Saturday, April 17, 2021

Writing Works of Varying Lengths

This week's topic at SFF Seven is the difference between writing a short story, novella, novel, and series, and if we prepare for length beforehand or edit down (or add new stuff) afterward.

My answer to the last part? All of the above. But let me dig deeper.
It took me a long time to learn to write more economically, to lean out my flowery prose, and tighten my work. I knew the genre standards, and I was developing a strong understanding of plot, but I still wrote too long and too cluttered. Now? Now I can cut entire paragraphs without so much as a blink because I know when I'm going overboard or adding words that aren't needed. This is a skill that often takes time, practice, and a willingness to slay your darlings--the right darlings. (I could STILL tighten this paragraph!)

How else can you control word count?

I use math. I'm drafting a historical fantasy novel, and while I know I might need to add a bit to the 2nd draft, I'm aiming for 100K. Historical fantasy can often be longer than a lot of books because historical + fantasy (and I add a little romance) = a lot of worldbuilding. That said, I know not to bloat the page, and to get from one plot point to the next in a concise fashion. How?

I divide my books into 4 acts (still based on the three-act structure), but this gives me goalposts to reach as I draft:
  1. the first act turn
  2. the midpoint
  3. the second act turn/climax
  4. the end! 
Divide 100K by 4 and that means I have 25K words to get from point to point. 

I even do this for novellas and short stories. When I first decided to write a short story in 2017, I had no idea what I was doing and was pretty sure I would suck at it. But, I did know plot, and I used those goalposts to help me craft a few shorts and novelettes. I managed to win a couple contests, get published in a book with Diana Gabaldon writing the forward, and one of my shorts was published twice, once in the US in print, and once in London in audio. One of my novellas came in 2nd place in the New England Reader's Choice Award as well, and I've edited short stories for some very talented authors who trusted me with their words. All of this after someone, back in 2017, almost had me convinced that I couldn't write a short story using my method.

So yes, I prepare for length beforehand. I know going in what type of story I'm writing thus the needed word count. However, I've certainly had a novelette become a novella as I was drafting, and I've even had a novella want to be bigger. Maybe not a full-grown novel, but more ;) I'm turning a previously published 20K word novella into a 45K word novella, and now it's book one in a trilogy. It's been a lot more work than I imagined, but thinking bigger and having an overarching plot has helped. For me, plot is integral to my process. Sometimes, a story (like this trilogy) needs more planning, and sometimes, like for my historical fantasy, I just need those goalposts or major plot points/story tent poles in my head as I work. But ultimately, my understanding of plot gets me through any story.

In this way, writing a novel vs shorter works isn't very different for me. I just have fewer words to get from point to point, so my creativity is tested, which is a challenge I find fun. 

Ultimately, every writer is different. We all have to figure out what elements of the writing process work for us and which ones don't, and then adjust accordingly. For so many writers, figuring out their writing process is a battle, but know that if that's you, you're not alone. It can take a lot of trial and error, but you'll get there.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

How a Plotter Learned How to Plan the Length of a Novel

Dark blue sky with a blurry glimpse of white clouds with the words: No Writing Is Wasted in white on the bottom

 Vivien took our topic of the week and compared it to gardening. I totally dig her explanation. You should check it out. 

But today is Thursday which means I’m supposed to provide some insight. Which is difficult for me to believe that I can offer up anything useful, a side effect of struggling mentally, though I’m going to give it a go. 

Once upon a time I was invited to write a novella for an anthology. At that time I’d only written one novel and was working on my second and I thought sure, I can write something creepy and short! Reader: I can’t write anything short. My first stab at a novella ended up exploding into the opening for what could’ve been a 95,000 word novel! 

Whoa! Let’s deconstruct that sentence because it packs a lot.

First, my novella attempt exploded meaning I failed to keep the story and pace compact enough and it ended up reading like the first few chapters of a novel. Second, this novella draft was for a thriller anthology. 95,000 words is too long for a short and it’s too long for a thriller novel! 

-No Writing Is Wasted-

You know the saying “no writing is wasted”? Well, I guess it’s actually true because from this failed attempt I did learn a few things. Yep, you’ve got that right: I can’t write anything short. I love building; building the world, building the characters and their growth slowly, building the plot. So I know if I’m ever to really write a novella I’m going to have to practice a new kind of writing craft. 

I also learned how to plan out the length of my WIP (work in progress). The first novel I wrote I penciled into a 5 subject notebook. Bad idea on so many levels, but for today’s topic—soooo bad in regards to knowing how long the book would be. And since I was in the process of drafting my second novel I decided to change my process and write each scene to match its genre: sci-fi thriller. 

Plotter (n): someone who plans things out in advance


I’m a plotter, so I already had a synopsis and an outline and knew what would happen in each chapter. But I had long first and second chapters and a short third chapter. How in the world was I supposed to predict the length of my completed manuscript at this rate and how long should it be?!

Problem! How long is the typical scene for a thriller?!

My solution was to read. I picked up countless science fiction, thriller, and sci-fi thriller books. I made a spreadsheet. *tip my hat to Jeffe* And after all that I determined I wanted my book to end up at 75,000 words (about a 300 page book because that was the average length for thrillers). On top of knowing how long I wanted the complete project to be I also knew I needed to keep the action tight for this genre and my goal was to have each chapter be in the 6-8 page range.


to calculate book length from word count ÷ by 250 

On average there are 250 words per page. 

Armed with this knowledge I set out to work each scene to fit my page goal which led to me to reaching THE END at 76,000 words! Granted, that was the first draft and it went through a lot of revisions resulting in additional scenes. Curious about how it all turned out? Well, the WIP I’m talking about is THE MARS STRAIN which will release in audiobook on April 27th! 

Next week I’ll share a preview of the cover. Until then, let me know how you plan for the length of your WIP! If you’re a pantser how do you make it work? If you’re a plotter as well, do you outline each scene so you can control the chapter lengths?

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Growing a story garden

Maybe I'm getting old or turning into my mom or something, but I've recently been gardening a lot. (Too much?) It's relaxing, low pressure, and nobody cares really if I succeed or fail. The patch of green stuff is in my back yard anyway, so who would know if every plant in it just dried up and turned to dust? Nobody. Which is what makes gardening perfect for folks who fight anxiety.

One thing I've discovered about gardening is that the phrase "you're comparing apples and oranges" is not trite. It's absolutely true. Every plant in the garden is different, requires different handling, different planning. Some want more water, some get testy when they're over-watered, some need constant sun drenching them, and others prefer a bit more shade. I tend them all every day, but I don't tend them in the same way.

Stories are kind of like that.

Over the years, I've written stories of every length: flash fiction, short stories, novelettes, novellas, and novels. I've adored each process and am not quite sure I have a favorite. They all bloom differently and brilliantly, but where they're most like plants is in the planning and expectation. I have never planted a short story and unexpectedly gotten a novel. I don't even know how that happens.

I did once start to write a novella for a submission call and about 10k words in realized that I was in fact writing a novel. The pacing is different, the feel, the ... I don't even know how to describe it. Each kind of story is unique, and you can't transmorgify one into another by simply adding or deleting words. That's not how grown things work.

Right now, I'm sitting on a novella that I wrote specifically to be a novella, but I'm told it raises some juicy worldbuilding questions and concepts, and a couple of early readers have expressed interest in knowing more. (A good thing! I think!) My first instinct was to expand on what I've already written, but the more I ponder it, the less I want to dig up and replant this guy. Better to write an actual novel in the same world to accompany the novella. Maybe?

No idea, honestly, if that's the right decision, but it feels right. And like any other organic process, writing kind of has to go on feel.

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.