Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Does length really matter?

Leatherwing asks:
When/how do you know whether you have a short story or a novel? I've been kicking around an idea, and I find myself with a basic outline, a decent cast of characters, factions and conflicts. I've written some notes but have yet to write a single line of story (except in my head).

If I start writing it as a short story, have I eliminated the option for a novel? How hard is it to make the switch from one to the other? (Obviously the amount of writing involved is significant.) My question is whether the structure of one eliminates the possibility of the other.

I've never had anything published, but I think I have an interesting story brewing and want to see if I can tell it well.
By all means, if you think you have an interesting story brewing and want to see if you can tell it well, the only thing to do is to start telling it and see where it goes.

As for how to tell whether your idea is worth a short story or a novel, I generally have some idea of what I intend to write before I start. That doesn't always work for me. Sometimes I start out intending to write a novel and discover along the way that there's just not enough structure there to support the weight. Other times I've started out intending to write a short story, but once in progress it picked up momentum and the characters demanded that it keep going after the originally planned ending.

That's the telling indicator, I think: how do you plan to end the thing? Three quick scenes and then an ironic twist and a punchline? It's a short story. Something big and profound that takes 5,000 words just to settle the dust before you can write, The End? It's a novel. You don't know how it's going to end? Then start out assuming it will be a novel. You can always carve some short stories out of the carcass later.

Does writing it as a short story preclude later rewriting it as a novel? Heck, no. More the opposite, rather: I think you'd find that most of the classic SF novels began life as short stories and then were later expanded to become novels. Remember, the SF paperback originals market didn't even exist until the 1950s. Even those stories that were originally written as novels were structured so that they could be serialized in the pulp fiction magazines of the day, and were only later repackaged as books, if the serialization proved popular. (And the definition of "novel" was pretty loose in them thar days, too; basically, it was anything over 40,000 words, vs the average length of a contemporary novel, which starts at 100,000 words and goes up. Headcrash was 100,00 words. A run-of-the-mill BFFB (Big Fat Fantasy Brick) can go a quarter-million words, easy. The SFWA Nebula Award has a whole slew of sub-categories for works between short-story (7,500 words, I think) and novel (40K words) length: novelettes, novellas, novelinas, novelissimos — okay, I made those last two up because I couldn't be bothered to look up the actual categories.)

Blessedly we no longer live in the bad old days, when magazines bought all rights in perpetuity and any subsequent novel sale was encumbered by a prior short-story sale. That's why, if you look at the copyright pages of so many classic SF novels, they have a credit to the original magazine publication. Street & Smith or Ziff-Davis had to be given their pound of flesh. But those sorts of grabby all-rights contracts went out of use thirty years ago. (Just don't look at the current Google contract, which makes the old Ziff-Davis contract look downright benign.)

How hard is it to make the switch from one to the other?

Very. But I'm out of time for today, so I guess this is a topic for tomorrow.