Anticipating Story Length

thick bookI recently reconnected with some old projects, and was a little upset when I read them.

One of the mistakes I’d made was incorrectly anticipating story length, and now it feels like those old stories, that I thought were done and buried, have risen from their graves to haunt me.

Not only did I take some too-big concepts and try to write them into short stories, but I’ve got a few longer works that should probably be trimmed dramatically, because my work is better and cleaner when I begin with a short story format.

While some novels seem so complex that one could hardly try to distill their concepts to a single sentence, others are easy to peg on the first try. What makes it so hard to nail down a concept? And once you have a concept, what length of story will tell it?

Planning: Pantsing or Plot-a-thon?

The answers to those questions can be tricky to find. It’s like one of those “chicken and the egg” scenarios. Do you first determine that you want to write a short story and later adapt your concept to a short story form? Or do you create a concept, and only after fully exploring it, realize it’s only potentially interesting enough to fill out 10k words?

I don’t think planning is such a bad thing, even if it means going way overboard on your back story and world-building.

When I used to think of outlining, I recalled my eighth grade research paper. All those Roman numerals and letters cascading down the page in neat rows of seemingly random words. When I actually wrote the paper, I wouldn’t follow the structure I’d set forth. I turned in the “outline” because it was ten percent of the grade.

I’ve long struggled with the concept of outlining (see One Mistake Never to Repeat), but recently, I made a step toward a better system for organizing my thoughts, and am optimistic that it will bear fruit. Otherwise, I’m still in the same boat as I was in eighth grade—a list of rapidly multiplying little numbers and letters, and still no clue what I’m actually writing.

I did, however, learn one very shocking truth as I set out to outline a prequel to my current novel, and that’s that I’m not the hard and fast pantser I thought I was. I thrive somewhere between the lines of Plotter and Pantser, and while I like to do a fair amount of exploratory writing as part of the process, I NEED structure to at least draw parameters for my own creativity.

Getting Ideas on Paper

I typically begin novels with a page of scribbled notes and a short list of character names, and if I’m feeling particularly committed, a detail or two about the eventual plot or antagonist. That being said, I mentioned my recent discovery…and I’m proud to tell you that I’ve figured out my true method: Plontsing.

That’s right. Plontsing. I come up with a main character and a current predicament first. Then, once I’m excited about that idea, I start writing. Like a crazy person on a nano (as in NaNoWriMo) high, I fill pages with hurried dialogues, blatant tells, lazy descriptions, and over-simplified everything. I used to call this a “first draft,” but I now realize that it’s a sort of fluid outline, characterized by summaries interspersed with detailed scenes in which major plot events or interpersonal relationships happen. So there we have it: I’m a plotter…kinda. A plontser.

After the Plot

Once the plot is on paper, the real decisions begin. Are those sub-plots working for your story, or detracting from it? Are the challenges sufficient to create reader tension, or are they a distracting and annoying set of contrived hoops through which your character must jump? And what’s that ending really about?

Since the focus of plotting isn’t necessarily pertinent to eventual word count, how can you tell whether you’re writing a short story or a novel? Is it as simple as stretching out a concept with increasingly numerous challenges?

I wanted to look at this closely before I set off on another story without the benefit of a solid plan. Any writer can take a simple tale about a young man searching for a cursed treasure and make it into a trilogy. I’d imagine the story would begin before he heard about the treasure, and the main plot twists would coax us from one book into the next, always keeping that darn treasure out of our character’s grubby fingers. But does that story necessitate a novel-length book, much less a trilogy? Can you even tell that at the concept stage?

The Long and Short of Writing

Deciding how long a work will be is not a flippant decision, though some folks treat it like chocolate cake—“No, thanks. I don’t really like the taste of short stories, I only eat novels, but thank you for offering.” Okay, that doesn’t quite work, but it sounds just as silly when someone says they ONLY write novels, or their first project is an eight-book series. Talk about having your cake and eating it too!

Concepts have a shelf life. I mean that with all sincerity. I’m rewriting a book I wrote in 2008 (a hot mess that needs a full overhaul). The theme for the main concept is “family”. A middle-aged orphan finds her family when she wasn’t even searching for them, and they’re a way more interesting bunch than she ever imagined. That’s it. Well, that’s the new “it”, because before, the “it” was a crime boss’ mistress gets roped into saving some dragons after a madman kidnaps her and some secretive werewolves save her life…it’s the same story, honest.

So, using that example (and a million others available in bookstores), it’s pretty clear that a concept is less about a single theme and more about how a complex web of interrelated characters and events shapes a reader’s journey from beginning, to middle, to end. It’s equal parts where to start, and OMG, she did what? It’s betting aggressively, showing your hand, and keeping a few cards up your sleeve. Writing any story shouldn’t be about length. Length isn’t that important (stop snickering), but what you do with it (I said stop laughing, perverts) is.

If you want to take your awesome concept and keep it to a manageable short story that will blow your readers’ socks off in a few thousand words, the game is a single opponent in the octagon. Get your hands dirty, son, you’ve only got fifteen minutes before the guys with the towels come out to mop up the blood. Make sure it’s not yours.

If you’re looking for something drawn out, the building of mystery and tension, you’re talking about a novel, or a novella at least. That’s an assault on a fortified building. You gotta plan that shit out, or when it goes pear-shaped, it goes quick and it hits hard. For that, you gotta bring out your heavies.

And an eight-book first project? Private, that’s war. We don’t want it to feel like Agincourt—all lines of footmen with hate in their eyes, ready to pike the hell out of a cavalry charge…but what’s that? Arrows? We aren’t in arrow range yet! WTF? It’s really hard to “plan” an eight-book series all at once. Most series have related themes and overlapping characters, but books have their own conclusions and maintain discrete stories despite an over-arching plot that ties them together…or doesn’t. *shrug* Anyways, it’s a brutal, long fight, and you gotta be prepared to play the slow con on your readers, get them hooked from the beginning so they stick around for the end.

Distilling Your Concept

I’m not going to reiterate planning novels, but I do want to insert a few relatively important points regarding word count, readability, and general concept strength as I personally experience the effects of those issues. Firs, a disclaimer: I’m not an expert, I don’t have the inside scoop, and even if someone claimed to be an expert with the inside scoop, I think most writers are discerning enough to know good and bad advice when they hear it.

Taking my simple concept of family, I did a back story page for each character and in it, I included what family means to them and how it affects their demeanor, their actions, and their general personal stories. For the MC, the orphaned woman, she feels happy enough to not need a family. For her werewolf friend, family is a bitter reminder of love lost, and to their mentor, family is everything, something he’ll gladly die for.

That simple contrast in character perspectives then gave me a lot to play on during the course of a novel. I challenge you to consider how your concept can be scaled back to a short story, and how it can be expanded to form a novel…er, or eight, if you’re that guy. I’m not judging, I’m that guy, too.

When looking at sub-plots, the possibilities are endless. In this example, my MC learns she’s actually related to the other guys, which throws a whole new set of problems into the mix, and again compounds the concept of family. She’s in love with one of them, has deep respect and fear for the other, and feels utterly alone in knowing what the other’s don’t—that the father who abandoned her was their kin. And to make matters worse still, said father is on the antagonist’s side of the main conflict.

I’m not saying my plot is great (in fact, plotting is one of my weakest skills, so I’m definitely not saying DO THIS), but how can you fortify your original concept in a way that makes it less a simple tale that might be better as a short story, and turn it into a novel? Or how can you take that mind-blowingly awesome trilogy concept, with all its twists and secrets, and succinctly give the reader the information so it’s a beautiful and gripping shorter work?

Length isn’t everything. I learned that a long time ago…when I started cutting words out of a long novel so it looked more like the popular-right-now, anorexic book people with short attention spans favor. I’m done with that. I have a fat and happy novel that I put on a starvation diet until it began babbling incoherently and eating it’s own arm. Time to get some bacon into this beast so we can get that festering wound looked at properly. But where do I draw the line?

The Line

For me, the line is pretty distinct in theory, but a hazy, wraith-like little sonofabitch in practice. I could reduce it to simply saying, “Keep what supports your concept and pulls readers into the story, and cut what alienates readers and detracts from the story’s concept.”

Well thank you, freaking Switzerland. Could you be more noncommittal?

In plain English, a work needs to be as long as it needs to be. We’ve heard it a hundred times, but it isn’t the same thing as saying, “Do whatever you want and it’ll be great.” One, it means if you need to tell your tale in 200k words, do it. The Lies of Locke Lamora is about that long, and I devoured it in two days and couldn’t put it down…literally. For two whole days…it was on my counter when I was cooking, even. And it wouldn’t be the same book if it were gutted and skinned. By that same token, Four O’Clock by Price Day wouldn’t be half as interesting if you doubled it in size. The strengths that make a short story shine often become watered-down when the work goes on for too long. A unique voice becomes grating, or a concept’s shelf life expires and it starts to ferment (sometimes into something dangerously toxic).

To get a short story rolling, you need two things and you need them fast: a character, and a conflict.

On the other side of the coin, a novel allows you to meander, but take care that your meandering is in support of your deeper theme or concept. In the family-themed novel, I have a significant portion of the beginning devoted to the MC in her current living situation, and her dearest friend is a girl who is young enough to be her daughter. The girl fills a hole in her heart that the MC doesn’t even know she’s trying to fill. It’s through those situations and conversations that I set up the later reveals about how the character longs for a family, a place to belong and people with which to share herself. That would be quite impossible to show in a short story that inherently focuses on more immediate gratification.

Concepts come with their respective prices and demands. Simplify and complicate with purpose. Your readers will want to feel like you’ve utilized your concept to its fullest, but they won’t enjoy a concept that’s beaten to death and then beaten again for good measure.

From the Beginning

Beginning with a concept is a very exciting thing, and it’s in the brainstorm phase that stories tend to wrestle the reins from the writer’s hands. My best possible suggestion to all writers, new and experienced, is to jot down your concepts, take your notes, and begin your research first, but then to consider what length most comfortably fits the story you’re trying to tell.

When projects mutate into horrible, shambling monstrosities, it’s hard to still love them. Earlier this week I wrote this on my facebook page:

Why is it those stories that looked okay a couple years ago now come back to life like zombies…all holey and kinda gross? I think that’s a pretty apt analogy to how I feel about my stories. Once I finish them, they’re a fresh kill, all still and stoic, frozen at a point when they look almost majestic in their fresh state. But a couple months or a year later? Eew. Like, super gross…just…who left this lying in the document folder without even hanging up a car freshener?

Don’t let your stories turn into zombies. Make sure they’re well-constructed from the beginning. I’ve cobbled more than a few stories together from random parts, and I probably should have just left them as shorter works. I’ve also done the other thing, trimming too much and the result…well, as I mentioned earlier, it cannibalized itself in a way that made it no longer a full-bodied story. I trimmed my personality out of it to save words, but in the end, I’d rather have a fat story than a weird zombie-thing that strangers gawk at.

Your Stories

Okay, confession time. Do you have any stories that became monsters in need of culling?

What strategies do you employ when creating your premise or concept?

How far into planning do you get before you decide how long the work will be?

What is the anticipated length of your current project?

A. Howitt
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6 years ago

Soooo many old stories that need culling. I really don’t like to go back to them though; I usually just let them die. It’s not even that they were holey or badly done — they just need editing and I get tired of revisiting. Sigh.

6 years ago

I went into my first book aiming for a 40,000 word book. I didn’t know what it would look like or if I could even reach that. I ended up ending it at about 48,000 and it took me just over 3 months to write. I had to take a few weeks off from writing because I could not decide how to end it and I needed to think of a way to end it to reach my 40,000 word goal.

J. Paul
J. Paul
6 years ago

I used to be staunchly anti-outlining….until I found a method that actually jived with me. Now I wouldn’t write a lick of fiction without it. Not only does it eliminate the “story length” issue, but it takes care of loads of other problems, too. Proper outlining means fewer rewrites, no chance for plot holes, better intertwining of sub-plots, and no worrying about technical details when you’re actually trying to fill in the prose. I recommend that every writer keep trying different methods of outlining until they find one that works; there are quite a few out there.

Andrea Robinson
Andrea Robinson
6 years ago

The last time I dealt with this was when I had a TERRIFIC concept – absolutely terrific, and I came up with a great title and even bought a cover picture and a domain name. But for some reason, even though it’s set in an arena I know a lot about and had some really concrete ideas, it just fizzled and struggled, and finally, one of my test readers just told me, “Junk it and start over.” That wouldn’t have been so bad, except … it was true!

In my heart of heart, I knew that this was a book that was not going to get off the ground anytime soon. Maybe I should try again in short story form. I think that I was trying to do too much by creating a book when it could have been said with many fewer words.

And thanks for your opinion about the outline.


Kelly Knight
Kelly Knight
6 years ago

I like that term – plontser!! I have always hated doing outlines. It’s the one thing I hate doing while writing. I kind of do a similar method as you do. It’s kind of a trick to think I’m not really doing an outline, but in reality I did one. I never plan the length of my stories when I write. I just keep writing until I’m done. If it’s a story I’m submitting somewhere, I them take a look at their requirements and either shorten or lengthen it.

Woelf Dietrich
6 years ago

I recently forayed into science fiction and had to submit a detailed outline before writing the story. Now, normally I’m a pantser and I write the story until finished, whatever the length, but with this one I had a ceiling of 10,000 words or so. My story ended up a novella of 25,000 words. It’s currently at the editor and there’ll be some cutting, but I expect it to settle around 23k.

It was a different experience writing from a detailed outline. In some respects, it was easier, but I also had to concentrate with the emotional scenes as I knew when they would happen. Usually, when I just write, certain scenes catches me by surprise and I think my writing shows it.

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