Skin and Bones began as a quirky short story featuring teens in an Eating Disorders Unit of a metropolitan hospital. (read more about a real life struggle with this issue here). It sold to several literary journals and YA anthologies around the world. My agent kept encouraging me to expand the five-page story into a novel.
I spent months weighing the pros and cons of such a challenge:
• The story would serve as an outline since the basic story arc was in place.
• Each character had a distinctive voice.
• The hospital setting was firmly fixed in my mind.
• The subject matter had proven itself to be of interest to readers.
• Proven ground is attractive to editors and publishers, as long as the topic is approached in a fresh way.
• The story would require an additional 60,000 words.
• I would have to create a cast of secondary characters.
• Every character would require a realistic backstory.
• I would have to devise compelling subplots.
• Each scene would require richer subtext.
During the first draft I encountered a number of unexpected obstacles. For instance, how could I keep up the quirky tone without sounding flippant? Eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, compulsive over-eating, etc.) are serious, and in too many instances, life-threatening. It took several drafts before the tone felt balanced.
More than one anorexic in my story figures out how to manipulate the system. After all, they’re experts at exploiting family, friends, and each other, as well their environment. Yet I worried about Skin and Bones becoming a how-to manual for those still in the throes of the disorder.
On the other hand, I knew I had to include information about the potentially grave consequences associated with the illness. But I didn’t want to sound didactic. Sometimes I sprinkled facts into zany scenes. Other times statistics emerged in dialogue between ranting patients. Either way, disseminating information felt more organic when slipped in sideways and not straight on.
During the process I was aware of the pulse of a novel and how it differs from a short story. The pacing is more generous. The theme more layered. I had the luxury of spending more time with my characters; involving myself in the intricacies of their motivation, goals, and actions.
I’m considering expanding another short story into a novel—this time exploring the psychological effects of abduction. After my experience with Skin and Bones, I’m keenly aware that a novel isn’t just a short story with padding. I’ve asked myself, Have I seen this topic before? Can I explore it in a way that’s truly original? These type of questions continue to challenge me as a novelist.
Sherry Shahan has nearly 40 books to her credit, fiction and nonfiction. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches a writing course for UCLA Extension. When not writing she has studied dance in Cuba, snorkeled with penguins in the Galapagos, hiked a leech-infested rain forest in Australia, and gotten hopelessly lost on the backstreets of Istanbul. Visit her website.