L is for Length

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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A while back, my parents were on the hunt for a picture to go in a particular place in their house, and for this reason they were looking for something smallish. They popped in and out of galleries around our house, and couldn’t find anything. Finally, one of the gallery owners explained that artists were shifting away from smaller paintings, because the time-cost was nearly the same to them but buyers expected a much lower price.

Oddly, we’re seeing some of the same dynamics in the writer market. Over a few decades, authors have moved away from short stories as their bread and butter, to novels – specifically, really long novels. Whatever confluence of factors conspired to create this shift, one thing that is certain is that it has been embraced enthusiastically by readers. Raise your hand if you’ve seen a review that mentioned how disappointingly short a book was for its price. Okay, everyone put their hands down. Remember when I said this was odd? Well…it is. Because, you see, it actually doesn’t work the same way for authors as for painters. The time cost of short stories and novels is not nearly so equivalent.

Look over the backlists of some of the genre greats, and you’ll see novellas, collections of short stories, expanded short stories… At the time that Science Fiction was rising to prominence on the wave of Le Guin, Bradbury, and Card, an author could expect to earn much of their money from magazines. They wrote short stories, because that was what sold, and they sometimes expanded or combined those that sold well. Different market pressures from today, where films and books sell markedly better in series, where longer novels are becoming more popular. Of course those writers did a lot more short fiction.

But before you write this off under the umbrella of, “times change,” think how much this must have expanded their repertoires. An author had permission to explore the crazy, the wild, the strange, without trying to make the whole thing hang together with a cast of fifty and three distinct sub-plots. A short story could be spun out in a day – and some of the greats allegedly were. And even if the day’s  (or week’s) work was not publishable, the author had spent that week working on their craft, exploring ideas, and perhaps sparking another idea that would be publishable.

If you’re now beginning to have nostalgia, don’t worry. It seems like short fiction is on the way back in. After all, starting into a series of multiple 100k+ word novels can be daunting, but a novella or short story is a few days’ worth of lunch breaks or after-dinner reading. For all that one or two readers might 1* for having the temerity to ask them to pay however much for a short story (or novella, or anthology), others will happily devour short fiction.

In case you haven’t noticed yet, one of the main craft themes of this blogging challenge is to explore and get out of your comfort zone. So, yep, consider this your exhortation to write things out of your standard format or book length! Write the weird, the wacky, and the things you aren’t sure you have any hope of pulling off. Sink a night or two into something with no definite future. Explore. Afraid you’ll write a piece of crap? Well, you might just write the next Ender’s Game. So remember…

no time spent writing

 

One thought on “L is for Length

  1. I had the great good fortune long ago to edit an anthology with a short story by Stephen Donaldson who had written this extraordinary piece…and couldn’t do anything with it because his publishers expected him to write things the length of War and Peace on steroids.
    So I got it for a book called, Nine Visions. And it is still startlingly beautiful and amazingly powerful and he GAVE it to me for the anthology for the paltry sum of $200 because who else was willing to publish it?
    It was and is a gem.
    So, yes, write in many lengths. The day will come when someone will be looking for a piece for some project and you will get the chance to meet a whole new demographic of readers!

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