I am about to embark, as so many are, on my NaNoWriMo flurry (or slog, as it feels a bit at this point).
2017 will be the first time I attempt to break the 50,000 word challenge into shorter pieces. I won’t work on multiples at once – I’ve never been a particularly adept multi-tasker; I even eat around my plate, one side at a time – and I have determined the approximate length of each story ahead of time.
But it’s got me think about the lengths of stories in general.
- Flash Fiction: 1,000 words (or less, down to old “tell a horror story in five words” challenge)
- Short Story: under 7,500 words
- Novelette: 7,500-17,500 words
- Novella: 17,500-40,000 words
- Novel: 40,000 words and up
I’ve often felt that, the shorter a piece is, the more impact it has to have. I don’t know where I got that, and I don’t know if it’s necessarily true. Pressing myself now to refine that thought, I would say, no matter the length of the story, it has to be well-formed.
To that aim, I am planning to outline all my stories, regardless of length.
Now when I say ‘outline,’ I’m not talking about a detailed, scene-for-scene, APA-compliant monster that I would share with anyone else when done. For me, the outline is “what I know” about a story, in the chronological order I see things happening. It’s as much a note-keeping device as a hole-finder, and a short form discovery writing session. With it, I locate my gaps, fill them in, and keep my story at arm’s length for as-objective-as-possible examination before I begin drafting and lose myself to the individual scenes.
At this point, I’ve arbitrarily decided on lengths for most of my stories based entirely on what I consider “a good length” for what I’d like them to accomplish.
But now I’m staring at one entry: my planned character backstory piece. And I have question marks in the thousands place.
So I suppose in a way I’m procrastinating by writing this post, except for two points:
- I often find I sort out my confusion by typing it out in a way that’s clear enough for other people to read;
- I wanted to add content for the site about NaNoWriMo, anyway.
Thankfully, the wonderful writing podcast Writing Excuses and Mary Robinette Kowal have a mathematical formula for finding the answer to my uncertainty. And now, I get to put it to the test.
In Season 12, Episode 27, Mary provided a dizzying (at first glance, anyway) formula for determining the proper length of a story:
(In English: Add the number of characters and the number of locations. Multiply that sum by 750. Then multiply that number by 1.5 times the number of MICE elements the story incorporates.)
- MILIEU: A milieu story concerns the world surrounding the characters you create.
- IDEA: An idea story concerns the information you intend the reader to uncover or learn as they read your story.
- CHARACTER: A character story concerns the nature of at least one of the characters in your story. Specifically, what this character does and why they do it.
- EVENT: An event story concerns what happens and why it happens.
And yes, there’s a Writing Excuses episode on MICE, too.
Before I sat down to write this blog post, I worried that the formula would not get me the true number I needed, that it would come up short of what this story ‘deserved.’ Which is, largely, a lesson in why I should not attempt to memorize anything, because I left off the MICE multiplication portion. I am trying to cover each of those elements in spades, and before I even run the math I already feel more at ease about the length that this will be determined to merit.
Of course, if one were to aim for the total 50,000 words in the month, they would need to work backward from there, rather than forward from the elements of a story idea.
In a Episode 99 of The Story Grid Podcast, Shawn Coyne detailed the way he would break down 50,000 words into scenes and story acts, following along with the structure he advocates in his book (and throughout the podcast).
I know that, for me personally, when I begin a full-length novel project, I’m aiming for about 85,000 words in a first draft. I also know that every time I edit, I will add a few thousand words to the total length. So last year’s NaNoWriMo was easy for me. I wrote 88,300ish words in 25 days, starting with a well-formed and editor-reviewed outline and the confidence that I had a solid plan.
In horrible contrast to that, this year I was busy right up until this morning, trying to get other projects to their goal lines, and even had to set aside one project in order to not try and figure out everything I wanted to do “on the night.”
Facing down multiple stories, I feel even more ill-equipped and floundery.
But I look at the formula above and I see hope that I have someone’s instructions to hold my hand and guide me through this planning phase. I don’t have to figure out EVERYTHING, because all I need to get started is to identify my characters, my settings, and my MICE elements. By the time I do that, I’ll have my answers on how long the story will be, and I’ll likely have figured out each story’s theme, as well. Instead of a vast no-man’s-land minefield of questions, I have a grocery list of what I need to get started.
Then it’ll be time to get to work.