up on you over time. Still, asking some hard questions at the start of the process might help
At the very least, it can't hurt. (And bear in mind, even if your novel morphs into a short story or a set of short stories, you can always turn it back into a novel somewhere down the line.)
Happy NanoWriMo, everybody!