Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Difficulty of Thinking Short

by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson
One of the first things I hear when people learn that I’m a novelist is “Where do you get your ideas?” Well, duh! The world is full of ideas. I’ve said that many times. Also that a book takes many ideas, but the good thing is that ideas feed off each other. There’s another thing I hear a lot – “How do you write so many words?” That one doesn’t even deserve an answer. Also, “How do you know how many words you’ll need?” Easy answer : As many as it takes to tell the story. (Unless you’re writing for a publisher with strict word-count requirements; I don’t, so that doesn’t enter into my equation.) One of the best analogies of short story vs novel is a short story is drawing a tiny miniature; a novel is painting a mural on the side of a building.

Back to the subject of this blog. I really believe the world is brimming with ideas for books. Where I have trouble – and this is a difficult admission for me to make – is with the short stuff. I had sold two novels to major publishers before I sold a short story. (I am exempting short, factual, business pieces done for my various jobs – they are another animal entirely!) I still am uncomfortable with the short story format, and can generally write half a novel in the same time it takes to get a short story (1) short enough and (2) in a decent enough shape to submit. Some of us just can’t do small! One time a nice lady who was letting me guest blog said in an effort to be reassuring, “Don’t worry – all you’ll need is 350 words or so.” I told her that there were some days I couldn’t say ‘good morning’ in just 350 words! My trip diary from our time in Egypt this March is creeping towards 30,000 words.

A memory – years ago, when I was editor in chief of a multi-magazine publishing house, we were running a special feature for Mother’s Day. Local celebrities were invited to write 250 words or so about their mothers. The idea took hold so that everyone answered, including a few who hadn’t been asked but had heard about it and wanted their mothers included. We decided to use them all (the ones that were marginally literate, that is) but that sent our page count up. In magazines you have to go up four pages at a time, and we had enough to fill three. The ad manager said she’d send the salesmen out again to see if she could drum up some sales. I said I’d write something about my mother – who, incidentally, threatened me with disinheritance if I wrote a word about her. I said we had at least a quarter page to fill, which is a fairly large amount. (All our magazines were tabloid-sized.) She suggested I write about my great-grandmother who came with her husband to the US as a bond servant, and after their time was served were early pioneers of Texas. She lost her husband not long after they came to Texas and was left with a farm and six children under 10. Mother gave me the facts and dates, but said she didn’t know how I would expand that to fill a quarter page.

Well, I started to write and before you know it, I had a full page of copy. One entire page! (Told you I couldn’t write short!) I called the publisher and the ad manager and told them to call off the salesmen. The publisher wasn’t quite sure about this until she read the piece, then she called the layout artist and had this story put on page 3 – the prime spot in the magazines. That story won an award, and that issue was the only one in the magazine’s history that I knew about which sold out entirely. So much for short…

The worst part of short for me, however, is blogging, especially when you blog regularly. My great fear is boring people. I honestly don’t know how people who have their own blogs do it. Unless you’re publicizing a new release, it’s hard to come up with things to say on a regular basis. If you do have a new book out, it’s easy – just talk about it, about how you wrote it, about how it ties in with your other books, about how you came up with the characters, and so on and so on and so on. The only thing is, you can only do that so long before people get bored with a continuing commercial and might start skipping your blog, so why bother having one? Last year, when I was releasing a spate of backlist books (one every two weeks from June 1 to October 31) I was in hog heaven – readymade copy fodder, all different books with different backstories, just waiting for me. Now, though…

I can always do a fluff piece like this one, but don’t know how interesting it is to others. I don’t like to blog about my personal life outside the writing sphere. I probably could, but would be very hesitant about doing a craft or a how-to piece – after all, I’m neither rich nor famous in the writing field. Heck, I’m not even middlin’ or infamous! My books don’t grace the bestseller lists. My royalties have a pathetic lack of multiple zeroes in the final amount. How could I be so arrogant as to try to teach others?

So I will just keep writing novels, putting one word after another, and searching desperately for blog fodder that won’t drive people away. I do warn you, though – whatever they’re about, they won’t be short!


  1. I, on the other hand, have no trouble writing short. I think that talent comes from writing short financial newsletter articles for many years. I've had to teach myself to write long enough to fill a book.

  2. Writing short is not easy. Often readers think short isn't as significant. Actually it's challenging, whether fiction or nonfiction. And like you, I worry that my blogs may bore others. As for yours, I always find them interesting. You discuss things that matter to writers.

  3. I agree. I have a terrible time coming up with blog posts - probably why I missed mine posting time this month.

    Thanks for reminding me I am not alone!

  4. I, for one, found this interesting and just the right length. Have you considered publishing your diary from your time in Egypt?

    1. Sandy, several people have asked me that, and I've thought about it, but I don't have time. It's pretty much stream-of-consciousness and the tenses run all over the place. I write a diary for each trip we take, more as an aide memorie than as anything for publication. It would take very heavy editing ... and censoring, as some of my comments are... well, you can imagine! Thanks for asking -

  5. This was interesting. When I first began writing, my short stories were very short, and my first novel way too long (105,000 words!). Now I have to be sure the short stories don't go too long for most publications, and that my novels are long enough. Go figure. I should probably go write a short article for my blog about this.