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Thursday, March 10, 2011

What I Learned About Writing Short

Now that I've written four short stories and a novella, I thought I'd talk a little about what I've learned. Keep in mind that--as always--your mileage may vary and that different authors do things in different ways. There is no right or wrong way, it's whatever works.

With that caveat...

I've always written long and seeing minimum word count requirements in my contracts always makes me laugh. No worries. The only time I would get concerned is if a publisher gave me a maximum word count restriction. Because of my tendency to write long, I was kind of concerned about being asked to write a short story. Could I even do this?

It turns out I could. And the more I do it, the more I learn. I've also learned from reading other novellas and short stories. The big things:

Keep the story simple

There isn't room to unfold an elaborate plot. Also, the storyline needs to be something that can be resolved satisfactorily in the short amount of space.

In my first short story Blood Feud, the plot is that there's a demon killing vampires. The hero who's a demon and the heroine who's a vampire team up to find out who he is and to stop him. In Demon Kissed the heroine is a demon slayer sentenced to death by the demons. She finds this out when the hero rescues her from a demon executioner. And in Shadow's Caress, the hero is a vampire trapped in limbo who needs the heroine, a former vampire hunter, to return him to his life as the undead.

All three stories have a straightforward goal that can be explained quickly, and which also have a problem that can be resolved.

Keep characters to a minimum

This ties in to keeping the story simple. There isn't room for a cast of thousands, and the more people involved, the less focus is on the h/h. I write action/adventure/suspense so there has to be a villain. I've had other characters involved, but they're like unnamed henchman #1. I've read some novellas by authors who thought they could have a cast of thousands and it usually turns out to be a mess where too much has to be breezed through. Again, YMMV.

The rules of good storytelling still apply

Yes, some things can be shorthanded, but that doesn't mean the author gets to info dump. If you need 20 pages to explain the characters' backgrounds before the story gets started, you're in trouble. This is boring in a full-length novel, in a short story/novella, precious word count has been wasted. If the backstory is important, then it needs to be dribbled in. If it's unimportant, leave it out. The reader doesn't need every last bit of information about the pasts of the hero and heroine.

As in a novel, the time line needs to be clear as does Point of View (POV). I'm not a strict POV purist, but if I don't know whose head I'm in, there's a problem. I should know immediately if it's the hero or heroine. Also, if a scene ends at night and if it's daylight in the next scene, I'm going to assume it's the next day. If you've backtracked to show the same span of time from the other character's POV, then you need to clue the reader in before they're halfway into the scene.

The relationship does not get to be glossed over

No, there aren't many pages, but romance readers are looking for the relationship between the h/h. If the story puts the characters together only a couple of times, and if they only really talk to each other once, then no one is going to believe the happy ending. And yes, I've read this. It happened because the author had a plot that was far too complicated for a novella with a cast of thousands. Something had to give. She chose to sacrifice together time for her h/h.

The ending of a novella/short story needs to be satisfying

You do not get to info dump at the end either to explain everything that was going on during the course of the story. If your plot is so complicated that the reader needs this explanation to understand what the hell was going on, then you need to find a simpler story or need to flesh it out to novel length.