In 1988 The New Yorker published Adam Schwartz’ short story “The Grammar of Love,” and a little more than twenty years later it became the fourth chapter in his first novel A Stranger On The Planet (a finalist for the 2011 National Jewish Book Award). The book was actually conceived as a collection of short stories, but they eventually congealed into something bigger, and before he knew it Schwartz had his first—unplanned—novel on his hands. We asked him how this came to be, and further, what advice he would offer young writers with a heap of short stories and possibly one (great) novel on their hands. He kindly prescripted the following five-step process for actualizing the dream:
1. You want to continue the relationship you’ve established with your characters. You realize that a short story writer spends as much imaginative energy understanding and creating his characters as a novelist does. But as soon as you’ve finally figured out your characters, you have to leave them behind. It’s a little like engaging in a long, difficult but ultimately beautiful courtship, then suddenly parting ways the morning after you’ve finally consummated your love for each other. In a novel, you get to enjoy the relationship for many more years.
2. You want to free yourself from the formal demands of the short story. You’ve had success as a short story writer—you’ve published stories in The New Yorker and other national magazines. You know your stories are good because you attempt to give them the richness and density of a novel, but writing them feels like trying to coax an elephant into a dollhouse. You are tired of coaxing elephants into dollhouses. You want to set off a stampede.
3. You realize all your stories are very similar, so you decide to write about the same cast of characters in all your stories. Once this happens, your stories become longer because your characters’ lives are more open-ended. This is both exhilarating and depressing—exhilarating because you feel liberated from the formal demands of the exquisitely wrought short story, depressing because the stories are too long—forty or fifty pages—to be published. You realize that writing fifteen thousand word stories is not a great career move unless you’re Alice Munro.
4. Now you tell yourself that you’re writing a collection of linked stories. You’re excited by this idea for two reasons: 1) You reason that a collection of linked stories is easier to sell than a conventional short story collection. 2) You don’t feel so bad that your stories are too long to be published as individual stories. Your reward, your acclaim, will come when the stories are published all together, and readers will appreciate the book as a brilliantly conceived whole.
5. Since you’ve started thinking of your book in terms salability, you realize that a novel would be even more salable than a collection of linked stories. Can’t you just label your book a novel in stories rather than a collection of related stories? What a brilliant idea! You send the book out to a number of agents, labeling it as a novel in stories and reminding them of how it is similar to other well-known books marketed as a “novel in stories.” They respond that they love the book but don’t think they can sell it as a novel. How do you turn your generically challenged book into a real novel rather than a book of related stories trying to pass as a novel? You decide to write a first chapter. You suddenly feel a lightness and confidence in your writing. That’s because you are establishing a pace and rhythm that will set the book in motion. Then, near the end of the chapter, you become very excited when you realize that a family secret will float up from the bottom of a Cape Cod pond on the same night Neil Armstrong walks on the moon. This first chapter changes everything about all the stories that you have already written. Now you are ready to begin.