Writing Tips- The Long and Short of It
So you have decided that you want to be a writer. That is the first step down a long and terrible decent into madness. But lets pretend that it is a good decision. Next comes the tricky part, what kind of writer do you want to be? Not everyone gets to opt into the “crossover blockbuster novel” category, most of the books that have been insanely popular over the years started off life pigeon-holed as something before the whole world embraced them with open arms and before you even get to the stage of picking your niche you have to decide is you even want to write novels.
Prose fiction can be divided up by word-length in a variety of ways but the consensus at the moment seems to be that anything under one thousand words is flash fiction. Anything bigger than that but smaller than ten thousand words is a short story. Anything bigger than a short story but shorter than the eighty thousand words that begins to constitute a novel is a hazy grey area of novellas and novelettes. After that you have varying lengths of novel culminating in the epic sprawling series that goes on seemingly forever. Not pointing any fingers. They know who they are.
There are advantages and disadvantages to every one of these story lengths, both as an art form and as a saleable product but every one of them can teach you vitally important skills about writing.
These tiny stories are the novel writer's worst nightmare. To not only tell a complete story in one thousand words but to develop characters and the setting requires a level of precision in word choice that is beyond most writers. When confronted with only a thousand words to work in a great many writers respond with only a single scene from a story, if they are competent then that one scene can be extrapolated from to make an entire plot, otherwise you are left with an unsatisfying snippet. Writing flash fiction can be closer to poetry than to normal prose, with every word selected for both its meaning, the feelings it evokes and the impact. Flash can be a great place to get experimental, trying to see just how far you can drive yourself away from your usual style of writing. They are a great place for story ideas to germinate before being transplanted into one of the longer forms. On the other side of the equation, flash is the ideal length to read on a brief commute or when you are feeling indecisive. Not sure what you want to read for the next hour? Try fifty different stories from fifty different writers. They are the tapas of fiction. As far as the business side of writing goes, Editors are always on the lookout for odd sized stories with which to patch an empty space in their magazine. The pay is generally pretty terrible, but what do you want for only a thousand words.
Short stories are at the heart of writing and writing genre fiction especially. When the ghetto for crime, scifi and horror stories was in full effect with respectable book-stores refusing to stock them the small presses and the magazines didn't just keep them alive, they allowed them to grow into the genres that they are today. Short stories are where ideas are fully developed and there have been many writers that use them exclusively. You can go from a concept to a complete story very easily when you are working at this length and without the tight constraints of flash fiction you are able to develop characters and plot with ease. Some skill is still required not to roll over the word limit into something too big, but all that does is teach you how to be concise in your writing. The world would be a far better place if authors spent some time cutting their teeth in the short story marketplaces before going on to turn out 18 book series with at least a paragraph of each page devoted to describing the character's clothes, meals or the lovely scenery that they are looking at. Balance is the key to a good short story, too small a concept will sputter and die before the end and too complex a concept will never get the chance to be explored. Despite some ups and downs over the years there is still a devoted community around short stories and many thriving marketplaces for their sale, both in themed compilations and in magazines.
These used to be the bee's knees. Back when printing costs were a serious problem and getting books to stay in their bindings took some serious effort, the novella was the publisher's dream. Even into the latter part of last century publishers were really into novellas because you could sell a book for the same price whether it was huge or tiny. From the writer's point of view, the novella is where you really get to stretch your legs and explore your setting and characters. You can have long swathes of dialogue without being mindful of the abrupt cut-off point. You can finally take some time to build up suspense and work on your pacing, skills that short story writers rarely get to develop. It is no wonder that most of the best horror stories come in novella length when short stories only tend to get one twist or turn and a novella can contain dozens. The novella is where you can start weaving different elements together instead of having to mush them together as one. From the other side, things aren't looking great for traditionally published novellas at the moment, you will occasionally sell one to a magazine or one of the small press publishers but big publishers have their head in the novel game most of the time, all of the advantages for them have disappeared with the advent of cheaper manufacturing methods and the invention of ebooks. Ebooks may have killed the shorter novel for traditional publishers but ironically novellas do spectacularly well in the self publishing market where the price point is flexible and the huge choice of books available makes a quicker reading and production turnaround advantageous.
These are the big ones, both in terms of word count and in terms of perceived significance. Novels are what many writers consider to be their ultimate goal. Massive slabs of text where you can go on and on for as long as you need to. The chance to weave together a complex tapestry of different characters, situations and ideas to make your ultimate message to the world. Finance wise, the novel is probably where you will make the most money per word over the lifespan of your book. The problem that I have always found when editing novels is that the people writing them lack the skills that you develop from all of the other lengths of fiction. They ramble on and go on tangents not even vaguely related to the plot and while I appreciate sub-plots that help to build up your understanding of a setting and story they are often just thrown into books that should have been novellas to bulk them out. Some of the best loved novels in human history honestly could really have done with a good trim here and there.
So what is the point that I am driving at here? If you want to be a writer, you need to learn how to write. Not just sit down and do the same thing over and over expecting different results. The skills that you can learn from both reading and writing different sized pieces of prose can drastically effect the quality of your writing. I frequently see successful short story writers, capable of pieces of such beauty and finesse that they humble me, fumble a longer piece because they have never had to learn about pacing out a story. I have seen novel writers completely incapable of telling any story in less than ten thousand words that are furious about this newfound failing. John Scalzi is famously capable of turning out a novel in a few weeks but unable to write a short story in twice the time. George R R Martin seems incapable of composing a shopping list that doesn't require an index. Do you remember that really famous Charles Dickens short story? Of course you don't! He wrote a good few of them but they weren't on par with his novels because they required a different set of skills.
So go forth young writer and experiment with different story lengths. Plop out some awful flash fiction to get that bad story idea out of your head until it can be made into something better. Flex your authorial muscles on a well developed novella. Strain the limits of your stamina writing a great big novel that you need a forklift to transport around the house. Try everything before you fall into a rut and you might find that you are a far better short story writer than a novelist or vice-versa.
Now all that you have to do is find that niche we mentioned at the start of this article...