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From story to novel: the case study of Alexi Zentner’s Touch

Zentner's debut novel, Touch, is expanded from his award-winning short story, "Touch"

I asked Lighthouse novel workshopper and Young Writers’ Program instructor John O’Keefe, an avid and early admirer of Alexi Zentner, to write about having first encountered Zentner’s “Touch” as an award-winning short story (anthologized and jury selected in the O. Henry Awards anthology) and then reading it as a recently expanded novel, also called Touch. (For more on the book, check out this recent Washington Post review, and then come join us and Stories on Stage for our next Fly-By Writer’s Project weekend). 

See Your Darlings: a guest blogpost

by John O’Keefe

I have a short story that has generally been well received in workshops. The comment I get most often is that there has got to be more to the story. Not in a bad way, in a “What happens next?” way. The kind of way that makes me think that there might very well be a novel hidden somewhere in the ten odd pages I’ve created. To take a short story and turn it into a novel is a daunting task. Is the short story the opening? Is it the conclusion? Or is it, as good a story as it is, meant to be a short story only? Turning a short story into a novel is like believing that just because you have the ability to run, you should be able to complete a marathon.

When I first read Alexi Zentner’s short story, “Touch,” I thought it was hauntingly beautiful in its imagery of love and loss in the frozen logging camps of Canada. Touch as a novel delivers the promise of the short story. It expands and enriches images and descriptions. Passages that hint at back story or character motivation are, in the novel, exploded into fully realized chapters that heighten the story into new realms. But every one is there, in the short story, waiting to be realized.

Seeing what Zentner did with Touch gives me hope that, as a writer, everything is already there. I just need to see it and bring it to the surface. The key lies in the willingness to see what is there. Faulkner said to “kill your darlings” when revising, meaning that you shouldn’t be afraid to get rid of something just because you like it. Seeing Touch go from short story to novel makes me want to expand on that thought: See your darlings. Find those moments that add the extra layer to your story and let them grow. Let them out, into the sun, and see what they turn into. Let it go where it wants to go, let it run until it is out of gas. Unpack, see what is there, and play with that. Just don’t be afraid to let it grow first.

I think a lot of writers stare at a piece of writing, finished or not, and ask: where do I go now? I think the answer, from Touch, is just to go and find out. At its core revising means to see something again. To look at a story, and  take the time to notice the use of words, the turn of phrase, or the repetition of verbs. Treat it like someone else wrote it, and write it yourself. Find the significance of each and every adjective and image. An editor (or in my case, teacher) will let you know if there is too much. But if you don’t unpack, if you don’t take the time to find out where all the trails lead, then you won’t ever know what other possibilities lay within your own writing. “Touch” is a beautiful, haunting short story that grew up to be a beautiful, haunting novel. It’s an example of how the potential of a story is already there, waiting to be seen. It’s an example of the potential of all stories.

–JDO

Come pop open a beer with Canadian writer Alexi Zentner, who's flying by Lighthouse Aug. 27-28.

Thanks for that one, John, and don’t forget to join us on Saturday, August 27, for the Fly By Writer’s Project, featuring an inspiring performance of Zentner’s work by John Hutton of Stories on Stage, at the new Lighthouse, 1515 Race Street. Dinner and drinks included, and rousing after-performance remarks by Zentner himself. We’ll serve Canadian beer out on the wrap-around porch, beer can chicken (and vegetarian alternatives), and maybe even give away a toque or two.

3 comments on “From story to novel: the case study of Alexi Zentner’s Touch

  1. Aray
    August 11, 2011

    Great post, John. I just got my copy of Touch, and I’m excited to see how Zentner expanded small references into complete story-lines, and to what extent the novel is a different animal from the story. And the beer…I’m excited about that, too.

  2. Dan Manzanares
    August 16, 2011

    See your darlings. I like that. I like it so much I’m internalizing it. I’m internalizing it so much it’s now a seed.

    Kill your darlings I’ve internalized too over the years. It got me places, for sure. But I like this reversal. See your darlings. Seed your darlings.

    I’ll look for the bloom and let you know John, if we ever meet, what petals arrived from the seedcore. Perhaps over a wine at Zentner’s Fly-by!

  3. megnix
    August 22, 2011

    Thanks for this post, John. (Late reaction here…) I think the opposite happens too, when you have to see that the short version is enough–more poignant even–than expanding a short story or essay into a novel or memoir. I find myself wondering when “what happens next” is a good indication that the story is finished and leaves people still wanting more, versus when that question should prod a writer into book-length expansion. Maybe the answer is, as you say, “going and finding out.”

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This entry was posted on August 9, 2011 by in Cool Events, Good Books, Member dispatches, The Scoop, The Write Idea, Writing.

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