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Robert's Rules of Writing #64: Take the Long Way

[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.]

With this rule, Masello tackles the issue of longer books versus shorter ones. In a few brief pages, he gives some advice I've run across in many other books. The essential nugget is that a novel has one significant advantage over short stories. A novel can be long. A novel gives the writer room to explore, to go into detail, and to draw people into the story, in ways that shorter fiction can't.

Now, this is all well and good if your natural tendency is to write long. Then you can explore every nook and cranny of your characters and every facet of your background and plot. But what if your tendency is to write short? When I started trying to write fiction, I was naturally a short story writer. Since then, I've managed to become more comfortable with longer works, to the point where now when I sit down to write a story, it usually comes out as a novelette or novella.

I think part of that tendency to write shorter works came from my own personal preference. I just like short stories. There's something about the dip into a fictional world I find bracing, although Masello notes that he prefers a long soak much more. And, frankly, Masello's preference for novels does have one more advantage over my preference for short stories.

As Lawrence Block once noted in an essay, the readers of fiction bestsellers in this country -- meaning the majority of people buying novels -- seem to prefer longer books. A lot of readers seem to feel like Masello says he does, when he says that he enjoys spending long periods of time inside the fictional world that a writer has created. So if your goal is to hit the bestseller lists, then from a commercial perspective you need to consider the length of your work. And if, like me, that doesn't come naturally to you, what can you do?

I'll tell you what I did. I learned to outline.

I'm veering off somewhat from Masello's own discussion, but that's okay, as the point of these posts is to use his rules as a springboard. And even though I've probably discussed outlining before -- in fact, I'm about to reiterate what I said when I discussed Robert's Rule #49 -- it's still worth mentioning.

In order to learn what made a novel different from a short story, I sat down with a copy of The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer and I created my own outline of it. Doing so taught me a lot about how to make a work of fiction more layered and longer, without just puffing it up with air. So to anyone else who also writes more naturally at the shorter lengths, I offer that suggestion. Perhaps we'll all end up on the bestseller lists one day.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein

Comments

This is good news to me, as I've been writing long since the day I discovered James A. Michener. I'm still cracking my mental whip at learning brevity, though, when I'm not engaged in a novel for that very reason.
i tend to be a short writer. before i started my novel, i took a good amount of time working on my outline. now, if i run out of ideas/words, i refer to the outline. it's really helped me stay focused.
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