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

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 . . .

by John M. Floyd

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

by R.T. Lawton

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?

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.