Monday, November 11, 2019

Does size matter?

At a con a few weeks past ("Back (exhausted!) from Capclave"), one of my panels, Does Size Matter?, dealt with the perennial topic of story lengths. As this is a matter of perennial interest among con-goers and aspiring writers, I decided to make it the subject of a post.

How I write: 
  • When the idea comes first -- and for me, usually, it does -- I let the story evolve into whatever length it sees fit.
  • Exception: targeting a market with length (or budget) constraints. Then I start by pondering a (hopefully) compatible story idea.
  • Exception: fine-tuning a completed story to fit a target market’s length constraints.
Now on to a pair of war stories ....

I was invited, about five years ago, to submit a story to the original antho Deco Punk. There wasn't a length target per se, but payment was a fixed amount per story. That invitation led to writing "Soap Opera," SF set in a Depression era radio station -- and the finished story came in at 8.3K words. That's (short) novelette length. to do? My options: Submit as-was and (if accepted) get a comparatively meager rate per word. Rework the story to remove 40 to 50%(!). Take the story elsewhere and try again. I went with Door #3, submitting (and selling) "Soap Opera" to Analog.

Meanwhile, I still owed a submission to the antho. My next period-appropriate idea, "Judy Garland Saves the World (And I Don't Mean Oz)" came in at 5.1K words -- and I was delighted to submit that second story to Deco Punk. In which it subsequently appeared :-).

IMO, both stories are the appropriate length -- and should you be curious, both stories are among the seventeen in the recently released Muses & Musings: A Science Fiction Collection.
The original -- and uninspired -- cover
Now consider Probe. When offered a major-publisher contract on this, my first novel, acceptance came with a condition: prune the story from a 90K-word manuscript to 75K words. (This was 1990: before the doorstop school of publishing.) I gulped -- this would be a one-sixth cut! -- and said, "Yes. Of course. I can do that." Career-wise, there was no way I would pass on this opportunity. So: out went one subplot. Some scenes with dialogue became short third-person-omniscient summaries. Quite a few passages got tightened. Call it a learning experience.

For what purposes are the different story lengths appropriate? One author's opinion:
  • Shorts (including short-ish novelettes): only a few (maybe even just one) core ideas; only a few characters (and often only one POV character); little character development.
  • Long novelettes: on a spectrum between the proceeding and following bullets. It varies.
  • Novellas and novels: where there are many ideas at play (e.g., a rich alien culture or world), complex plot line(s), and/or lots of characters (including POV characters) and character development.
 And there you have (at least my take on) it.

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