Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Is Short the New Long? guest post by Libby Fischer Hellmann

Author Libby Fischer Hellmann, a transplant from Washington DC, moved to Chicago over 35 years ago, where she naturally began writing gritty crime novels. Her 14th book, WAR, SPIES, AND BOBBY SOX, a collection of stories about World War Two on the homefront, will be released March 1, 2017. She has been nominated for a lot of awards in the crime writing community and has even won a few.

Libby Fischer Hellmann
Is Short the New Long?

I’ve never been one to follow trends. When I try, I always seem to catch them just when they’re on their way out. That goes for my writing too. Today’s bulky 400-500 page thrillers are popular, and I envy authors who can write long. I’m not one of them. Here’s my idea of a story:

Well, okay. It’s not that bad. I love creating stories in my head. Figuring out who does what and why. Dreaming up brave protagonists and evil-but- sympathetic villains. That’s the fun part. It’s the writing part that intimidates me. I’ve always felt insecure about the level of my craft, and writing is still the hardest thing I’ve ever done. So I stop when I think I’ve told the story.

The same goes for subject matter and setting. Over the years an enormous body of fiction has been written about World War Two, and I love reading it. In fact, when I recall novels like Nightingale, All The Light We Cannot See, The Book Thief, Sarah’s Key, the Bernie Gunther and Alan Furst crime novels, Unbroken, and The Winds of War, I am gob-smacked by their beauty and power. What could I possibly add?

Still, part of me yearns to write something about that time period, mostly because World War Two was the last era in which there was such clarity between good and evil…such opportunities to create complex, conflicted characters, or explore the timeless themes of heroism, cowardice, and sacrifice.

Another World War Two junkie, herself a prolific reader, encouraged me to try. The very first short story I ever wrote was set in the late ‘30s in Chicago’s Lawndale as the country geared up to fight Hitler. But she nudged me to write more, to go farther. I knew I didn’t have the wherewithal to write about battlegrounds of Europe, Nazis, or the Resistance, but she planted a seed and eventually a story came to me. What if (the two most powerful words for a storyteller, btw) a German refugee was forced to spy on the early years of the Manhattan Project in Chicago? I had been studying espionage techniques for another story, and this was the perfect opportunity to try them out on paper.

But I couldn’t commit to a novel. It was too scary. So I wrote a novella, The Incidental Spy, which begins in 1935 and ends in 1942. It turned out rather well, I thought, so I started to think about a companion novella. I had visited Bletchley Park in the UK and planned to write a novella about spies and espionage across the pond, but it didn’t go well – I just couldn’t make it compelling.

Then, as fate would have it, I was in exercise class when someone started talking about the German POW camp that lay just a mile down the road.

The what? Where?

My ears perked up, and something in my brain clicked. Suddenly I had that feeling that comes to a writer when they know what story they’re going to write next. I started doing research and found that nearly half a million German and Italian POWs were incarcerated in the US between 1943 and 1945. Half a million! That’s all I needed. The companion story to Spy, POW, basically wrote itself. Again, POW was a novella—I told the story in about thirty thousand words. Then I packaged the two novellas together, added the short story I mentioned, and the result is this:

Why novellas instead of a novel? Writing shorter takes enormous pressure off me. Given my insecurities about the era and writing in general, it’s comforting to know I don’t have to sustain a story over seventy thousand words. I can, as Elmore Leonard advised, “leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” I can strip the story down to its essential elements of plot, character, dialogue, and narrative and make sure they work. Plus, I don’t need to do as much research for a shorter story.

In fact, I’m growing fonder of the novella format every day. As a reader, what do you think? Are two novellas as satisfying as one novel?


Judy Guarnera said...

I'm with you. I finished my first novel this past summer and swore I'd never write another. This really upset my husband who likes my work and doesn't want me to limit myself.

I think I have him convinced that writing short stories and novellas will give me the sense of achievement I need. I am approaching 80 and don't know how much time I have left to write. Shorter stuff has a special appeal with that in mind.

I write about social issues, so am planning to finish a number of short stories I have and to put them together in a collection. If I need to continue writing one of them beyond a short, I'll consider a novella.
Thanks for your thoughts on this.

David said...

There's a great feeling of accomplishment when finishing a novel, but I've written five novella-length (25k to 40k) shorts now, and that work has been the most satisfying of all.

Dana King said...

It all depends on the story told. A novella can be very satisfying if everything that needs to be said gets said, and dissatisfying if not, just as a novel can feel padded and bloated. It's all a matter of fittng the story into the proper sized container.

Libby Hellmann said...

Thanks for your comments, all. Glad there's some consensus... I enjoy reading "short" as much as writing it... and with everyone in the world having ADD these days, I wonder why shorter works aren't more prominent.

Dana King said...

I've thought for quite a while now that e-readers will be the best thing that ever happened to novellas. With an e-reader there's no longer so much pressure on the publisher to find a workable price point. People won't want to pay $27.99 for a 95-page book, and economies of scale are a big deal in printing books, even at the single book level, so the publisher can;t make money at, say $13.99. E-books remove all the physical issues (printing, shipping, returns)which means they can pick pretty much any price the market will bear.