Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Long and The Short of It

by Janis Susan May

Whenever I am asked to blog, I start to panic. My gracious host/hostess tries to be reassuring and says, “Oh, it’s nothing – just two or three hundred words, that’s all.”

Two or three hundred words? That’s ALL? There are days I can’t convey “Good morning, I would like some coffee please,” in two or three hundred words. Two or three hundred words are nothing.

I suffer from hyper-verbosity, and someday someone should host a telethon for those of us who can’t say anything succinctly. It’s a curse. I had sold two full-length novels before I ever sold a short story – and then it was almost six thousand words long! Give me seventy five thousand words and I start to feel comfortable. One hundred thousand and I’m as happy as a… well, whatever is the happiest you can imagine.

I never cease to marvel at those writers who can condense a world, a story, a relationship and unforgettable characters into just a few thousand words. Category romance writers leave me open-jawed with admiration. Give us both the same characters and set-up; they create a tight little story focused on two people and the flowering of their relationship in just fifty thousand words. I take the same information and eighty thousand words later I’ve woven in not only their love story, but the feud between their grandparents, the history of how their town was settled, why the mayor is a crook and the best way to do laundry in hard water, and am just really getting started! Novellas? I call them chapters.

Someone once said that short stories were miniatures, limned with tiny delicate strokes and that novels were murals, painted with broad brushes. What does that make me? A paint sprayer?

Whatever it is, I like it. I like making the big gesture, telling not only the big story, but all the little stories that make up the big story. Why do certain characters feel that way? It isn’t enough just to state that the hero hates the color purple; to make him real to us we have to know why he hates the color purple. (Make up your own reason for this example – my current hero has no prejudice against purple, at least, not that I know of!)

I’m not saying that writing short is easy; quite the opposite. I’ve tried and I’m not very good at it. I admire people who can, and I know how hard they work at it. One of my dearest friends writes children’s books that run from a thousand to fifteen hundred words. Once I wrote a seventy-five thousand word mystery in just about the same amount of time as she wrote one of her children’s stories. Certainly I typed harder and faster, but I don’t know which one of us worked harder. She is amazed that I can produce so many words and create complex worlds. I am amazed that she can do so much with so few.

See? I told you. This short little blog entry (“… just two or three hundred words, that’s all…”) has already grown to almost six hundred, and I haven’t even begun to write about what I really wanted to say. However, out of consideration to you, I’ll let that wait for another day. Besides, I really do have to research why my heroine’s town’s mayor is a crook and why she has to do her laundry in hard water!

Hyper-verbosity. Someone really does need to do a telethon for us.


Jenny Gilliam said...


If you're a paint sprayer, then I'm an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny paint brush. Because for the life of me, I cannot write more than eighty thousand words a book. I thought my first book was long--it turned out to be a NOVELLA. So, I'm on the opposite end as you. I envy those who can be prolific in their writing, but I imagine there are disadvantages in both. Great post!

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