Yesterday, I finished reading the first draft of my horror novel, tentatively titled Reel Ghost (not a typo but an intentional play on words). At 136K words, it’s far longer than any story I’ve tackled in my many years writing about fictional people doing fictional things. No doubt it will go on a diet during the drafting/editing process; yet will remain a lengthy beast of a story when finished. I prefer a period away from a writing project after the first draft before I set about ripping it to shreds during the edit. This time around I spent that time editing a few short stories I had written before the novel. The longest of those short stories came in around 6K words, a far departure from the project I was taking a break from.
Working on three stories that were less than *pause to check and recheck math* 5% of my previous project was an experience I hadn’t been prepared for at the onset. Over the last few years, I have focused my attention on obtaining the seemingly unobtainable goal of becoming a traditionally published author (we’ll save the debate about traditional publishing vs self-publishing for another day). Naturally, a novel is the best way to achieve such a goal. Therefore, I have spent more time on novels and less time on the short stories where I honed my craft. I was focused on the long game—the novel—while getting lax with the short game—the short story.
“But both are stories! Aren’t all stories the same?” you say. Well, no, as a matter of fact, they aren’t. I will say that both need to contain the elements that all successful stories must have (voice, plot, effective characters, conflict, setting, beginning, middle, end, etc.). However, the nature of which a writer tells a short story is much different. In a novel there is room to expound on a subject to the writer’s content. The writer of the short story is awarded no such luxury, as the limited wordcount requires conciseness. A novel is like running a marathon, whereas a short story is a sprint. Sure, both involve running but any runner will tell you that the skills involved and the mindset for each are vastly different. If a runner starts a marathon at a blistering pace, they’ll likely run out of steam before reaching the finish line. A runner taking a leisurely pace in the 100-yard dash would have equally disastrous results, being left in the dust out of the gate as his competitors finish.
Writing a story with the wrong mindset can be disastrous for both the story and the writer. I spent most of my early twenties writing short stories to build my resume of publishing credits for an eventual novel. Spending more than a couple years focused on the short game meant a grim awakening when I decided the time had come to write the novel. That realization: writing a novel is hard. Brilliant, I know. Looking back, I’m not surprised I failed to complete those first few novel attempts, after all, I was a sprinter running a marathon. I was fast and furious out of the gate, straight into the rising action of the plot instead setting a comfortable pace by laying the groundwork of character and eventual conflict. Those first novel attempts were all abandoned, and some with a heartbreaking number of words and time spent in a futile effort to curtail the flailing efforts of a writer out of his depths.
I did eventually finish a novel and submit it to a few literary agents. The consensus was no. Of course, those agents were right. That was more than ten years ago, and I’ve grown as a writer and a storyteller since then (yes, those are different). It was a halfway decent idea written by a halfway decent writer, and this was a scenario where two halves didn’t equal a whole. No matter, we learn from our failures and I’m filled to my receding hairline with knowledge.
(A short aside for you young writers out there. I did a few things right and a lot more wrong in my younger days. Attempting to find my voice writing short stories? Right. Quitting multiple novels? Wrong. Only querying three agents when I did finish a novel? Wrong. Deciding that I wasn’t good enough and going back to writing short stories? Wrong, at least in part. Remember that attempting part of the first question? Well, I found my true voice while writing short stories the second time around. As for the deciding I wasn’t good enough part, well, I think we all have a voice inside our heads that is afraid of being rejected, of not being good enough for others or even ourselves. The best thing you can do, writer or not, is locate that annoyingly negative voice and rip out its tongue.)
Like I said earlier, I’ve dedicated the last few years in pursuit of a career as a novelist. When I have spare time between drafts of novels, I try to write as many short stories as I can. In the years that I focused solely on the short game, the average story was 3-4K words, with a few exceptions on both sides of that spectrum. Those are easily readable lengths that most magazine editors desire when space is at a premium. The short stories have gotten longer with my continued focus on the long game. I’ve found myself wanting to give as much detail as possible, while creating a fully developed character in the process. Of course, those things happen all the time in short stories, though keeping it brief can frustrate the most talented of writers. The script had flipped, this time around I was playing the short game with a long game mindset.
So here we are, the original plan for this post. Call them suggestions, tips, or general rules to follow when approaching the long and short games.
Novel (the long game)
- Set a wordcount goal. Most writers that have been doing the deed for any length of time likely already do this. If you don’t, it’s a good suggestion, especially when tackling the marathon-like novel. Setting a wordcount goal is akin to a runner picking out an object, say a tree in the distance, and shooting for that rather than focusing on the 26.2 miles that lay ahead. When you get to the tree, pick out another target. Personally, I set both a daily goal (1K-2K words depending on the day) and a weekly goal (10K).
- Have a plan. I’m not suggesting that pantsers should morph into planners by any means (for more information on plotter vs pantser click here). Yet knowing what you’re going to write before you sit down at the keyboard can expediate the process. I take a plantser (plotter/pantser hybrid) approach to novels. Several pages of notes that include character details and plot highlights are written before I start writing chapter 1. I also tend to plan 2-3 chapters ahead, so I know where I’m going, but still have creative freedom to scrap it on a whim (which does happen).
- Take a break. No, not a long break. I speak from experience when I say that a long break from a novel can become permanent. Think of it more as a timeout. When focusing on a novel, I write 6 days a week and take 1 day off (usually Sunday). Troublesome storylines and unfulfilling characters can happen during the writing process. Often, I’ve solved these issues while my mind was elsewhere.
- Remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Writing a novel is a long-term project that can’t be finished overnight. The first draft of Reel Ghost took around five months to complete. The subsequent drafts and edits will likely take the same amount of time—at least for me. Days can drag and you’ll find yourself looking in the distance for the finish line, only to find it isn’t in sight. Do yourself a favor, enjoy the process.
Short Stories (the short game)
- Omit needless words. It’s true this is a piece of advice that should be carried into all facets of writing. Yet it should be taken into particular account considering the limited wordcount of short stories. After all, as a writer you’re combating the reader’s waning attention span and a literary magazine’s print space (or lack thereof).
- Be mindful of your pacing. Having a story rejected is a harsh reality for a writer, but seeing comments attached to the rejection can offer an outsider’s perspective on the story. Years ago, I received a rejection with one such critique. The editor complimented my writing and several aspects of the story. The problem? According to the editor two scenes in the story were too long (his words). Confused because I remembered the story, I opened my Word document and doublechecked. All sections in the story were within two hundred words of each other, with the two in question falling in the middle. The sections weren’t too long per se, but rather dragged and slowed the pace. These sections contained character building elements and plotline developments integral to the story. A short story needs to deliver these elements in as concise a package as possible (omit needless words, remember?) or you might get an email stating “Thank you for submitting your story, but…” Also, it might be a good idea to save that two-hundred-word piece of dialogue for something else, like a novel.
- Experimentation is fine. Ever wanted to write a first-person story from the perspective of a zombie? Perhaps you’d like to try your hand at writing science fiction. The short story is a wonderful conduit for stretching your creative muscle. If the story doesn’t work out? Hey, no big deal, you’ve only wasted a few days, not the months it takes to write a novel. Be prepared if you’re planning to sell your story to a magazine, however, not all editors are open to experimental work if you happen to stretch the preconceived notion of normal.
- Remember it’s a sprint, not a marathon. I tend to write short stories fast and furious, then slow down for the editing process. Have a weekend to yourself and don’t know what to do? A five-thousand-word story should keep you busy. The beauty of a short story is in its briefness, which is what makes them so difficult to write. Yet with practice the short game can be mastered (I’ll let you know if I ever get there).
The wordcount tells me it’s time to end, dear reader. Until next time, remember to follow your dreams, even if they terrify you.
Stephen Michael Roth