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Saturday, 22 February 2014

Short Fiction: The Dilemma of Length.

English: Atmosphere of Mars taken from low orb...
English: Atmosphere of Mars taken from low orbit The Galle "smiley" crater can be seen to the left (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Are you plotter or pantster? I’m the latter, whether writing long or short fiction. This morning, with no thought in mind, other than that I wanted to write a science fiction short story, I sat at the keyboard and turned out 1,000 words, set on Mars, before breakfast. It was a little slower than normal, as I needed to search for international names for my characters (I make this easier by using a table I’ve developed over the years. It holds 10,000+ first names from all over the world, colour coded for gender, and noted with countries of usage for the names listed. It’s easy to search for names for a specific nationality by doing a search on that country. You can access a free copy on my blog, here.)

Later this morning, my wife and I took a longish walk in the local countryside: we enjoy regular fresh air and exercise for mental as well as physical wellbeing). This sort of gentle activity is an excellent opportunity for rumination. I carry a voice recorder to catch those ideas that pop to the surface as we walk, often in companionable silence.

The story I’d started was jostling with the natural landscape for attention. And, as so often happens when relaxed, a sudden idea struck me. The story is more suited to a greater length than the short story I’d envisaged. It’s an obvious candidate for a novelette; I guess at around 30-40,000 words. Now, because of the way I write, this isn’t a problem for me. I’ll have to re-write the beginning, since I no longer have to introduce 8 characters in such a short space, but that’s all to the good. It was the character numbers, an essential element of the story, that had caused me to pause in the writing. The solution was simple. Write a longer story.

And the purpose of this piece? Simply to illustrate that you don’t have to fence yourself in with story length if an idea isn’t working as expected. Examine it at leisure and decide whether it’s simply the chosen length that’s forming a barrier to creativity. My other sci-fi novelette, The Methuselah Strain, started out as a short story but it soon became clear I needed more space to examine the themes and develop the characters. So, don’t let word numbers confine you. Instead, allow the story to find its natural length and then find the suitable market for it. The current sci-fi novelette I’m developing will become a self-published ebook initially instead of the magazine-bound short story I’d started. Be flexible. It works. And the magazine story I’d intended? No matter: I’ll write another when the idea strikes.
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