Not every story needs to be a novel
Today’s post starts a series that’s aimed at NaNoWriMoers, but should contain advice useful to all authors. Non-authory content will still be posted roughly once a week though, including a new feature starting later this week!
Today I’m going to talk about story length. Now, this is a kind of odd thing for me to be talking about, since I am the person who tried to write a 3000 word short story and ended up with a 121,000 word novel, but maybe that makes me super qualified to talk about this, since I learned the hard way not to force a story into a length it shouldn’t be.
I understand the urge to make every story novel length. I’ve seen the articles about novel sales versus shorter fiction sales too. The money is in novels.
But the money isn’t in artificially long novels. If your idea is very simple without a lot of twists and turns, then most likely it would be better served by being a short story, novelette, or novella. Don’t add padding to bring a short story length idea up to novel length. It will show. I mean, if you need to do it just to win NaNoWriMo, that’s one thing. That’s no different than the time I counted my notes for Camp NaNoWriMo when I came up a couple thousand words shy (shhh . . . nobody else knows about that.). But, please, please, I’m begging you, cut the padding before you publish! It will show.
Now, don’t think that I’m saying that things like characterization and description don’t belong in shorter works . . . yes, I’ve read advice that says just that . . . I’m saying don’t have things like “Then he walked to the large, upholstered brown chair, and then he sat down in it and put on his left shoe, a brown suede oxford with tan laces, and then his matching right shoe, and then he stood up and walked the three feet to the door.” Yes, it’s more word count. Yes, it is more description. But it’s tedious and boring to read. (And probably a run-on, but we’ll ignore that for now. Run-ons are my specialty.) Especially don’t do that when none of the information contained in that long sentence is remotely relevant. I’ve read books lately that could’ve lost whole chapters and still told the exact same story. Not just the same plot. The same story. My understanding of neither the characters, nor the setting, nor anything else was deepened by these scenes. I’ve started referring to these books as “obvious NaNo projects.” Don’t publish one of those. It’s one of those things that makes people not take self-published authors seriously.
By the same token, don’t try to force a novel sized idea into a short story or novella because you’re hoping to enter it into some contest or submit it somewhere or whatever. This is the lesson I learned with No More Lies. It was supposed to be the story Bobby told in an anthology I was working on, since abandoned. All of the other stories were around 3000 words, so I wanted it to be too. The problem was, it was a much more complex story than any of the others, so it ran long. Somewhere around word 6000, I gave in and rewrote it with the intent it would be a novella, as I’d never written anything more than 40,000 words before. Soon I’ll be rewriting the beginning yet again so its pacing is appropriate for the novel it turned into. If I hadn’t tried to force it to be something it didn’t want to be at first, maybe I could’ve spared myself this particular annoyance.
And before anyone chimes in with “This doesn’t happen if you outline” or anything like that, I’m, to use George R. R. Martin‘s analogy, a gardener, not an architect. At least at the start. I have to do some planning as I get further in, as I may have mentioned in a previous entry, or I start wandering off after every shiny subplot my brain throws me and end up with too much of a mess for any amount of editing to help.
And in case this didn’t make it clear, I’ll be doing NaNoWriMo. Contact me through this site if you want to friend me there as I’d like to minimize the number of things connecting my username there with my real name, as I use the same one in other places that I don’t want connected with my professional life. (Yes, I realize how that sounds. No, that’s not what I meant. I’ve just said some dumb stuff on some forums in the past and haven’t gotten around to deleting it all yet.)
Actually, the gardener analogy still works. A gardener still needs some plan. And once the plant is growing there’s still pruning and such to take some control of the shape … to say nothing of trellises …
And I’m going to stop expanding that metaphor before I come home to find myself getting hit :p