Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for April 20th, 2011

The 10,000 word solution

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Illustration by Sidney Paget for "The Five Orange Pips"

Should an aspiring author write short stories or novels? If you’re getting your MFA, you won’t have much of a choice: as perceptive observers have pointed out elsewhere, the machinery of most writing programs is geared toward the production of short stories, to the point where they often don’t know how to deal with novelists at all. And if you’re trying to write for a living, your choices are equally limited: while it’s very hard to make a living as a novelist, at least it’s still possible, while not even the most prolific author can survive solely through short story sales. But if you’re somewhere between the two extremes—say, just starting to figure out that you want to write, but not sure if you want to make a life of it—the decision to pursue one form or the other is a crucial question with no obvious answer.

First, a basic point: writing short stories is hard. Harder, in some respects, than writing a novel. In most cases, a novel gains its power from the cumulative impact of its episodes, rather than from one particularly strong idea (though there are exceptions), so as long as a writer structures the story properly and creates interesting characters, the reader will be reasonably satisfied, even if the author doesn’t hit the target exactly. With a short story, there’s no room for error. There isn’t a lot of space for a writer to build narrative momentum, which means that the entire story—especially in the mystery and science fiction genres—has to turn on one good idea. And if the idea isn’t a strong one, not only will the reader dislike the story, but it probably won’t be published at all.

At this point, I should confess that I don’t really write short stories—at least not the kind I’ve described above. All the stories that I’ve published or sold have been novelettes, which is a rather different form. John Gardner’s definition of the novella, in The Art of Fiction, is probably the best place to start:

The novella can be defined only as a work shorter than a novel…and both longer and more episodic than a short story. I use the word “episodic” loosely here, meaning only that the novella usually has a series of climaxes, each more intense than the last, though it may be built—and perhaps in fact ought to be built—of one continuous action.

This description fits my own work pretty closely. My novelettes tend to be on the long side for short fiction (10,000-12,000 words is about average), with three distinct acts and a structure loosely based on the conventions of mystery or suspense fiction, though with a scientific twist. They’re novels in miniature, or embryonic novels, and have more in common with their longer equivalents than with the very specific requirements of the short story.

Illustration by Sidney Paget for "The Blue Carbuncle"

Why have I adopted this hybrid form? For one thing, I write this way because I tend to think naturally in profluent plots, and the novelette is the shortest form in which such a plot can acquire real momentum. For another, the “short stories” I love best are really more like novelettes: nearly all of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, for instance, fall neatly into three acts and run somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 words. As a result, I understand the novelette in ways that I’m not sure I understand the classic short story, and it’s no accident that I’ve had much less success in writing conventional short fiction (though I do have one, “Warning Sign,” coming out in an anthology in a few months).

So where does that leave us with our opening question? As someone who loves both novels and short fiction, I’m glad I’ve done both: each form has taught me different things, and the lessons in one have shaped my work in the other. But though I’m clearly biased here, on a more practical level, I think that a writer might specifically benefit by writing novelettes—not novels, not short stories, but something in between. This approach, as I see it, solves a lot of problems. With practice, you can write a 10,000-word novelette in two or three weeks, as opposed to the year or more it might take to write a novel, and you’ll acquire many of the skills that a longer project demands. Plus you won’t get hung up on the technical perfection required by a publishable 3,000-word short story. Later, if you’re so inclined, you can scale your writing up or down, but in the meantime, there’s something to be said for aiming at the middle.

So where do you start? Tomorrow, using my own story “Kawataro” as an example, I’ll begin to discuss, step by step, how a novelette is made.

Written by nevalalee

April 20, 2011 at 10:03 am

Quote of the Day

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A plain sailor man took a notion to study Latin, and his teacher tried him with Virgil; after many lessons he asked him something about the hero.
Said the sailor: “What hero?”
Said the teacher: “What hero, why, Aeneas, the hero.”
Said the sailor: “Ach, a hero, him a hero? Bigob, I t’ought he was a priest.”

W.B. Yeats, quoted by Ezra Pound in ABC of Reading

Written by nevalalee

April 20, 2011 at 8:04 am

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