A Fine Line of Length and Style

As their definitions quickly make clear, short stories, novelettes, and novellas are all short pieces of prose fiction.  What, then, differentiates these different literary categories?

Short Story

Short stories are the briefest of these three prose genres.  While most definitions do not include a word limit, Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary says in its description that the general rule is that short stories are typically no more than 10,000 words (“Short Story”).  An article from WriterMag.com places the cap for a short story at 7,000 words (“The Novella”).  To put these estimates in perspective, a short story of 10,000 words would be about 40 pages of text if written double-spaced with a basic 12-point font.

One unique element of the short story is that it tends to include few characters and focus on one theme.  This creates the “unity of effect” that is characteristic of this genre, according to the definition from the American Heritage Dictionary (“Short Story”).

The short story in action: “Signals” and other works by Tim Gautreaux, “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, and “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Alan Poe

Novelette

Short Story, Novelette, and Novella word counts
While there is no set word count for the these genres, these ranges from the Nebula Awards rules may be a useful guide.

While novelettes lack a prescribed length, just like short stories and novellas, they tend to be between 8,000 and 15,000 words long (“The Novella”).  A work of 15,000 words would be about 60 pages, using the same formatting listed above.

According to the Collins English Dictionary, common characteristics of the novelette are that it is “slight, trivial, or sentimental” (“Novelette”).

The novelette in action: “Two Hearts” by Peter S. Beagle, “—That Thou art Mindful of Him” and “The Bicentennial Man” by Isaac Asimov, “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card, and “The New Atlantis” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Novella

A novella is longer and more complex than a short story.  This type of prose fiction often includes a moral lesson or satirical elements.  In an article for The New Yorker, columnist Ian McEwan likens the novella to a movie and estimates that a typical screenplay averages 20,000 words, which he indicates is the normal length of a novella as well.  An estimate from an article on the website Writers Digest by Chuck Sambuchino and from WriterMag.com puts the length of a novella between 20,000–50,000 words, with 30,000 as the average (“The Novella”).  This means that the novella is twice the length of a short story in its briefest form.

Like a movie, a novella is more complex than a short story and may include one or two subplots and some rich character development, but within the constraints of a more abbreviated space than a novel would allow (McEwan).

The novella in action: Candide by Voltaire, The Decameron by Boccaccio, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.


Works Cited

McEwan, Ian.  “Some Notes on the Novella.”  NewYorker.com, 29 Oct. 2012, http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/some-notes-on-the-novella.

Nebula Awards: Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.  “Nebula Rules.”  15 Nov. 2019, nebulas.sfwa.org/about-the-nebulas/nebula-rules/.

“Novelette.”  Collins English Dictionary, 12th ed., HarperCollins, 2014,            http://www.thefreedictionary.com/novelette.

Sambuchino, Chuck.  “How Long Is a Novella?  And How Do You Query Agents for Them?”  WritersDigest.com, 18 Nov. 2008, http://www.writersdigest.com/publishing-insights/how-long-is-a-novella-and-how-do-you-query-agents-for-them.

“Short Story.”  American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., 2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company,             http://www.thefreedictionary.com/short+story

“Short Story.”  Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary, Random House, 2010, http://www.thefreedictionary.com/short+story

“The Novella: Stepping Stone to Success or Waste of Time?”  WriterMag.com, http://www.writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/novella/.

The Writer’s Quandary

This poem sums up what forms my writer’s block most of the time when I’m creating stories and poems.  I hesitate because I worry my work isn’t novel, special, or worthwhile.  Instead of pushing my limits, I am paralyzed by the idea that someone else can write my thoughts better than me, tell my stories more creatively.  Or even worse—has already penned and published my idea that I imagine is so unique.

“The Writer’s Quandary”

Have all the poems been written?

Has every story been told?

Are all the metaphors spoken,

And are all the similes old?

 

Can I add to mankind’s canon?

Can I make a new connection?

Or am I merely an echo,

A well-traveled intersection?

 

Am I even the first to have

Thought this, wondering what remains?

I doubt it, yet I continue:

For many great songs have refrains.

 

And perhaps I can add a gem

Of value through the work I do,

Whether repeating a truth once

More or sharing something that’s new.


In this age of ever-multiplying information, is there anything left to be added?  I’ll argue that no matter what, we can always keep asking questions and searching for answers, which is what I love to do…And perhaps that pursuit is not limited to research papers and essays, like I so often assume.  Asking questions and finding answers is one avenue where creative writing, from stories to plays to poems, can also expand our knowledge and our understanding of the world and each other.

Photo credit: Photo by Pixabay from Canva.com

Worldbuilding Resources

What do writers do when they are procrastinating while putting together a story? They go hunting for writing resources to help them with worldbuilding! This is a concept I’ve always struggled with as a writer—I relish the dialogue but drag my feet with the setting. In developing the world for Death and Taxis, I have been researching writing resources for assisting with world development.

Reddit – 100 Worldbuilding Prompts

https://www.reddit.com/r/worldbuilding/comments/als11s/100_worldbuilding_prompts/

This seems like a good list, filled with some offbeat questions to get the mind thinking differently about their world – such as question 17:

It’s late at night and I’m hungry, what food venues are still open?

The Novel Factory – The Ultimate World Building Questionnaire (131 questions)

https://www.novel-software.com/theultimateworldbuildingquestionnaire

This resource is broken up by category and therefore gives more structure to the world development than the previous resources. The first section pertains to the physics and nature of the world, the second section to geography and natural resources, etc.

As an added bonus, Brandon Sanderson, one of my favorite fantasy authors, teaches a course at Brigham Young University on novel writing, and all the lectures are available online: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLH3mK1NZn9QqOSj3ObrP3xL8tEJQ12-vL

That’s all for today. Back to procrastinating worldbuilding.

An Introspective Analysis of My Relationship with Pens and Journals

I was on one of those mental rabbit trails where you suddenly look up and have no idea how you got here.  The track behind me veiled in the mist of forgetfulness, I found myself in a clearing contemplating why I don’t like using pens.  Uh-huh.  Pretty fascinating, right?

Believe it or not, I managed to turn this random thought process into an introspective analysis of myself.  But perhaps that isn’t too surprising to those who know me well.  As I started to inspect my dislike for pens, I noted that I don’t mind using them for things I plan to throw away, like sticky notes and to-do lists.  I also realized that I don’t like using beautiful notebooks or journals for anything permanent either.  I never feel anything I write is worthy of them.

One elegant red and gold journal exhibits faint signs of use on its first two pages where I wrote something down in pencil, deemed it unworthy, and erased it.  That’s about the closest I’ve ever gotten to using my favorites of the many notebooks people have given me over the years.  I can use most of the pretty (but not gorgeous) notebooks without qualms, but the special ones are just too special.  I don’t want to ruin them or fill them with something that I will want to throw away in five years.  Childhood experience in such matters has scarred me a little, I think.  And talk about a high bar, one pale blue journal with gold stars scattered on it says in gold letters on the cover “My Bright Ideas.”  Even someone without my authorly commitment issues would probably find that a bit intimidating.

Once I made the connection between pens and notebooks, I looked around the mental clearing and began to notice other patterns around me that all point to a hesitation to commit when writing.  I don’t want anyone else reading what I might write in these journals, and I can’t just delete or revise the content like I can in a computer document.  In fact, I’m even a bit scared of what my future self will think of what I write.  Have you ever read a childhood journal and thought, Why did I write this, or My handwriting was terrible (or worse, My handwriting was better when I was eight)?  Finally, if the content is on the border between awful and sentimentally valuable, you must decide if it’s really worth keeping that notebook as you try to downsize your stuff.  Why set myself up for hard decisions like that?

As we embark on a new year and a new decade, let me stop you right there.  I do not intend to set any grandiose personal goals.  While I’m fond of making lists and setting goals, New Year’s resolutions have never appealed to me, so don’t even think about it.*  I’m going to start small because, as I’ve just pointed out, I’m a bit scared of committing to something in writing that I can’t erase or edit.  But I also know the value of pushing my limits and learning from all the mistakes that come with simply trying, so I want to push my limits at least a little.  After all, isn’t that what Thousand Mile Walk is all about?  We didn’t call our blog Writing Epitome or make any claims that everything we post will be gold standard.  “Writing isn’t a destination; it’s a journey” is our motto, and I should remember that more.

As I headed out from that mist-veiled clearing to explore new rabbit trails, and as I return to the clearing to write this introspection, I have decided to write in pen at least some of the time for things that matter and consider using my beautiful journals if I can come up with a convincing plan for how I can create content that will be at least moderately timeless.

I resolve to be a braver, bolder writer.  At least a little bit. 🙂


*(Side note: Why wait till a new year to start your new project?  If it’s that worthwhile, why not start right now?)

Photo credit: by Jaymantri from Canva.com

Exploring “It”

Any grammar Nazi worth his or her salt knows the atrocity of the missing antecedent.  The worst of all errors is a sentence that begins with “it” (à la, “It was a dark and stormy night”).  What I have realized, though, is that few rules like these are so unarguable that someone hasn’t broken them with success.  After all, the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice have an unforgettable ring:  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

In fact, this scenario where the great authors break the rules reminds me of the final rule I learned in my photography class a couple years ago.  My teacher taught us photography composition rules, such as the rule of thirds and leading lines, but then the list that he referenced ended with the tip that rules are meant to broken.  And that is where true talent often shines through.  Where some people realize they are Austens, and others discover they aren’t.

Examples of “It” in Action

Fahrenheit 451 movie image
Fahrenheit 451 (2018)
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” — George Orwell, 1984
  • “It was a pleasure to burn.” — Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Why “It” Works

Clarity and precision are paramount when you write to explain, persuade, or inform.  However, in literature and poetry, authors can break these rules and intentionally confound readers with unclear subjects.  Sometimes a sense of mystery or confusion can be a tool instead of a hindrance.  I think this power to create mystery and suspense is part of why a sentence that begins with it can be powerful in artistic writing situations when, in other contexts, the construction would be weak.

In the opening lines quoted above, each author makes a startling claim.  If Bradbury had merely said “it was a pleasure to burn wood in the fireplace,” his readers would have responded “duh!” and slipped into boredom within seconds.  The same would have been true if Orwell had stopped at “April.”  His second clause packs the punch in the opening line from 1984 with its final word.  Because clocks don’t strike thirteen.  And if clocks are doing this, then something is wrong, and the audience already feels the wrongness with this simple, jarring statement.

Don’t state the obvious if you are going to start a sentence—and especially a book—with it.  Make it count.  Lure the audience in with a benign “it was…” and then catch them off guard.  This sentence construction is likely to fall apart without a startling claim.  In fact, I think this explains why “it was a dark and stormy night” is ridiculed, while the opening lines I referenced above are revered.  Dark and stormy nights are commonplace.  Describing a night in this way does little to set this particular evening apart from any other and fails to capitalize on the power and mystery of it.

Summarizing “It”

Based on the claims above, perhaps a simple formula is possible:  Successful sentence beginning with it = “It” + verb + startling claim (humorous, thought-provoking, intriguing, or surprising).

Now, the next time you’re about to pounce on a sentence with a missing antecedent, red pen in hand, remember that it serves a valuable role in writing and even has the power to form some of the most memorable quotes in the history of literature.  Further, if you’re feeling creative, try using it to begin a story and see if the formula works for you (please share your sentence in the comments).  Perhaps you will be the next Austen, Dickens, Bradbury, or Orwell.


References

Quotes from http://americanbookreview.org/100BestLines.asp

Image from Fahrenheit 451 (2018) from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0360556/mediaindex?ref_=tt_pv_mi_sm

A Dash of Grammar

I was banging my head against the figurative wall of writer’s block as I became more and more frantic for a spark of inspiration for today’s post—when it suddenly hit me.  Why not conquer two birds with one stone?  1) Satisfy my grammar-loving curiosity by looking up an answer to a punctuation question that I’ve been meaning to investigate for some time and 2) share my new knowledge with my dear readers.

The hyphen (-), the en dash (–), and the em dash (—).  You may not have realized this nuance existed, but there really are three versions of the “dash,” and these punctuation marks have their own sets of distinct rules.  While they all connect words and ideas, they do so to different extents that in some ways relate to their lengths.

Hugging Hyphens

The hyphen is meant to connect extremely close ideas, often compound words (daughter-in-law, user-friendly, etc.).  As an article on The Chicago Manual of Style Online explains, “The hyphen connects two things that are intimately related.”  This little line performs an extremely powerful function in language because people can use it to combine several words in order to create an entirely new word.  Hyphen originally came from Greek words meaning one, together, and in one.

Going the Distance with En Dash

Like the hyphen, the en dash connects ideas, but these connections are usually related to distance, either in time or space.  Here are two examples: “From September–May, most children are in school” and “I have to read chapters 23–30 by next week.”  The en dash functions where the word “through” would normally function when describing a range.  An interesting rule regarding the en dash is that they are meant to be used when connecting “a prefix to a proper open compound: for example, pre–World War II” (“Hyphens, En Dashes, Em Dashes”).  The origin of en dash is that the dash was the width of an N in printing.

Breaking and Filling with Em Dash

em dash examplesLike parentheses and commas, the em dash indicate a break in thought and is used when adding a side-note or additional thought to a sentence, as I used in my opening sentence for this post.  In my experience, the closeness of the idea determines whether you should use a comma, em dash, or parenthesis to set off the extra information or to indicate a disrupted thought.  The closest ideas work best set off by commas, while very tangential ideas should be enclosed in parentheses, with the em dash falling somewhere in the middle.  Another function of the em dash is to indicate that something is missing.  An unfinished bit of dialogue might end with an em dash (e.g., “What is that—!”), and it can also serve as a placeholder for curse words, for people’s names (think Austenian novels), and more.  Like the origin of en dash, the term em dash comes from the fact that the dash was the length of an M in printing.

Now, next time you want to invent a new word, describe a range in time or space, or build suspense as your reader wonders whether your character has just been eaten, you will have just the right tools to accomplish your task.


Works Cited

“Em dash.” American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.  2011.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, www.thefreedictionary.com/en+dash

“En dash.” American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.  2011.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, www.thefreedictionary.com/en+dash

“Hyphens.”  American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.  2011.   Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, www.thefreedictionary.com/en+dash

“Hyphens, En Dashes, Em Dashes.”  The Chicago Manual of Style Online,            www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/HyphensEnDashesEmDashes/faq0002.html

How Victor Hugo Writes Transitions

Writing effective, natural transitions is difficult, as anyone who has ever written an essay, agonizing over how to move from “Firstly,” “Secondly,” “Thirdly,” and “In summary,” to more original expressions, knows.

So how does a classic writer approach paragraph transitions?

I am reading (slowly) Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo, right now – the 1976 Norman Denny translation – and think it is interesting how Hugo tackles transitions (aside: Norman Denny seems to have updated some of the English to be more readable to a modern audience, but cross-checking the below excerpt with Isabell Hapgood’s 1887 translation seems to confirm that the paragraph structures are still similar). Below is a passage, and alongside the passage I have explained my understanding of how the transitions function.

Hugo Transitions

What we see is that Hugo uses ideas to transition. The progression of thought between paragraphs is apparent—the topic or concluding sentence of the previous paragraph can be used as a springboard to guide the reader into the following thought (the topic of the current paragraph). Focusing on transitioning between not the bare words on the page but the underlying thoughts make the paragraphs blend together more naturally.

ebcosette

Addendum

This transitioning technique is on display in the quoted excerpt, but I also chose the passage because of Hugo’s insight here into the realities of being a thought-worker. My profession as a software developer is very much a thought-worker position. I do write, and there are real outcomes to the work, but unlike roofing a house or fixing a toilet, the real brunt of my profession is done in the mind. This is true of writers, scientists, and many other vocations in today’s society. As a result, this passage from Hugo – also a knowledge-worker (or “brain-worker” in Hapgood’s translation) – is apropos.

A Wealth of Words

The English language lacks the lovely vowels of many languages, such as Hawaiian, Asian, and Romantic ones.  With all its harsh consonants and unpleasant vowels, English may never rank high as the “most beautiful-sounding language in the world.”  However, English does have a rich vocabulary full of words that may not be beautiful per se but have so much character or are so strange that they are fun to use.  Take this sentence for example:  “The squirrels scarfed the scrumptious scones.”  Isn’t that ridiculous but also just fun to say aloud?  Next time you find something in your fridge that is out-of-date or smells suspicious, instead of asking if it’s safe to eat, you could ask, “Is it esculent (aka edible)?”  Some other fun words include quiddity, effulgent, elenchus, vitiate, tergiversate, and numinous.

Wealth of Words imageAcquiring and implementing new English words can be not merely fun but also have practical applications.  Precise words enhance all types of writing, improving clarity and making sentences more compelling.  A good exercise to increase your vocabulary is to write down unusual words that you encounter.  Sometimes I list them in a little notebook as I’m reading.  Later, look up the definitions of the words and practice using them until you fully understand their meanings and can incorporate them into your own conversations and writing.  Another good way to discover new words is to find synonyms for words you commonly use.  When a word has too broad a definition or is overused, it can become weak.  Using a variety of terms makes each one more meaningful.

English has a wealth of words that are fun and free to use—whether they are “million dollar” words or not.  My only caveat is to be careful so that you don’t overload your conversations or writings with presumptuous-sounding words.  Either use an outlandish word here and there just for personal pleasure or work hard to master new words so that you can incorporate them smoothly and naturally into your vocabulary.  One way in which you can integrate new words into your speech is by reading books that have broad vocabularies.  Books from previous centuries are often a good starting place for this as they can have rich vocabularies of terms that may have fallen out of use but are not yet archaic.  These books can introduce you to new words, familiarize you with unique words you’ve seen before but never used, and give you examples of how to use them properly.

In an era in which we idolize that which is “free” in cost, I think we often undervalue and ignore the wonderful gift we have in the form of the English language.  Improving our vocabulary and discovering new words can have so many benefits, from personal enjoyment to improved communication and even better reading comprehension skills.  With such a wealth of words at our fingertips, I think it’s sad that we don’t appreciate and use the English language more.


P.S. Only once we become brave enough to make recondite words quotidian will our conversations truly coruscate.  (And yes, that is an example of what not to do with new words, but sometimes it’s too entertaining to resist!)

A Little Short Lark

Let me describe to you the view outside my office window. The green young tall trees are growing stronger by the day. Their weaving lovely many branches have seemingly accepted, finally, that they are not to be chopped down by glimmering buzzing many saws, as have much of their kind. No, they are to remain, a homage half-hearted to a city’s need for nature.

In these swaying softly trees, there is a certain one spot with a horizontal particularly branch that seems to be the place of honor supreme. All the little small stars of this patch of wood have perched there at time one or another. The crows, their black shiny feathers unkempt, like to gather in a row and hurl little many nasty insults at me, or so I imagine from their disdainful dark looks. The bright golden beautiful butterflies are better, for they pay no one any mind, content to chase each other around the trunk, up and up, till they are lost among the leaves few that have begun to turn yellow themselves.

The most dignified of the trees’ visitors was a speckled large hawk that once drove the chattering several crows away. The hawk held its private own court on that branch for nearly an hour, and I am sure he gave wandering many squirrels a fright. Let them be startled out of their fuzzy fat skins, for all I care. There are too far many of them, and there’s one in particular that likes merely to ascend to the top tallest branch, and rip the innocent poor leaves off. That’s all he does; rip a leaf, and watch it drop. Rip a leaf, and watch it drop, for just for kicks, I assume. What a little strange creature.

If, sweet dear reader, you have made it through that wandering strange description and noticed nothing amiss, let me enlighten you. You see, English has odd many rules that perhaps we knew at one time and then forgot. One that I perhaps had learned and certainly never thought of since then is the order of adjectives in proper modern English.

Apparently, adjectives are to be written in this particular order: quantity or number, quality or opinion, size, age, shape, color (and there are a few other ones that can come after that, should you be describing something excessively specific, such as original, material, purpose). Should you choose to deviate from that order, to describe the several chattering crows as chattering several crows, and their little many nasty insults instead of their many little nasty insults, you sound a bit like the the bard who wrote Beowulf…or maybe just a slightly addled person.

And me? I’m just a some-time procrastinating strange writer, fiddling with the English language just a little for a lark.

Counting Every Word

Scrutinizing my computer screen, I read another sentence aloud.  I heaved a sigh.  None of the words seemed superfluous; I felt like I had trimmed off every spare word I could without weakening my essay.  I continued reading the paper, wondering how I was ever going to get my word count below my professor’s limit of 500 words.

Picture me at ten or eleven o’ clock at night going through this exact same routine once a week for eight weeks, and you will have an idea of my experiences while taking a course on American history this past spring.  I have a problem most students would envy.  I struggle with word count rules, not because I have trouble reaching the minimum, but because I always overshoot the mark—usually by a lot.  No matter how much I curbed myself as I typed my rough drafts, I always had too many thoughts, too much supporting material, and too many quotes I wanted to include.  Most of the essays were about American war novels, each of which was full of important and interesting information that I felt I needed to mention if I was going to write a thorough paper.  I also needed to include as much historical context and analysis as possible to satisfy my teacher.

While my professor’s word count rule felt constricting and chafed against my urge to write more, the limitation challenged me to become a better writer.  Because of this restriction, I had to make every word count, to reexamine how I organized my paper and structured my sentences.  I experienced what every child hates:  that frustrating time when your parents tell you, “Do it.  It’ll be good for you.”  Except this time, I was the one having to remind myself of the advantages of this word count rule while simultaneously becoming annoyed with it.  I was trying to see the bright side of the matter as I attempted to find another 20 words to excise.  Facing character-building challenges is so frustrating.

Character Building C&H

In the end, somehow, I always managed to chop the paper down to size without making it sound like Procrustes had gotten to it.  And now the ordeal is over, I am able to fully appreciate how it challenged me.  Writing those essays helped me spend my words wisely and more thoughtfully than I would have otherwise.  As I worked my paper down to 500 words, I felt like I was condensing it into something stronger, boiling out excess material and making it more potent in the process.  My success each time also encouraged and continues to encourage me, reminding me that I can overcome writing obstacles, even when they prove to be extremely challenging.

I have to admit that oftentimes as I worked on those history essays, I wished for 750 or 1000 words to work with.  (I’m guessing that desire was really strong on the papers that ended up 499 or exactly 500 words long).  However, as I think about that wish now, I can see the long paper being a different but equally demanding sort of challenge as the short one.  Would the paper have been as powerful?  Would I have wasted time and ink on insignificant words, quotes, or ideas?  Would I have been able to make every word count in that long of a paper?  Perhaps that should be my next challenge.  Maybe we writers would all benefit from counting every word.