Sunday, February 13, 2005

Making a long story short

My entire romance career has been based on novellas. If you look at the 20 or so published works on my website,, all but about four or five of them are novellas or short stories.

Now, you'd think writing 25,000 words would be a lot easier than writing 100,000 words. Like, a fourth the work, right? Wellllll... it ain't necessarily so, particularly when it comes to romance. Getting a man and a woman from "hello" to "I love you" in 100 pages is a tricky bit of business.

But I do have some suggestions, if you're tackling a novella.

Everything I know about romance I learned from writing comic books.

My first published work back in the late 1980s were actually comics. Now, before you sneer, I think that there is no better way to learn how to write than writing comics.

Oh, I'd taken college courses on writing, and I'd been trying to write fiction from the time I was nine. Yet I only really learned how to tell a story from my comic book editor, Dwight Zimmerman. He taught me more about the nuts and bolts of storytelling in six months than I'd learned in all the previous years from everybody else. I still use the concepts Dwight taught me in my novels.

That's because the underlying principals of telling a good story are the same, no matter what genre you're working in.

Writing comics also taught me how to write tight, clean copy. Before that, I tended toward purple prose, but in comics, I found out I had to cut the deadwood. There's only room for about 22 words in a good-sized word balloon, and you can only fit one or two big balloons in a panel. Probably less.

So when the artwork would come from the artist, and I'd sit down to figure out where to place the balloons, I would quickly discover that much of my artsy dialogue wouldn't fit. I'd have to cut the daylights out of it. I soon learned not to use six long words where one or two short ones would do, and I learned to GET TO THE POINT.

Later, as a fiction writer, I discovered that my short, punchy comic book dialogue was much stronger than my long, flabby prose dialogue. Even now I rarely let one of my characters talk more than a couple of lines before another one cuts in. Fact is, bright, bouncy ping-pong dialogue is a lot more lively and interesting. That's particularly true in short fiction, where you don't have room for characters that drone.

First rule of writing short: PLAN.

The second major thing I learned from comics is the importance of planning ahead.

Okay, I know that lots of people are pantsers -- they start on page one, and they write until they hit page 400. And somehow, a plot grows out of that. I admire people like that. Lots of really good novelists work that way.

But I've gotta tell you -- DON'T try to write a novella that way. You'll make yourself crazy, and you'll end up with something that has a very good chance of being dreck.

I strongly suspect that some of the really bad novellas I've read are the product of people who tried to write them by the seat of the pants. They might do a good set up, but then they start wandering around like they would in a novel, and they never address the major plot point they established up front. So the reader is left growling in frustration.

Here's a good rule of thumb: the shorter the piece of fiction you're writing, the more tightly you have to plot it. A comic book is 22 pages long. Period. You have to know what goes on every single page, and you CANNOT run over, because the presses are set up for 22 pages. You create a longer book, and it will cost your publisher money in additional paper, ink and setup.

So as a comic book writer, I would sit down with a piece of paper, and I'd write something like this:

Page 1 -- Hero and villain square off to fight a duel as a hundred people look on.

Page 2-4-- Duel.

Page 6 -- hero's friends confront him about the woman he fought the duel over.

Page 7 -8 -- Commanding officer interrupts to tell them they have to go hunt an assassin...

Note, I don't have the major details of exactly what happens yet, but I need to know what major scenes I need and how long I can let each scene run. (Though for a novel or short story, each scene will run for 3 to 10 pages rather than a page or two. I'm told you just don't get enough emotional punch with a scene less than two pages long, and I believe it.)

This is a kind of plot skeleton -- the equivalent of the rough sketch an artist does before he puts down the detailed lines. I do that in all my fiction, including novels. Because I plan this way, I usually don't have a problem with a book running really long or really short.

In novels and prose fiction, I leave it a little looser than I do in comics, because it gives my characters more room to develop and change as the story goes without seriously screwing up my plans. I may not know exactly HOW the hero defeats the villain, but I need to know the approximate steps leading up to that event. This technique -- which isn't as detailed as the outline some plotters do, but isn't as loose as a pantser's approach -- seems to work very well for me.

By the way, in novellas, as opposed to novels, I go with short, 10-page chapters, because they seem to break the action better. Gives the reader the feeling the book really flies. For novels, I write 20 page chapters.

Keep it Simple, Stupid.

The KISS rule is one a novella writer can never afford to forget. You don't have room in 100 pages to get too complicated.

Keep your external and internal conflict simple -- something you can actually solve in 100 pages. Don't try to bring international terrorism to an end, for example. You can, however, finish off one particular group of terrorists.

Keep your cast of characters small. Hero, heroine, and villain. The smaller the cast, the better the novella seems to work. I've done big casts in a novella, but the focus must remain primarily on the hero and heroine. They need to be on stage and interacting with one another almost continuously. If you can figure out a plot event that puts them in the same place and keeps them there to bounce off one another, that's good too.

Here's a biggie: The first chapter or two of a novella is setup. You set up your characters and your major conflict. (In a novella, you've usually only got ONE major external conflict. There just isn't room for more.) Readers expect you to resolve that conflict with THOSE characters by the end of the book. That means, don't just forget your conflict and wander off to have sex or a romance or whatever. Resolve the conflict by the end of the book, or you're going to seriously frustrate your readers. They want closure on the external conflict.

By the way, don't introduce a studly male alpha in the first chapter unless he's damn well your hero. You'll get in trouble every time, because readers will assume he's the hero, and they're going to be ticked if he's not.

Romancing the Novella

It may be a good idea to give your heroine and hero a romantic history. It's a lot easier to get them to love in 100 pages if they're halfway there before the book starts. Now, I've done it with them as strangers, but there's a certain amount of suspension of disbelief involved. Often a novella takes place in the span of a day or two, and it's hard to convince people the h/h fell in love that fast. You can do them as strangers, but I think it works better if at some point they acknowledge how odd it is: "I can't believe I've only known you two days, and I already love you."

I also think it works better if you throw so much at them, and they have such an intense experience running from bad guys and having sex, that it seems they've known each other longer than they actually have. It makes the reader believe a longer span of time has passed, and they know each other better. If they're just trapped in an elevator or Not gonna work. Anyway, not without a magic spell in there somewhere.

So -- Give the hero and heroine ONE concrete goal they can accomplish in 100 pages: Get rescued. Escape from the villain. Catch the villain. Find the magic whatsit.

Minimize the number of supporting characters, and maximize the amount of time the hero and heroine are together. Trapped on an alien planet running from monsters/villains? Ohhh, yeah. Done it many times. Always works.

Give them a preexisting romantic history, or else keep the romantic conflict between them simple enough that they can overcome it in 100 pages. Preferably both.

You do need a romantic conflict, by the way -- some reason these two people will fight between bouts of hot, steamy sex. Keeps things interesting.

Anyway, these are just a few techniques I use in writing novellas and short stories. Hope the ideas helped!



Morgan Hawke said...

Your blog should be Required Reading!
- Morgan Hawke

Sasha White said...

Well, I managed to have some of what you said in my novella...I guess I'll soon find out if it works out!

All the same, I believe i'll copy and paste this post into my personal notebook for refrence sake! Great Stuff!

Cheyenne McCray said...

Wow, Angela, your blog is amazing. I just chatter about nothing in mine, and you actually teach and have something important to say in yours. :) I agree, for the author it should be required reading!


Arethusa said...

I'm just a reader but I enjoy these kind of posts just the same. It gives me some insight into how my favourite authors write what they do. :)

Wrenifer said...

I have to say that this was awesome information. It is really interesting to read about how an author organizes her thoughts before writing. I'm not an author either I just love to read and this was great information.

Jaci Burton said...

Fabulous info, AK! And you're right. Novella's are damn hard and you have to keep it tight and moving along.

What wonderful advice and in very useful detail. Printing this out and keeping it!

And I'm reading JANE'S WARLORD right now and absolutely loving it!


wendywoo said...

Thank you so much for this post, Angela! Just what I need to read, as I've never written a novella before, and am contemplating attempting one. Am printing out your wise words as I type!

Patrice Michelle said...

What wonderful advice, Angela! I was nodding as I read through your comments...saying, hmmm, I do that and I do that, but you've put it together in such a way as it makes TOTAL sense. Thanks for taking the time to share! :)

Jennifer said...

Neil Gaimon always said writing comics taught him how to be a good writer, too. Maybe that's what they should have us studying in English class, instead of all those long-winded 19th century classics.

Jackie said...

Thank you. That is ver helpful for the short I'm writing for a magazine.

Patricia A. Guthrie said...


thank you for sharing that. This was very interesting and just stopped me from making yet another plot mistake. LOL