You learn by writing short stories. Keep writing short stories. The money’s in novels, but writing short stories keeps your writing lean and pointed.
– Larry Niven
After all my time-line tips last week I goofed. I put the wrong year for the four linked short stories in Beyond the Tripping Point. Ditto for the related series novel. It should be 1999 for the short stories and 1998 for the novel. At least I had it correct which came first. The years are now corrected on last week’s blog post.
Mea culpa, mea culpa.
This post will deal with length of short stories versus novels and start the discussion about series characters for both. The latter is complicated and we won’t cover everything today.
Short story length can be anywhere from the flash story of 50 words to longer stories of 8,000, even 10,000 words. Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine stories tend to run in the upper word count limit. However, some authors take the short story up to 18,000 words. In this case, many are self-publishing – either e-copy or online or in print or all of those. To me, this is a variation of the traditional poetry chap book publications. This is all good. The only caveats I offer here are: if submitting to publications or short story contests, follow the submission guidelines; and watch you don’t make the stories too long or you will be writing a novella.
Novel lengths vary from 65,000 words to 120,000 words (think Elizabeth George for the longer novels). Most novels are somewhere in between and it depends on the publisher or the author if self-publishing. My publisher, Blue Denim Pressm tends to go for the lower page count. Personally I like any length as long as the story flows and doesn’t read as if it is padded with plot lines, character development and points of view that are way too much and detract from the story. Shorter novel requirements sure make the author learns how not to be overly wordy, as I’m finding out. But as a former journalist, I always wrote long and then rewrote to fit the editorial requirements. Writing too short here would create the dilemma of insufficient information and it is harder to add than to subtract – believe it or not.
Characters in novels versus short stories
This is a loaded one. Novels and short stories written in the literary vein are more about the characters than the plot. However, the trend today in commercial fiction (including genres such as mystery and romance, particularly in novels, is to develop characters more). While I like Agatha Christie mystery novels – they were what I grew up on, what got me interested in mysteries (along with the old Perry Mason TV series), her characters, although intriguing and original, were not fully developed. The exceptions are her two main series characters – Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple.
So, how many characters do you put in a novel and in a short story? Obviously because of length, you wouldn’t cram many characters into a short story. War and Peace crunched down to a short story it is not. Take two or three main characters and a few minor characters and go from there, i.e., you will develop the three main characters fully but not the few minor ones. By “develop fully” I mean it wouldn’t hurt to do an extensive character sketch of your main characters before you start writing – with the caveat that they are not sealed in cement, granite or avalanche. When writing stories, characters sometimes take over and you as a writer have to respect that. Key question to ask here: is what this character is doing characteristic of him or her? That’s when you may have to return to your character sketch.
And you won’t use everything in your character sketch in your short story – or even in your novel, but you will use more in your novels. With a short story, every character element and development has to tie in with your basic story plot. With a novel you can add in the extras, although they have to tie in with the plot, but you have more leeway.
For example, in my prequel novel Beyond Blood, Dana Bowman has more space to show how she feels about a certain situation with her son as well as the conflict she has with being a mother of a six year old and a private investigator, especially when the two collide. If I didn’t do this, Dana would come across as shallow, one-dimensional and unbelievable. In the four linked stories in Beyond the Tripping Point (remember these are the year after the novel occurs), Dana is still reacting over what happened to David, but in the interest of space and plot, the whole story can’t be about her reaction. So I weave it in with the case she is investigating. In “Saving Grace,” while she is following a lead on a country road outside Goderich, Ontario, she stops the car and has a mini-break-down. But it doesn’t last long; she has to pull herself together and get on with it.
In the novel Beyond Blood, after the actual event that triggers all this has happened, Dana has many instances of having difficulty dealing with the situation. In one scene (without giving it away), she wakes up and is somewhat disoriented and depressed so she acts a bit strangely. She also has nightmares that act as a sort of premonition of what will happen. The time she spends with her son and her feelings about him there, as well as developing a possible relationship with Detective Sergeant Donald Fielding, all tie in with the plot. Without this character development, some of the future plot lines would have the reader saying, “This doesn’t make sense. How would she know how to do that? This action is not credible.”
These pointers are more for commercial fiction than literary fiction.
Next week we will delve more into the makings of series characters appearing in novels and short stories.
Meantime, you can read more about the characters and their stories in Beyond the Tripping Point (Blue Denim Press, 2012). Click on the book at the top and it takes you to Sharon A. Crawford’s profile – including book reviews – at http://www.amazon.com. The book is available there in print and Kindle. For Kobo e-book go to http://store.kobobooks.com/en-CA/ebook/beyond-the-tripping-point or go to any bricks and mortar store and order in a print copy. Spread the word.
More info on Sharon A.’s upcoming gigs, workshops, guest blog posts, etc. at http://www.samcraw.com/Articles/BeyondtheTrippingPoint.html
Sharon A. Crawford’s prequel novel Beyond Blood, featuring the fraternal twins will be published fall 2014 by Blue Denim Press. Stay tuned.
Sharon A. Crawford