Showing posts with label novellas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label novellas. Show all posts

11 November 2019

Novellas, the New Frontier


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.

22 July 2019

When to Enter


Many moons ago, I discussed why I enter so few writing contests. If there is a hefty entry fee, I stay away. If I don't know the judges or feel comfortable with the criteria, ditto.
But sometimes, dumb luck gives you an advantage, and it's true of both contests and submissions to anthologies. If you're in the right place at the right time, there are ways to get an inside track.

Several years ago, I learned about the Black Orchid Novella Award. I had a short story that never sold, and I expanded it into a novella and won. Yes, writing a good story helps, but the Black Orchid Novella Award pays tribute to Rex Stout and his detectives Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. My parents liked Stout, so I read many of his novels and novellas when I was young. We were both raised in the Midwest, so his voice and rhythm and characters influenced my own writing. In other words, writing a story that fit the contest's requirements was definitely in my skill set.

I've entered two stories in that contest, and won both times. Since it's an annual event, the submission dates are standard, which means I know when to have a story ready and have a whole year to come up with an idea (or not) and rewrite until it's worth sending. That means no rushing, important because I can't rush. I've written on demand, but it always takes me several revisions, which means lots of time.

My titles should tell you I like blues and rock and roll. Several years ago, I wrote a blog about plagiarism in rock music. Among other performers, I mentioned Led Zeppelin and their frequent "borrowing" from blues artists. That idea was fresh in my mind when the Mystery Writers of America posted a submission call for an anthology with the theme of "Vengeance," to be edited by Lee Child.

Well, Child's first novel is Killing Floor, a title taken from an old Howlin' Wolf blues classic. Led Zeppelin milked it dry for a song they called "The Lemon Song" on their second LP. Child has another novel called Bad Luck and Trouble, a line that appears in both "Born Under a Bad Sign" by William Bell and Albert King and "Double Trouble" by Otis Rush.

I figured Child was a fan of American Blues. What if I could write a story about a blues songwriter who stole a song and the results caught up with him? I called it "Hot Sugar Blues" and hoped the title would help the story get through the gatekeepers to Child himself. It appeared in the anthology and was later named a finalist for the Edgar Award.

Yes, I think it was a good story, but it still needed the right audience. You can help that happen.

Several years ago, I joined four other writers judging submissions for the Al Blanchard Story Award, sponsored by the New England Chapter of MWA. Let me share what that five-month stint taught me.

The submission time was three months, and we received 142 stories of 5000 words or less. Only a dozen came in during the first several weeks, and only 41 through the sixth week, so I read them all, Because I was used to reading lots of papers, I read EVERY story (even though I only had to read every fourth one) and took notes. (Some people have lives. I'm not one of them). I graded them all from 1 to 10 and made a spread sheet of my comments.

I didn't award any story a 9 or 10, but I gave NINETY-ONE stories a 1 or 2. That's right, nearly 2/3 of the entries earned that score, and for the same reason(s). They started with turgid--often unnecessary--backstory and most of them wallowed in description. They tended to tell rather than show, had little or poor dialogue, and a few had endings that came out of nowhere.

Don't do those things.

A whopping 41 stories came in the last day of the contest. Don't do that, either. By then, judges are in a hurry. They're looking for a reason to dump you and move on, so a typo, a badly-chosen name, or a cliche may be enough to knock you out on page one.

If a contest takes submissions for three months, I like to wait about six weeks. That gives readers time to go through enough entries to establish a personal standard of their own. They still have enough time to be flexible, though, so they'll give leeway to something a little different. When the time crush kicks in (the last two weeks), they may already have their personal favorites locked in and it's hard to dislodge them. Hit them when they're still comfortable.

Keep in mind that judging is ALWAYS subjective, no matter how specific the criteria, and no matter whether it's for a contest, an anthology, or a standard submission. Three of the five stories I rated the highest in the contest I judged didn't make anyone else's short list, but seventeen of the stories I rated a 1 or a 2 DID.

Not long ago, an editor turned down my submission because he liked the story but didn't like the golf that was essential to the plot. He never explained why. I sold the story elsewhere in two weeks. Maybe if I'd used tennis or Jai alai, it would have sold the first time out.

You never know. But some guesses are better than others.

08 July 2019

Why I Write


Today, I'm following a trend started by Michael Bracken, R.T., and O'Neil.
Writing is something I've done for so long that I can't imagine not doing it. Restructuring my life without it would be like a dancer having to reinvent himself after losing both legs.

The previous generation of my family included several teachers and two journalists, then called "reporters." My sister and I are the two youngest of eleven first cousins, seven of whom taught at one time or another (One was a principal and another was a superintendent), three of whom were involved in theater, and two of whom became attorneys.

Adults read to us constantly from the time we could sit upright in their laps. My sister and I both read at a fourth-or-fifth-grade level when we entered kindergarten, and I assume our cousins did, too.

When I was ten, the Mickey Mouse Club presented their first serialization of The Hardy Boys, and over the next year, I read every existing book in the series. Naturally, I tried to copy them myself, both sides of a wide-ruled notebook page per chapter, ending with the hero getting hit over the head or a flaming car soaring over the cliff. My mother, who worked as a secretary for the Red Cross during World War II, typed a couple of my stories out, and seeing my word in print gave me a thrill that never went away.

I slowed down in high school and college, but I never really stopped writing. In grad school, I took an American short story class that brought back the urge. Between 1972 and 1981, I taught high school English, earned my Masters and C.A.S (sixth-year) from Wesleyan, worked part-time as a photographer...and wrote five unpublished novels. Then I drifted into theater, where I acted, directed, produced, designed lights and/or sound and helped build sets for over 100 productions between 1982 and 2010. My third grad degree is in theater.
Upper Right, me as the crazy father

 I retired from teaching in 2003, and the theater where I did most of my work lost its performance space a week later. I wanted to revise one of the books I'd never been able to sell, and now I had time to learn to do it right. I read books on craft, attended workshops, and asked questions. Three years and 350 rejections later, I sold my first short story. Four more years and 250 more rejections, and I sold my first novel. Since then five short stories (including that first one) have short-listed for the Al Blanchard Award. I've won Honorable Mention three times, but never won. Two other stories won the Black Orchid Novella Award (Rob Lopresti has also won), and one story, the ONLY story that was accepted the first place I sent it, was nominated for an Edgar.

Linda Landrigan on the left, Jane Cleland on the right. Second Black Orchid

As I write this, most of the other bloggers on this site sell more short stories in a slow year than I have even written in my life. My acceptance rate hovers around seven percent and I have eight stories still floating from market to market looking for a home. My fifteen novel (All self-published since the first one became a terrible experience) will appear late this year or early next year.

Since 2007, when my first story appeared in print, my writing enterprises have been in the black three times, and the largest amount was about a hundred dollars. If I stopped writing today, it wouldn't affect my income or my standard of living.

My quality of life, though, well, that's a different issue.

I was a shy kid. Even though I could play baseball and football and basketball fairly well and had a bike like the other kids, I always felt a little bit outside the group. The writing gave me a retreat that was safe. So did music. I studied violin in firth grade (I really wanted to play piano) and picked up a guitar when the Beatles invaded. I played bass in a fortunately forgotten band in college. I recently started teaching myself piano all these years later, and music appears in many of my stories. Theater shows up occasionally.
One of my last directing gigs

The book I finally got right. 
I don't write for the money or for the recognition. I write because I still like the furniture in my little interior retreat. I love how it feels to send out a story when I know it's the best I can make it. That doesn't mean it will sell. A story I think is one of my very best has 19 rejections and no other appropriate market on the horizon. Another one I love has 15.

So what?

Would I like to make more money writing? Sure. I'd also like to play piano and guitar better, be twenty years younger knowing what I know now, and lose 15 pounds.

But I'll settle for this.

26 November 2018

Neither Fish Nor Foul Play


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


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.

14 May 2016

Size Matters


I don't remember exactly when I wrote the first draft of One Shot. All I know for sure is that it was before Prince Charles and Princess Diana got divorced.

Back then, I'd already published several stories in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, including one introducing police lieutenant Dan Ledger: "An Ounce of Prevention," published in --good grief!--1989. One Shot (then titled "Fatal Distraction") was supposed to be the follow-up. But the draft ran several thousand words too long.

At first, that didn't worry me. Every Hitchcock story I've written, before or since, started out too long, Cutting's part of the process. I'd come to enjoy watching stories snap into shape as they got tighter.

But this story, I realized, needed expanding, not cutting. Characters begged for more development. And Ledger never found the murder weapon. In real life, true, the police often don't find murder weapons. In this story, though, since the victim's a prominent gun-control advocate, the gun that kills her has ironic significance. Leaving it unfound felt sloppy.

Maybe, I thought, this story's really a novel. I changed the title to First Things, developed characters further, decided where to hide the gun and how Ledger finds it. The plot felt solid, but the book hadn't reached novel length. I added subplots and sent it out.

It came close. Several agents requested the full manuscript before rejecting it with regrets. It reached the final round of a contest that would have led to publication. But it never quite made it.

Discouraged, I put it aside. I created other characters for Hitchcock but didn't write about Ledger again. The second part of his story hadn't been told. Skipping ahead felt wrong.

The television script came next. Years later, while watching Columbo, I had the crazy thought that my story might work as an episode. I'd have to make huge changes--reshaping a whodunit into a how-will-he-solve-it, replacing Lieutenant Ledger with Lieutenant Columbo--but in other ways, the story seemed right for the series. So I wrote the best query letter of my life and mailed it directly to Peter Falk, asking him if he'd read a script. Incredibly, he wrote back personally. Even more incredibly, he said yes. I bought a book on screenplay format and got to work. The subplots felt tacked on now. I dropped them and mailed the script.

But I knew I hadn't really transformed Ledger into Columbo. My detective now ate chili, said "one more thing," and had a sad-eyed basset hound waiting patiently in his car. Unfortunately, I liked Ledger too much to change him in more fundamental ways. When the gentle rejection came--from Mr. Falk's assistant this time--I wasn't surprised.

More years passed. I started reading about online publishing but felt skeptical. How can something be published unless it's printed on paper? Then I read that online sales sometimes rival print sales, and that one online publisher, Untreed Reads, was looking for mystery novellas.

I searched the garage, found the box of Ledger manuscripts, and started revising--again. With all the manuscripts stacked on my printer, I went from one to another, culling the best from each, combining, cutting. Scenes I liked had to go. Undoubtedly, though, the pace improved. Switching from third-person to first-person made Ledger's voice stronger and emphasized the humor. Also, writing the novel had helped me get to know my characters. I could bring their personalities out in fewer words. And I changed the title to One Shot. Obviously, it was the perfect title, the only possible title--why hadn't I realized that before?

I made other changes, too. In the novel, a reporter declares she wants to cover the big stories– "Rain forests! Charles and Di! AIDS!" Oops. Now, she yearns to cover "Global warming! Brad and Angie! Terrorism!" (By now, "Brad and Angie" sounds dated, too.)

I'd thought I'd finish the novella in weeks. It took months. Frustrated, I told my husband, "If the damn thing doesn't get published this time, I'll damn well rewrite it as a limerick."

But Untreed Reads did publish it. After waiting over two decades, Dan Ledger made his second appearance in 2011. One Shot hasn't exactly been a best seller, but it's still out there, somebody buys a copy every so often, and the people who read it seem to enjoy it.

Ironically enough, after the first few years, Untreed Reads decided to reclassify it as a short story and lower the price. So you could say One Shot ended up where it started out, except that this version of the short story is a lot longer than the original one--and, I think, a lot better, too.

Lately, I've been thinking about writing another mystery for Dan Ledger. Will it be a short story, a novel, a television script, a novella? Not a television script--one attempt at that was enough to convince me it's not my strength. Other than that, I'm not sure. I just hope I don't have to rewrite it half a dozen times to figure out how long it should be.

By the way, I did write that limerick, just in case. It begins "The victim was shot in the chest" and ends with "Now in prison the killer must rest." I won't reveal the middle lines--they'd give away the plot. But if a market for mystery limericks ever develops, I'm ready.



We regret to inform readers of the following: While foiling a daring plot masterminded by the notorious Coke brothers, Bonnie suffered injuries. The NSA remains mum but Al-Jazeera reports she prevented the petro-chemical conglomerates from cornering the global market of caffeine. Unfortunately when ejecting from her F-22 Raptor, Bonnie broke her right arm, although USA Today notes she can shoot effectively with either hand.

Or something like that. As I said, the NSA isn't talking and Bonnie's unable to type at the moment, having undergone surgery. We SleuthSayers wish Bonnie well during her recovery, and hope to see her in two weeks, in time for the clandestine medal-pinning ceremony.

— Editor

27 December 2015

The Long and the Short of it




by Dale C. Andrews
"Begin at the beginning," the King said, very gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop."
                                                    Lewis Carroll 
                                                    Alice in Wonderland 
EQMM uses stories of almost every length. 2,500-8,000 words is the preferred range, but we occasionally use stories of up to 12,000 words and we feature one or two short novels (up to 20,000 words) each year, although these spaces are usually reserved for established writers. Shorter stories are also considered, including minute mysteries of as little as 250 words.
                                                   Writers’ Guidelines 
                                                   Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine 

Charles Dickens
telling it short
        Back in the 1980s I taught legal writing to first year law students at American University. The course involved a series of written assignments, leading up to a legal brief at the end of the semester. Invariably the first question I would get in anticipation of the first written assignment was “how long does it need to be?” My answer was always the same -- as long as it takes to do it right. When the students’ responses were collective eye rolls I would offer this further advice: Think of the assignment as a scroll, not a book. The number of pages is irrelevant. Dickens' A Christmas Carol tells its story in about 90 pages.  Bleak House takes over 640.  

       But, of course, in life pages and words are not irrelevant. In the real world we invariably encounter limiting rules within which the game must be played. Some of these rules are explicit -- every court, for example, sets the maximum word limits for various genre of legal documents. Other rules are implicit, but that does not mean that they can be ignored. So the trick is to tell the story, beginning to end, but with an understanding of the rules of the field in which you are playing. 

       At first blush the extent of that “field” can be deceiving. Let’s say you are writing a short story with an eye toward publication in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. With that in mind, take a look at the Writers’ Guidelines from EQMM set forth above. 2,500 to 8,000 words, with the possibility of 12,000 words? Quite a range, right? But think again. EQMM publishes what averages out to about ten stories in each issue. (That used to be eleven or 12 -- until a few years back when Dell Publications shrunk the magazine from 140-some pages to around 110.) So, in any given year there are now about 120 slots in EQMM, and a like number of slots in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, for which all short story submissions are competing. And don’t forget that if your short story comes in on the longer end of the range you have probably lessened your chances before the story is even reviewed -- publishing a tale in a longer format necessarily means that those “extra pages” have gobbled up the pages that otherwise would be available for other stories. 

       The advent of e-books and e-publications has tempered this a bit, since they are not bound (pun intended) by the restrictions of paper. But even given this, by and large the hardest story to sell has historically been the novella. Clocking in at 8,000 to 40,000 words the novelette and novella are the stepchildren of fiction -- too long to fight for space as a short story, too short to sell as a separately bound volume.

     I know of what I speak here. The first story I ever submitted, "The Book Case," was originally 78 pages long, around 23,500 words. When I sent it in to EQMM I acknowledged in my cover letter to Janet Hutchings that I fully understood that the story was almost certainly un-publishable because of its awkward length, but I thought she might like to see it. I likely was miraculously spared the near certain fate of instant rejection solely by the fact that a story featuring Ellery Queen at the age of 102 solving one last case, landed in sympathetic hands. Janet held the story for a number of months, then sent suggested edits -- radical edits -- that eventually chopped the tale down to around 30 pages and something just under 15,000 words. And even that is too long.  Reportedly "The Book Case" is the longest story ever published by EQMM’s Department of First Stories. 

       Is the answer to all of this to simply write longer -- to aim not for a short story but a full length novel? Well, yes and no. It is certainly true that a novel affords much more space for character development and intricacy of narrative. But even then, there are practical limits that affect the commercial viability of all submissions. Novels run from 70,000 to 90,000 words, generally. (For some mysterious reason Science Fiction novels are “allowed” to run longer!) And while e-publications may be more accommodating to all genres, the standard rule is that most print publishers are wary of submissions that go much beyond these general limits because of the increased printing and distribution costs that are entailed in placing longer works. 

       There is a lot of evidence out there to suggest that many authors share the tendency to “write long.” Stephen King’s fourth novel, The Stand, was originally deemed too long to publish and King, under orders from his publisher, cut the book down by over 150,000 words to a still-long 823 pages when the first edition was published in 1978. These cuts, as King explains in the later full length version of the The Stand, were dictated not by art but by economics. The book was too long to sell for what it would cost to print it. As King explained it: 
The cuts were made at the behest of the accounting department. They toted up production costs, laid these next to the hardcover sales of my previous four book, and decided that a cover price of $12.95 [remember, this was 1978!] was about what the market would bear.
And $12.95 didn’t cover the printing costs of a book running over 1,000 pages. 

       Obviously the cuts grated on King, who subsequently re-issued the novel in 1990 at 1,153 pages. When the longer edition was published I read it with the original version along side, since I was curious as to what was new. Sometimes there were simply new descriptive paragraphs, but there were also entire aspects of the novel that were not present in the 1978 version -- Fran Goldsmith’s family in Maine, the trip through the Eisenhower Tunnel. Which version was better? Clearly the final one. But apparently not enough so to see it published before King had the literary clout to tell his publisher I don’t care what you think, we’re publishing the whole thing! 

       Although The Stand is one of the starkest examples of condensing a work for publication, there is other evidence of authors who were only able to lengthen their works when they had acquired the trump card of established success. J. K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter volume, The Philosopher’s Stone, contains 76,944 words -- well within the parameters of typical novels. But by the time she had established her financial clout those rules no longer applied. The final Harry Potter book, The Deathly Hallows, waddles in at a hefty 198,227 words. And a predecessor volume -- The Order of the Phoenix -- weighs in at 257,045 words. Another example? J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit contains 95,022 words. But when we get to volume 1 of The Lord of the Rings trilogy we are looking at 177,227. 

Worth the read -- all 944 pages!
       Some writers thumb their literary noses at the idea of standardized lengths even when they have not reached the literary (and financial) stature of King, Rowlings or Tolkien. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is 1,088 pages in paperback. Carl Sandburg in the 1940s wrote a multi-generational novel entitled Remembrance Rock (ever heard of or read that one?) that also was 1,088 pages. And science fiction writer Tad Williams rounded out his Sorrow and Thorn series with To Green Angel Tower -- 1083 pages.  The third volume of Justin Cronin's popular The Passage trilogy, The City of Mirrors, due out next year, reportedly will weigh in at around 1,000 pages. And just recently first-time novelist Garth Risk Hallberg published City on Fire -- a 944 page mystery set in New York City in the mid-1970s. (City on Fire was recently named one of the top 50 novels of 2015 by The Washington Post and I, for one, liked it so much that I was sad to reach that final 944th page.) 

       Most of us, though, lack the luxury of being able to ignore word and page constraints. For us the simplest route to success is to play by the rules. Let's end where we started, with short stories and, particularly, mystery short stories. With a great deal of help from Janet Hutchings I learned my lesson with "The Book Case." Unless you are really lucky, long will not sell. To compete for one of those few short story slots that are still out there, the author has to be ruthless with his or her prose. When I write a story I edit many times, trying to get the tale as spare as possible. And then, when I think that I am finally there, I do one more thing. I print out the story and read through it in its entirety looking at each and every word and asking myself whether that word can be eliminated. Surprising, even after heavy editing, lots of words are still candidates for omission. An amazing amount of tightening can be accomplished by doing this. 

       The irony of the process is that if you are eventually successful, and manage to place your story with EQMM or AHMM, your ultimate reward will be that your payment will be calculated -- by the word!

29 November 2014

Based on the Novel by . . .


I'll start off with a fact gleaned from writer Stephen Follows's blog: More than half of the top 2000 films  of the last twenty years were adaptations. The rest, of course, were original screenplays and remakes. I see a lot of all three, and I plan to see a lot more--but with regard to movies adapted from novels, I do always try to read the book before watching the movie.

Why? Simple answer: Because the book is usually better. Also, I like to be able to picture the characters, settings, etc., in my own mind first, rather than seeing instead the result of what was in someone else's mind.

If all that's true, one might ask, why bother to watch the movie at all? That's an easy one, too: I want to see how the filmmaker's view compares to my own. Besides, as I've said, I just like movies. And sometimes--not often, but sometimes--what I see on the screen turns out even better than what I saw on the page.

Which brings up another question. What makes for a successful movie adaptation? Is it good simply because it remains faithful to the book? Not necessarily. I heard Twilight was faithful to the book, and look what happened there.

I think a good adaptation is when a piece of fiction, novel-length or short, great or terrible, is transformed into a good film.

Several categories are involved, here. And--as always--the following lists are based on my opinion only.

The four possibilities

1. Disappointing book becomes a disappointing movie: Dreamcatcher, Scarlett, Eragon, The Bridges of Madison County, The Reivers (I know, I know, it won the Pulitzer--but still), The Time Traveler's Wife, Battlefield Earth, Love Story, The Da Vinci Code, Message in a Bottle, The Betsy, The Valley of the Dolls. (NOTE: "Disappointing" doesn't necessarily mean "of poor quality." It just means "disappointing." To me.)

2. Book is better than the movie: The Stand, The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Great Gatsby, Congo, One for the Money, Great Expectations, The Haunting of Hill House, Ender's Game, The Golden Compass, Dune, The Hobbit, Mind Prey, Live and Let Die, StripteaseTell No One, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, It, The Pillars of the Earth, Sphere, The Scarlet Letter, Timeline. 

3. Movie is better than the book: Dances With Wolves, Die Hard, Mrs. Doubtfire, Dr. Strangelove, M*A*S*H, Forrest Gump, Les MiserablesCasino Royale (2006), Cape Fear, The Bourne Identity, The Graduate, Psycho, Heaven's Prisoners, Blade Runner, Thank You for SmokingThe Godfather, The Poseidon Adventure, Interview With the Vampire, L.A. Confidential.

4. Good book becomes an equally good movie: Mystic River, The Searchers, The Silence of the Lambs, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Jaws, The Dead ZoneThe Caine MutinyThe Eye of the Needle, Shane, Rebecca, From Russia With Love, Misery, Giant, Papillon, The Maltese FalconThe Princess Bride, Magic, HombreOut of Sight, From Here to Eternity, Cool Hand Luke, Sands of the Kalahari, The Cider House Rules, The Big Sleep (1946), The Hunt for Red October, Gone With the Wind, A Time to KillPresumed Innocent, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Old Yeller, The Guns of Navarone, Life of Pi, The Lord of the Rings, The Green MileJurassic ParkThe Hunger Games, The Hustler, The RoadOn Her Majesty's Secret Service, The Prince of Tides, Jackie Brown, The Day of the Jackal, The Help, Holes, Flight of the Phoenix, Appaloosa, Third Man on the Mountain, No Country for Old Men, Get Shorty, Death Wish, The High and the Mightry. (And, according to R.T. Lawton's SleuthSayers column yesterday, Enemy at the Gates. I've seen that movie but I've not read the book.)

There are obviously many, many more, but my head's beginning to hurt, and yours probably is too. Can you suggest others, in the above categories? Do you disagree with some of my choices? (My wife certainly does.) Should I stop buying books at garage sales and cancel my Netflix subscription? All opinions are welcome.

Observations from the cheap seats

Note 1: A lot of outstanding films have been adapted from--believe it or not--short stories. Examples: Rear Window ("It Had to Be Murder"), High Noon ("The Tin Star"), It's a Wonderful Life ("The Greatest Gift"), 3:10 to Yuma, Brokeback Mountain, Duel, Stagecoach (The Stage to Lordsburg"), Bad Day at Black Rock ("Bad Day at Honda"), The Swimmer, Minority Report, It Happened One Night ("Night Bus"), 2001: A Space Odyssey ("The Sentinel"), The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, The Fly, Don't Look Now, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Note 2: Good novellas usually make good movies. Why is this true? I think it's because a novella-length story most closely fits the length of a screenplay. Short-story adaptations (unless they become short films, or "episodes" in TV shows like Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents) require the screenwriter to add a lot to the originals--and novel adaptations (unless they become TV miniseries like CentennialRoots, and Lonesome Dove) require the screenwriter to leave a lot out. Examples of excellent novella-based movies: The Old Man and the Sea, Double Indemnity, The Mist, Apocalypse Now (Heart of Darkness), Stand By Me (The Body), The Shawshank Redemption (Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption), The Thing (Who Goes There?), The BirdsThe Man Who Would Be KingThe Third Man, Hearts in Atlantis (Low Men in Yellow Coats), The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Most of these were able to remain fairly true to the source material.

Looking ahead . . .

I'm hoping that movies will one day be made from the following novels: The Bottoms (Joe Lansdale), The Given Day (Dennis Lehane), The Quiet Game (Greg Iles), Rose (Martin Cruz Smith), Plum Island (Nelson DeMille), The Matarese Circle (Robert Ludlum), 11/22/63 (Stephen King), The Two Minute Rule (Robert Crais), A Cold Day in Paradise (Steve Hamilton), Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (Tom Franklin), Booked to Die (John Dunning), Cimarron Rose (James Lee Burke), Destroyer Angel (Nevada Barr), Killing Floor (Lee Child), Time and Again (Jack Finney). I'm keeping fingers crossed--I'd miss an episode of The Walking Dead to see one of those.

At the moment, I'm looking forward to watching several recently-released and upcoming films based on novels: Gone GirlThe Maze RunnerMockingjayThe Hundred-Foot Journey, and Horns. Will they be good or bad? Better than their books, or worse? 

Who knows. You pays your money and you takes your chances.

Maybe that's part of the fun.

17 January 2014

Potential New Market


Writers always like to hear about potential new markets and therefore I may have one for you. It's a new start-up with big plans for the future. In fact, it's so new they are still working on the web site and when you look at the list of books, you will only find three currently available. But, when you look at the list of authors scheduled to contribute works, there are several and you will probably recognize some of the names. (They've added at least two more names since I originally wrote this piece.) So, here's the information as I received it from the Stark Raving Group CEO, Jeffrey Weber.

Jeff is looking for quick read novellas, or short novels, in the mystery, crime fiction, action-adventure and thriller genres. 25,000 to 35,000 words; about 75 to 100 pages, which will retail for $2.99 as an e-book. The author gets $1.00 per book sale, no advance, and is paid by check. His group wants "pulp renaissance, pulp 2.0 if you will, in taut, terse, plot-driven, witty, sensuous, action-packed adventure fiction of the '60s and '70s." You can write a book a year as either a stand-alone or as a setup for a series.

Background: He has "spent over three decades in the music industry as a producer and label owner (180+ CD's produced, multiple Grammys, multiple Grammy nominations)." It is his plan to utilize these same music industry strategies "to market, promote and sell our books." One new technology, not yet applied to book publishing, is geofencing. "It places a virtual "fence" around a location and when you cross the invisible barrier, a message/promotional offer pops up on your smartphone or eReader. We're making plans to use the technology for airports, bus stations, train stations and so on."

"Through our distribution agreement with Consortium (Perseus Books), our e-books will be available just about everywhere, including Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble (Nook), Google Books, Ingram Digital, Kobo, Sony, etc." (It's a long list, so I condensed it and mentioned only some of the big names we all know.) Books will also be able to be purchased "through social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, etc." The group has also created their own sales and distribution platform called Bookxy:  www.bookxy.com

For the future, they will be creating multi-cast audio books. And, here's an interesting thought, they will also make their books available by subscription. They expect to have 100,000 subscribers within the next three to five years.

How did I hear about Jeff? A guy, Rob Robinson, who I went to high school with and got reacquainted with a few years ago at a school reunion, happened to mention his friend Jeff''s new venture in one of the e-mails we exchanged. Shortly afterwards, Jeff Weber and I swapped e-mails.

Well, now it's up to you. If you are interested in trying out something new, take a look into the Bookxy web site and go from there. No doubt, some of us have questions on procedural aspects, etc., I just haven't yet asked and received answers to those particular questions yet. Feel free to inquire on your own and then share any further info with the group.

15 May 2013

Addressing the Red Envelope


by Robert Lopresti

Back in December I promised that when my Black Orchid Novella Award winning story was published, I would tell you a little bit about how it came to be written.  I am delighted to report that the July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine has arrived, featuring "The Red Envelope," so here goes.

Two years ago our old friend James Lincoln Warren told me he was writing an entry for the BONA competition, and asked if I would be one of his early readers.  I was happy to comply and voila, he won.

Now the cheap joke is that I concluded "if James can do it, it must be easy," or words to that effect.  I had no such illusion.  But as a great fan of Rex Stout and AHMM I thought I had a chance.  I spent most of a sunny day on my PlotCycle, pedaling around town and trying to think of a setting that would carry a 15- to 20,000 word piece of fiction.  In short, what did I know enough about to discuss, even in fictional terms, for that long?

Hmm.  Libraries?  Didn't want to go there.  Archaeology?  A passion, but I'm no expert.  Folk music?  Already wrote a novel about that.

But, say...  That aforementioned novel was set in Greenwich Village, 1963.  What if I jumped back a few years to the peak of the Beat movement?  My detective could be a beat poet.  And the inevitable gather-all-the-suspects-and reveal-the-killer scene could be done as improvised beat poetry!

As the old saying goes, it's so crazy it just might work.  And since the rules for the contest say "There needs to be some wit," crazy might be a real advantage.

To find out how I named the novella's characters you will have to look at the article I wrote for the Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine website, Trace Evidence.  

But I want to tell you about two things that I pulled from my memory to add to the plot.  One was an anecdote  I read in one of those "Humor in Real Life" columns from Reader's Digest back in the 1960s, about a young woman introducing her date to her father.  The other was something I learned while working on a non-fiction book about the Pacific Northwest.   How do they fit into a story about 1958 New York?  I can't tell you without spoiling the plot.

Which I sincerely hope you read. Otherwise, what was all this for?

05 December 2012

I'm Dreaming of a Black Orchid


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.

09 June 2012

It's a Long Story




by John M. Floyd


I have often heard fiction writers say, "Write whatever you like, but make sure it's either long enough to be a novel or short enough to be a short story."  Meaning, of course, that anything in between is hard to sell.  And what's in between is called a novella.

Hiking into No Man's Land

Marketability is of course not quite as big an issue these days, since the publishing and self-publishing of e-books has allowed novellas to be presented as easily as novels and shorts--but the novella does remain something of an oddity.  For those writers (like me) who continued to publish quite a few stories the traditional way, there just aren't many print markets out there that will consider novella-length manuscripts.  Very few high-circulation magazines accept novella submissions, and not many anthologies either.  The only easy way to publish novellas in print form seems to be via collections by established authors like Stephen King, who group four of five of them together in a book.

This past year, I sat down just after the Christmas holidays, when all our kiddos and grandbabies had left and our house was as quiet at Tut's tomb, and wrote a 16,000-word western mystery.  That's not quite in novella range (some editors consider the starting point to be around 20K) but it's close enough to make that story difficult to sell.  So why did I write it?  And why didn't I at least make it shorter or longer, so it would "fit in"?  Well, if you're a writer, you know the answer to that: some stories just have to be a certain length.  To have added more would have seemed like "padding" and to have taken anything out would have hurt the story.  As it turned out, I'm satisfied with it--but I do realize there's a real possibility that the manuscript might never be read by anyone but me, and that I might one day wind up using it for scratch paper, or to prop up a wobbly table leg.

Lights, camera, action

There seems to be only one real advantage to writing novella-length stories: they translate well into screenplays.  When a short story is adapted to film, something has to be added to it.  (Example: 3:10 to Yuma.  Elmore Leonard's short story begins when the two main characters are already in town, sitting in the hotel room; by the time that scene happens in the most recent film version, the movie's more than halfway done.)  Conversely, when a novel is adapted to the screen, something has to be left out.  (Example: almost any novel/movie you can think of.)  So far as I know, there are only three ways to successfully avoid those problems:

1. Adapt a novel into a miniseries (Centennial, Lonesome Dove, Shogun, The Winds of War).

2.  Adapt a short story into a short film or a half-hour TV drama (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, One Step Beyond, Death Valley Days, Twilight Zone).

3.  Adapt a novella.

Again, well-written novellas usually become good movies.  I'm reminded here of two by Stephen King: Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and The Body.  Those were adapted into the outstanding films The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont) and Stand by Me (Rob Reiner), and I believe one of the many reasons that both were so good was that they were so faithful to the original stories.  There was little need to either trim or inflate them.  The same holds true for Norman Maclean's novella A River Runs Through It, which became the excellent movie by Robert Redford.


Notable novellas

I can't resist listing a dozen of my favorites:

The Postman Always Rings Twice -- James M. Cain
The Time Machine -- H. G. Wells
Of Mice and Men -- John Steinbeck
The Mist -- Stephen King
The Third Man -- Graham Greene
I Am Legend -- Richard Matheson
Heart of Darkness -- Joseph Conrad
Tenkiller -- Elmore Leonard
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? -- P. K. Dick
Legends of the Fall -- Jim Harrison
Shopgirl -- Steve Martin
The Call of the Wild -- Jack London

NOTE: Many of the above did result in darn good movies.  And some didn't.

Just a few questions, ma'am . . .

What are some of your favorite novellas?  In general, do you find them more enjoyable than novels or shorts?  Less enjoyable?  Do you have a preference?  (I don't.  To me, length doesn't matter if the story's good.)

Besides, the term "novella" is subjective.  I've heard people refer to A Christmas Carol as a short story and to The Old Man and the Sea as a novel.  But who really cares?  Good fiction is good fiction.

I also heard someplace that if you'd like to read Herman Melville and you aren't in the mood to read 800 pages about a hunt for a sperm whale, Billy Budd is a reasonable alternative.  (Sounds reasonable to me.)

. . . and a definition

The following silly poem might be a good way to close this silly discussion.  I call it "In Literary Terms."

"A short story's simple, but what's a 'novella'?"
Joe asked writing teacher Ms. West;
"And how do I know 'novelettes' when I see them,
And what's a 'short novel'?" he pressed.
"In fact, why not just call all three the same thing?"
Joe continued while scratching his head.
Ms. West just leaned forward, face solemn, eyes twinkling;
"Well, that's a long story," she said.