15 March 2012

The Long and the Short


by Janice Law

Recently, I was asked to write a four page mystery for a forthcoming anthology. While our Sleuthsayers colleague John Floyd constructs such tidbits for Woman’s World, this is unknown territory for me. However, there’s nothing like a contract in hand and promises of a check to focus the writer’s mind and once I had a plot idea, the story went surprisingly easily. And fast.

This was because I have learned one of the invaluable aspects of the writing game, writing to length and having a sense of how many words take up how much space. Obvious, apparently, but anyone who has worked with beginning writers knows that writing to a set length is one of the difficult things to master. Ask a class for a two page essay, and you will get one and a half skimpy paragraphs with looks of anguish from half the class, and prideful four and a half page torrents from the other half.

Of course, journalists acquire a sense of length with their mother’s milk – or by their editor’s pencil. Well before they earn their first byline the decent journalist can hit his or her word count or, in bygone days, the allotted inches, on the nose.

And how does one acquire this useful skill? By writing over and over again pieces of the same length. I learned by doing two page movie reviews for a West Hartford newspaper. After several months, I not only could hit my page count, I had a new confidence in writing in general, and composition ceased to be a matter of tears and angst.
Now, everything I write (and with twenty books published and more than I’d like in the drawer I’ve written plenty) is just a multiple of those old two page reviews. I’ve acquired a sense of length.

So the little ultra-short story was not quite two reviews length or slightly more than the old Criminal Brief blogs. I figured a half page to set up the situation, a half page for the conclusion and just under three pages for the meat of the story. QED, as we used to say in geometry class.

The matter of length, though, has another aspect. I am convinced that writers all have an optimal length (or lengths). In my case the Anna Peters mysteries consistently came in around 275-290 pages. My contemporary novels are a tad longer, between 300 and 350 pages. My short stories without the incentive of a contract run between 10 and 14 pages, rarely longer – or shorter.

Other writers, I believe, follow the same sort of pattern. Stephen King clearly writes long. The Portuguese Nobelist Jose Saramago wrote short – check Cain, his posthumously published novel about the first murderer.
The great Edwardian humorists, P.G. Wodehouse and Jerome K. Jerome liked short. The classic American novelists were divided. Melville liked long as did Stowe; Hawthorne liked short and was better even shorter. The great UK Victorians and the great Russian novelists needed amplitude, though one of the best of the era, Emily Bronte, brought in Wuthering Heights at a modest length.

Perhaps if penicillin had been available to knock out her TB, Bronte might have evolved into a long writer. More recently, this been the pattern of successful mystery novelists. While Christie, Chandler, and Simenon all stayed with compact books, all too many of our contemporaries have moved from short and tight to brogdingnagian. Dick Francis, he of the thrilling Nerve and Flying Finish, grew rich on doorstop novels of multiple plots – and abundant padding.

P.D. James has grown longer, too, over the decades, if with fewer ill effects, but Elizabeth George’s Believing the Lie suggests that she may have reached the tipping point. Ruth Rendall has resisted the trend; indeed her most recent novel was shorter than usual, but she has had the outlet of the Barbara Vine novels, suggesting she has two ideal lengths.

Surprisingly, given the cost-cutting in the publishing world with lower advances – or no advances at all – cheaper paper, and cheesy construction, there seems to be a preference for the massive. Big novels, big books suggest big ideas or, at least, big sales and big sticker prices. Big suggests important, though many a savvy reader knows it really means inflated. But in this economy, who can blame writers, if like me with a contract in hand, they are tempted to venture beyond their muse’s favorite territory?

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6 comments:

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Janice, you're absolutely right about learning by doing it over and over. After blogging on Poe's Deadly Daughters for the past five years plus, now, on SleuthSayers, I can turn out a 500-800 word blog post without even thinking about it. And I've always said blogging feels like journalism to me. In the good old days, such weekly pieces would have been called a column, and I would have been paid for them--but you can't have everything!

John Floyd said...

Janice, congrats on tackling one of those "shorter" stories. It sounds as if all those two-page movie reviews paid off, in more ways than one.

Keep us posted, on plans for the anthology. I look forward to reading your story.

Leigh Lundin said...

When I was first flexing my writing wings, I entered competitions which had tight word limits. Those are excellent vehicles for focusing and making every work count. Excess modifiers disappear by magic!

David Dean said...

Good piece, Janice. I don't have any background in journalism and pay the price, I think. Sometimes, I'll predict that a story I'm beginning is a 'short' one and it turns out quite long. At other times it's just the opposite. I am trying to write shorter these days and trim the fat.

Robert Lopresti said...

FIrst of all, hooray for mentioning JK Jerome, one of my heroes.

Back in the days of typewriters my stories always finished on page 11. Weird.

Lately I have been writing longer and longer and longer....

Robert Lopresti said...

Janice, for some reason I got your most recent comment but it didn't show up here. You mentioned that Jerome's book THREE MEN IN A BOAT is a classic, and it is. have you seen the tv movie they made of it in the seventies? Script by Harold Pinter, and Tim Curry and Michael Palin played J and Harris. Quite wonderful and last time i looked you could see it on Youtube. If it was available on DVD I'd grab it.