When Does Your Writing Project Become a Novel?

Guest Blogger: Joshua Isard

I began my novel, CONQUISTADOR OF THE USELESS, while sitting in a cafe and writing a short story which I’d had no intention to write. It just came out. A few weeks later it was accepted for publication in the excellent journal, PRESS 1, and I rather thought that was the end of it. What a nice, quick process. Writing almost never works that way.

Then I started writing a story about characters remarkably similar to those from the first story, one which could very easily take place directly after it. This too was accepted for publication in a speedy manner.

When I started writing a third story with similar characters, I had to admit that, yes, they were the same characters in all three, but I wasn’t writing a novel, just riding a wave of stories about people that editors seemed to like.

I took these stories to my writing group. Eventually, the other group members started referring to it as my novel, and while at this point I knew they were right, I didn’t want to admit it. I referred to each piece as one in my “linear group of semi-autonomous short stories.”

I started calling it a novel about ¾ of the way through my first draft because I had an ending. I was writing towards something. Before that, I could have theoretically written the lives of my main characters, and branched out to everyone they knew until I stopped wanting to explore them anymore or the stories got bad. But once I saw the end, I knew what I had, and was willing to say so myself.

No writer necessarily needs to know they’re writing a novel when they start out. In fact, starting with a blank page and deciding to write a novel could lead to something affected. I’m a proponent of letting stories become what they may, be it a short story, novella, novel, or epic trilogy. Not every writer works this way, and it’s not a good strategy for everyone, but I do think there are plenty of writers, like myself, who don’t have an outline before starting, who seem to be, as E.L. Doctorow said, driving in the dark of the story and can only see as far as their headlights. And to them I say: that’s OK. You really can make the trip that way. And it might be better, because you go where the story takes you even if you can only see the next few pages of it at a time. The result is often organic, fluid, as any good piece of writing should be, and as I hope my novel is.

Does anyone else write with doubts about what exactly you’re working on while you’re working on it?

Joshua Isard grew up in the Philadelphia area, earned his BA in English at Temple University, and then went on to study creative writing at the University of Edinburgh and literature at University College London. He is the author of the novel CONQUISTADOR OF THE USELESS (Cinco Puntos Press 2013), and his short stories have recently appeared in THE BROADKILL REVIEW, PRESS 1, STORYCHORD, and NORTHWIND. He is currently the director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania. He lives outside Philadelphia with his wife, two cats, and baby daughter.


  1. Joshua, this is timely for me as I’ve started writing scenes that come to my head about these characters. I’ve just been labeling them as essays really, wondering just how they will turn into a novel. I’ve never approached a novel this way – so it’s fun and different! And I find that each time I do write a new book, there is a new process I embrace that works out in the end. And even with a general idea in mind, I’m having more fun on this project writing it organically. Writing to find “the discovery” is like tapping into our dream area that lends itself to writing fiction. Thanks for sharing your process.

  2. Donna, I’m glad I could offer you a little validation on your current process. I suppose there’s no wrong way to write a novel, but we writers tend to wonder if we’re doing it wrong, don’t we?

    It is a fun way to write, discovering something new each time we sit down to type away. As I think about it, that was one of the things that kept me going, the enjoyment of seeing the next scene for the first time almost as I wrote it.

    Thanks for responding, and good luck with your current project!

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