Writing Short!

MaryJoPutney_SunshineforChristmas_1400By Mary Jo

More than you ever wanted to know about writing short fiction!

I became hooked on books as soon as I learned how to read, so it's no surprise that when I got a computer, learned word processing, and decided to see if I could write, what I dived into was a book: a full length Regency romance, The Diabolical Baron.

Clearly my natural instinct was to write long.  My Signet Regencies were supposed to be 75,000 words, but two of my first four drafted at about 125,000 words.  Ooops!  Nonetheless, when I was invited to write a Christmas novella for the second Signet holiday anthology, I couldn't resist saying yes, so I had to learn to write a lot shorter.

 

Short fiction comes in all lengths with novellas generally between 20,000 and 40,000 words, and my first novella was contracted for 20,000 words.  That was a lot shorter than I was used to, but I managed to muddle my way through "Sunshine for Christmas."  I was pleased with the result, which gave a happy ending to a lonely secondary character in my novel The Rake

MaryJoPutney_TheChristmasCuckoo800I kept accepting invitations to write novellas and muddling evolved to a better understanding of how to make a shorter format work.  People facing their first novella have asked me how to do it, and my standard reply is that novellas have a beginning and an end, and no middle.

This is good because the dread Saggy Middle is more a danger in longer works.  In a novella, the characters and plot need to be set up quickly, the characters power their way through the conflict, and presto!  There you are at the happy ending. (At least that's the theory. <G>)

Romantic fiction requires emotions, which can be a challenge to develop in shorter works, which is why it's pretty common for the protagonists to have a pre-existing relationship.  They may have been neighbors or childhood friends, perhaps a younger girl looking up to an older boy. Having that prior relationship gives a foundation for the story, which speeds up the plot and can lead to a story line where the characters have to reevaluate each other as adults. 

For more intensity, estranged lovers create lots of drama because the story has to explain why they split up, what their conflict was, and they have to figure out a MaryJoPutney_TheBlackBeastofBelleterre_800believable way to resolve their conflict so they can love their way into their happily ever after. I've used the 'prior relationship" trope a number of times, though more often in novels than novellas.  (Probably the most dramatic of those stories is Petals in the Storm.)

Novella length is long enough for a convincing relationship to develop even between strangers, but there are also shorter formats. Definitions can vary, but a novelette is generally considered to be 7500 to 20, 000 words, a short story would be 3000 to 7500 words.  I'll get to micro fiction later. <G>

As I've indicated, short stories were never my thing as a reader or writer, but one day my editor friend Denise Little emailed to say that she was putting together a fantasy anthology that would involve cats and astrology.  Since we'd shared many cat stories, she thought I might be interested.

510TOVL1+dLI was startled, intrigued, and crazy busy on a deadline, but I'm a sucker for trying something new. Poke it with a stick and see what happens. So that night an idea for a story interfered with my sleep, so I decided to devote the afternoon to discovering if I could write a short story. Three hours later I had a draft for "The Stargazer's Familiar."  It was about 2500 words long, so it fell into the short, short category.  The story was narrated by a rather arrogant but heroic black tom cat name Leo. Denise loved it, and I became an official short story writer with the publication of the anthology A Constellation of Cats.

My stories are always romantic, but not necessarily romances. My Leo protagonist shares the household with the "Exquisite Melisande with her silky white fur and insouciant tail."  (I had no idea that close to 20 years later, a real Melisande would come into my life, though her long silky fur is gray.  She definitely has an insouciant tail, though!) IMG_0488

I think there are more short stories in the genres of science fiction and fantasy and mystery anthologies because romance requires more space for character development. With SFF, a story can be built around an intriguing idea, and in mystery, the trick is to come up with a puzzle that can be solved in a short space.  Character development makes for a better story, but not as much is required as in romance.

I wrote several other very short stories for Denise, and I figured out that a story can be made romantic by an existing relationship, like that of Leo and Melisande, or by two beings meeting and feeling instant rapport and attraction so that the reader knows they'll have a future.  Over the next several years, I wrote a fair number of short stories, usually for fantasy anthologies since I was writing full length fantasy novels at the time.  Someday in the not too distant futures, I'll e-publish a couple of collections of these short works. 

Mischiefandmistletoe-finalThe Word Wenches have done two Christmas anthologies, and with eight authors, individual stories were novelette length.  Stories in our first anthology, Mischief and Mistletoe, had the common elements of wenches and taverns.  My story was a riff on the 18th century play, She Stoops to Conquer, which I've always liked.  The stories in this anthology were fun and all quite different.

Our second anthology was The Last Chance Christmas Ball,  which all eight stories were set around a common event, a holiday ball in LCCB--SMALL Northumberland.  Characters interacted with characters in other stories, which required a LOT of coordination between writers and a stellar editing job by our Kensington editor, Alicia Condon.  Readers loved the interactions. 

As a parallel situation, I've done novellas for two Kensington anthologies more recently, both times with authors Madeline Hunter and Sabrina Jeffries.  As with the Word Wench anthologies, the first, Seduction on a Snowy Night, had a general theme, and it was abduction.  When I started my story (late) my editor reminded me that there was an abduction theme, which I'd totally forgotten about.  I blurted out "the hero kidnaps the heroine's beloved cat, The Panda!"  I have no idea where that came from, but that became the heart and soul of the story.  (Inspiration is always welcome, no matter what the source!) 

For the second Kensington anthology, A Yuletide Kiss, the editor decided that she'd like the three stories to take place at the same time A Yuletide Kiss_COMPin a snowbound inn so the characters would be interacting with each other. As with the Wench Last Chance Christmas Ball, this anthology required a lot more work!  Zillions of email pixels died as we three authors consulted on floor plans, meals, events, conversations, and celebrations.  But once again readers really enjoyed the interwoven stories in the final work, so it was worth the extra work. 

Before I wind this up, here’s the riff on very, very short micro-fiction I promised. There is no better example than this one by Ernest Hemingway, who tells a heart breaking story in six words:  "For Sale: baby shoes, never worn." 

So how do you feel about short fiction?  I think one reason Christmas anthologies are popular is because at a busy time of year, it's easier to find time to read a novella.  Do you enjoy shorter stories, or do you find yourself wishing they were longer?  What are some of your favorite shorter works?

Mary Jo

70 thoughts on “Writing Short!”

  1. Short stories are OK in between novels. My problem is that short stories are usually in anthologies with those of other authors and I find that there is usually one whose stories I skip over. I like collections like Christmas Revels. I try to reread that every Christmas Sunshine for Christmas is such a lovely story. I was so pleased the hero had a happy ending.
    I haven’t seen A Constellation of Cats. I have noticed that a cat usually your novels.

    Reply
  2. Short stories are OK in between novels. My problem is that short stories are usually in anthologies with those of other authors and I find that there is usually one whose stories I skip over. I like collections like Christmas Revels. I try to reread that every Christmas Sunshine for Christmas is such a lovely story. I was so pleased the hero had a happy ending.
    I haven’t seen A Constellation of Cats. I have noticed that a cat usually your novels.

    Reply
  3. Short stories are OK in between novels. My problem is that short stories are usually in anthologies with those of other authors and I find that there is usually one whose stories I skip over. I like collections like Christmas Revels. I try to reread that every Christmas Sunshine for Christmas is such a lovely story. I was so pleased the hero had a happy ending.
    I haven’t seen A Constellation of Cats. I have noticed that a cat usually your novels.

    Reply
  4. Short stories are OK in between novels. My problem is that short stories are usually in anthologies with those of other authors and I find that there is usually one whose stories I skip over. I like collections like Christmas Revels. I try to reread that every Christmas Sunshine for Christmas is such a lovely story. I was so pleased the hero had a happy ending.
    I haven’t seen A Constellation of Cats. I have noticed that a cat usually your novels.

    Reply
  5. Short stories are OK in between novels. My problem is that short stories are usually in anthologies with those of other authors and I find that there is usually one whose stories I skip over. I like collections like Christmas Revels. I try to reread that every Christmas Sunshine for Christmas is such a lovely story. I was so pleased the hero had a happy ending.
    I haven’t seen A Constellation of Cats. I have noticed that a cat usually your novels.

    Reply
  6. Nancy, since cats are generally around my feet and on my desk when I’m writing, I figure they should help pay for their Fancy Feast by becoming characters in my stories. *G*
    I’m glad you enjoy my Christmas stories–I love that I can be as emotional and over the top as I want to be!

    Reply
  7. Nancy, since cats are generally around my feet and on my desk when I’m writing, I figure they should help pay for their Fancy Feast by becoming characters in my stories. *G*
    I’m glad you enjoy my Christmas stories–I love that I can be as emotional and over the top as I want to be!

    Reply
  8. Nancy, since cats are generally around my feet and on my desk when I’m writing, I figure they should help pay for their Fancy Feast by becoming characters in my stories. *G*
    I’m glad you enjoy my Christmas stories–I love that I can be as emotional and over the top as I want to be!

    Reply
  9. Nancy, since cats are generally around my feet and on my desk when I’m writing, I figure they should help pay for their Fancy Feast by becoming characters in my stories. *G*
    I’m glad you enjoy my Christmas stories–I love that I can be as emotional and over the top as I want to be!

    Reply
  10. Nancy, since cats are generally around my feet and on my desk when I’m writing, I figure they should help pay for their Fancy Feast by becoming characters in my stories. *G*
    I’m glad you enjoy my Christmas stories–I love that I can be as emotional and over the top as I want to be!

    Reply
  11. Most of the short stories in my library are Christmas related – because they are easy to fit in in between busy times. My times aren’t as busy now, but I still like to pull them out every Christmas season and read them again.
    My most recent addition is A YULETIME KISS. Reading about all the extra work you had to do (besides write the story) is amazing and makes me appreciate the work even more. And I agree, a short love story works better if the H/h have some sort of prior history. Otherwise, it can seem too rushed or improbable.

    Reply
  12. Most of the short stories in my library are Christmas related – because they are easy to fit in in between busy times. My times aren’t as busy now, but I still like to pull them out every Christmas season and read them again.
    My most recent addition is A YULETIME KISS. Reading about all the extra work you had to do (besides write the story) is amazing and makes me appreciate the work even more. And I agree, a short love story works better if the H/h have some sort of prior history. Otherwise, it can seem too rushed or improbable.

    Reply
  13. Most of the short stories in my library are Christmas related – because they are easy to fit in in between busy times. My times aren’t as busy now, but I still like to pull them out every Christmas season and read them again.
    My most recent addition is A YULETIME KISS. Reading about all the extra work you had to do (besides write the story) is amazing and makes me appreciate the work even more. And I agree, a short love story works better if the H/h have some sort of prior history. Otherwise, it can seem too rushed or improbable.

    Reply
  14. Most of the short stories in my library are Christmas related – because they are easy to fit in in between busy times. My times aren’t as busy now, but I still like to pull them out every Christmas season and read them again.
    My most recent addition is A YULETIME KISS. Reading about all the extra work you had to do (besides write the story) is amazing and makes me appreciate the work even more. And I agree, a short love story works better if the H/h have some sort of prior history. Otherwise, it can seem too rushed or improbable.

    Reply
  15. Most of the short stories in my library are Christmas related – because they are easy to fit in in between busy times. My times aren’t as busy now, but I still like to pull them out every Christmas season and read them again.
    My most recent addition is A YULETIME KISS. Reading about all the extra work you had to do (besides write the story) is amazing and makes me appreciate the work even more. And I agree, a short love story works better if the H/h have some sort of prior history. Otherwise, it can seem too rushed or improbable.

    Reply
  16. Mary T, agreed that if a romance is too short, it’s hard to make the romance believable, but prior relationship history does fill in the gaps.
    As for the shared world of A YULETIDE KISS–if you reread it, you might want to note those character and event and floor plan interactions! It’s quite fun and the results are great, but yes–a LOT of extra work.

    Reply
  17. Mary T, agreed that if a romance is too short, it’s hard to make the romance believable, but prior relationship history does fill in the gaps.
    As for the shared world of A YULETIDE KISS–if you reread it, you might want to note those character and event and floor plan interactions! It’s quite fun and the results are great, but yes–a LOT of extra work.

    Reply
  18. Mary T, agreed that if a romance is too short, it’s hard to make the romance believable, but prior relationship history does fill in the gaps.
    As for the shared world of A YULETIDE KISS–if you reread it, you might want to note those character and event and floor plan interactions! It’s quite fun and the results are great, but yes–a LOT of extra work.

    Reply
  19. Mary T, agreed that if a romance is too short, it’s hard to make the romance believable, but prior relationship history does fill in the gaps.
    As for the shared world of A YULETIDE KISS–if you reread it, you might want to note those character and event and floor plan interactions! It’s quite fun and the results are great, but yes–a LOT of extra work.

    Reply
  20. Mary T, agreed that if a romance is too short, it’s hard to make the romance believable, but prior relationship history does fill in the gaps.
    As for the shared world of A YULETIDE KISS–if you reread it, you might want to note those character and event and floor plan interactions! It’s quite fun and the results are great, but yes–a LOT of extra work.

    Reply
  21. Mary Jo – I love short fiction! I’ve written 40+ short stories myself, but no actual novellas. I think I’ve read all of yours, along with many others. I have at least 75 anthologies, many of which are Christmas-focused. But I’ll be glad to read any (particularly romance) novella, whatever the theme. It’s lovely sometime not to have to read a tome. To know that one can read – and re-read – a tale in one sitting. Looking forward to reading and enjoying many more novellas and other short romance fiction.

    Reply
  22. Mary Jo – I love short fiction! I’ve written 40+ short stories myself, but no actual novellas. I think I’ve read all of yours, along with many others. I have at least 75 anthologies, many of which are Christmas-focused. But I’ll be glad to read any (particularly romance) novella, whatever the theme. It’s lovely sometime not to have to read a tome. To know that one can read – and re-read – a tale in one sitting. Looking forward to reading and enjoying many more novellas and other short romance fiction.

    Reply
  23. Mary Jo – I love short fiction! I’ve written 40+ short stories myself, but no actual novellas. I think I’ve read all of yours, along with many others. I have at least 75 anthologies, many of which are Christmas-focused. But I’ll be glad to read any (particularly romance) novella, whatever the theme. It’s lovely sometime not to have to read a tome. To know that one can read – and re-read – a tale in one sitting. Looking forward to reading and enjoying many more novellas and other short romance fiction.

    Reply
  24. Mary Jo – I love short fiction! I’ve written 40+ short stories myself, but no actual novellas. I think I’ve read all of yours, along with many others. I have at least 75 anthologies, many of which are Christmas-focused. But I’ll be glad to read any (particularly romance) novella, whatever the theme. It’s lovely sometime not to have to read a tome. To know that one can read – and re-read – a tale in one sitting. Looking forward to reading and enjoying many more novellas and other short romance fiction.

    Reply
  25. Mary Jo – I love short fiction! I’ve written 40+ short stories myself, but no actual novellas. I think I’ve read all of yours, along with many others. I have at least 75 anthologies, many of which are Christmas-focused. But I’ll be glad to read any (particularly romance) novella, whatever the theme. It’s lovely sometime not to have to read a tome. To know that one can read – and re-read – a tale in one sitting. Looking forward to reading and enjoying many more novellas and other short romance fiction.

    Reply
  26. I love Christmas anthologies. They make me feel more in the mood for cheer and smiles.
    Thanks for the post.
    Hope everyone is well and safe and happy.

    Reply
  27. I love Christmas anthologies. They make me feel more in the mood for cheer and smiles.
    Thanks for the post.
    Hope everyone is well and safe and happy.

    Reply
  28. I love Christmas anthologies. They make me feel more in the mood for cheer and smiles.
    Thanks for the post.
    Hope everyone is well and safe and happy.

    Reply
  29. I love Christmas anthologies. They make me feel more in the mood for cheer and smiles.
    Thanks for the post.
    Hope everyone is well and safe and happy.

    Reply
  30. I love Christmas anthologies. They make me feel more in the mood for cheer and smiles.
    Thanks for the post.
    Hope everyone is well and safe and happy.

    Reply
  31. What a fun post, Mary Jo! I enjoyed both of the Word Wench anthologies along with many of your longer and shorter works. I do feel a yen now to hunt down A Constellation of Cats!
    Some of my favorite shorter works include
    Courtney Milan’s The Governess Affair which is currently free for Kindle readers.
    Patricia Briggs’ Alpha and Omega novella
    Anna Richland’s His Road Home
    Blonde Date by Sarina Bowen
    Murderbot by Martha Wells
    Penric and Desdemona by Lois McMaster Bujold
    For something totally different (as in not romance at all), I’d recommend Giovanni Guareschi’s Don Camillo stories.

    Reply
  32. What a fun post, Mary Jo! I enjoyed both of the Word Wench anthologies along with many of your longer and shorter works. I do feel a yen now to hunt down A Constellation of Cats!
    Some of my favorite shorter works include
    Courtney Milan’s The Governess Affair which is currently free for Kindle readers.
    Patricia Briggs’ Alpha and Omega novella
    Anna Richland’s His Road Home
    Blonde Date by Sarina Bowen
    Murderbot by Martha Wells
    Penric and Desdemona by Lois McMaster Bujold
    For something totally different (as in not romance at all), I’d recommend Giovanni Guareschi’s Don Camillo stories.

    Reply
  33. What a fun post, Mary Jo! I enjoyed both of the Word Wench anthologies along with many of your longer and shorter works. I do feel a yen now to hunt down A Constellation of Cats!
    Some of my favorite shorter works include
    Courtney Milan’s The Governess Affair which is currently free for Kindle readers.
    Patricia Briggs’ Alpha and Omega novella
    Anna Richland’s His Road Home
    Blonde Date by Sarina Bowen
    Murderbot by Martha Wells
    Penric and Desdemona by Lois McMaster Bujold
    For something totally different (as in not romance at all), I’d recommend Giovanni Guareschi’s Don Camillo stories.

    Reply
  34. What a fun post, Mary Jo! I enjoyed both of the Word Wench anthologies along with many of your longer and shorter works. I do feel a yen now to hunt down A Constellation of Cats!
    Some of my favorite shorter works include
    Courtney Milan’s The Governess Affair which is currently free for Kindle readers.
    Patricia Briggs’ Alpha and Omega novella
    Anna Richland’s His Road Home
    Blonde Date by Sarina Bowen
    Murderbot by Martha Wells
    Penric and Desdemona by Lois McMaster Bujold
    For something totally different (as in not romance at all), I’d recommend Giovanni Guareschi’s Don Camillo stories.

    Reply
  35. What a fun post, Mary Jo! I enjoyed both of the Word Wench anthologies along with many of your longer and shorter works. I do feel a yen now to hunt down A Constellation of Cats!
    Some of my favorite shorter works include
    Courtney Milan’s The Governess Affair which is currently free for Kindle readers.
    Patricia Briggs’ Alpha and Omega novella
    Anna Richland’s His Road Home
    Blonde Date by Sarina Bowen
    Murderbot by Martha Wells
    Penric and Desdemona by Lois McMaster Bujold
    For something totally different (as in not romance at all), I’d recommend Giovanni Guareschi’s Don Camillo stories.

    Reply
  36. I also tend to write long. And as a reader, I was never a fan of short stories or novellas — I’m a fast reader and they were always over too soon. But then I was asked to write one to be in a trilogy with two other writers(one of whom was Wench Nicola). I wasn’t given a word count, so I just wrote my story as it came to me. It ended up at 46,000 words. My editor shrieked and said 30,000 words max, so I had to cut — which I’d had to do to all my other books with that publisher (Harlequin) as well. But despite having to cut, I really enjoyed writing it, and that taught me to like novellas. I also really enjoyed writing the short stories for the wench anthologies. My favorite kind of novella now as a reader is Christmas stories, so it’s not surprising that my first dip into self-publishing was a also Christmas novella.

    Reply
  37. I also tend to write long. And as a reader, I was never a fan of short stories or novellas — I’m a fast reader and they were always over too soon. But then I was asked to write one to be in a trilogy with two other writers(one of whom was Wench Nicola). I wasn’t given a word count, so I just wrote my story as it came to me. It ended up at 46,000 words. My editor shrieked and said 30,000 words max, so I had to cut — which I’d had to do to all my other books with that publisher (Harlequin) as well. But despite having to cut, I really enjoyed writing it, and that taught me to like novellas. I also really enjoyed writing the short stories for the wench anthologies. My favorite kind of novella now as a reader is Christmas stories, so it’s not surprising that my first dip into self-publishing was a also Christmas novella.

    Reply
  38. I also tend to write long. And as a reader, I was never a fan of short stories or novellas — I’m a fast reader and they were always over too soon. But then I was asked to write one to be in a trilogy with two other writers(one of whom was Wench Nicola). I wasn’t given a word count, so I just wrote my story as it came to me. It ended up at 46,000 words. My editor shrieked and said 30,000 words max, so I had to cut — which I’d had to do to all my other books with that publisher (Harlequin) as well. But despite having to cut, I really enjoyed writing it, and that taught me to like novellas. I also really enjoyed writing the short stories for the wench anthologies. My favorite kind of novella now as a reader is Christmas stories, so it’s not surprising that my first dip into self-publishing was a also Christmas novella.

    Reply
  39. I also tend to write long. And as a reader, I was never a fan of short stories or novellas — I’m a fast reader and they were always over too soon. But then I was asked to write one to be in a trilogy with two other writers(one of whom was Wench Nicola). I wasn’t given a word count, so I just wrote my story as it came to me. It ended up at 46,000 words. My editor shrieked and said 30,000 words max, so I had to cut — which I’d had to do to all my other books with that publisher (Harlequin) as well. But despite having to cut, I really enjoyed writing it, and that taught me to like novellas. I also really enjoyed writing the short stories for the wench anthologies. My favorite kind of novella now as a reader is Christmas stories, so it’s not surprising that my first dip into self-publishing was a also Christmas novella.

    Reply
  40. I also tend to write long. And as a reader, I was never a fan of short stories or novellas — I’m a fast reader and they were always over too soon. But then I was asked to write one to be in a trilogy with two other writers(one of whom was Wench Nicola). I wasn’t given a word count, so I just wrote my story as it came to me. It ended up at 46,000 words. My editor shrieked and said 30,000 words max, so I had to cut — which I’d had to do to all my other books with that publisher (Harlequin) as well. But despite having to cut, I really enjoyed writing it, and that taught me to like novellas. I also really enjoyed writing the short stories for the wench anthologies. My favorite kind of novella now as a reader is Christmas stories, so it’s not surprising that my first dip into self-publishing was a also Christmas novella.

    Reply

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