Friday, January 11, 2013


From Tolstoy's War and Peace
Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  Asimov’s Foundation. Bujold’s Vorkosigan series. Sinclair’s Dock Five series. J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series. Christine Feehan’s groundbreaking vampire novels. Pretty much anything by Stephen King.  Big, meaty novels you can sink your teeth into.  Characters you can spend time with.  Worlds you grow to love because you live there for days, even weeks at a time.

I love novels with what used to be called “scope”, depth and breadth of subject matter, time or place.  They sweep you away and involve you in a way their less-ambitious sisters never can.  But in order to make that happen, words are required, sometimes lots of them.  A typical King novel can run over a thousand tightly-packed pages (300,000-400,000 words maybe?).  Try selling that to an editor at a digital-first publishing house, where the offerings generally run between 40,000 and 60,000 words, and a full-size novel is considered to be 70,000 words, 40k less than the industry standard for romance single-title paperbacks.

To be fair, not all epublishers are the same.  Samhain Publishing, one of the oldest and best-established of the digital-first publishing houses, touts a wide range of word counts in its submission guidelines (12,000-120,000+) and now tells readers straight-up what they’re getting when they buy a title—novella, novel or whatever.  You pay more for the novels, but I suppose it takes longer to edit them, too.  At least you know what you’re buying in a title from Samhain.

My point here is that the digital press has embraced science fiction romance (and vice versa), but overwhelmingly the digital press encourages works of shorter lengths.  I’m not sure that serves SFR well, particularly since the stories we write require both intricate world-building and indepth character-building.  It is extremely difficult to do that well at shorter lengths. I’m not even talking here about the special requirements of short stories, which have a completely different kind of structure than novellas or novels.  I mean that many writers treat a novella not simply as a short novel, but as a sketchy one, which leaves the reader unsatisfied.  If that happens, the reader may not only pass on that author the next time around, but if it happens too many times she may also begin to think SFR is not for her.

I read several digitally published SFR works in a row twice over the past year.  Once was as research for my own road to publication and involved randomly chosen titles from the publishers’ websites about nine months ago.  The other time was more recently as part of my “homework” for a project you’ll hear more about later this month.  In both cases I found great books and less interesting ones.  (Among the randomly-chosen titles I found some truly terrible ones!)  But only one title so far has been at what I would consider to be genuine novel length.  And only that title was fully developed in plot, character, world-building, romance arc, conflict arcs and the rest.  Every other story had something missing.

The easiest ones to dismiss were the stories in which it appeared the authors just “ran out of words”.  The story is moving along at a decent pace, you’re just beginning to settle in, and wham! That’s all, folks!  The ending is hurried, often makes no sense and seems tacked on in response to external pressure.  Having worked in newspapers, where the editor’s scissors are constantly in play, I can understand how this happens.  It’s just a shame. 

If you truly have a word limit to meet, write to the limit all along, not just in the final pages or paragraphs.  Even if you are a Pantser Extraordinaire, there’s no excuse for you to be surprised by the ending to your own story.  At least not in the final draft.

The more heartbreaking stories are the novellas that should have been novels.  These are the ones in which ideas are simply sketched out instead of explored, dialogue is reduced to the barest minimum, whole scenes are shrunk down to a paragraph of tell, not show.  The reader feels as if he is skimming a glorified synopsis, being allowed a glimpse of something that might have been great.

The problem here is an embarrassment of riches, none of which can be adequately explored in a novella.  Only a novel, with a greater word count, can allow the character development, the description, the world-building, the romance arc, the secondary characters, the subplots required by the author’s imagination.  I recently read one such effort in which a complex medical procedure performed on the hero by the heroine was reduced to a two-sentence paragraph.  Her medical skills were central to her character and the plot.  His injury was grievous; his recovery essential.  We couldn’t take a little time with this?  Nope.  She fixed him.  Operation complete.  Aaagghh!

A novella is a short novel.  That means you must eliminate unnecessary subplots, secondary characters and detail, not introduce them and treat them shabbily.  You only have time for one thing in a novella, not two or three things.  I could write STAR TREK “novels” at novella length because my readers already knew my characters and my universe.  If you have to introduce new characters and a new world, KEEP IT SIMPLE and allow yourself to develop the few things you choose in detail.  If you find intriguing characters keep popping up, the plot keeps twisting, the hero and heroine just won’t behave, and your world keeps expanding, you have a novel, not a novella.  Do it justice.

Should we worry that our audience doesn’t have the attention span to read a longer work?  Go back to my opening paragraph.  Stephen King is the second or third most successful writer in the world.  Christine Feehan and J.R. Ward hit the bestseller list in hardback with every new title.  Make the words sing and your readers will only want more of them.

Cheers, Donna


  1. I can definitely speak to the challenges of trying to market longer books. And getting hammered when you do write something short. LOL

    You could probably sum it up as: you can't please everyone. ever.

    I am surprised digital only publishers have problems with longer works, though there is the time between releases. Sadly, the authors who seem to be doing well are the ones who can keep churning out the novella length books.

    If you want to go print, even self pubbed print, then shorter books have smaller prices.

    So why did I do it? Because one of the benefits of being small pressed published is being able to write the book you want to write. Finding readers who want to invest the time is a challenge. I will freely admit this. But I can't imagine my books being other than they are. So I remind myself that not everyone likes bacon and chocolate. Or me. (grin)

  2. Again, you raise a multi-faceted topic, Donna, and one I've wrestled with on many occasions.

    Before acquiring an agent, i was interested in publishing with a new digital press, until I learned that they wanted SFR novels of 50,000 words or less.

    50,000 words? *shock and dismay*

    I'm barely getting the story warmed up in 50,000 words! My shortest novel runs 111,000, and my current project has been whittled down from 136,000 words to 116,000 with much sweat, angst and grueling edit passes.

    You can trim and tighten relentlessly, but IMHO you simply can't create entire worlds and universes, or begin to explore the politics, tech, or cultural issues--not to mention an intertwining plot and character arc--in 50,000 words.

    The irony is, readers seem to want stories on their e-readers that are faster reads, but then they aren't satisfied because they don't get the big, fleshed-out tales they love. It's a digital Catch-22.

    So the question is do we write the stories that fit the desired word count and hopefully make for a quicker sale, or do we craft the epic stories we envision in our heads and hearts? The answer for each writer depends on what they want out of their writing career.

    For me, I think Pauline hit it on the mark. I'm writing the tales I need to write. It may take me longer to find a publisher, but to me, the story is worth it.

    That doesn't mean I can't take a few smaller ideas and turn them into shorts or novellas. But my "big" stories--my Golden Heart finalists, and the ones I've spent a lot of time writing, editing and perfecting--those need to be complete and fully explored plots and ideas.

  3. I love me a long, meaty book. My first novel clocked in at 110,000 words. At an agent's request I whittled it down to 99,000, then rewrote the ending and got it down to around 96,000. This is why I will never write category romance. I find the word count requirements stifling.

    I don't like short. I feel ripped off when I end up with a novel that's shorter than I thought. It's my only complaint with digital publishing. You don't have the cost constraints of publishing a 120,000 word book, so stop acting like you do!

    I love subplots and secondary viewpoint characters. My current WIP has two leads and three secondary POV's. I'm in heaven. Part of the allure of science fiction is intricate plots and the scope of writing about a galaxy in the midst of change.

    I too write what I need to write, until the story is told. No matter how many words it takes.

  4. I'm naturally wordy! I have problems writing shorter stories but I've done it, just to try and get my name out there. There's a particular skill in writing something short that's not all sex. I don't like stories that concentrate on that. I want to know about the characters and why they act as they do.
    I agree that with Sci fi rom and fantasy you really need the words to make the world come alive. There is nothing more frustrating than having some half-assed description that doesn't make you believe in the place.
    But the e-lot do like shorte mostly. I think it sells better otherwise why would they limit the word length?

  5. I will note that my best selling SFR is actually The Key, which clocks in at a hefty 150K. Girl Gone Nova is "slightly" shorter, my next best selling SFR. I've done a novella and some short stories that have yet to catch up. I haven't seen enough numbers from Steamrolled yet, but who is to say it is length or genre mashing if it doesn't sell as well? (wry grin) Judging by the reviews, readers either love it or hate. No middle ground. LOL

  6. Well, and here's the $64,000 question--do the digital publishers want shorter works because they sell better, or do digital readers settle for shorter works because that's what the epubs mostly put out there (at lower prices-sometimes for free?). I can read Stephen King just as easily on my Kindle as I can anyone else--it's just a bigger file. The studies I've read show digital readers aren't fundamentally different from other readers--older folks, in fact, have rushed to buy e-readers. I doubt their attention spans are subtantially shorter than those of their non digital peers. I suspect it's the price point that makes the difference.

  7. I'm not so sure it's about price point, Donna. In the digital realm, a 40,000 word story and a 400,000 word story cost virtually the same to produce. There is no paper, cover or binding charges. And I've also seen 40 page stories sell for almost as much as full length novels, so the pricing doesn't seem at all in line with the length of the story.

    So why wouldn't digital publishing be embracing these behemoth works, if the former barriers were based merely on cost? I have to think it's because readers aren't buying as many monster tomes for their digital readers as they are barely-a-novel length works.

    I know I experience a certain impatience to finish when reading a digital book, that I don't have when reading a tangible book I'm holding in my hands. I'm not sure why that is. (Someone should apply for a grant to find out.)

    Maybe I haven't yet adjusted from holding a paper book to reading a few paragraphs at a time on my Kindle. And for a novel running 160,000 words, that's a whole lot of digital page turning when you only see a few paragraphs at a time. So maybe the demand for shorter stories is all about reader patience and lack of attention span.

    But that's just a guess.

  8. For small pubs, it has to partly be a time issue, I'd think. They can edit several small files in the time it takes to edit one big file. I'm not sure why my publisher let me get away with my BABs, but they did. Maybe for small pubs, it comes down to loving the book, too? Rather the way other pubs find books? Cause none of them really know what will work and what won't. They are just readers with power. Grin.

    Do you read Dean Wesley Smith or The Business Rusch? He's a small publisher now, so he does look at a lot of this stuff. But in the end, it comes down to readers liking what you write enough to take your journey with you. His advice is to write, write and then write more.

    Diversify your business plan and get your work out there. He's not big on promotion, but he wouldn't be. He's got his fan base established.

    IMHO (and possibly wrong opinion), the most important thing an author can do is write and do it from the heart, from their passion. Because its a long and lonely thing to write. Why spend it writing what you must?

    Yes, my writing is a business, but its MY business and I get to do it my way. And my way is to have fun while I'm doing it.


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Hosted by 5 Science Fiction Romance authors with 8 RWA Golden Heart finals and a RITA final between them. We aim to entertain with spirited commentary on the past, present, and future of SFR, hot topics, and our take on Science Fiction and SFR books, television, movies and culture.