The Long And The Short Of It

Copy edited manuscript
CC 2014 Phoebe via wikicommons

This year, I’ve had opportunities to write for three anthologies. One I’ve already been paid for. One I’m waiting to hear back on. The third I’m sketching out now. All these are crime. And in crime fiction, at least for me, the short stories write themselves.

On the other hand, I also wrote nine full-length novels in 14 months, half of which are in or have completed revision, with two either published or scheduled. Dictation was key, but these are science fiction. Now, let’s compare for a moment what happens when you flip the genres. I dug out an old science fiction short and rewrote it from scratch. It suffered from padding, mainly because a targeted antho wanted a minimum of 6000 words. The crime stories all check in at 3000-5000 words. And then there is the Jim Winter novel The Ridge, which took three months to get into first draft and will need a complete rewrite. The Ridge is most definitely crime.

Now why, you ask, does it take me so long to write a novel that takes its cues from The Wire while Suicide Run took a month to go into a rough draft that closely resembles the version now available on Amazon? It even went through the editing process.

The answer is… I don’t know. The fastest novel I’ve ever written is Road Rules, a Jim Winter novel about a road trip gone to hell. I wrote it literally in thirteen days. So why did that pretty much pour out of my head and onto the page as fast as I could type when Holland Bay,. the forthcoming Jim Winter novel in November, take years to write? Two things: First, I knew the Road Rules story from beginning to end and had written a detailed outline. Then I decided to do NaNoWriMo that year. The novel more than met the 50,000-word minimum, and this was long before dictation was feasible. So length had a lot to do with it.

It also had a lot to do with Holland Bay‘s multiple drafts. In the rough draft, I didn’t even know who the protagonists were. Branson, clearly the star of the show, was actually a minor POV character. Plus, it had a cast of thowzands, each one with a plot thread I couldn’t say no to. So, the usually one or two chapter wrap up most novels have ended up being about four chapters, and I didn’t understand the ending myself. Yes, I know. I wrote it. The first draft came out to be 105,000 words. That’s a bit long for a police procedural, especially from a minor author looking to make his mark.

I put it aside. I quit writing. I wrote a 500,000-word fake autobiography about a rock star who gives us a minute-by-minute account of his life. You’ll never read it because I don’t want to get sued, but it was simply, “Now that I quit writing, I can do this for fun.” Again, though, you’ll never read it. Then I came back to Holland Bay and realized I wanted to write. I finished a second, more coherent draft. Then I wrote The Children of Amargosa., which took about four months. When I wrote Suicide Run, the entire story arc stretched out before me like a Netflix series in nine episodes. Like the Amargosa Trilogy, the last one was the hardest. So, I wrote them like writers on a streaming series would write them.

But the shorts? I cut my teeth on crime fiction shorts. Initially, they went long because I didn’t know the form very well. By the time I’d submitted about five of them, I knew how to whittle down the focus to one or two characters. The sweet spot for me is about 3000 words. If it gets beyond five, I’m not happy.

But scifi shorts are different. For some reason, it takes me longer to tell a short story in that realm while my novels all fall into the 70-90K range, short for space opera, but average for novels in general. I really do hate when a book is over 100K, and I find it padded up because some dumbass in the marketing department decide that I, the gentle reader, wanted more book for my buck. In fact, I’ve gotten really good at skipping over superfluous stuff. Like, I don’t need to know what the Elite Lightning Troops’ underwear is made from or where they source it. If I want side trips, I’ll read Stephen King. At least, I get a story within a story within a story.

It could be I haven’t written as many scifi shorts. You have a limited amount of space to world build around the storyline and characters. In crime, one can simply say, “Chicago” or “Nevada Desert,” and the reader likely has a frame of reference even if he or she is not from America. One can even be deliberately vague and say drop hints of a large city, a rural town, or anywhere else. Three or four words in a sentence about something else is all it takes.

Similarly, I’ve noticed when I write crime, I either don’t know the ending or how an existing ending comes about. In long work, that slows things down. Plus, my outline for The Ridge was actually awful. I found myself rewriting scene blurbs and rearranging them constantly. With the Suicide Arc, I tended to think it terms of one long story with certain plot points needing to happen. Along the way, I’m picking up ideas. Suicide Run introduced Boolay, who is rapidly becoming a fan favorite. At one point in a later book, he’s referred to as the Zaran God of Sarcasm.

I know writers for whom writing science fiction in either form would give them a headache. They’ll happily blow through even the longest Expanse novels or John Scalzi, but to write something along those lines would be a nightmare. Similarly, crime, which does require a lot more research, scares a lot of science fiction writers. It’s so close to the real world that mistakes can induce performance anxiety.