Every author finds their calling—and their material—differently. Sarah Bruni, whose first novel, The Night Gwen Stacy Died, was published just last month, shares her path to publication in a guest blog post. Perhaps it's not surprising that such a fresh and unusual story—which blends the Spider-Man mythology with the story of two unconventional loners—didn't present itself in a normal way!
I didn’t set out to write a novel at all. If I had I known from the start that’s what I was doing, I probably would have approached the task very differently. I began writing a collection of short stories set in Chicago in 2006. In one of them, a lonely young woman working in an Iowa gas station, eager for escape, allowed herself to be kidnapped by a gun-wielding taxi driver who called himself Peter Parker. Making a pact to rob her gas station and drive to Chicago in his stolen taxi, these two outcasts were my collection’s only characters who behaved so oddly: borrowing identities from comic books, acting out on the fringes of society. I didn’t know what to make of them; neither did my readers.
"Writing short fiction, I was always anxious to get into a new character’s headspace each time I finished a story. Working as a novelist taught me a particular kind of patience."
It took a few years of readers advising me that the story didn’t feel completely contained within the collection—and that it “wanted” to be much longer—for me to finally decide to expand it into novel. At the time I was still mostly interested in the compact worlds of short stories, and I was completely uncertain how to approach this task. I continued to treat the work as a short story writer might, crafting mostly self-contained sections from each protagonist’s perspective before chopping up those sections into chapters to see how those fragmented perspectives could react and respond to one another, how they might create a sense of forward motion through their juxtaposition. I’ve been told since that the novel feels carefully plotted (sometimes even to its detriment) which always comes as a surprise to me. I was unequipped with the novelist’s tools and knew nothing of outlines. It was late in the drafting process that I began to feel like an insider to the sense of that momentum I was creating.
The thing that’s struck me most about the novelist’s task this first time through is the incredible sense of commitment that it requires to spend so much time in a single created world. Writing short fiction, I was always anxious to get into a new character’s headspace each time I finished a story. Working as a novelist taught me a particular kind of patience. It was sometimes a challenge to stay committed to these characters I had first encountered nearly seven years ago, to continue to find new ways to move with them through their experiences. But being a long and imperfect form, a novel allows opportunities for digression and experimentation that are different from those available in shorter fiction. I was surprised by how much my characters were able to change and develop with me as a writer, how their behaviors shifted along with my interests—that’s in some way what made me stick with them for so long.