Rise of the Short Novel

I am a fast writer. I can have a 100k manuscript written in 100 days, but it is, to quote Anne Lamott, ‘a shitty first draft’. I then go through a three-month editing process before seeing to my editor. She then takes two months process with a professional editor, another month or two of rewrites based on her feedback, a final round with the editor, and then a beta reader or two.

A high quality novel takes time. It takes a huge amount of effort and creativity. The process needs to be respected.

The novel now shares the shelf with the novella, the short story and flash fiction. Numerous writers have explained to me the lure and skill in writing any of these shorter forms. There is a need for succinctness in descriptions, plot, and the need to hook the reader immediately. I get it. Not my cup of tea, but I understand that there are other aspects to the craft that appeal to people.

images-7

But there is also the Churn Mill. It is becoming common to meet writers who proudly announce they are writing a novel a month…or week, and that this is an integral part of their business model. The plan is basically to have a long backlist of books: 20, 50, 100… and hope to hook a reader to one book that will infuse them with desire to buy the other 99.

My issue is not with them having a business plan. There is no shame in writing for money. But I am uncomfortable with the way they are treating their readers. It should never be all about the numbers, not if we are considering ourselves artists, and not if ever want to betray our readers.

I wrote about how Terry Brooks appreciates his audience. I saw this week, after Daniel Arenson posted some news on his Facebook page, how he took the trouble to answer his readers’ questions and to thank them. These are authors who, I am sure, know they must bind their readers to them for business reasons, but who genuinely enjoy engaging with the people who invest money and time in their books.

terrybrooks

Terry Brooks

My readers know I love writing full-length novels. The first draft can be up to 120,000 words long and after my editor has worked her magic, the word count hovers just under the 100,00 word mark.

A novel allows the reader to travel to another world, to get to know characters intimately, see how they develop, and build a friendship with them. It allows the reader to escape and live for a while in a fantasy world.

There is something rich and emotionally investing in reading a full-length novel and a series. I can define periods of my life as I traveled through Shannara, Alagaesia, and Middle Earth. They are milestones that illuminate certain times.

I will forever be grateful to Christopher Paolini who wrote his Eragon books at the perfect time for me to share with my sons, a bond we will always have, and that laid the foundation for their companionship through the Wycaan Master series. Whenever we are on the road together and see a beautiful vista, one of us murmurs Alagaesia, and we all nod.

Summer 2015 Reading Book 6

Reading Book 6 in the summer of 2015. End of an era.

Enough said.

Finally, thank you to everyone who participated in the April sale. I appreciate your support and hope you will enjoy the entire series. Please: take a few minutes and leave reviews for the books you read on Amazon or Goodreads. Reviews are critical for the author and I thank you in advance for helping.

Have a good week, everyone.

Alon

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, and five other Wycaan Master books all released by Tourmaline Books. The link above takes you to the Kindle versions. For all other eReaders, please click here.

More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

 

 

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8 comments on “Rise of the Short Novel

  1. Mark McClure says:

    Perhaps ‘content snacking’ that fits with reading via smartphones and digital readers is also feeding a need for shorter fiction?

  2. Kevin says:

    I’d argue that your essay ought really be titled “Return of the Short Novel”, since what we’re seeing is really a return to a dominant form for prose before the 1960s and 70s changed things. The longer form novel – while a wonderful discovery which has delighted many readers – was not created due to reader demand, but rather due to the accounting required to maximize profits for publishers selling paper books in bookstores.

    Now that over 3/4 of all fiction is bought online in the US (print and ebook), we’re seeing a gradual shift back toward shorter works like we used to have before publishers mandated certain minimum novel lengths to help improve their profit margins.

    I don’t think the long novel will go away as completely as the short novel did over the last fifty years. It’s a beautiful form, and will endure. But I’m enjoying the resurgence of the form used for books like “Old Man and the Sea” and “Skylark of Space”.

    ****

    Now, you also commented on methods. You discussed your method at length. However, while your concerns about retaining quality are important and worthy, your thoughts about speed are misguided. Let me explain?

    I write at a rate of about 2000 words per hour. I’m at well over a million words in print now, and have practiced writing fairly clean drafts, so my first draft work is about 99.9% error/typo free. That DOES mean that if I write a 40k word short novel that I will have some forty or so errors in the text. I will also have a few places where I will probably want to improve scenes, adding more senses or increasing the emotional context and resonance of the writing. That’s OK. It’s a draft.

    As soon as I finish that 40k word draft – which took me about twenty hours to write, probably over a two week period (since I still work a “day job” and have children was well, I only have so many hours a week to write). It might have taken even longer if there was a vacation or some other major event in the middle, but it still took about twenty hours. As soon as it’s done, I send it to the editor.

    Why the editor? Because it was *already* my best work. The best I could write that story at that time. Once it’s done, I don’t want to muck it up by messing around with it, so I immediately get it out to another set of eyes on the work.

    The work comes back with edits and comments. I go over the comments, revising scenes as needed to improve the work and fixing typos. Occasionally I will “stet” something (so simple with Word these days), but generally my editors are dead on target.

    If the writing took my twenty hours, the revisions will generally take about 1/4th that, sometimes as much as 1/2. It’s not unusual for me to complete the revision process with a single day of hard work.

    Then the manuscript gets another copy edit pass to ensure I didn’t add *more* typos during my revisions. I generally do not. But this last pass usually turns up one or two final tweaks.

    Then the manuscript is published.

    Total time is roughly 26-32 hours of work. If you write slower, it might be twice as long to write (only 1000 words per hour – forty hours of writing, and so on). If your draft work is very rough – extremely common for newer writers – then the revision process might take quite a bit longer. My early ones very certainly did!

    I’m not quite to the point where I can produce a 40k word work every week, not and maintain a sterling level of quality. But I know others who can, and do.

    Ultimately quality is NOT about how many days or weeks or months the work took.

    It is about putting in the work.

    If a long novel will take 100 hours to write (100k words, slow typist) and another 100 hours to revise and manage edits (novice writer still doing very rough first drafts), then the final quality will Be about the same whether the writer accomplishes those tasks in five weeks (forty hours each week, i.e. writing full time) or four years (one hour a week, roughly).

    What matters is not cutting corners, and working hard to produce the best work you possibly can.

    Beyond that, it’s simply a matter of placing your tail in the chair and doing that work, every day, for as many hours per day as you can do so. The writer penning new words for just ten hours per week every week at the sedate and slow rate of 1000 words per hour is going to produce 500,000 new words per year. Or about twelve 40k novels a year with a bit to spare.

    Part time, writing slowly, resulting in half a million new words a year.

    There’s one last thing…

    Which violinist improves more rapidly – the one who practices their art twenty hours a week, or the one who practices two hours per week?

    Which writer is likely to improve in quality more rapidly, the one writing new words twenty hours per week, or the one writing new words (practicing their art) two hours per week?

    Speed is sloppiness. Speed in writing is simply spending more time doing the work.

    • Elfwriter says:

      Thank you, Kevin. I never thought of the short novel from such a historical perspective.

      I thought at 1,000 words an hour, I was on the faster side. But even then I need considerable editing, whether from my writers group, the professional editor or beta readers. Hope this process will speed up, as you suggest, with experience.

      Good luck,
      Alon
      http://www.alonshalev.com

      • Kevin says:

        Oh, I still greatly appreciate my own editor. Note even in that brief message I wrote above, the last line should read “Speed is not necessarily sloppiness.” Of course I didn’t have an editor go over the post before I put it up. 😃

        A few years ago I thought getting 1200 words per hour was fast. It gets better. I routinely manage 2k these days, and have occasional bursts of flow where I manage as much as 3k words per hour while typing. (Some people manage that or even more with dictation, which I have not managed to master yet.) My first drafts have also become much more clean as I have written more books. I hope this continues to improve with time – one of my personal goals is to make each book better than the last.

        But ultimately whether you write 500 words per hour or 3000, what matters most is how much time you spend doing it. The more hours you spend writing, the more words you will write, and the faster your skill will tend to improve.

        I know a writer who routinely produces 12-15k words a day, five days a week, three weeks a month. She spends about another week a month managing edits on the previous month’s novels, and releases about three full novels a month. Her work gets excellent reviews from readers, her pen names routinely break onto bestseller lists, and she’s made seven figures this year so far.

        She’s an outlier. But people doing amazing things like her show us what is possible. 🙂

  3. A. T. Baron says:

    When I think of sitting down and reading a book, no matter how interested I might be, I have to consider the time I have to give to the reading.

    Writers not only need to right often, but to read often (especially in their own genre). I know I need to set aside more time for this, but it can be difficult. My time has become increasingly precious, split between writing, illustrating, running my own company, and family matters—that seem to increase with my aging parents. This is when I am grateful for the short novel.

    I think that there is more than enough room in publishing for the varied lengths of works. It is much like choosing to where to eat. We all get hungry, and want to satisfy our pallet. Sometimes we choose to spruce ourselves up and go out for fine dining, and the four-course meal. Other times we will settle for that juicy cheeseburger and fries from the drive through. Please don’t infer that one rivals the other. Both fill a need, but one can be more “convenient.”

    There are also those times when I try to gorge myself on as much information as I can. I am currently reading Comedy Writing Secrets, by Mark Shatz, The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, and rereading Paolini’s Eragon series (all for research on my current work). I am sure to end up with some wicked writer indigestion.

    • Elfwriter says:

      Perfect response, A.T. I love your food analogy and, like you, struggler to find time to read. A full length novel can take me over a month and I often forget a nuance from near the beginning of the book.

      Tanks for your comment,
      Alon
      http://www.alonshalev.com

      • Kevin says:

        The analogy is not a bad one. But it’s important to remember that sometimes the longer novel is the cheeseburger and sometimes the short one is the 4-course dinner. 😉

        The idea that length is related to quality is silly. We have outstanding works at a wild variety of lengths. Some of our most complex novels are under 30k words. Others are enormous. And there are both really small and really large ‘cheeseburgers’ too!

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