22 August 2013

Going to Great (or Short) Lengths

Kwik Krimes
Appearing in a volume of short mysteries, Kwik Krimes has gotten me thinking about writing lengths. Although some of my SleuthSayers colleagues will surely disagree, I am convinced that most writers have a favored length or lengths. Lengths in my case. The Anna Peters novels rarely ran more than 240 pages in typescript; my latest straight mystery, Fires of London, was about the same length and with the new, smaller modern type, printed up to 174 pages. My stand alone novels, on the other hand, are in the 350 page range, while my short stories cluster between 12- 17 pages in typescript, with most in the 14-15 page range.

Why this should be so, I have no idea. I just know that beyond a certain length lies the literary equivalent of the Empty Quarter. The Muse has decamped and taken all my ideas with her. As for the very short, I find it intensely frustrating as the required word limit looms when I’ve barely gotten started.

It seems that the big, multi-generation saga, the weighty blockbuster thriller, and the thousand page romance are not to be in my repertory, nor, at the other end of the spectrum, is flash fiction. I’m not alone in this. Ray Bradbury wrote short; Stephen King writes long. Ruth Rendall is on the short side of the ledger, though the novels of her alter ego, Barbara Vine, run at least a hundred pages more. Elizabeth George’s novels started long and are getting steadily longer; the late, under-rated Magdalen Nabb wrote blessedly short, while my two current personal favorites, Fred Vargas and Kate Atkinson, are in the Goldilocks Belt: moderate length and just right.

Classic novels show a similar pattern. Lampedusa’s great The Leopard is short. So is Jane Austen’s work, although most of the other nineteenth century greats favored long. Except for the Christmas Carol, Dickens’ famous novels are all marathons, as are works by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and most of the novels by George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte, although the latter’s sister Emily produced the great, and compact, Wuthering Heights.

Would Emily Brontë have gone on to write the triple decker novels beloved of the 19th century book trade? One hopes not, as changing lengths is not always a happy thing for a writer. Dick Francis, whose early mysteries I love, started out writing short and tight. Novels like Flying Finish and Nerve were not much over 200 pages in length. Alas, with fame came the pressures for ‘big novels.’ I doubt I’m the only fan who has found his later work much less appealing.

Other writers have had a happier fate. Both P.D. James and John Le Carre produced short early books then hit their stride with the longer and more complex works that have made their reputations. In a reversal of this trajectory, Stephen King has profitably experimented with some short works on line.

Still, my own experience has been that I do my best work within fairly strict lengths. I’ve tried a couple of times to manage Woman’s World’s 600 word limit. Neither was a happy experience, although I recycled one story and sold it to Sherlock Holmes Magazine – but only after I’d expanded the material to my favored length.

So why am I now appearing in Otto Penzler’s Kwik Krimes, a little volume of 1000 word mysteries, along with 80 other people who are perhaps more in touch with brevity than I am?
The answer lies in Samuel Johnson territory. The good doctor, himself, a working writer who had to grub for every shilling, famously said that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” However idealistic a writer is and even however unbusinesslike she may be, the Muse leans to Dr. Johnson’s opinion.

There is something about being asked for a story – how often does that happen!– with the promise of a check to follow that lifts the heart. Most writers’ short stories are composed on spec. They emerge from the teeming brain and are sent on their way with a hopeful query, most likely to be returned with a note that they are “not quite right for us at this time.” One can be sure that they will never will be right at some future time, either.

So, a firm request is a great inspiration. I said I’d give it a try, and voila, an idea presented itself. I proceeded to steal an strategy from one of the greats– only borrow from the very best is my motto– and turned out the 1001 words of “The Imperfect Detective.” A thousand words? Close enough.


  1. Janice, first, congratulations again on the story in KWIK KRIMES. When you mentioned Charles Dickens and the, in my opinion, sometimes excessive length for the story being told, I remembered a favorite teacher telling me to excuse Dickens' wordiness because he was frequently being paid by the word. Imagine my surprise when you wrapped the KWIK KRIMES story to the same concept though in this case, pay depended on fewer words instead of more.I'm looking forward to reading KWIK KRIMES. I've never read any of your work that I didn't appreciate.

  2. Many thanks!
    If I remember correctly, an awful lot of magazine writing and freelance newspaper work was paid by the word- as AHMM and EQMM are to this day.

  3. Good piece. Decades ago every story I wrote ended on page eleven. it was absolutely creepy how that happened.

    When i worked in a public library we had a handout of short high quality novels for high school students who had to read a novel.I remember The Old Man and the Sea and Steinbeck's The Moon Is Down were on it. Maybe fahrenheit 451?

  4. Congratulations on Kwik Krimes!
    My favorite length writing is the short story - I've written a couple of novels, but haven't been that comfortable with it. Yet.
    My favorite length reading is whatever keeps my interest: from short-shorts all the way to - yes I've read it - War & Peace.

  5. Janice, congrats on your KWIK KRIMES. I was going to send you an e-mail with questions about the anthology, but you already covered everything in your article. It's a nice feeling being invited to submit, isn't it. And to be invited into one of Otto's books is a mark of distinction. Good for you. Will be expecting to read more of your short stories in the future.

  6. Enjoyed your thoughts here, Janice. It seems that I write longish short stories and shortish novels. I've always been a little contrary.

    Congrats again on Kwik Krimes!

  7. I'll shop for Kwik Krimes at my KwikMart store. I do like short, snappy fiction and wish I could find more.

  8. Janice, I'm one of those who think story lengths seek their own level and yes, perhaps writers as well.

  9. Rob's comment about novels reminds me that short novels for high school students who are unenthusiastic readers used to be in much shorter supply- in my day it was The Red Badge of Courage-which at least one of my friends did not find to be a page turner.


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