Format and Length aren’t Set in Stone

Novel? Novella? Short Story? Which one is the appropriate length for a story idea? Should a short story be a standalone or part of a collection? Can a short story be expanded into a novel after it’s been published?

Probably because I started writing seriously within the context of National Novel Writing Month, I looked at every new story idea as a possible novel. Then two things happened. The collection of ideas grew into a monster. The number of stories to turn into novels would take a lifetime — a lot more years than I had left. By the time I’d written and published a couple of novels, I began to look at all those little gems more critically. Did they all have the potential to be developed into full-length novels? And that’s when the light bulb went on.

Mentally, I had locked myself into a “novelist” persona. It was probably an unconscious reaction to my life-long desire to be a novelist. Now I was, and it kept me from taking a broader perspective. Becoming aware of that point of view, and looking at all those ideas-in-waiting, “fiction writer” belatedly made its way into my narrow self-identity. There was no reason to limit myself to writing novels! It took a couple of years to come to such a profound conclusion, but I’m a slow thinker. I’m also a very slow writer, and it became obvious that short stories can turn a slow writer into a more productive writer. Writing short stories can also be a kind of time-out from the overwhelmingness of  novel-writing.

It can also create new problems. For instance, I started a story that would probably turn out to be a novella. Later, I began a collection of short stories, one that this particular story would fit into perfectly. On the one hand, if I included it, I would have to round it off and leave out a lot of the original plot. On the other, it would give me more breathing room: one less long work in my WIP pile. Neither answer satisfied. The solution? Write the short story, publish it with the others in the collection. Then, at some future date, expand it into the full-length novel or novella that I had originally planned.

Then there is the novel that just didn’t work. The central idea was great, and would probably attract more readers than I’ve had for any book I’ve published so far. But it had a lot of problems that I couldn’t see until a friend who also happens to be an editor shoved them under my nose. So Gift of the Ancien has been sitting on the back shelf until I could figure out how to make it better. One of its big problems was the series of “interludes” that opened the book and ran through it. They provided background in an interesting way, but they just didn’t fit into the novel proper. I took them out, put them back, and took them out again. But they weren’t the real problem. The real problem was that the novel needed to be massively revised. If I could pull that off, then the interludes could be published in a collection later, as a sort of prequel. They would have to be expanded, but that would be all to the good in further developing the world I had created for my characters.

One of the biggest advantages indie writers have over those tied to publishing contracts is flexibility. We’re free to think out of the box, try things that legacy publishing doesn’t allow. But first we have to get our heads out of those boxes.


2 thoughts on “Format and Length aren’t Set in Stone

  1. I guess I didn’t come at writing that way, so I never have had the problems you describe. My decision about whether a work is going to be long or short depends upon the number of characters I want to deal with. I don’t think it depends on the plot at all, but if a writer has more than a few characters, even if they start out thinking it’s a short story, it will soon blow out on them into something longer because they need the extra space to do all those characters justice. Looking at the number of characters you’ve got in a story you want to tell will usually indicate the length the work requires..The greater the number of characters , the greater the word count.

  2. You have so many options. It sounds like a real luxury, looked at right.

    I don’t envy you – if I had more energy, perhaps I could let the idea box lid open. But all those idea children are competing for your time and your attention, and they are all noisy and needy.

    And you’re a perfectionist… Not a good combination.

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