Once The Idea Fairy has deposited a packet beneath your pillow, or you’ve unwrapped the latest mail-order from Schenectady, you must decide, among other things, whether you’ve got a short-short or a multi-volume epic on your hands. Story ideas have been likened to different kinds of wood or sculpting materials. Some ideas are lightweight, like balsa or pine (or aluminum); others are more dense (oak, plaster, copper). Some are brittle, others more fluid and malleable. Some are uniform in texture, others richly varied.
As a general rule, if anything like a rule can be applied to storytelling, the stronger the basic material, the greater length and complexity it can support. What that means is that–again, in general–a gossamer, undifferentiated concept might package up nicely in a few thousand words, but if you try to stretch it out to a novella, it will turn thin and tinny. (Composers work around this by using Theme and Variations, which is certainly possible in writing as well, but still requires a theme that has enough substance to make it worthwhile.)
It took me a number of years after I’d started selling professionally to be able to look at a new idea and get a sense of its best length. Part of the problem was that I hadn’t had enough experience to “size it up.” Also, I had only a few story-lengths in my repertoire, basically short story (3-5,000 words) and novel (80,000). It was like driving a car with only two gears or, to quote the adage, when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. As a consequence, some of my short stories read like condensed novellas, and I was accumulating a pile of unfinished novels–unfinished because once I’d hit 5,000 words, I’d said everything there was to say.
To my credit, I began noticing these problems. I also experimented with different ways of sketching or outlining a story. My favorite method was a flow chart, preferably done in different colored inks. Seeing the scenes laid out like that helped me to think in terms of how much of the overall length I was devoting to each part (set-up, complications, climax…) and also the total length. Without actually having written the whole story, I began to be able to guess its final wordage. I made a lot of bad guesses, but an increasing number of good ones. Eventually, I was able to say, “This is mahogany and should come in at about 10,000 words,” and be right.
As I paid closer attention to the qualities of the story idea, I also started writing at different lengths, as indicated above. As I became more skillful, I learned how to play out crucial scenes and flesh out what is true and deep and delightful: hence, longer and more satisfying stories. I’ve never written a lot of short-shorts, and flash fiction remains terra incognita, but I discovered the joys of the novelette, a really wonderful length for ideas too meaty for that 5,000 spot and pretty well wrapped up well below novella length. It remains one of my favorite story lengths.
On a few instances, I was able to take a failed story and rework it successfully at a different length. “Transfusion,” a tale of friendship between a vampire and an observant Jew (first published in Realms of Fantasy, 1995) began life as one of those fizzled-out novels. As fate would have it, my floppy drive went gonzo and wouldn’t read the diskette on which it had been stored. When I rewrote it, I discovered how much better it worked as a novelette.
Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her novels Jaydium and Northlight are available as multiformat ebooks here on Book View Cafe. Her most recent print publication is Hastur Lord, a Darkover novel with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley.