mabfan (Michael A. Burstein) (mabfan) wrote,
mabfan (Michael A. Burstein)

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
Tags: books, personal, roberts-rules, science-fiction, writing, writing-advice

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