Length Matters

Oh, you perverts.

This is a craft post, loves. I don’t blame you for thinking the other, because I do sort of make a career writing about people falling in love and, yes indeed, having sex. However, I also make a career out of writing <gasp!> short fiction.

By short fiction, I mean anything shorter than category length–under 40k words. Last week, a writer I know was lamenting on twitter how she hasn’t written a novel, and feels pressure to do so in order to be a “real” writer.

Let’s stop that “real writer” stuff right there. Do you write? If the answer is yes, you’re a real writer. You aren’t imaginary, and the words on paper aren’t pretend. You’re a real writer. Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s talk about the craft of writing short, and about making a career of writing short. I’m primarily talking about writing genre romance and erotica, because that’s what I do.

Writing a novella or short story requires a different sort of focus than writing a novel. For a novella, you pare down to one major plot (in romance, that’s the relationship, in erotica, that’s the sexual journey), and one or two subplots. These subplots need to demonstrate something about your characters and propel the story forward. You don’t have time to meander. For example, in my forthcoming novella, Double Up,  a subplot involves a wakeboarding competition–providing a setting and a timeline, and illustrating character traits about my two main characters. If a subplot can’t enhance or enrich the story in some way, it doesn’t belong. Excise anything that doesn’t belong.

For a short story, under 10k words, focus needs to be even tighter. You need to perform a little relationship synecdoche. You might have to pick a certain moment, perhaps a proposal, or the first time two characters make love, how they meet, or the moment they realize they are in love–and let that piece illustrate and symbolize the whole relationship. Subplots should be used very judiciously if at all. If you feel you require a sub plot, maybe you really want to write a novella? Think about it carefully–can the story you want to tell be told without that subplot?

Now, once you’ve written your short or your novella, you need to decide how to publish it. Many agents don’t represent short fiction, for obvious reasons–big publishing houses aren’t buying single shorts. It’s not a productive use of the agent’s time to rep it. Don’t just query them anyway hoping they’ll make an exception. They won’t.

The good news is, many digital publishers publish short fiction, and you can query them directly. Research the houses that publish your genre carefully, talk to the authors who are published with them, and follow submissions guidelines.

Are you considering self publishing? Study your market and look at your timeline: For example, there is a market for frequent publication of short form erotica at a $2.99 price point. If erotica writing is your thing, and you can produce a quality short once a month or more, this may be a good route for you. By “produce,” I am talking about having the book professionally edited and formatted, as well as having a professional cover made. This type of timeline favors self-publication, but don’t rule out working with a publisher–especially if that relationship is already there. Talk to your publisher about how you are building your author brand, and your plans for this type of work.

It is absolutely possible to build a career–or supplement a novel-writing career–with short fiction. Know your story; know your market.

Do you write and publish short fiction? Would love to hear your strategies in the comments.

Have questions for me? I’m all ears!

8 thoughts on “Length Matters

  1. I was so excited at first…. Haha! I agree length does matter. When writing. My latest WIP I just subbed is 147K. YIKES! But it is tight (mind the gutter again) and I don’t see how anything can be cut. I just hope some lovely acquiring editor out there feels the same.

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    • And crafting a nearly 150k epic takes an entirely different approach–and one I struggle to relate to. My only experience writing that sort of length was writing the Ushers trilogy and having a single story arc told across three books. Perhaps some day I’ll write something of that sort of length again! Maybe you could give me pointers. 😉

      I hope you’re very successful with with your new novel, em! ❤

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  2. Excellent post and advice. Anton Dibell who authored the book PLOT for Writer’s Digest Books (and my favorite book on writing of all time!) said consider a short story as one self-contained scene with all its embedded description and background material – based on talk and action.

    Novels are a series of scenes. 🙂 When I read her explanation back when I started writing – that clicked for me.

    I still like writing long better. 🙂 But admire writers like you, V, who can do short.

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  3. I write long, medium and short. I have a lot of novellas and some short novels and a few long ones. It’s the story that dictates the length, and if you can hone in tight and tell a great story, then go for it.
    Writing short is hard. So is writing long. Most of my novels are around 55k, my novellas about 30k and your are so right – know your market!!! Give them what they’re looking for – a well written, edited story and you can have a career writing short.
    Great post!

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  4. I’ve learned a great deal with my SMR series–my first attempt to write novella’s. Writing is hard, period. Long or short – but it’s posts like these that help keep things in perspective and help writers to move forward. Excellent post, V!

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  5. Sharing this!!
    Love this post. in fact its something Ive been thinking about for a while now. I love to write (don’t claim to be good lol) but I don’t have a lot of time with my work schedule. my biggest issue is I’M IMPATIENT lol. I need instant gratification that comes from completing something (something short). When I sit down to work on my novel it feels like there is no end in site yet sitting down to work on a blog post feels exciting because I know I’ll be done in an hour or so. I’m thinking there is a short story in my near future….Love it…..Thanks for writing it……

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  6. My new release is short fiction and it’s rocketing up the Christian > Romance best seller list and Classics>Romance list because it’s a Pride and Prejudice variation. The writing has to be strong, and readers are responding to that. As one of my beta readers put it, “Ain’t no one got time anymore for 400 pages that could have been told in 100 if they’d cut out all that boring description!”

    It’s true, most novels I read, I flip past the filler. If you can write a story that forces a reader to have their foot on gas pedal from Chapter 1 to Chapter 8 or 10, then do it! Not everyone will love it, but you will be serving a readership that needs more great short stuff! Readers are looking at us to keep them entertained on their lunch breaks, train rides, kids’ soccer practices, etc. We can deliver! 🙂

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