I have had some reports of DocsList errors from folks using the Google Docs Writing Tracker. This is because those functions have been deprecated. Several months ago, I updated the master branch with code that uses the newer DriveApp object model. I have been using that code for a few months with no errors. If you are seeing errors in the last few days caused by DocsList objects, I recommend you pull the latest version of the scripts. That should fix the problem. Please see the readme for additional details and instructions.
I recently pushed a new branch called “project-tracking” out to the Google Docs Writing Tracker on GitHub. This branch includes code for project-tracking that I wrote about a week ago. The changes have been working fine for me over the last 10 days or so. The one thing I haven’t done yet is update the template spreadsheet. The new code requires 2 new tabs in the spreadsheet, along with some additional settings. I’ll get to that eventually.
Meanwhile, I have been trying to figure out a way to simplify what happens each night the scripts do their processing. Right now, the scripts perform a comparison between the current working document, and a previous snapshot of the document in another folder. That snapshot mechanism takes up a lot of code, and is relatively inefficient. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about an alternative, and today, I tested that alternative out with positive results.
Every Google Document keeps a revision history of the changes to that document. Here is the revision history for a story that I worked on back in February:
It turns out, that using the advanced Google Drive API, I can access the revisions through the API. Today I performed a test, which essentially compared the current document to the last revision of the previous day. That is essentially what the snapshot method that the script current uses does. But it does without needing to maintain two files. I can get all of the information I need from the previous revision. Ultimately, that simplifies the code for the scripts. It also simplifies setup.
There is a tradeoff, however.
You can only access the advanced Google Drive API via OAUTH2 authentication. That means configuring the scripts to be able to handle that authentication. It turned out to be a pretty straight-forward one-time setup for me, but I do this kind of thing for a living. For someone who isn’t technical, it may be a little tricker.
It will likely be a while before this major architectural change is available. There are several reasons for this:
- My priority each day is on getting my writing in. I do this scripting only if the writing is done, and I have time.
- If I were doing this just for me, it would be easy. The code I wrote today checks for the last revision from “yesterday” and compares that to the current document. Simple, right? But not everyone who uses these scripts writes every day. What happens if you skip some days. Then there is no revision from “yesterday” so the script has to know to look for the previous revision regardless of date. There are a few other uses cases that need to be considered as well.
- Once I have the code written, I like to test it for a few weeks before pushing it out, just so that I can work out any kinks.
That said, once this feature is in place, I think it will make for an enormous improvement. Since everything, including the revisions, is contained in the one document, there will no longer be a need to manage a snapshot folder at all, and all of that code can go away.
It also opens up the possibilities for analytics on the evolution of a document over time, which would be pretty cool, too.
A Tale of Two Stories
Last week, while on one of my daily walks, I suddenly hit on why I was struggling with the novella on which I’ve been working, off and on, for the last year or so. The current working title is “Strays.” I was artificially constraining the story. I was making a mistake that I used to make, thinking I knew how long a story should be before it was finished. I had it in my head that the story was a novella, and I was trying to force that… and it wasn’t working. It occurred to me, as I turned the corner from Joyce Street onto Army-Navy Drive, that the story should be a novel. The thought was light a weight off my shoulders. I knew at once that it was the right thing to do, and I felt a sense of great relief. But also, a sense of trepidation. A novel is a big commitment.
At the same time, my friend Michael Sullivan has been trying to convince me for quite a while that I need to start writing novels. If I wanted to be able to write fulltime, novels was the only real pathway that I’d have. I’d smile and nod at Michael, and say, that yes, I knew that, but that I really enjoyed writing short stories, and wasn’t ready to give that up yet.
But when I realized that the story I was working on would work better as a novel than as a novella, I thought about what Michael said. I realized that I had another novella idea sitting around dormant, one I’ve been calling “Peacefield.” I’d planned to work on it after finishing the current one. It occurred to me that I was going to have the same problem with that one as with the current one. Maybe that one could also be a novel?
Add one final thing to the mix: I’ve been reading John Feinstein’s excellent book, Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball as research for the novella. I often make comparisons between writing and baseball, and the life of a writer and that of a professional baseball player. Listening to the stories of the guys who spend a decade or more in the minor leagues, and those who try to up their game in order to make the jump to the majors, I realized that Michael was right: I needed to write novels if I was going to make it to the big leagues. In my entire writing career, I have written a single draft of a novel, which is not a lot of practice. I needed to get more experience and get it sooner rather than later.
So I decided to challenge myself. I set a goal for myself this year to try to average 1,000 words/day. In 2014, I averaged 850 words/day, so we’re really talking about adding an additional 150 words/day, which doesn’t sound like much. For me, 1,000 words/day is roughly 40 minutes of time each day.
I recall reading in Stephen King’s excellent book On Writing that he considers a season to be the perfect length of time to write a first draft of a novel. Granted, he would try to get in 2,000 words/day, which meant 180,000 words over the course of a season (3 months). But I saw some sense in that. It gives you a timeframe in which you have to focus on the task at hand. Also, I wasn’t planning on writing a Stephen King-length book. I’m looking to hit 90,000 word. It just so happens that at 1,000 words/day, 90,000 word take me 90 days–or just about 1 season.
But one novel draft does not a novelist make. I had to write dozens of short stories before I started to sell them. I don’t think I’d need to write dozens of novels before I could sell them, however. I like to think the experience I’ve gained as a writer applies broadly. But one novel draft would certainly not be enough.
However, I had this second idea for Peacefield, thematically related to Strays, but otherwise very different. I know that after finishing the draft of something long like a novella or a novel, I need some time away from before I start on the second draft. What if I wrote a first draft of Strays in the spring, and then spent the summer writing the first draft of Peacefield? That would give me three months away from the first novel to work on something different. And what happens when I finished the first draft of Peacefield? Well, I’d need some time away from that as well. So I could spend the fall working on the second draft of Strays. And when that was done, I could spend the winter working on the second draft of Peacefield. It would mean that by the end of March 2016, I would have completed 4 novel drafts, and have a lot more experience writing novels than I currently heave
So the challenge becomes: can I write four complete novel drafts in the next year? Given that I have had no trouble writing every day for the last 600+ days, I don’t see why not. The time commitment and my ability to write every day is not a factor. What is a factor is trying to learn how to write a novel. The only way to do that is to get started.
Here is the schedule I put together for myself. I’m using my birthday as a kind of rough starting point, simply because it’s coming and it is conveniently close to the beginning of spring:
- Strays (1st draft): March 27, 2015 – June 27, 2015 (90,000 words)
- Peacefield (1st draft): June 28, 2015 – September 28, 2015 (90,000 words)
- Strays (2nd draft): September 29, 2015 – December 29, 2015 (90,000 words)
- Peacefield (2nd draft): December 30, 2015 – March 30, 2016 (90,000 words)
360,000 words is not farfetched, considering I wrote 311,000 words in 2014, and I’m trying to up my daily goal by 150 words/day. But other things sometimes get in the way. So I am also scaling back on things that shorten the amount that I write each day. I plan on attending only a single science fiction convention in the next 12 months (RavenCon, coming up next month). I plan on strictly limiting the number of guest posts that I do, and anything that takes an usual amount of time to prepare for. Professionally, the next 12 months are all about learning how to write a novel by writing 4 novel drafts.
Any time I sit down to write, I am putting forth my best effort. The schedule allows me to send out the second draft of Strays to beta-readers while I spend 3 months working on the second draft of Peacefield. Still, at the end of the next 12 months, I expect to have two completed second drafts, one for Strays and one for Peacefield. After some time to work in suggestions from beta-readers and produce a clean final draft of each manuscript, I think the result will be 2 novels that I can look to sell (or for which I can seek representation).
Does this mean they will sell? Absolutely not. Just like a player who hits .350 in triple-A, there is no guarantee that a call-up will follow. Luck is always a factor (a guy gets injured, a guy gets traded), as is timing. Quality is a factor as well, and just because I’ve got two final drafts does not mean they meet the standards for publication.
However, right now, the only outcome I am seeking is to build experience writing novels. That is, as I see it, the only way to learn and improve. At the end of the next 12 months, I’ll be able to say, “Hey, I’ve written a total of 5 novel drafts for 3 different novels.”
And hey, what about the novel draft that I finished in 2013 and proposed to write the second draft this year? For now, I’ve given up on it. I still think that the idea is good, and I like the characters and the setting, but I don’t believe I have yet developed the tools to make it work the way I want it to work. In other words, I need more practice. I hope to get some by attempting four novel drafts in the next 12 months.
Of course, I’ll post updates along the way, and you can follow along with day-to-day progress over at open.jamierubin.net if you are interested.
I wasn’t going to make a big deal about hitting 600 consecutive days of writing–which I will hit later today when I get my writing in. I’d promised that my next major milestone would come on August 23, 2015–that’s when I’ll hit 763 consecutive days. On that day, I will have more consecutive days of writing than Barry Bonds has home runs.
But, as sometimes happens, an odd coincidence has forced me to mention the fact that I have hit 600 consecutive days. It just so happens, that I am also reading my 600th book since January 1, 1996. Hitting 600 consecutive days of writing at the same time that I am reading my 600th book seemed interesting enough of a coincidence to mention it here.
What is the book? Well, it will depend on which one I finish first. (I only add a book to my list once it is finished.) I am 5/8ths of the way through The Stand by Stephen King1 as part of my Stephen King Re-Read. I am reading this book mostly in the evenings before bed.
I am also reading2 Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. I’m listening to this while on my daily walks, and while doing chores around the house. It is a toss-up as to which one I will finish first, but whichever one I do finish first will be book #600 since 1996.
So how much writing have I done in 600 days? Well, not counting today (since I haven’t written yet), I’ve written just under 540,000 words. That’s an average of about 900 words/day. That means at my next major milestone–763 consecutive days–I should be close to the 680,000 word-mark.
I just did a little math, and if I can maintain the 900 words/day pace, I’ll hit 1 million words on about August 5, 2016, which would (coincidentally) be my 1,111th consecutive day of writing.
Stories like Stephen King’s “A Death” in the March 9 issue of the New Yorker go a long way to explaining why I love short fiction. I have this sense–perhaps a false one–that while there is no such thing as the perfect novel, there is a perfect short story. It is as rare as a perfect game in baseball, but it is achievable. Of course, it is not quantifiable the way a perfect game in baseball is. To twist an oft-used expression: I can’t say exactly what makes a story perfect, but I know it when I see it.
I can probably count perfect stories I’ve read on one hand. Ray Bradbury’s “The Rocket Man”; Harlan Ellison’s “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore”; and Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” are three. After reading “A Death” I think I could add it to the list of perfect stories.
What makes a story perfect? Again, it’s hard to say. For me, the voice plays a big part of it, but not all of it. Another element is efficiency, or perhaps a better word is “compactness.” I don’t mean length. I mean the story has just the right amount of each ingredient, not a grain more or a drop less. That, plus the voice, are the two things that jumped out at me when I finished reading “A Death.”
Stephen King has often said that in his second drafts, he takes out everything that isn’t story. “A Death” is a great example of that. There is nothing I could find in it that isn’t story. Everything, every word, every image, every line of dialog contributes to the telling of the whole. It is a story that rests in a precarious balance, like a pitcher who has two outs in the 9th inning of perfect game, and full count on the batter. Take away anything from the story, and it is no longer perfect. Add anything to the story, and it is no longer perfect.
In many ways, while reading “A Death,” I kept thinking to myself that it is a Writer’s story. I enjoyed the story as a reader. But almost enjoyed more as a writer. I enjoyed in the same way a rookie ball player might look over at a seasoned veteran and see the smoothness of their swing, the fluid motion they make ranging for a ball in the field, and think, I want to be able to do that one day. Recognizing this as a writer means that you also recognize that you have the individual skills to make it happen, but not yet the experience to put them together in the right combination to achieve that level of perfection.
Beyond the entertainment value of “A Death,” beyond my awe at the seemingly effortless execution, I finished it thinking, man, I want to be able to do that one day. It’s why I keep reading. And it’s why I keep writing.
It crept up on my, but I awoke this morning with a feeling that the date, February 27, was vaguely familiar. I couldn’t quite place at, not at first, and then around mid-morning, it hit me. It was 2 years ago today that I began my efforts to write every day. It was also 2 years ago today when I first started to use my Google Docs Writing Tracker.
Prior to February 27, 2013, I’d tried on a number of occasions to start a streak where I wrote every day. I was never successful. However, in the 2 years that have now elapsed since February 27, 2013, I have written every day, except for 2; that’s 728 days out of the last 730. What’s more, I haven’t missed a day since July 21, 2013. As of today, I’ve written for 586 consecutive days.
How’d I do it? Well, I’ve talked about here and here, so I won’t rehash it all in this post. But I do want to point out once again the cumulative effect of writing a little bit every day. In the last 2 years, I have written a total of 631,960 words. I’ve averaged 865 words/day, which for me amounts to about 35 minutes per day. I’ve sold around 15 stories and articles during that time.
For me, the most important thing is practice. I’m a believer in Stephen King’s advice that to be a good writer, you need to read a lot and write a lot. Every bit of writing I do is practice. I make mistakes, and I try to learn from them, and hopefully, as with all practice, it is making me a better writer.
As a counterpoint to my earlier post on low word count days, let me take a moment to discuss high word count days. And specifically, in the context of yesterday’s writing, where I managed to blow away my previous one-day record of 5,300 words by writing nearly 7,200 words. If you are not a writer, 7,200 words might not mean much so let me put it into perspective: it’s about 30 double-spaces pages.
Most full time writers I know consider 2,000 words a full day’s work. Since I am not a full time writer, I consider 2,000 words or better a high word count day. How many of these high word count days have I had in the last 728 days? 26 of them, making them twice as rare as a low word count day. Here are all of my high word count days laid out over time:
Put another way: I have a low word count day (less than 250 words) about once every 13 days. I have a high word count day (2,000 words or more) about once every 28 days. I think this makes sense. Given limited time, it’s easier to squeeze in less than a page, then it is to find the time to write ten pages.
I took the low word count days and high word count days and mashed them together, and here is what I got (low = red, high = blue):
All the white space in between are days on which I wrote at least 250 words, but less than 2,000 words.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of this exercise is to find that a high word count day does not necessarily follow a low word count day. This might be true if I were trying to make quota, but since my only real goal is to write every day, I don’t feel the need to “make up the difference” after a low word count day.
Yesterday’s record was an oddity all around. I had written about 3,000 words of a first draft of a story, and yesterday, the rest of the story just kind of clicked. I wrote the remain 3,000 words almost without stopping. As I have explained before, my first drafts are for me–me telling myself the story. My second drafts are complete rewrites. Now that I know the story, I can tell it to an audience, adding all kinds of nice embellishments. But it means that I rewrite the whole thing. So I started the second draft yesterday as well, and managed to get through about 4,000 words of it before calling it quits. Thus,a 7,200-word day.
Interestingly, the more I wrote, the more I wanted to write. Writing does not tire me out the way that, say, spending 8 hours writing code does. I get mentally drained from coding, but I seem to derive an endless supply of energy from writing. Whether or not the writing is good… well, I guess my beta-readers will let me know.
In any case, I suspect it will be a very long time before I have another 7,000 word day.
Once upon a time, when I first started to write with the idea to sell stories, I used to have these wild daydreams of being published. I’d finish writing a terrible short story and then sit back in my chair and imagine what it would be like just to be published, to have written something good enough that an editor was willing to pay money for it, and that readers other than my friends and family would read.
My reverie was a lot of like those silly daydreams of winning the lottery. I’d come home from class one day, and find an envelope in the mailbox. Instead of a form rejection slip, the envelope would contain a Letter of Acceptance. I had no idea what such a letter would look like, but there it was. I’d dance around the room, happy as can be, floating on the thought that I’d done it! I was a published writer.
Then I’d come back to reality, face the blank page, and wonder if it really wasn’t just a pipe dream.
One day, I sold a story. I was thrilled. A contract arrived in the mail, followed by a check, and a few months later, my first published story appeared in an online magazine. It was wonderful, delightful, and very much like winning the lottery. In the back of my mind, however, I wondered if I would ever be published in one of the big genre magazines, especially Analog, which had been around since the 1930s, and in which many of my heroes had been published.
I thought that it probably wouldn’t happen. The stories published there were just too good, the competition for space too fierce. This didn’t deter me from writing, it simply provided a new form of daydream. I’d been published, and now I would close my eyes and imagine what it would be like to be published by Analog, my name of the table of contents, my byline on a story in the pages of that revered (well, by me, anyway) magazine. No, I didn’t think it would happen, but it was fun to daydream about. And I kept writing.
Then, one day, I sold a story to Analog. I couldn’t believe it. I was thrilled, but I was sure it was a one-time thing. I kept writing. Analog bought more stories and articles from me. So did other magazines. So did some original anthologies.
These days, I don’t worry much about selling stories. In most cases, when I write a short story, I’m pretty sure I will sell it, eventually. But I’ve been writing longer and longer pieces. I’ve written a novella, and a first draft of a novel. My daydreams no longer deal in short fiction. I’ll tilt my head back, close my eyes, and imagine I’ve just gotten word that I’ve sold a novel. I can almost see it. I can almost imagine how exciting that would be. An entire book that I wrote, appearing in bookstores throughout the country. How cool would that be? Just thinking about it gets me giddy.
My tendency is to think that it probably won’t happen. Writing a novel is hard. Writing good novel is really hard. The competition is fierce, and there are lots and lots of good novels being published every week. Mine would just be static within the noise. On the other hand…
I never thought I’d really sell a story. And when I did, I never thought I’d sell a story to Analog. And when I did that, I never thought I’d do it again. But of course, I did. And so I no longer worry much about the self-doubt that I face as a writer, because while the doubt is always there, lingering in the shadows, waiting for a weak moment to pounce, I’ve shown myself that, despite the doubt, I’ve managed to achieve more with my writing than I thought possible. So why not a novel? Why not bestseller? Why not a life as full time writer? Ah, one can dream.
But one can also write.
Yesterday, I managed to write only 112 words on the story that I am currently working on. It is the lowest word count I’ve had since April 11, 2014. I thought I should mention it here since I often talk about my writing streak and my daily averages, to show that sometimes, even the best laid plan of mice and keyboards make it hard to fit in the day’s writing. Yesterday was one of those days.
112 words does not sound like much at all. Even so, I spent 20 minutes coming up with those 112 words, and they represent a complete scene in the story. I knew that yesterday was going to be a long day. I had a lot of work to focus on at the day job. In the evening, we went out to dinner with friends. So there wasn’t going to be much time to write. I squeezed in the 112 words early in the day, thinking I might have a chance to come back to add more later, but that didn’t happen.
I’m okay with that. Even though it was only a few short paragraphs, I felt good about what I’d written, and I was relieved that I’d gotten it done early in the day, rather than stress it about not having it done yet through the latter part of the day. For me, the goal is to write every day. It doesn’t matter how much or how little.
But it did make me curious about how often I have these particularly low word counts. Since one full manuscript page is about 250 words, give or take, I’ll use 250 words as a threshold, and ask: how often have I written less than a page a day?
In the last 724 days, I have written less than a page 57 times. That’s about 7.8% of the time, or about 1 out of every 13 days. Looking at it as a timeline, my low word count days look as follows:
I’ve learned not to be discouraged about low word count days. Some writing is better than no writing, even if it’s a page or less on a given day.
But mostly, I wanted to show that despite my growing consecutive day writing streak, not every day is an 800 or 1,000-word day. There are plenty of days (57 day of them!) when I can barely get a page.
From time-to-time, I get asked how I find the time to write. I supposed this is, in part, because of my consecutive-day writing streak (which now stands at 576 days). But I think part of it comes from the fact that I manage to write while working a full time job, while blogging, and while raising a family. The question comes in various forms but it all boils down to the same thing: how do you find time to write?
I’ve talked about this before, but I don’t think I’ve ever written a post on it exclusively (I could be wrong–with more than 6,000 posts it’s hard to remember everything I’ve written). So I thought I’d try to answer this question here. Keep in mind that the question I am answering is how do I find time to write. Your mileage may vary.
1. I challenged my assumptions about the time I needed to write
When I started to write every day, nearly two years ago now1, the first thing I did was test my assumptions of what I needed to write.
With respect to time, I used to think that I needed a chunk of time–a minimum of, say, 1 hour, better yet 2 hours–to get any decent writing done. In the past, I’d tried to carve out an hour or two during the day to write. Usually it was very early in the morning, and while it worked for a time, it eventually failed. It fail for several reasons:
- I might be able to get up at 4 am a few day a week to get in some writing, but the long days wore on my, and eventually, I’d fail.
- When I did fail, I felt guilty for the rest of the day.
- Failure one day led to failure another day.
So the first thing I did in February 2013 was challenge my assumption about how much time I needed to write. I decided to experiment. My experiment was as follows:
- I would write every day, even if it was only for a few minutes.
- I would not schedule a specific time to write, but writing would be a priority for any spare time that I found.
This experiment required that I be able to write from anywhere, which is why, beginning in February 2013, I moved my entire writing infrastructure into Google Docs. Using Google Docs meant I could write from any device, wherever I happened to be. It meant I didn’t have to worry about moving files back and forth across devices. That meant I could spend what little time I had writing instead of copying files and managing versions.
2. I challenged my assumptions about the environment I needed to write
I used to think I needed a quiet, secluded environment where I could do my writing. But if I had to write whenever the time was available, as opposed to setting aside blocks of time, then I needed to challenge my assumptions about the environment I needed to work in.
I decided to try to write in whatever environment I found myself in, so long as the time was available. If that meant writing at the library, fine. If that meant writing in the quiet of my home office, fine. If that meant writing in the family room, with the TV blaring and the kids running around screaming, fine.
3. I collected data about my behavior in order to provide a baseline
I wrote a set of scripts for Google Docs that automated the tracking of my writing. This meant I could focus on writing, rather than tracking, but still collect the data I was looking for (how much I was writing each day). I also began using a tool called RescueTime which tracks how much time you spend on various applications and documents across your computers. This gave me real numbers for how much time I was spending writing each day, which I could use to see if my assumptions were good or not.
4. I wrote every day
With my challenges to my assumptions, and my automated scripts and data collection, I started to write. I wrote every day. Sometimes I’d only write for 10 minutes. Other times, I’d find 3 hours to write. Sometimes I was exhausted, but wrote for 15 minutes anyway. Sometimes, I knew what I was writing was terrible, but that the practice was important, so I kept at it.
Sometimes my day got thrown off. I adjusted as best as I could. When I knew my schedule would be crazy in advance, I’d plan ahead, and try to get a little writing in early in the day. At least then, it was done. If there turned out be time to do more later, I’d do more.
I found that over the course of 721 days, there were only 2 days that I could not manage to get any writing in. Both were unusually long, busy travel or conference days. I learned lessons from both, and haven’t missed a day of writing since July 21, 2013.
What the numbers told me
Over the course of my 576 consecutive day writing streak, I’ve written over half a million words, and sold 11 stories or articles. Here is what the data looks like for the duration of my streak so far:
- Although my consecutive writing streak stands at 576 days, there is a larger overall “streak” beginning late February 2013 during which I have only missed 2 days of writing. That is, I have written on 719 out of the last 721 days, the last 576 of them consecutively. ↩
There is one question I dread in interviews, and even casual conversations when people find out I am a writer. And no, it is not “where do you get your ideas?” Take casual conversations as an example, especially with people who I haven’t spoken with before, or who have heard I am a writer. They typically go something like this:
“So you’re a writer?”
“Guilty as charged.”
“Have you been published.”
“I don’t mean self-published.”
“Neither do I. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.1”
“Are you working on something now?”
“Yes, I’m working on a story.” At this point I begin to tense up. Here it comes. I know it. Here it comes.
“What’s your story about?”
Okay, I have worked out a standard answer, although it’s probably unsatisfactory to both me and my questioner. Usually, I’ll say something like, “I’m not sure yet. I’ll let you know when I finish it.” But that is a white lie. Because I almost always know what the story is about, or at least, what I think it going to be about.
Over the years I’ve learned something: if I talk about my stories when I’m writing them, I find that it takes the life out of the story for me. When I return to the keyboard after spilling my guts, I find I just don’t have the same enthusiasm for the story that I did before I talked about it. So for a quite a while now, I just don’t talk about them much, beyond mentioning a title, and perhaps a very brief description, like, “It’s a baseball alternate history novella.”
The problem is, I sometimes get the feeling that “I’m not sure, I’ll let you know when I finish,” comes across as a little disingenuous. So in interviews, I’ve started being more straight-forward about it. If I’m asked about what I’m currently working on, I’ll say that I’m working on the second draft of a novel, or a short story for a theme anthology. I’ll add that I don’t like talking about the stories while I work on them, not to maintain an aura of mystery, but because I find that the story loses life for me when I talk about it.
If an editor asks me about a story, I’ll try to be more explicit without popping the bubble, but usually, I don’t talk about the stories even with editors until they are finished.
A few writers I know don’t seem to have this problem. They will describe in ten minutes a story that would take five minutes to read. They will go into extraordinary detail. And I wonder if they are immune to this allergy of mine.
I’m curious about other writers. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been published or not, but I’d be interested to know if you can talk about stories you are working on without those stories losing their verve. And if not, how do you deal with it? Let me know in the comments.
- There is an occasional diversion from the main branch of the conversation here, with my questioner asking, “When’s the movie coming out?” in mock-serious tones. “Friday,” I’ll usually say without missing a beat. ↩
Since I have been working on the second draft of a novella off-and-on over the last couple of week1 it occurred to me, at some point, that the novella was my favorite form of fiction-writing.
What is a novella? Officially (for the purposes of award categories), according to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, a novella is a work of fiction from 17,500 words to 40,000 words. In reality, a novella is a long story that can approach the length of a short novel. If you think of stories in terms of pages, a novella can be anywhere from 60 – 160 manuscript pages in length. You’ve probably read novellas, although they might not be called such. Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” is a novella. So is his story “The Body” on which the movie Stand By Me was based.
I have written only 2 novellas in my writing career. The first was a 20,000 word story written years ago, but never sold. The second is the one I am working on now. The first draft came in at about 20,000 words. I don’t yet know how long the second draft will be.
There is something remarkably free about writing a novella. It is not nearly as hard (at least for me) as writing a novel. Yet it is not nearly as constricting as writing a short story. A novella gives the freedom to tell a story at its own length and pace. Perhaps it is best described as a novel wrung free of all of the chaff, compressed as tightly as possible without sacrificing the story.
If an half-hour sit-com is a short story, and an hour-long drama is a novelette, then perhaps a mini-series is the equivalent of a novella.
Don’t get me wrong, I love writing short stories. But there is a feeling I get when writing a novella that I don’t get with short stories. I once read that a short story should describe a moment from which you can derive everything that came before, and everything that will come after. When I write short stories, I try to start the story as late in the action as I can manage, and finish the story as soon as I can after the action is over. The same is not true with a novella. With a novella, I feel like I have the freedom to roam. Many things can be happening at once, and the threads are ultimately tied together, but it is not rushed.
As it turns out, my favorite form of fiction to read–from a purely artistic standpoint–is the novella. I’ve mentioned Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth” and “The Body” but there are many others that have astounded me. Nancy Kress’s “Beggars in Spain,” Robert Reed’s “Marrow,” Ken Liu’s “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary,” Isaac Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man,” Kij Johnson’s “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” and many, many others.
The main problem with novellas is that they are the hardest pieces to sell. First of all, there are not a lot of markets that accept them, although in the science fiction world, several of the major magazines do publish them. Outside the magazines, the choices are even more limited: small presses, or self-published. Consider that for a magazine to print a 20,000 word story, that that story has to be better than four 5,000-word stories. For this reason, for a long time, I didn’t write novellas. I knew my odds were much better at selling a 5,000 word story.
But I’ve since cast aside the desire to sell the story as the first reason for writing it. These days I write novellas first and foremost to entertain myself. If I can sell them, all the better, but I no longer avoid writing them because they are hard to sell.
I’m hoping to wrap up the novella that I am working on now (“Strays”) in the near future. I still have the novel draft to work on, but I need a break from that sometimes. So when I do finish “Strays” I have another novella which I’ve been wanting to write, and I’ll probably start that one so that I have something to fall back on when I get tired of the novel draft. And who knows, maybe, with practice, I’ll write that is good enough to sell and then you’ll be able to read it, if you so choose.
- To give myself a break on the second draft of the novel, which requires some additional thought. ↩