Book Length: Novels, Novellas & Short Stories

I’ve noticed an irritating trend in publishing, for short books to be called ‘novels’. This rather contradicts pronouncements that the shorter forms such as flash fiction and novellas are making a comeback, partly because of limited attention spans and also because of how people read these days, using smartphones and tablet computers.

The word count of a book is relevant for all sorts of reasons, including suggesting the quality of the writing, retail price and the cost of printing or translating it. Novelist Jane Smiley reckons that a novel should be between 100,000 and 175,000 words. In writing a debut novel we’re advised to stick to word counts for genres, with 80,000 words being ideal for crime/thrillers and a bit more than this for sci-fi/fantasy, while romances/erotica tend to be shorter.

There are no hard and fast rules, but most agree with the categories devised by The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for its Nebula Award:

Novel: 40,000 words or over

Novella: 17,500 to 39,999 words

Novelette: 7,500 to 17,499 words

Short Story: under 7,500 words

The term ‘novelette’ appears to be extinct—I haven’t seen it used for years, but it’s reassuring to have some idea of established practice within publishing.

Recently, I read a highly-praised book that was described as a ‘novel’ on the jacket and in reviews by critics who should know better. The End We Start From, by Megan Hunter is a mere 140 widely spaced pages and is approximately 20,000 words long. I read it in a couple of hours.

The End We Start From: Megan Hunter: 9781509839100: Books

(Click on the Look inside tag to see the text)

Image result for The End We Start From, by Megan Hunter

I enjoyed the story, for Megan Hunter is a poet, and she makes well-considered word choices. Then again, it also reads like the notes that I make when sketching out what to include in a chapter I’m about to begin writing. I didn’t dislike it, and I understand its success for it’s easy to consume making the reader do a lot of the work in imagining how they’d feel in such a dystopian situation, but it’s by no stretch of the imagination a novel.

I know that short stories are being called ‘novels’ as a marketing ploy, but the imprecision and deceit annoy me.

If things carry on like this, it’s only a matter of time before a flash fiction story of 250 words is called a ‘novel’! We don’t call a car a ‘truck’, a sandwich isn’t a ‘roast dinner’ and a bun isn’t a ‘cake’. There are reasons why we have accurate descriptions based on size.

Am I being pedantic?

Are there any things that drive you nuts about publishing?

Paranoia & the Writer

It’s easy to become paranoid as a writer. After all, we work alone, hidden away from the world creating stories that we hope will be loved by the very people we’re shunning. But to do this, we need to make entreaties to mysterious wraiths—literary agents—whose websites appear to show them as civilised arbiters of taste, yet they’re also strangely silent when approached.

Querying takes on the feeling of throwing a message in a bottle into a tempestuous ocean: has anyone even read your submission, and if they have done did they immediately dismiss it or laugh their heads off at your ineptitude?

The old saying ‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean to say they aren’t out to get to you’ takes on a frustrating twist for writers: ‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean to say they even know you exist.’

This state of disconnectedness and paranoia are well summed up in a poem by Phillip Lopate, called We Who Are Your Closest Friends. An excerpt appears in Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird which is one of the best books about writing I’ve read.

We Who Are Your Closest Friends

we who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting
as a group
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty
discontent and
by neither loving you
as much as you want
nor cutting you adrift

your analyst is
in on it
plus your boyfriend
and your ex-husband
and we have pledged
to disappoint you
as long as you need us

in announcing our
we realize we have
placed in your hands
a possible antidote
against uncertainty
indeed against ourselves
but since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community of purpose
rare in itself
with you as
the natural center
we feel hopeful you
will continue to make
demands for affection
if not as a consequence
of your
disastrous personality

then for the good of the collective

Phillip Lopate

Do any of you feel like you don’t exist, that what you’re doing is just a figment of your own imagination?
How is it that mediocre authors get published when your immaculate manuscript can’t get a look in?
Do you ever feel like there are more people who hate you and your writing than love it?

Should your paranoia follow you to bed and cuddle up with regret, then remember Fleur Adcock‘s poem Things:

There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse.

Image result for paranoid gif

It’s an evolutionary quirk of the human mind, that we remember and focus on negative memories better than we do the pleasant events that happened to us. Partly, this is a hard-wired defence mechanism to keep us safe, but it can make your brain feel like it’s conspiring against you.

Why People Remember Negative Events More Than Positive Ones

We should all learn to be friends to ourselves.

What Literary Agents Should Tell You….

While exploring the Galley Beggar Press website, I came across this wise advice from one of Galley Beggar’s founders Sam Jordison:

“I also want to give a few words of encouragement. Submitting a book takes guts. I know it can feel like cutting your own heart out and serving it up so other people can poke around in the red, bleeding, somehow-still-beating flesh. I’m acutely aware of how dispiriting it can be when this act of emotional exposure is met with either a negative answer or silence. So I want to be clear on a few things. We admire anyone who has finished a novel, let alone been brave enough to send it to us. Just because we might say ‘no’ (or nothing) this time, it doesn’t mean we won’t say ‘yes’ another time. Just because we might feel your book doesn’t fit on our list, it doesn’t mean it might not fit somewhere else. Just because we’ve said ‘no’—it also doesn’t mean we might not have regrets later. (In the past we’ve missed some damn good books. It happens. You can’t always understand what you’ve got in front of you when a manuscript comes in.) 

All of which is a convoluted way of saying that you’ve really got nothing to lose by sending in your work, if you think it fits with what we do. And potentially, lots to gain. Even if it’s quite a long shot…

It’s also a way of saying: don’t give up.”

There are some decent and polite agents around, but on the whole, I’ve found literary agents to be just about the most uncommunicative profession I’ve ever had dealings with—silence being their default setting unless they’ve been programmed to spit out form letters of rejection!

All the same, It’s vital to keep on keeping on with the querying, while investigating other ways of getting your name and stories known to the general public, such as entering competitions.

Image result for literary agent

I read of one Science Fiction writer (whose name escapes me), who spent several years querying literary agents, getting nowhere. He knew that one particular agency was an ideal match for his debut novel, and even though he’d written several more in the intervening period, he continued to submit this book. On the twelfth submission, he was signed to them. When he sat down opposite his new agent, she claimed to have never heard of him before!

I’m not sure what this proves…other than, that if you don’t persevere no one is going to come out searching for you and your novel.

As John Greenleaf Whittier observed:

Of all sad words of mouth or pen, the saddest are these: it might have been.

Quite by chance, I came across a quote from super-agent Carmen Balcells,  said not long before she died:

‘To be a literary agent: it’s a modest job. But it’s a job that’s important for the writer. It’s a position that you take the right decision for your clients. And the problem is that the ego [of the agents] can get in the way. It’s very important that the agency is a person, one person. It’s not about money.’

I’ve just read a volume of poetry by Ursula K. Le Guin, called Late In The Daywhich included a couple of essays as an afterward. One was on verse form, the other, an extract from the acceptance speech she gave to the National Book Foundation for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

Image result for Late In The Day, le guin

The whole speech is here, with a video. She has wise words to say about the current state of publishing; this resonated with me:

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship….

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us—the producers who write the books and make the books—accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write….

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I’ve had my own experience of my self-published books being treated like ‘deodorant’, for I uploaded 44 titles to Amazon three years ago. I priced them attractively, but all the same, after about 18 months Amazon contacted me to suggest that I allow them to bundle various short stories and poetry collections with nine other writers’ work—as if my creativity could be shrinkwrapped like a multipack of lightbulbs, toothpaste or deodorant.

This would have given me a profit of 10 cents for each sale, instead of the original $1.99 I’d priced a 6,000-word short story. No skin off Amazon’s nose, as they make their profit whatever happens, and it’s certainly a tempting purchase for a customer, but it put me in the bargain basement, priced at less than what a charity/thrift store would ask for my secondhand book.

The commercial imperative tramples a writer’s message underfoot. It even affects the book cover design, for I’ve read several crime thrillers this year where the illustration on the jacket misrepresented what happened in the story. Sure, it looked alluring or sinisterly malevolent, with a rugged hero, but it was plain that the artist hadn’t read the book, or if they had they were instructed by marketing to sex things up! In this way, books are becoming like processed microwave meals.

Image result for tales from the slush pile cartoons

How to tell if you’re a Famous Writer….

First of all, forget becoming a bestseller: who cares about your sales and vast wealth? Your novel was turned into an inferior film by Hollywood, and more people watched it than have ever read your books. The publicity surrounding the movie caused a brief blip in your sales figures, as a few discerning readers sought out your back catalogue, but it didn’t last.

You’re not a household name and those that are often write inferior fiction that briefly satisfies some squalid urge. How many authors could the average dunce-in-the-street name anyway? And, most of those would be dead—classical authors they were made to read at school—putting them off reading for life.

No, what you need to happen to be really famous is to have journalists write about your sex life love life...they’ll gussy it up by pretending it’s about how your romances affected your writing, but what they really want to do is puncture your reputation as an intellectual to show you up as a lascivious beast or a repressed misanthrope or even kinky beyond imagination!

Most of these saucy tales won’t come out until you’ve been dead for a while—after all, there are libel laws—and some editors might have enough conscience left to avoid destroying a marriage or literary reputation.

Still, years later (or even as soon as you’re dead), your horizontal jogging exploits will be revealed. Books such as The Intimate Sex Lives of Famous People will include a few writers’ sexual shenanigans.

Readers will be amazed to learn that F. Scott Fitzgerald had a fetish for feet and that he agonised about the size of his penis, once whipping it out in a restroom to ask Ernest Hemingway what he thought. H.G. Wells was a satyr, rarely without a woman and many were young enough to be his daughter; he was shagging into his last year, dying at 80. James Boswell, famed as the chronicler of Dr Johnson, was always at it, often with prostitutes where he probably caught the gonorrhoea which killed him at 54. Before losing his virginity he used trees as sexual partners!

If thinking about this future exposure bothers you, remain chaste and preferably lead a reclusive lifestyle. That way, you could end up as a symbol for your country when they use your image on banknotes. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare have all adorned British banknotes. Robert Louis Stevenson appeared on a Scottish £1 note, while James Joyce was on an Irish tenner. Denmark chose Hans Christian Anderson for its 10 Kroner note.

I wonder how long it will be before J.K. Rowling appears on a British banknote…perhaps in the next century. As for her sex life, for the moment, we can only ponder who slytherined into her gryffindor and expelliarmussed! 

Storytelling: Education or Entertainment?

I’ve just finished reading Don Winslow’s The ForceIt’s a brilliant portrayal of a corrupt detective’s fall from grace. The book cover has heavyweight endorsements from Stephen King, James Ellroy, Michael Connelly, the Sunday Times, New York Times and Mail on Sunday.

Michael Connelly says:

“There is no higher mark for a storyteller than to both educate and entertain. With Winslow these aspects are entwined like strands of DNA. He’s a master.”

Image result for Don Winslow's The Force.

I can only agree, for Winslow knows his stuff, being a former investigator, anti-terrorist trainer and trial consultant. His previous seventeen novels are all well-researched, gripping and totally believable. Two have been filmed—The Cartel, and Savageswhile The Force has had its film rights bought by Ridley Scott.

It would be impossible for Winslow to write his true-life crime novels without mentioning the facts—reminding the reader of news stories, while they identify with the fictional characters the author has inserted into history. The atmosphere of fear and tension he creates is all the more credible for it.

In my own writing, I do loads of research to get facts correct—a lot of crime fans think they’re experts through watching such television series as the CSI franchise, which is wildly inaccurate a lot of the time. I love passing on knowledge, especially if it’s relevant to the story I’m creating, but there always comes a moment when I pause to think is this too much information? I’m writing a fictional story, not delivering a lecture.

I’ve certainly learned lots from fiction, including, as a boy, how to go poaching for wildlife. I’m a Nature lover, but all the same, was fascinated by how the labouring class defied their lords and masters to take gamekeeper-protected game birds and salmon. I wondered if such stories as ‘tickling fish’ were true. This is where the poacher lays on the bank dangling his hands in the water, waiting for a fish to rest above his palms, gently stroking its belly before scooping it up and out of the river. Years later, as a young man, I worked with a poacher, who took me poaching with him and I found that the tales were true.

Image result for trout tickling

As Margaret Culkin Banning observed

‘Fiction is not a dream. Nor is it guess work. It is imagining based on facts, and the facts must be accurate or the work of imagining will not stand up.’

Do facts ever cause you to dither as they become obstacles to your narrative?

Have you ever learned anything useful from a novel?

Clothing & the Author

This article in the New York Times made me consider how much I use descriptions of clothing to denote character:

Your Literary Idols and Their Wardrobes

How the writer dresses can all be a part of their brand, which is tackled in the book. I dread to think how I’d present myself, though I guess I could ape how my protagonist detective dresses, which is practically for the sometimes rough landscape where he investigates crimes—hence, he favours supportive walking boots, wax proof coats and leather jackets.

The British actress Beryl Reid said that she found how to play a role through choosing the shoes that the character wore.

Image result for wearing weird shoes cartoons

This approach makes sense, and it’s an oft-given piece of advice on how to judge personality.

Have you ever used clothing to indicate characteristics in your fiction? Do you dress distinctly, hoping to establish an image?

Tom Wolfe (keeping his local dry cleaning shop in business!)


Stories with a Message

In 2017, I wrote a 6,000-word story to enter in the Galley Beggar Press Short Story Competition. As with several short stories I’ve written, it started out as a poem.

Image result for galley beggar press

Based on a real-life murder, that happened while I lived in Atlanta, it was one of several pointless slayings that haunted me. A middle-aged family man, a hard worker without a criminal record and with no known enemies, was found sitting dead at the steering wheel of his pickup truck at a set of traffic lights on a remote industrial estate at 3:00 am. He’d finished work an hour before, and someone had drawn alongside and fired a bullet through his window and into his head. The engine was still running, the radio playing.

Responding to an anonymous phone call, a police patrol car discovered him. No attempt had been made to rob the victim, and with no witnesses, his murderer was never caught. Police theorised that he’d simply been killed because he was vulnerable. Perhaps a gang member was testing out his new gun for the first time. The slaying may have been incited by the 9/11 terrorist atrocities, which happened the year before, as there’d been many racially motivated attacks against innocent Muslims nationwide. But, the dead man was a light-skinned Mexican—simply in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people.

I wrote the story as a three-hander, from the point of view of the victim, the police patrol officers and the gang member who pulls the trigger. As I made notes for the story, sketching out a plot, I had the unsettling thought that this gloomy tale was just that—a depressing narrative with no redemption and no moral message. 

Then, I recalled a short story by my favourite writer of this form. Guy de Maupassant worked at the end of the 19th-century, and his stories are brilliant vignettes of avarice, cruelty, envy, suspicion and lust among the peasants and the gentry, Two Friends is set at the time of the war between France and Prussia, and is without mercy, simply describing what would likely have happened at the time. It’s worth a read:

Image result for guy de maupassant two friends

Inspired by de Maupassant, I went for a similar atmosphere with my short story. A matter of fact fait accompli recitation of a tragic event, without making a moral message.

My dilemma over what to do with Bullet At The Lights made me reflect on how I’d handled the tone of previous short stories and novels. It’s easier to take liberties in the short form, as novels are more hidebound by convention, especially when writing about crime. Sometimes, I’ve made oblique moralistic comments via my characters, but I haven’t been heavy-handed and preachy. Then again, the goodies, my police detectives, usually triumph over the baddies, though one committed suicide and another, a serial killer, may have escaped as his body was never found.

Amazingly enough, there was once a time with the BBC, back in the 1960s and early ’70s, when it was a stipulated regulation that in any crime drama the police always had to win—the villains had to be caught, punished and regretful. This led to some unsatisfactory tacked-on endings to scripts that had been believably well-rounded up until the point where the coppers made some miraculous breakthrough.

Sam Goldwyn, the Hollywood film producer, once said that “If you’ve got a message send a telegram.”

How do you handle the morality of your stories? Do sinners have to be punished, or do they get away with it? Writing bad guys is always more fun than portraying fine upstanding heroes—which is why so many have character flaws to make them feel more human.

Do you censor yourself, for fear of leading your readers into misfortune? I’ve done so a couple of times, with my crime novels, when I decided that I’d given too explicit instructions on how to throttle someone with a garotte, and how to make an improvised explosive device,

Artists of all types, but especially film directors, refuse to accept responsibility for what they’ve shown, taking the stance that it’s up to individuals to behave in a humane and legal manner. Have you ever worried that you were leading your readers astray?

What makes a story ‘literary’?

I’ve just finished reading Helen Cadbury’s first crime novel, To Catch A Rabbit, which was enjoyable. I’m looking forward to reading the follow-up, Bones In The Nest.

She’s been through a rollercoaster journey in recent years, with two books published and optioned for television series, but brought down by a fight with cancer:

Cancer, crime and turning 50 – author Helen Cadbury on the year which changed her life forever

Image result for cadbury To Catch A Rabbit

There’s an endorsement quote by Lesley Glaister on the cover. She’s a highly experienced novelist, and knows her stuff:

A rare find—a literary crime novel that you can’t put down.”

This made me wonder what makes a novel ‘literary’. There’s snobbishness about what one reads, with various interpretations made about the difference between genre writing and literature:

Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction | HuffPost

I write crime novels and enjoy reading within the crime genre. Some of the more literary authors I favour include Dennis Lehane, John Connolly, Michael Connelly and James Lee Burke. They’re literary because of their use of stylish language and willingness to unravel the emotions of their characters. To my mind, genre writing is more simplistic, with the action taking precedence over character development.

Helen Cadbury’s writing is literary because she tackles the thought processes of her protagonist, but it’s not that challenging to read.

Does that mean that literature has to be difficult to get through, but it has a density of meaning that genre writing lacks?

How do you define literary writing?

Posh words?

A preachy delivery by the author?

No great thrills in sight?


Free Proofreading Tool

Many writers use Grammarly to catch mistakes in their manuscripts.

This morning, I found another free online tool that hunts out dubious grammar and spelling. works well and catches glitches that Grammarly misses, offering more of an explanation as to why there’s an error.

Other tools can be found in the article How To Easily Proofread and Edit Your Own eBook, from the Digital Reader website, whose free newsletter is worth subscribing to:

How To Easily Proofread And Edit Your Own eBook | The Digital Reader

Write it like you stole it!

I’ve previously mentioned how plots, characters and whole stories get stolen. There are unimaginative dolts, plagiarists and organised fraudsters out there, happy to rip you off.

Even if you’re an honest writer, it’s still possible, indeed likely, that what you’ve created has been done before.

As it says in Ecclesiastes 1:9—

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Where we get our ideas from is a mixture of memory, observation, imagination and sometimes appropriation. Even famous writers have filched storylines.

I’ve just read Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artistwhich I recommend, as it’s full of common-sense wisdom and has lots of thought-provoking quotes, such as this one from film director Francis Ford Coppola: 

We want you to take from us. We want you, at first, to steal from us, because you can’t steal. You will take what we give you and you will put it in your own voice and that’s how you will find your voice. And that’s how you begin. And then one day someone will steal from you.”

Austin Kleon’s website is worth a look: AUSTIN KLEON is a writer who draws.

Image result for austin kleon

I haven’t deliberately stolen plots for my five novels, but who knows where I got my ideas from? After all, I’ve read thousands of books in my 65 years, so I’m sure there’ll be similarities between my work and previous authors.

Subconscious plagiarism happens, even to a member of The Beatles:

40 Years Ago: George Harrison Found Guilty of ‘My Sweet Lord’ Plagiarism

Image result for stealing ideas cartoon