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Robert's Rules of Writing #49: Hit Your Marks

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Masello's rule #49 reminds me of the old joke usually attributed to Abraham Lincoln. How long should a man's legs be? Long enough to reach the ground.

With this rule, Masello discusses how the length of a piece determines quite a lot regarding its style. He gives the example of writing an article about buying a used car. If you have only 750 words to play with, you will need to jump into the piece right away, and maintain a brisk pace. But if you have 2,500 words instead, you might open with an anecdote that beings your readers in more leisurely.

Rather than focus on his essay here, however, I'd like to use this rule as a starting point for a digression on something else, which is this -- the natural length one writes to.

Over the course of the past decade, I've met writers who consider themselves naturally long writers. When they get ideas, they can't possibly see how to contain those ideas within the framework of anything shorter than a novel or novella. On the other hand, I've also met writers who naturally gravitated to the shorter lengths. Their ideas felt to them to work best within a shorter length, and the last thing they wanted to do was to pad out their ideas just for the sake of length.

In my own case, I always considered myself a natural short story writer. The ideas I had never seemed to support anything longer than a few thousand words. And, in fact, sometimes they were even shorter than that. When I was first trying to write, back in my teens, all of my stories would last barely 500 words. It took me the longest time to realize that I wasn't really writing stories then, but simple conceits. Essentially, I was putting the idea down on paper and showing it off, without actually going through the necessary development to turn the idea into a story.

So personally, I've had to learn to make my stories longer. When I was working on my first published story, "TeleAbsence," I had to rewrite it three times until it was finally salable. And each time, I had to make the story longer to make the final draft work as a story.

I still remember the first time a story of mine broke 7,500 words in length. I was rewriting "Broken Symmetry" for Analog. When I told the editor, Stanley Schmidt, that it looked like it might be a novelette, he said to me, "You had to write one sometime." Sure enough, if you want to write, you have to learn how to handle stories and articles at all lengths. This is particularly important if you actually hope to earn a living at it. If an editor comes to you and says, "I have an X-thousand word hole in my magazine (or book) to fill," and asks you for a piece, you'd better not come back with something too far off the mark.

But getting back to natural lengths. Orson Scott Card wrote a perceptive essay for Writer's Digest a few years back on how to write long if you're naturally a short writer. I found it quite instructive. He noted that as a natural short story writer himself, he was at first inclined to make his own longer works by stringing together a series of novelettes. But in the end, he notes, the unit upon which to build a novel isn't stories, but scenes.

In a way, I too had to learn the same thing. To teach myself how to make stories longer, I sat down with a novel -- The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer -- and I created my own outline of it. Since then, I've outlined most of my longer works, and found that by knowing the scene-by-scene breakdown of a story, I can figure out how to make it hold its weight.

Unfortunately, it's now gotten to the point when I look at the ideas that come to my mind and I have difficulty seeing how to squeeze them into anything shorter than a long novelette. It now makes me wonder if the idea itself determines the length of the final piece.


Copyright © Michael Burstein


I think part of it is self-confidence. You're willing to write longer because you know you can write. (OTOH, most people aim for novels, and it ends up that's all they know how to write.) Also, most of our lives, English teachers are telling us to either flesh things out, or make them tighter, so we learn to be sparse with our words, or wordier, depending.

On the one hand, with a novel, you can sustain an idea, build characters and settings, and really explore. But if you can't do that well, you'll be wanting to keep it short.
I'm not sure if I consider it a willingness to write longer because I know I can do it. It's more a question of now seeing how richer I can make a plotline and a scene within a story, if I just add more words to paint the picture. I never used to see that; I used to rush through scenes, because I wanted to get to the point. Now I've learned how to sustain those scenes for longer. (And yet one should still not pad scenes, or waste any words...)
In my case, I'm always asking why a character would do a particular thing, or why a certain event would happen. In filling in the backstory, I end up lengthening the primary story. I'm always frustrated when a character in a story I'm reading takes an action that, to me, is never adequately justified. My natural style, regardless of format, tends toward the overly wordy anyway, with all my qualifiers and addenda. (My coworkers and LJ FList all just injured themselves rushing to agree with that assessment!)

I also once had a screenwriting instructor who advised us to write long, because unnecessary elements could always be discarded later but after-the-fact padding to meet a certain length always shows.

Then again, I've never actually completed a work, so ... you may want to add some salt to this opinion.
I agree with the idea that it's easier to cut stuff than to add afterwards, which makes it better to write too long than too short.

I don't think I've ever had a character take an action that I considered inadequately justified, but my critics may disagree. :-)
Having started out as a natural novelist, then painfully trained myself into short-story-length ideas, and now struggling to reverse the process, I think partly it has to do with texture. A novel requires more backdrops, more nuances to relationships and developing crises, whereas a short story tends to be a moment, a single grace note. I think when you shape an idea prior to writing, your brain gets used to either asking the questions that flesh out the idea or paring it down to what's at the heart of it, and it takes a bit to switch gears, but I don't think it's impossible for anyone.

Do you happen to know where I can find that Orson Scott Card essay? I'm very interested in reading it.
The essay is called "To Make a Short Story Long..." and I read it in the The Writer's Digest Handbook of Novel Writing, which seems to be out of print but is available from sellers via the Amazon webpage here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0898798310/ref=si3_rdr_bb_product/002-5201629-8668025?%5Fencoding=UTF8
I know from where you speak, Michael. My early short pieces were in the 2-3,000 word range, but for the past half dozen years it seems that everything I start to write ends up in the 8-10,000 word range. And, as I'm sure you know, that's a real popular length to sell. ;-)

I bring up Lawrence Block again, but only because he's written so much good stuff on how to write fiction.

In his essay "Where's the Story?" found in Spider, Spin Me a Web, he talks about all the things he might write that increase page count but don't actually get the story told. Needless to say, those are things that he tries to eliminate from his writing.

December 2016

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