The Joy Of… Shorter Stories

2017-artwork-the-joy-of-shorter-fiction

A day or two before writing this article, I ended up reading two short comedy novels from the 19th century online. This wasn’t something that I’d planned to do, but after reading something online which pointed out that John Kendrick Bangs’ “The Pursuit Of The House-Boat” featured the ghost of Sherlock Holmes trying to catch a gang of pirates, I just had to read it. Since it’s out of copyright, it was very easy to find online.

And, despite the fact I don’t usually read e-books and the fact that I’d only planned to read the first part, I ended up reading the whole thing within the space of a single evening. Then I ended up reading the short novel that was written before it, mostly because I’d realised that – although I’m interested in the concept of “Bangsian Fantasy” – I’ve never actually read all of “A House-Boat On The Styx” before. Surprisingly, I actually preferred “Pursuit Of The House-Boat” though, because the humour was better, the narrative was more focused and it featured Sherlock Holmes too.

But, even though I could spend a while talking about the ways that these books were ahead of their time (and the ways they weren’t), one thing that really delighted me about both books was their length. They’re more like novellas than full-length novels. And, best of all, it doesn’t feel like there’s any unnecessary padding whatsoever. They’re short, sweet and they leave you wanting to read more.

Despite the 19th century’s reputation for “Doorstopper” novels, it was also the heyday of the short story, the segmented story and the novella too. Back then, short stories were the “television series” of the day. Whether it was monthly Sherlock Holmes stories in the Strand Magazine, or longer continuous stories released in thrillingly short instalments via Penny Dreadfuls, people back then understood the importance of shorter stories.

Shorter stories were designed to be entertaining, in the way that TV shows are designed to be entertaining these days. Despite their age, a lot of shorter stories from the 19th century and early 20th century are still very “readable” today for the simple reason that they were either designed to be compelling (with lots of drama, horror, action, comedy etc..) or because they didn’t have room for lots of bloated descriptions, extensive character histories, long irrelevant tangents etc…

Back then, literature was the main form of popular entertainment. TV, computers, the internet and videogames didn’t exist. So, shorter stories had to fill that role. They also had to fulfil the most basic purpose of literature, which is to entertain. Yes, literature (and even graphic novels too) can teach us more about humanity, they can make us think deeply etc…. But, above all, they can only truly do this if they’re entertaining enough for people to want to start reading them and keep reading them.

Shorter stories are the kind of thing that can be read “on impulse” because they promise an interesting story without too much time investment. Likewise, the shorter format also means that the narratives have to be more focused, which makes them more compelling. Plus, the experience of reading a short story collection is a lot like watching a DVD boxset.

When I was seventeen, and had first discovered “Sherlock Holmes”, I actually had to ration myself to just three or four stories a day. On reflection, this wasn’t too different to what I do when I’m watching a DVD boxset of a really good TV show these days. Yet, all or most of these Sherlock Holmes stories were written before television was invented!

If prose fiction is ever to become a truly popular thing again, then length should be the first thing to change. Looking at a related subject, there’s been a lot of controversy online about the length of modern computer and video games. One of the main arguments I’ve heard in favour of shorter modern games is that people don’t have the time to play games that they used to. Well, the same is true for fiction too. But, fiction has so many advantages that games don’t.

You don’t need to spend hundeds of pounds upgrading your computer or buying an expensive games console to read a piece of modern fiction from this year. Likewise, traditional books are the original form of portable entertainment. Even modern e-book readers are very portable (not to mention that e-books can be read on smartphones, tablets etc.. too) . Books are also significantly cheaper than computer/video games are too (both new and second-hand).

If we lived in a world where novellas and short story collections sat alongside novels on the “bestsellers” shelves, then prose fiction would probably be a lot more popular than it is now. I mean, we live in a world where films and TV shows co-exist in roughly equal numbers and with an equal amount of prestige. So, why should this be any different for longer and shorter pieces of fiction?

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Four Basic Ways To Make Shorter Stories and Comics Appeal To Your Audience

2014 Artwork Shorter Comics and stories appeal sketch

As I’ve mentioned before in other articles (like this one), different writers have different story and/or comic lengths that they feel most comfortable working at.

These can be vastly different to the average lengths of the things we like to read (eg: I quite like longer stories and comics, but the longest stories I can write are novella-length ones) and there’s no real way to explain why this happens. It’s just one of those strange things.

Still if, like me, you can only ever seem to create short things then this can put you at a bit of a disadvantage. For example, most novels these days are 300-400 pages long (as opposed to 200-300 a couple of decades ago) and, if it wasn’t for e-books, then there would be next to no market whatsoever for novella-length stories.

So, for today, I thought that I’d offer a few tips about how to make shorter stories and comics appeal to your audience a lot more:

1) Make it episodic: Whilst your self-contained shorter story and/or comic should obviously have a satisfying ending (eg: don’t end it on a cliff-hanger!), it can be useful to leave it open for sequels. Why?

Because, if your readers really like it, then they will quite happily return for more if you create a sequel that is good enough. Not only that, because your self-contained story or comic is relatively short, then it’s almost like an episode of a TV show or part of a traditional comic series – so there’s more of an expectation that more will follow. In fact, promoting your shorter works as something more episodic than a typical fiction/graphic novel series can be a good way of drumming up interest in your work.

Not only that, once you’ve made a few “episodes”, you can also appeal to people who like longer books, e-books and/or comics by releasing collections of several of your stories or comics.

2) Focus on time: It’s a fact that shorter stories and comics usually take less time to read than longer ones and whilst this might not sound like a good thing at first glance (since, of course, it isn’t good “value for money” if you plan to sell your work), it is very easy to turn this to your advantage.

How? Well, brazenly use the short reading time as a “selling point” to your audience. The fact is that most of your audience will probably be fairly busy and they might not always feel interested in the prospect of devoting 6-8 hours to a full-length novel or 1-2 hours to a full-length graphic novel.

However, if your story can be read in 1-3 hours or if your comic can be read in 20 minutes, then it’s a lot easier for people to fit it into their busy schedules. So, capitalise on this and emphasise the fact that your story or comic can be read quickly.

3) Leave it open to fan fiction/ fan art: Generally speaking, if people like something – then they want more of it. But, of course, it takes quite a bit of time to write a novella or even to make a short comic.

So, what do you do to keep your fans happy in the long gaps between your stories and/or comics? Simple, you open your work up to fan fiction and/or fan art.

In other words, you let (or ever encourage) your fans make extra unofficial stuff based on your work for each other. Whilst this might sound counter-productive, it’s actually a really clever way to make sure that your fans are still interested in and still thinking regularly about your work in between publications.

As long as you make sure not to read any of it (so you can’t be accused of plagiarising your fans) and that your fans aren’t selling their fan fiction, then it can be a really smart move to encourage fan fiction.

To use a computer game analogy, take a look at “Doom“. So far (official add-ons and console ports aside), there have only been a few main instalments of this game series – one in 1993, another in 1994, another in 2004 and (hopefully) one next year. It’s a series which, unlike some modern games series, doesn’t get officially updated very often.

But the first two instalments of this series are still surprisingly popular even two decades later for the simple reason that they were made open-source later in the 1990s (allowing people to update the games for modern computer systems) and because fans also still make and share millions of user-generated levels for these two games over the internet.

Now, compare this to quite a few modern games which are indifferent to and/or hostile to fan modifications (because the games companies want to sell “downloadable content” instead) – will anyone still be playing those games twenty years later?

4) Free or cheap: Yes, you might have put a lot of time and/or effort into producing your novella and/or short comic. But, nonetheless, people might think less of it because of it’s length – you can spend all day arguing about this if you want to, but the fact remains.

As such, if you aren’t putting your work online for free, then you have to think a lot more carefully about pricing.

If you try to sell your novella and/or comic online at the same price as a full-length novel or graphic novel, then people are either going to look at the length and conclude that it isn’t good value for money. Or, possibly, they might not notice the length and then feel cheated because they expected something longer for the money that they’ve splashed out on your work.

So, yes, you need to make your novella or short comic significantly cheaper than it’s full-length counterparts. Yes, this might sound unfair but it both ensures that your readers won’t feel cheated and it also makes your work look like a bargain too – which may well attract more customers.

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Sorry that this article was so basic, but I hope that it was useful 🙂

Three Reasons Why Novellas Are Amazing

2014 Artwork Novella Sketch

In case you’ve never heard of a “novella” before or have forgotten what they are – a novella is a story which is longer than a short story and shorter than a novel.

Novellas are usually between about 15,000 to 50,000 words (or 60-200 paperback pages) long. They are also one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated storytelling formats too.

If you don’t believe me, then just ask yourself what was the last professionally published novella that you read. For me, it was probably either “Apt Pupil” by Stephen King or “Sulphuric Acid” by Amélie Nothomb – and I read both of those books about four or five years ago.

(I also read Camus’ “The Stranger” a few months ago, but this always seems to be referred to as a “novel” rather than a “novella” – even though, in terms of length, it’s much closer to a novella.)

Let’s face it, the novella really doesn’t get the recognition that it deserves.

Yes, publishers are apparently wary of short story collections and the internet now allows anyone to publish fiction of any length but, when was the last time you saw a novella on the bestseller lists? In fact, when was the last time you even saw a novella in a bookshop?

Before I go any further, I should point out that I have something of a personal interest here. I’ve written novellas before – four to be precise (three are unpublished and the other one can be read for free here, although I should warn you that it’s kind of badly-written). Whenever I feel like telling a longer story, it almost always ends up being novella-length.

I’m not a novelist, I’m a novella-ist.

So, why should the novella make a comeback? What makes it such an amazing format for stories – regardless of whether you’re reading them or writing them.

1)Time: One of the most satisfying things about reading a novella is that novellas only usually take a couple of hours to read. If you don’t feel like reading a full novel or you don’t feel that you have the time to read a full novel, then you can read a novella.

If you have the time to watch a movie or three episodes of a TV show, then you have time to read a novella. The same thing can’t be said for most modern novels.

Not only that, most novellas contain a far more interesting and detailed storyline than most short stories do – but they only take a fraction of the time it takes to read a novel.

When it comes to time and satisfaction, they’re the best of both worlds.

If you’re writing a novella, then time is less of an issue too. I mean, if you’ve got a really good idea and a few free days, you can even knock out a rough draft of a novella in about three to four days. Hell, some people have even turned this into a competitive sport. Yes, this is a bit extreme, but it’s possible to have a finished novella in your hands in less than a week.

But, even if you’re working at a more sensible pace (eg: about a thousand words a day), then it will probably only take you about a month or two to write the first draft of a novella. You could produce four of them in a year.

Sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it?

2) Quality: Yes, there are badly-written novellas out there, just like there are badly-written stories in any format. In fact, the only novella that I’ve put online probably falls into this category too. Even so, novellas have a unique quality to them which makes them better than both short stories and novels.

Because there’s only usually room for one main plot and not that much room for distractions, a novella has the intensely-focused storytelling of a short story. But, since there’s more room for things like character development and detailed plots than there is in a short story, a novella also has the depth of a novel.

Depending on how you look at it, a novella is either a short story on steroids or a distilled novel.

Once again, novellas are the best of both worlds.

3) Price: Unfortunately, physical copies of novellas can be just as expensive as physical copies of novels (due to printing costs etc…). And, since there are less published novellas, it’s a lot harder to find cheap second-hand novellas too. So, for people (like me) who only really read physical copies of books, the situation doesn’t really look that hopeful.

Still, with e-books becoming a lot more popular, there’s no real excuse for novellas costing as much or more than novels do. In fact, one encouraging trend that I’ve noticed is that a few well-respected authors are releasing novellas exclusively online (such as Lee Child’s “High Heat” or Chuck Wendig’s “Bad Blood”) for far more sensible prices than they would ever be able to charge if they had been printed.

Before I go any further, I’d like to point out that what I’m going to say is more of a naively optimistic guess than anything else. So, if you are thinking of selling a novella, then you’re probably best doing some real research than reading the next few paragraphs. Even so….

Given that we’re still stuck in a recession, people are probably much more likely to pay £1-3 for an electronic copy of a novella than they are to pay £5-7 for a physical copy of a novella or a full-length novel. So, although you might make less for each novella, people are probably more likely to buy copies of your novella.

Not only that, since novellas take less time to produce than novels, you can put more of your novellas on the market in the same amount of time that it would take for a novelist to put a single novel on the market. So, although an individual novella may sell fewer copies than a novel, several novellas will probably sell better than a single novel.

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Anyway, I hope that this has been interesting 🙂