Friday, March 01, 2013

Does size matter? Agonizing over wordcount

Scott Akerman/Flickr
Drabble. Flash fiction. Short story. Novella. Novellette. Novel. Opus. Tome.

There are so many words for so many lengths of fiction. Which one is best for your story? Which are you best at? Which sells?

I wish I could tell you I have a damn clue. There are drabble and flash fiction contests that will garner you exposure, but you probably can't sell them to anyone. A lot of publishers won't accept short stories or novellas, but others release a number of anthologies each year containing these. And the definition of a novella versus a novel changes depending on who you talk to.

Personally, I have an impossible a hard time writing anything longer than 45K words. For most publishers, that puts me squarely in the novella category and results in an e-book only release. I'm a huge proponent of e-books, but it would be nice to have something concrete to put on my bookshelf or sign for a reader.

What I am able to write easily is a short story. I like plopping down in the middle of a character's life and trying to figure out what's going on. Short stories are vignettes, little glimpses, a brief glance across a room at a complete stranger.

While stand-alone short stories are usually the business of literary journals or magazines, collections of short stories by a single author are becoming more popular. One of the most talked-about recent releases is Tenth of December by George Saunders, which is currently a New York Times bestseller. Dear Life by Alice Munro and This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz were on many Best of 2012 lists.

Last weekend, I went to the Southern Voices Festival at the Hoover Public Library, and one of the speakers was Ron Rash, who has published both short story collections and novels. His new collection, Nothing Gold Can Stay, was just released.

He is an entertaining and inspiring speaker, and the entire time he spoke, I was itching to ask him one question. Which did he like writing more: novels or short stories? He graciously answered my question during the book signing. I'd paraphrase what I remember, but instead I'll quote from an interview published this week:

You write poetry, novels, and short stories. How does your approach differ when writing in each form?  Does one come more easily than another?

They’re all radically different. I think writing a poem is like being a greyhound. Writing a novel is like being a mule. You go up one long row, then down another, and try not to look up too often to see how far you still have to go. Short fiction is the medium I love the most, because it requires that I bring everything I’ve learned about poetry—the concision, the ability to say something as vividly as possible—but also the ability to create a narrative that, though lacking a novel’s length, satisfies the reader. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is as perfect as any story I know.

When I told Mr. Rash that I had trouble writing more than 45K words, he suggested that maybe I'm a short story writer. If I could write stories 1% as great as his, I'd be a happy camper.

In the end, an author will find their happy place, the word count at which their stories naturally end. You can cajole and pad, but you -- and the reader -- will know that the story has too much fat. When you find that happy place, you and your writing will be the better for it.

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Pamela Mason said...

Okay... spooky how you came along with this post at precisely the right time. I just asked a book reviewer who disliked the shortness of the works she reviewed (not mine) "Why?" What is it about the short length? Was it because she wanted more? The writing quality suffered? She felt the price point too high for the length?

Kerry Freeman said...

@Pamela, I've heard a few people say they dislike paying the same for a novel and a novella. Some publishers are starting to set better prices based on length.

Aidee Ladnier said...

Loved this post. I'm more comfortable with short stories myself--both reading them and writing them. I think of them as a way for me as a reader to try out an author to see if I want to read more by them. And as a writer, I love the challenge of bringing a story down to its bare bones and still having something to say.

Louisa Cornell said...

It is a major plus to discover exactly where your niche is, your comfort zone. I tend to be somewhat long-winded when it comes to writing to the point I am not certain I could even write for Harlequin unless it was for their longer line of historicals. It is truly important to discover what it is you love to do and to do it to the best of your ability. Writing short stories is an amazing art to me!

ckcrouch said...

Great post, but I have the opposite problem I'm a maega word writer. I'm looking at cutting 25,000+ words to fit the Intrigue line and I haven't finished the story yet. Almost, not quite but still. I did a 30,000 Novella once. I don't even remember what the story was about now lol. It was a 30 day challenge and I remember I made it easily. I had 76,000 at the end of November for NaNoWriMo. I figure one of these days I will probably find myself with a 100K book easily.

Cari Hislop said...

I love short stories. They tend to have more zing, probably because they write faster (for me). I find though that each story knows how long it wants to be. I started one story thinking it was a short story-
/novella and it turned out to be a book. I've started stories I thought were books, but they ended up a novella. This last one I finally finished was way bigger than I would have preferred. I would have liked to finish it several years ago around 80,000 words, but the story wasn't done until about 140,000. I've never written a book that long before, and unless it's in a different genre, I hope I never write another one. The editing process nearly fried my brain. I'm glad the industry is starting to take more notice of short stories. Stories come in all shapes and sizes!

Kerry Freeman said...

@Aidee, exactly. There's a big challenge into bringing across a complete story in a few pages or, in the case of drabbles and flash, a few words. It's fun :)

@Louisa, I am always amazed at people who write historicals. So much research goes into them, and I find that very impressive.

@ck, NaNoWriMo kicks my butt every year. My first published book was my NaNo '10 book, and I never did get it to 50K words :)

@Carl, I agree that a story will find it's own length. I have one freebie that ended up being several short "chapters," and it worked for that story.

Suzanne Johnson said...

Great post, Kerry! I'm just the opposite. No matter what I start out to write, it ends up about thirty-six chapters long and 85-95k. I'd rather write three full-length novels than a short story or novelette. My brain doesn't work that way, apparently.

Kerry Freeman said...

@Suzanne, I sympathize. My brain just cannot manage an 85K book, but it does great with shorter word counts :)