Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Story Prep: How Word Count Determines The Work

Differences in writing a short story, a novella, a novel, and a series: Do I prepare for length before writing or do I fatten/trim after drafting?

I absolutely have to know the target length before I begin to consider the first nugget of the story, the characters, the settings, or any part at all. For me, length determines the type of story I'm going to tell. The shorter the work, the shorter the time span covered in the story, the faster you have to get to your point, the simpler your point must be.

As Jeffe mentioned on Sunday, shorter works like a short story (~5k-10k words) don't leave room for Scooby-Gangs and elaborate world-building. The protagonist has mere minutes to maybe an hour to accomplish their goal. It's 15 min of a TV episode. Half of a pilot ep. Masters of this format can provoke emotional connections with minimal words and concise actions.

Novellas (~15k-40k words), maybe cover a day or a long weekend. Protag gets a wingman, world-building is richer but contained and limited. Plot is a straight line, no subplots (unless it's part of a series).  Think of a novella as a full TV episode. Maybe two eps if you're aiming for 40k. I don't tend to write novellas because I like to spend time in the worlds I'm creating while molding my characters. That's not a knock on the authors who do write them. There are many great novellas out there. Check out the 2021 HUGO nominated novellas (and novels) here. 

Novels, their optimal length is highly dependent on the genre. While there are always exceptions, the readers of the genre have certain expectations. Traditional publishers have established and posted word-count limits that reinforce those reader expectations. Writers guilds and associations are much more generous in what lengths they consider novels. However, there is nothing that infuriates a reader more than paying full market price for a novel in a genre where the average length is ~90k and the book they've purchased is half that long yet marketed as a novel. Something to keep in mind when deciding if your story should be a novel or novella.

That said, novels are my thing. The time span covered in a single novel can be as short as a day or longer than a decade. Single protagonist or multiple. A small cast of characters or cast of thousands. The world-building had better be rich if you're writing SFF. While there is a primary plot driving the story, the subplots abound. Yes, I plot (see previous posts for the bad things that happen when I don't). Yes, I absolutely know if the novel is a standalone or part of a series. I  prefer writing series, and I do determine how long that series will be before I write Book 1. (Four books in the Fire Born High Fantasy series. Seven in the Immortal Spy Urban Fantasy series. Unnamed trilogy currently in concept.)

So, the short answer to the week's question is: Yes, I identify the target length of the work so I know the constraints before I begin plotting the story.

Monday, April 12, 2021

size matters?

 The topic of the week is story length and how to prepare for it. 

Guys, I'm a pantser, but I'm also a sensible enough fellow. I really just start writing with a basic idea of what want to say, and edit from there. I just finished a story for Weird Tales that is supposed to cap at 7,500 words and my first draft came in at 7,532 words. I have to chop 32 words before ai send it in. Pretty sure I can do that.

I have trained myself over the years to write at various lengths. That's mostly because a lot of my earlier work was articles and essays written for magazines as well as different pieces that had to be specific lengths for role-playing games. When you get paid by the word you earn to make certain you stick to the appropriate form and length. 

Short stories and novels give you a bit more leeway, and novellas are just exactly the right length for some works. It all depends on what the project is and what the requirements of my editors and publisher are. As w3ith so many parts of writing I think a lot of it just comes with practice, but I have to say as I reached the end of this particular tale I found myself wondering if I'd reach the finish line with an extra thousand words in the way. There was a lot more i could have said, really, if I'd been given extra space. 

I always want to make the editors happy but I also always want to make myself happy with the tale I'm telling. I am the first audience I have to deal with, and if I fail to entertain myself, I have serious doub=ts about entertaining anyone else.

first readers, critics, all of them have to be put aside on the first draft, and if necessary, I will pull out the scalpels and go at a fin9shed tale like a plastic surgeon aiming to make it prettier.

But always, always, I'm willing to write more than I need and cut away the excess when it comes to a first draft.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

How to Write Shorter Works Successfully

THE SORCERESS QUEEN AND THE PIRATE ROGUE comes out April 19! This is Book Two in Heirs of Magic, and you can preorder a copy at the links below or via my website. :-)


This week at the SFF Seven, we're examining the differences between writing a short story, novella, novel, series. We're asking each other: Do you prepare for length beforehand or edit down (or add new stuff) afterward?

So, I have Strong Opinions about this. Something that may come as a surprise to exactly none of you. 

I am primarily a novelist now and the shortest works I write are novellas that are typically no less than 25K words. (My novels range from 90K-120K.) When I first started writing, I wrote essays and short stories. My first book - Wyoming Trucks, True Love, and the Weather Channel - was an essay collection. Writing those shorter lengths came naturally to me from work in school. 

When I transitioned to writing novels, it was MUCH more difficult than I expected. I had this idea that it would be like writing a really long essay. 

Reader: it was not. 

I had to learn the rhythm and pacing of a novel, which feels like an entirely different art form than writing novellas or shorts. Because... it is. It's a common error for an author to attempt to stretch a short story concept into a novel. Readers notice that the story feels "thin," stretched out for too long, and filled with stuff that's boring because it's unnecessary. Or, sometimes, a story that's novel-length gets wedged into a shorter format. Then it feels rushed, over too soon, and never fully explored.

So, my answer is that I *always* prepare for length beforehand. The story concept MUST fit the planned length. It's a matter of choosing a story with the correct scope for that length. Shorter works have fewer secondary characters and more straightforward conflicts. Very short works should explore a single idea. One surefire way to confine a story to a shorter length is to have it take place over a much shorter span of time. For example, my novella, THE LONG NIGHT OF THE CRYSTALLINE MOON, which is the prequel to Heirs of Magic, takes place over the course of a single night. This helps to make up for the fact that I have a lot of secondary characters - more than any other novella I've written. It wasn't ideal, but I made that choice because I was introducing a new series.

Naturally, there are no actual rules. Or, if there are, they're made to be broken. But I do think that adding or deleting to winnow a novel into a short, or fattening up a short to make it a novel, almost never works. 

Friday, April 9, 2021

The Dead WIP File


Ah, the cemetery of dead works. The gravestones list and limp far into the distance. Some mark the resting places of stray ideas that never had a chance to mature. Others memorialize stories and characters that almost made it. Some stones stand guard over the ones that never stood a chance. 

Occasionally, in keeping with the philosophy that nothing is ever wasted, I take my shovel into the damp night and rob a grave. Metaphorically, of course, because really, it's just a question of searching some computer files. The thing is, I almost never resurrect a corpse, dress it up, and then teach it to sing 'Putting on the Ritz'. Instead, I slice the heart, guts, or brain out of the poor dead thing and transplant the organ(s) into whichever patient is on my table at the time. 

Situations. Snippets of dialogue. Whatever suits the more viable subject being stitched together. Mad scientists and evil geniuses should only ever plagiarize themselves, in my view. And then, only once. One heart cannot be sliced in half and shared between two patients if you expect either to live. 

Thining back across the stories in my files, the only time I resurrected the dead, the story was only mostly dead. With a little magic called 'a competent editor', that story didn't just walk, it grew wings. Maybe it is all dressed up and singing 'Putting on the Ritz'. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

When writers play necromancer

To my mind, stories are live things: growing, maturing, twisting, warming hearts, and chilling spines. Sometimes, sadly, they die young. Sometimes they die young for a reason. And sometimes necromancer writers try to bring them back.

I did that once: there was a submission call for an anthology of short stories that should be both high fantasy and erotica. I thought, well, I used to write a whole bunch of salacious Tolkien fanfiction, so I got this, right. I promptly dug up a fic that never quite worked and started re-jiggering it. And jiggered some more. And ditched the beginning. And the ending. Changed the protag. Changed the magic system. Rewrote the whole thing so that the brand new magic system was the central pivot. Redid the ending because of some notes from the antho editor. By that point, my story was more a Frankenstein monster of fresh bits of flesh than it was a whole zombie of that dead fic. Now when I look at the thing, I can't even see traces of the original. 

I've never tried to resurrect a dead story since then, though I've wanted to many times. I think little bits -- the good bits, I hope! -- sneak into current projects, and of course no writing is ever wasted because it is all good practice. Fail fast, as they say in corporatelandia.

But yeah, I'm not the person you want to talk to when you're thinking about re-imagining that book you gave up on years ago, 'cause I kind of failed at that.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Resurrecting the Dead WiP

Have I ever resurrected an old project? How much of the original did I keep? 

Funny you should ask. As I'm wrapping up my current WiP, I'm eyeing an old WiP whose conceit works, characters hold up,  plot...not so much. When I wrote this WiP fifteen years ago, I wasn't a plotter. I was a pantser, and the meandering of the story reflects why I no longer write without a plan. Dear reader, it is bad, so bad. While writing this WiP, I distinctly remember wondering how the big-time authors of SFF knew what scenes to leave in and what to exclude (it's called a plot, dummy). Needless to say, I wouldn't dream of publishing the WiP as-is. Currently, it's a 275k high fantasy elemental assassin story that goes too far in some aspects and not far enough in others while leaving lots of "uh, what?" moments.

Fortunately, the more I write, the better I get (at least I like to believe that). I've published seven books (soon to be eight) since then. Theoretically, I might maybe be able to salvage the settings, the magic system, the characters, and the GMC of the protagonist. The story itself? Total rewrite.

~shushes the other unpublished books locked in the trunk 

and buried in the yard, never to be seen again~

Monday, April 5, 2021

Bring Out Your dead!

 This week's subject is Resurrecting Old Projects: Do you start from scratch or work what you have?

The answer for me is: It depends on what I have. If it's a sentence or two, and it often is, I'm basically stat=rting from scratch and springboarding off of what I stat=rted with. if it's half a novel, I'm going to save as much as I can, u less it truly, epically sucks wind. 

I've done both. 

I once lost 40,000 words of a novel project to a computer crash. The entire file just vanished, never to be found again. Yeah, that particular story has stayed dead, but parts of it have been cannibalized for other projects. 

There are always challenges. the catch is deciding whether or n9t that moldering corpse in the corner of y9urmind is bugging you because you need to bring it back to life, or just because you let it die in the first place. Does it really haunt you Or is that just guilt?

Mostly I pick the meat from the bones and start from scratch.

Your mileage may vary.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Religion: Balm, Benign, or Bane

Did you ever spend the night with a friend when you were a kid and that friend's family went to church services every Sunday when yours didn't? Your friend's family just automatically assumed you'd go to church with them. Why not? You got to hang with your bestie a little longer. 

And then you walked into the alien landscape of someone else's beliefs and rituals. This worked, too, if your family went to a Baptist church and your friend was Catholic. The two traditions are vaguely similar, but the details will really catch you unaware. 

Religion is such a great way to convey stranger in a strange land in a story. I love playing with it for that reason. With a single religious scene or reference, my characters can show you that they are wholly invested in a culture, utterly alienated from that culture, or wondering what the heck is up with the culture. In science fiction, there's even more fun to be had. Religions can (and do when left to me) reflect a broad range of sentient beings - not all of which are humanoids. Humans want to look into the face of a human-looking god. Why wouldn't a species of sentient spiders want to focus all of their eyes upon the face of a spider god? I get to bend morality, too. We humans speak of morality as if it's absolute - when it's probably relative based on how your species evolved. Take food, for example. Humans are omnivores. We can, and do, eat just about anything. We attach some morality to food - animals we eat shouldn't suffer. But what if your species evolved from cats? The hunt might be a religious experience. An obligate carnivore eating a kill would probably be a high holy event. How long you could toy with your prey without killing it might be a form of prayer. Yet if your species base evolved from herbivores, predators would be demonized and plants would probably figure in the liturgy.

For most of my books, religion is a backdrop, a way of reinforcing that we're not in Kansas anymore. Most of my characters are only interested in religion from the standpoint that they use a lot of blasphemy when swearing. Edie's from a fundamentalist religious settlement (Enemy Storm) and she offers hints of cultural differences, but the religion doesn't drive the story. It does heighten conflict in that I used it in that book to draw a comparison between who Edie had been and who Edie has become. 

In book four, religion becomes a bigger thing. A much bigger thing. The heroine, Ildri Bynovan is a once in a century religious leader - think of the Pope or the Dali Lama. And while she's lost some of her personal faith, she strongly believes that religion is mostly benign, sometimes a bane, and in rare shining moments, a balm. She's in it to bring more of the balm to the members of the various churches under her care. Of course, the hero wants to use her to assassinate someone, so I'm sure they'll get along well.