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

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.