All Stories Have Legs

by James Scott Bell

During Abraham Lincoln’s law-practice days, he had occasion to share a stagecoach with his soon-to-be adversary, Stephen A. Douglas, and a man named Owen Lovejoy. They were on their way to the courthouse at Bloomington, Illinois.

Douglas, known as “The Little Giant,” was about five feet tall with a long body and short legs. Lovejoy, on the other hand, had a short body and long legs. Lincoln, of course, was 6’4”. It must have been crowded in that coach.

At one point, Douglas tossed some shade at Lovejoy, remarking on his “pot belly” and long legs. Lovejoy came back with a barb about Douglas’s vertically-challenged sticks.

Then Lovejoy looked at the future president and asked, “Abe, just how long do you think a man’s legs should be in proportion to his body?”

Lincoln replied, “I have not given the matter much consideration, but on first blush, I should judge they ought to be long enough to reach from his body to the ground.”

And how long should a story be? Long enough to reach the end, and no longer. (Please note, I have not run this theory by George R. R. Martin.)

Which is why I love the novella form. In a brisk 20k-50k, you can grab a reader and deliver a wallop. Did you know that The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain is only about 35k words? Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea has a similar count.

Stephen King has done some of his best work in novellas (e.g., The Body and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption)

The novella really matured during the golden age of the pulp magazines. In the classic years of the pulps, roughly 1920 – 1955, America was awash in inexpensive commercial fiction of all types. These were printed on cheap wood-pulp paper, bound between wonderfully lurid covers. You could buy one of these magazines for a dime or 15¢, and inside you’d have a plethora of short stories and novellas and perhaps even an entire novel (or an episode from a novel in serialization).

A productive pulpster who could deliver the goods could make a living, even at a penny a word.

The novella largely disappeared after the death of the pulps. It was a difficult sell for book publishers who had to price them to make a profit, while bookstore browsers thought they might not be getting enough story for the price.

That didn’t mean the occasional novella didn’t break out (***cough***The Bridges of Madison County***cough***). But by the 2000s there were few being published simply because production costs exceeded revenue.

Now, because of the digital universe, those costs have disappeared, which has brought a revival of novella-length fiction.

Like the one I’ve just published.

Here’s how Framed came about. A couple of years ago I was playing the first-line-game. That’s a creativity exercise where you just come up with great opening lines and see if any of them spark a story idea. I’ve got a whole file full of ’em, some of which have led to published work.

This particular morning I found myself writing It’s not every day you bleed to death.

I had no idea who my character was or how he or she got into the implied predicament.

So I started to play with it. How could this have happened? Was it a suicide or attempted murder? Did my character have a near-death experience? Could he be narrating from the beyond?

I kept asking myself what if questions and writing things down, and eventually came up with an explanation that I liked. And from there I proceeded to develop the story.

I set it aside for awhile as I worked on other projects, then late last year came back to it and finished it. And you know how I knew it was done?

Because its legs had reached the ground. The ending felt just right.

So now, in the spirit of the pulps, I am launching the ebook for just 99¢ on Kindle. I want you to have it. I believe there is a huge market for brisk, suspenseful fiction, just like there was in the 1930s and 40s.

Do you agree?


Short Fiction, Satisfying Endings and Reader Expectations

by James Scott Bell

This month a writer named James Patterson (who has had some lg-bookshots-cross-killsuccess and may break out soon) began a new enterprise. It’s called BookShots. These are to be what he calls “short novels” and what everyone else calls “novellas.”

Patterson, the former advertising man, is nothing if not strategic, even visionary. He is always looking for ways to expand his product line and this plan is brilliantly counterintuitive –– find new places for physical books. 

According to a story in the New York Times, Patterson “wants to sell books to people who have abandoned reading for television, video games, movies and social media.” He wants to write fiction that is “shorter, cheaper, more plot-driven and more widely available” than full-length books. But here’s the part that really intrigues me:

[E]ventually, Mr. Patterson and his publisher want to colonize retail chains that don’t normally sell books, like drugstores, grocery stores and other outlets. They envision having BookShots next to magazines in grocery store checkout lanes, or dangling from clip strips like a bag of gummy bears.

“Those venues are very inhospitable to traditional publishing, but we think this is a type of book that could work very well there,” said Michael Pietsch, the chief executive of Hachette Book Group, which publishes Mr. Patterson’s books in the United States through its Little, Brown imprint. “He has enough recognition that his name can make it work.”

In some ways, Mr. Patterson’s effort is a throwback to the dime novels and pulp fiction magazines that were popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, when commercial fiction was widely available in drugstores.

It’s an ambitious plan, and I doubt any writer except Patterson, backed by mega-publisher Hachette, could pull this off. Maybe Stephen King if he also branded his name as Patterson does. For that is part of the strategy as well:

Hachette is betting that Mr. Patterson is famous enough to overcome … obstacles. The company is planning to publish 21 BookShots in 2016, including thrillers, science fiction, mysteries and romances. The first two, out in June, are “Cross Kill,” a book by Mr. Patterson starring his popular recurring character Alex Cross, and “Zoo II,” a science-fiction thriller written by Mr. Patterson and Max DiLallo. All the books will be written or partially written by Mr. Patterson, except the romances, which will be labeled “James Patterson Presents.”

All well and good. This is a business, after all, and no one has been a more astute businessman than James Patterson. He provides a product. That product entertains. There is an exchange of money for perceived value. And everyone’s happy.

Well, almost everyone. I hopped over to Amazon to have a look at the first BookShot, Cross Kill. Some of the reviewers have a complaint: the ending is incomplete. As one reviewer put it: The story is good, typical Patterson but it ends with a huge cliffhanger and that is what I do not like. … I had expected a short book, like a short story and I liked the idea but now I must say I am disappointed. It would be good if it could be explained where in the Cross Universe these Bookshots fit.

Had the book been advertised as the first part of a serial, all would be well. That’s what Stephen King did back when he and his publisher released The Green Mile. It was done in six installments, and that’s how it was advertised. So readers knew when they purchased one of the short books there would be another to come.

So what does all this mean?

It’s a great new era for short fiction. Short stories (up to 7k words or so); novelettes (7k – 20k); novellas (20k – 50k); and short novels (50k – 70k). You can use these to hone your skills, establish a digital footprint, and make new readers. I’ve been pleased that my series of novelettes about a vigilante nun, Force of Habit, which I did purely for fun, has generated its own little fan base. That’s the pulp fiction idea, and I love that it’s available to us now via direct digital publishing.

But write your stories to completion! No matter the form, the ending has to satisfy the reader. They expect an ending, unless in your marketing you are absolutely clear that you are writing a serial.

I remember years ago when my wife was reading a thriller and kept telling me how good it was. I would say, “But what about mine, honey?” And she’d say, “Shh, I’m reading.”

Anyway, she got to the end and … there was no ending! She was at first confused, then ticked off. I had a look at the book. It was a bit shorter than a “big” novel. And it indeed left off right in the middle of a crucial moment.

Only later did I learn that the publisher had decided to take a “really big” thriller and divide it in two. Their thinking was, “Hey! This is a good novel, and we can double our money by making it two books! The readers will be panting for the rest!”

Only they did not pant. They punted.. They did not want to be “tricked” again. The second book went nowhere.

So don’t treat your short fiction as a throwaway. Over the last few years most of the A-list writers, at the behest of their publishers, have dashed off short ebooks to augment their series or help sell an upcoming release. In several instances these have been less than stellar efforts, garnering a spate of 1-star reviews from fans. Maybe the A-list can get away with it, but the rest of us can’t. We need, more than anything, to establish “trustability.”

So, kids, write the best short fiction you can, every time out. And that means –– unless it’s a serial and the readers know it –– that you give them a satisfying ending.

Have you ever been burned by a story you thought was going to end, but didn’t? Or ended in such a fashion that it ruined all the good stuff up to that point?

And what do you think of this new pulp fiction idea? Do you think there’s a market for it?


Speaking of thinking strategically, if you’d like to pick up a book on how a writer can do that very thing, here it is..


How to Write a Novella

James Scott Bell

One of our regular readers, Elizabeth Poole, left a comment on Clare’s Monday post about prequels and sequels. Specifically, Ms. Poole said, “As a writer, it’s been difficult to find information on writing novellas especially. Most articles I read say ‘it’s like a novel, only shorter.’
Hello, Captain Obvious.”

Well, if I may be so bold as to jump into a phone booth (wait, do they have those?) and emerge as Captain Craft––as well as the author of two currently selling novellas––let me take a stab at the subject.

Yes, a novella is obviously shorter than a novel. A rule of thumb puts the novella between 20k and 40k words.

Here are the general guidelines for writing a novella. I say general because, like all writing principles, they are subject to change. But ONLY if you have a good reason for the exception!

1. One plot

The length of the novella dictates that it have one plot. It’s a too short to support subplots. That doesn’t mean you don’t have plot complications.It’s just that you are doing your dance around one story problem.

2. One POV

It’s almost always best to stick with one point of view. Both of my novellas, Watch Your Back and One More Lie, are written in first person POV. That’s because you want, in the short space you have, to create as intimate a relationship between the Lead character and the reader as possible.

As indicated earlier, more than one POV is acceptable if you have a reason for including it. And that reason is NOT so you can fill more pages.

A modern master of the novella is, of course, Stephen King. A look at his collection, Different Seasons, reveals three novellas written in first person POV. The exception is Apt Pupil, which is about an ex-Nazi’s influence over a thirteen-year-old boy. The story thus has a reason for shifting between these two points of view. However, I note that Apt Pupil is the longest of these, and I actually suspect it’s over 40k words, making it a short novel.

3. One central question

There is one story question per novella, usually in the form: Will X get Y?

In Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King, the question is, will the wrongly convicted Andy Dufresne survive in God-awful Shawshank prison?

In The Old Man and the Sea: Will the old fisherman, Santiago, land the big fish?

A Christmas Carol: Will Ebenezer Scrooge get redemption?

4. One style and tone

There are novels that crack the style barrier in various ways, but a novella should stick to one tone, one style throughout.

In the old pulp days, novellas were common and usually written in the hard boiled style.

My two novellas are done in the confessional style of James M. Cain––the narrator looking back at his past sins, detailing the consequences of same, with a twist ending.

Romance would have a different tone. Ditto paranormal. Whatever the genre, keep it consistent.

The Benefits of the Novella

Digital publishing has brought novellas back into favor. There are some story ideas that don’t merit 90k words, but may be just right for 30k. The suspense story is particularly apt for this form. One of the great masters, Cornell Woolrich, practically made his career on novellas of suspense.

An indie-publishing writer can charge 99¢ – $2.99 for novellas. They can obviously be turned out more quickly than a full length novel.

Some Suggestions for Writing the Novella

1. Make sure your premise is rock solid

You don’t want to travel down the road of a flabby idea, only to find out after 15k words that it isn’t working. Come up with a premise that creates the greatest possible stress for the Lead character. For example, One More Lie is about a man accused of murdering his mistress. He’s innocent of the crime, but guilty of the adultery. A bit of stress, I’d say.

2. Write in the heat of passion

Novellas are great for the NaNoWriMos among us. Getting the story down quickly releases that inner creativity we long for. And there won’t be the need for as much revision as in a novel, which has subplot complications to deal with.

3. Use white space to designate scene changes

Instead of chapters, the novella usually employs white space between scenes. Some writers do break up a novella into sections designated by numbers. That’s a matter of style. Just don’t say “Chapter 1” etc. It’s not necessary and interrupts what should be the flow.

4. Keep asking, How can it get worse?

Whether your novella is about the inner life of a character (as in The Old Man and the Sea)or the outer life of the plot (as in Double Indemnity) turn up the heat on the character as much as you can.

Think of the novella as a coil that gets tighter and tighter, until you release it at the end.

Some Famous Novellas

The Pearl,John Steinbeck

The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

The Body, Stephen King

Double Indemnity, James M. Cain

A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean

Phantom Lady, William Irish (aka Cornell Woolrich)

So what do you readers thing of the novella form? Any favorites?

And you writers out there, have you tackled the novella? Or at least danced with it?