Showing posts with label novella. Show all posts
Showing posts with label novella. Show all posts

11 November 2019

Novellas, the New Frontier


by Steve Liskow

Ten years ago, I won the Black Orchid Novella Award, sponsored by the Wolfe Pack, AKA the Rex Stout Appreciation Society. Stout, who passed away in 1975, was a master of the novella and often produced a combination of novellas and short stories to fill out a Nero Wolfe book. The form is rare now, partly because it's too long for most magazines and too short to publish as a stand-alone book. There are few markets for them. Black Cat Mystery Magazine will look at a 15K-word MS, but reluctantly. The few other markets I know skew very literary.

Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine co-sponsors the Black Orchid Award (Nero Wolfe supposedly raised orchids, a trait he picked up from his creator) and publishes the winning entry every year. The contest rules define a novella as between 15 and 20 thousand words. Other sources give different counts, but the point is that it's enough longer than a short story to need more meat or the bones will show through.

I never considered writing a novella until 2009. By then I had accumulated scores of rejections for several novels and a handful of short stories. I had sold three or four stories, too. But "Stranglehold" clocked in at almost 7000 words, longer than most markets would even look at. I ran out of places to send it. One of my writing friends commented that many characters showed up quickly and it was hard to keep everyone straight. I tried cutting characters, but discovered I really needed all of them. I tried cutting words and made the story unintelligible. It sat on a floppy disc (Remember those?) for about three years, out of sight, and pretty much out of mind.

Then I saw a post about the Black Orchid Novella Award. Could I expand that short story and introduce those many characters more gradually?

Over the next three days (That's not a typo), I added 9000 words. I added one short transition scene, but nothing felt like padding. I sent it out and guess what? I'd written a novella that needed four years for me to recognize it.

Several years later, I won the contest again with only the second novella I've ever written. That novella had the opposite problem, though. About two years after "Stranglehold," I wanted to use the same characters in a novel, but it wasn't going anywhere.

My novels usually have two or three subplots that are variations on the main theme, and here everything except one minor variation felt forced and artificial. I struggled off and on for several years, then decided to lean on that subplot and try to cut the mess down to another novella. "Look What They've Done to my Song, Ma" won in 2016.

With that wealth of experience, I think I know how a novella works now. That's probably the kiss of death, isn't it?

Don't think of a novella as either a short story or a novel. Treat it as a distinct little creature. My ideal short story uses four or five named characters and no more than the same number of scenes, preferably in few, maybe even ONE, location. Novels are at least fifty scenes with more people or places, and several subplots.

A novella has one subplot and more scenes, a few of which might even be backstory, and more characters than a short story. Without going back to actually count, I'm going to guess that both the novellas above have about a dozen scenes and about the same number of characters. I try to keep the cast as small as possible, but let myself write big and messy because it's easy to cut scenes later. It's also easy to spot characters who serve the same function and combine two or three of them...if you even need them at all.

My current WIP, an early plan for another novella, has one subplot and a cast of 12. I'll probably eliminate some of those characters, either by cutting them or killing them, but I don't know which yet because we're still in the first date stage. I never kill someone until the second date.

That's another difference. When I begin outlining a novel, I think I know the ending (Sometimes that changes) and my main worry is how the PI will figure it out. I discover that by writing the scenes, and I often go back to change or add something so it all works at the end.

When I write a short story, I usually know the conflict, gut the rest of the story grows and develops while I write and rewrite as I go along. More often than not, the "real" ending shows up on the third or fourth draft.

I knew the ending of "Stranglehold" because it was a finished short story. According to my spread sheet, it was only the seventh short story I submitted anywhere, and I first sent it out in January, 2005, only about 18 months after I returned to writing after a long hiatus. Four years later, I expanded it into the novella.

"Song" didn't exist except as several pages of incoherent notes and a partial outline that made no effing sense. When I finally figured out the main plot, the subplot grew out of the characters and I pounded out a first draft in a week or so. I had a general idea of the ending, but didn't know how Woody Guthrie would solve the mess until I actually wrote that scene for the first time. It was like driving down a dark road at night and seeing a hitch hiker appear in your headlights.

That seems to happen to me more and more now. My WIP doesn't even have headlights yet. I don't even see the double line down the middle of the pavement. I have a general idea and I think I know the characters, but I don't quite know where I'm going. It's more interesting than worrisome.

I now allow myself to write quickly and worry about nothing except getting words on paper. A few years ago, I couldn't have worked this way, but now I know that if I write absolute junk on Monday, by Tuesday, something better will show up. Maybe I'll figure it out during the night or on a cardio machine at the health club, but something better will appear.

The way to solve a writing problem is by writing. You can fix anything you can put on paper. You can't do anything until then. Well, maybe if you're Mozart...

I'm beginning to look at novellas and short stories more closely because I've written myself into a dead end in both my series. That perception may change, but my mind is beginning to work in smaller units now. I suspect that in the next year or so I will move to publishing more short stories in digital formats, and a novella or two would flesh out collections. Rex Stout did it, and maybe what's old is new again.

We'll see.

26 November 2018

Neither Fish Nor Foul Play


by Steve Liskow

15 years ago, conventional wisdom stated that the way to pique an agent's interest was to publish short stories. I love short stories, but writing them makes calculus look easy. I never took calculus.

Nobody even mentioned novellas, novelettes or any of the other hybrid mutants. Nobody even agrees on word counts for any of them. Rex Stout used to publish three novellas and a short story together as a hardcover book, most of them starring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, but that's about the only consistent example I can name. Granted, the average mystery was much shorter than it is today, and Stout died in 1975. His novellas were probably between 15 and 20 thousand words, and you'll see where I came up with that estimate in a minute. Now, authors occasionally publish an eBook novella between longer works to keep readers aware of them.

 I wrote several unpublished short stories featuring my Detroit PI, rock & roll wannabe Woody Guthrie, although that wasn't even his name yet. One I liked a lot, called "Stranglehold," came in at nearly 7000 words, which was a problem. During 2005, I sent it out to the only five markets I could find that would accept a story of that length, and none of them did.

A writer friend told me he had trouble keeping the large cast of characters straight because they all showed up early in the story. I tried cutting some of them--and the story's overall length--and created an incoherent mess. I didn't see enough potential subplots to make the story into a novel, so it languished for four years.

Then someone told me about the Black Orchid Novella Award, sponsored by the Wolfe Pack (The Rex Stout Appreciation Society, named after his detective, Nero Wolfe) and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. The contest wanted stories between 15K and 20K words (see above) and following the general form of Stout's mysteries. Well, I'd read most of Stout's work because he was one of my mystery-reading mother's favorites. Archie's tone was a big influence on my own writing, maybe because we're both from the Midwest.

Could I add words to "Stranglehold" and turn it into a novella? If I expanded the opening, that large cast would appear more gradually and be easier to absorb. Imagine my surprise when I added 9000 words--and only two minor transition scenes--to the story in four days. I had a novella on my hands without even knowing it. I sent it off to the contest, and it won. It appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in summer 2010.

OK, I thought. When you have more detail than you can pack into a short story, think novella. I've never done that again.

Five years later, I struggled with another Woody Guthrie novel. By now I knew his name because he'd appeared in two novels, and so had several of his supporting cast. This time, I had the opposite problem from "Stranglehold." I had a solid main plot and an anemic subplot I couldn't expand without excessive and obvious padding.

My wife suggested that maybe it would work as another novella, and she was right. "Look What They've Done to my Song, Mom" won the award in 2015 and appeared in Alfred the following summer.

Now, I think I know how to write a novella. Step one is don't plan to do it. If you find yourself trapped with no other way out, focus on one main plot and one subplot. You might have a second subplot if it resolves easily. We're talking 60 to 80 pages, so we don't have a lot of introspection, static lyrical description, or technical wherewithall. If two sets of somewhat similar characters work through parallel or related plots, they're easy to bring together at the end. In both novellas I've written so far, each plot involved members of a band and their music.

Both stories have about ten characters, too. The band was a quintet in the first one, and four of the members were suspects in the killing of the fifth (Music fans would call this the "diminished fifth"). In the second story, the remaining members all have something at stake and two of them are suspects again. If you're a musician, you might think long and hard before joining this band.

I'm kicking around ideas for another novella. It doesn't involve Woody or the band or music, but I have about ten characters again. And one subplot.

If it works out, maybe I'll show it to you.

If it doesn't, maybe I really have a bloated short story on my hands...or another anorexic novel.

TIME FOR THE BSP: My sixth Zach Barnes novel, Back Door Man, a light-hearted romp into a cold case involving mass murder, is now available, just in time for your Christmas shopping.


If I'd known it would be ready for the holidays, maybe I would have called it "Violent Night."

14 May 2018

Seeing Eye To Ear


by Steve Liskow

When I was young, I wanted to play piano but my parents wouldn't drive me across town to my great aunt's house to practice on her Steinway baby grand. They let me study violin instead, and I quit after one year. Years later when the British Invasion hit, I was one of thousands of guys who saw girls go crazy over the Beatles. In 1966, I spent twenty-five dollars on a Stella Harmony guitar with strings thicker than coat hanger wire and set about cultivating terrible technique and a crop of blisters.



Since then, I've bought, sold or traded at least twenty guitars and a half dozen amplifiers. Right now, I own five guitars, two of which are for sale. Around the Millennium, I bought a used Roland keyboard and have wasted lots of time and a little money on books that promised to turn me into the next Glenn Gould, Otis Spann or Dave Brubeck. None of them did.


A few months ago, I saw a series of DVDs on playing piano at a ludicrously low price and decided to bet on one more losing hand. Surprise, the videos are excellent. After watching the first three, I understand the keyboard and music theory better than I ever have before. Piano gives you a fuller understanding of what is going on in a song because you play two separate lines. It's changing how I look at and hear the guitar, too.

The old blues players often used alternate guitar tunings, which I avoided until I bought a resonator guitar and started playing slide more often. Different tunings change the sound of a chord you've heard for years, and it forces you to think about what those tones mean. I'll never be great on either guitar or piano, but I'm thinking a lot more about what I'm doing.

Looking at your writing from a different perspective can have the same effect.

In 2005, I wrote a short story featuring Woody Guthrie (under a different name) and Megan Traine and a rock band. It was a complicated story and one of my friends commented that he had trouble keeping all the characters straight. The story was almost 7000 words long, which meant few markets would look at it, and when I cut characters and words, the whole thing became incoherent. I ran out of places to send it, and it languished on a floppy disc for about four years.

In 2009, someone told me about the Black Orchid Novella Award. Among other requirements, entries had to be between 15 and 20 thousand words. Could I expand that short story into a novella and introduce the large cast more gradually?

Over the next four days, I added nine thousand words and nothing felt padded! I'd never considered writing a novella because at that time the market was non-existent. But now I had one on my hands and I sent it out. "Stranglehold" won the Black Orchid Novella Award and appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in the summer of 2010. I was so used to thinking "short story" that I couldn't see it was really a novella waiting for its growth spurt.

A few years later, something felt wrong near the end of a WIP and I couldn't figure out what it was. I swapped manuscripts with another writer, who suggested that I change the point of view in one of the last scenes. Both characters had POV scenes throughout the book, so the change was feasible. It also made the ending much stronger. Someone with more distance could see that right away.

The Whammer Jammers introduces Hartford detectives Tracy "Trash" Hendrix and Jimmy Byrne exploring the world of roller derby. I interviewed skaters, referees, coaches, boyfriends, announcers, spectators, and Hartford police officers before I developed an outline and started writing. After about sixty pages, I felt like I was hip-deep in quicksand.

That night, I watched a baseball game on TV, the announcers giving the play-by-play in present tense, the way they always do. It dawned on me that Roller Derby is a sport, so what if I went back and changed the book from past tense to present? Bingo. I finished the rough draft in six weeks.

I did lots of research for what I thought would be the third Woody Guthrie novel, too. The more I played with it, the more it felt like it would work better with Zach Barnes in Connecticut. From there, it evolved into a police procedural with Trash and Byrne again. Once I have an outline, I usually produce eight or ten pages a day, but this beast needed three weeks to reach page fifty. I put it aside for a month, and when I looked at it again, I saw that two crucial premises actually contradicted each other. Oops. I recycled about half the characters into The Kids Are All Right, a finalist for the Shamus Award for Best Indie Novel.

When you revise, you become more committed to what you already have on paper. You tweak, but you don't rebuild. Looking at it from a different angle helps you see other possibilities. What if the other person is the main protagonist? What if you try it as a comedy instead? Should you expand that short story? Could it become a play, or maybe even a screenplay?

Going back to music for a minute, I remember Leonard Bernstein discussing the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and saying that the original opening, the da-da-da-DUM, included a flute in the score. Beethoven, one of music's great revisers, realized that a flute didn't belong in that "strong masculine utterance" (Bernstein's words, not mine) and removed it.

Learn from the masters. And maybe pick a different instrument.

05 December 2012

I'm Dreaming of a Black Orchid


by Robert Lopresti

Last week I mentioned that the Wolfe Pack was having their annual Black Orchid Banquet on Saturday in New York City.  One of the highlights of that event is always the announcement of the Black Orchid Novella Award.  Last year the winner was James Lincoln Warren and we published his acceptance speech here.

This year the winner happened to be, well, me.  "The Red Envelope" will be published in the July/August 2013 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  My acceptance speech is below.

I grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey, back when the city had a lovely old Carnegie Library.  But there was a problem: by the fifth grade I had used up the children's room, wrung it dry of everything I wanted to read.  And that was a problem because children were not allowed in the adult section.

So I would make guerilla raids down the narrow book-lined hallways that led to the cathedral-ceilinged main reading room, keenly aware that if I were caught the librarians would banish me back into exile with Dr. Seuss and Mary Poppins.


I quickly figured out that the best place to hide was the area directly behind the reference desk, because the librarians there seldom turned around.  That happened to be the mystery section.

And so it happened that among the first adult books I read were The Mother Hunt and Gambit. Of course over the years I read all of the Rex Stout corpus.  And reread it.

The results was that I became a lifelong mystery reader and a mystery writer as well.  Which brings us to tonight.  So I would like to start by thanking Rex Stout, without whom, as they say.

And I  want to thank the library staff in Plainfield, New Jersey.  I don't hold a grudge, you see.  I even became a librarian myself.

I want to thank the Wolfe Pack, and especially the awards committee, which has shown such excellent taste.

And my favorite editor, Linda Landrigan of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Linda, I believe three of my stories are waiting in your slushpile.

Also, the librarians and staff of Western Washington University, where I did my research.  "The Red Envelope" is set in Greenwich Village in 1958, so there was a lot to check up on.

I need to thank my first readers, last year's winner James Lincoln Warren, and R.T. Lawton.  Who knows?   Maybe he will be next year's winner.  Couldn't have done it without you guys.

Finally there's my wife, Terri Weiner, who puts up with my work even though she really prefers science fiction.  Thanks, honey.

And to all the rest of you, please keep reading mysteries.