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.