Science fiction writers are often asked where they get their ideas, as if there is some patented and repeatable formula or process. Sadly, that's not the case. Coming up with ideas is not an easy game and there's no real answer to the question. This is why curmudgeonly-but-lovable Harlan Ellison, when asked where he gets his ideas, responds with "Schenectady."
Since story ideas are often hard to come by, it may not be surprising that when an author does come up with one, they may later choose to build upon that story. If the original idea was told in a novel, that means it becomes the start of a series. But what about short fiction? Some authors have indeed written multiple short stories that take place in the same universe and involve the same characters...but there is another route, too. An author could choose to extend a short fiction story to novel length. This is the genesis of several recent science fiction and fantasy novels, in fact; the authors wrote a short story that got published, it was recognized as being a standout idea, and the author expanded their story into a full-length novel.
Why and how do they do it? Does the story suffer from such a process? Is there anything left to tell the reader? Let's take a closer look at this process.
The Reasons Short Fiction is Expanded into a Novel
One reason short fiction becomes a longer story is because the author has more to tell. That's what happened to Catherine Lundoff, whose novel Silver Moon began as a novella published in a werewolf anthology. "The characters weren't done with me yet," says Lundoff. "I had written a novelette about a menopausal woman turning into a werewolf and built a werewolf culture around her. Then I needed to know what happened next. I liked spending time with these particular characters and I wanted to get to know them better."
The same happened to Ted Kosmatka, whose novel Prophet of Bones began life as the much-lauded short story "The Prophet of Flores." The story is set in an alternative world where the Earth is only 5,800 years old and an archaeological dig offers new evidence of mankind's origins. Kosmatka says, "I'd really liked the world I'd created in the short story, but I felt like I'd only just introduced it. I wanted to explore that world more and find out what happened to the main character once he got back to his lab."Another well-received (in fact, multiple award–nominated) story was "Identity Theft" by Robert J. Sawyer. This noir-ish detective-on-Mars story, whose central science fictional premise is that a person's identity can be uploaded into immortal android bodies called "transfers," was recently expanded into the novel Red Planet Blues. In Sawyer's case, not only was there significant fan demand after the award win, but there was also the lure of Hollywood. (A few years back, Sawyer's novel FlashForward was adapted into a television series, a huge feather for an author to have in their cap.) So why not simply sell "Identity Theft" to Hollywood as-is? Sawyer says, "Hollywood is way more likely to develop a best-selling novel than it is any short work, no matter how lauded that work might be."
Ways an Author Expands a Novel
So how does an author take a complete, already finished shorter work and make a novel out of it? Sometimes the answer is to use the shorter story as a springboard. Linda Nagata's short story "Through Your Eyes" thus served as a prequel for her military sf novel The Red: First Light, which takes place four years later and follows Lieutenant James Shelley as he commands a squad of high-tech soldiers in a for-profit war manufactured by the defense industry. "When I wrote 'Through Your Eyes' I conceived of it as an independent story, unrelated to any larger work. But when it was done, I couldn't get the protagonist out of my head. I'd messed up his nice life, and I wanted to know what was going to happen to him afterward. He'd been caught up in an antiwar protest, so the ironic answer was that he would become a soldier. When that idea struck, I knew I had a novel to write."
Oftentimes, the source story becomes part of the novel in some way. The first 10 chapters of Red Planet Blues is a slightly modified form of the original story, as is the first act of Prophet of Bones and the first 25 percent of Silver Moon. However, sometimes the novel is a "meatier" form of the story, like the case of the forthcoming Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh, which offers several portraits of love and courtship in a future where technology redefines mortality. The original story (the Hugo award-winning "Bridesicle") is interspersed throughout the novel, more or less evenly. Says McIntosh, "the beginning of the novel is the beginning of the short story, but the ending is much different."
The Challenges of Expanding a Story into a Novel
A casual glance at the trend of extending short stories into novels might lead you to believe that's it's an easy task. Just look at Will McIntosh; Love Minus Eighty is just one of five novels he wrote that began as short fiction, but he says he is not sure how he settled into this pattern of mining short stories for novel ideas. Indeed, this practice poses many challenges for writers. In McIntosh's case, he had to take a streamlined story idea, completely told from the point of view of a woman trapped in a cryogenic coffin, and make it a novel. "No way I was going to stretch it to novel length without it becoming extremely tedious. I wanted to keep that central, claustrophobic element, so I decided to open it up by creating a number of other story threads that would intersect with the 'Bridesicle' thread in compelling ways, along the lines of the movie, Love, Actually, but with a dystopian feel."
Linda Nagata faced a unique challenge in that she tapped into a second short story story, "Nightside on Callisto," to flesh out the world of her novel, The Red: First Light. She says, "the challenge for me was coordinating events and technology between the two stories, while creating a plot for the novel that would begin the journey between them."
For Catherine Lundoff, Silver Moon was to be her first novel. She had previously written only short fiction. Lundoff says, "I'd gotten used to writing shorter stories and gotten comfortable with that kind of story arc. Making the decision to just build one of them out made sense in that context, but I had to figure out how to write more story to really develop the ideas I had started with."
Kosmatka's challenge for Prophet of Bones was in maintaining the same level of scientific flavor that he had in the short story. "This was a story with a lot of research behind it, and I wanted to keep that very scientific tone throughout the entire novel," he says. "I had to find that balance with the pacing. I wanted a fast story, but I also wanted to convey a lot of technical ideas that supported the story's premise."
And lest any writers out there think that the task of turning a short story into a novel is easy, heed the words of Robert J. Sawyer: "I learned a lesson: I thought it would be easier to create a novel this way; it turned out to be much harder. The word novel means 'new' and the best way to write one is by starting fresh."
John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a Hugo Award-winning group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews. He likes to embellish other people's sentences by adding, "...in spaaaace!" You can follow him on Twitter as @sfsignal.