By now you should already be writing. You’ll never be a writer if you never write! In your case, Anne, I know you’re already busy working on your first real project. I’ve been reading and nudging you in a few areas, and I’ve already begun to see some growth. Keep it up!
But because you’re already writing, I wanted to take this letter and go over some of the different projects you may choose to do. Being a writer is a very broad term that covers many different writing disciplines. I happen to be in a somewhat unique position, in that I’ve dabbled in most of them…even the non-fiction ones. If you want to try your hand at non-fiction (things like magazine or newspaper articles, how-to blogs, academic papers, etc.), know that those things are a completely different animal than fiction disciplines. I can teach you some of that too, but it’ll be different rules and approaches to things. Just let me know, and I’ll write a letter on those things, too.
For now, I’ll just stick to fiction. The types of creative fiction you might choose to write are, in order of length: epic/series, novel, novella, short story, and flash fiction. There’s also poetry and screen-writing. Poetry I’ve done, though I’m bad at it; screen-writing I haven’t done, though I’d like to try it one day. I have a friends who do both, so if you want more info, I can get it.
I want to talk about the novel first. A novel is a lengthy work, typically between 40,000 and 200,000 words. It is a complete story, with a definitive beginning, middle, and end. It fully develops its main characters, settings, and major events, with a climax just before the end. I’ll talk about all of those different things in later letters, but I list them now because some of the other projects don’t always need all of those things.
Some authors can write more than one novel in a year. Those that do are very prolific at what they do. Most novelists do good to complete one in a year. A novel is a major commitment that takes a lot more time than you think. Many aspiring writers want to start with the novel, and they quickly get so bogged down in the overwhelming task of finishing it that they quit writing.
And speaking of being overwhelmed…those same aspiring writers often have grand ideas of a huge saga or series. These are multiple novels, in some ways self-contained with all the elements I listed for the novel, but they also span over huge story arcs between several books. That’s why I cut the novel off at 200k, because anything larger than that many publishers and editors would recommend splitting into multiple books. Sure, some single novels are that big or bigger. I’ll define those large single volume stories, that probably should be divided as a saga, as an epic. The saga is a multiple volume story, that follows a unified plot. A series is simply stand alone novels (or novellas) that use a recurring set of characters, settings, and/or themes. Got it?
My “novel” that I worked on in high school was supposed to be a three book saga. After college I wrote a stand-alone novel that was the prequel to that trilogy. (Your dad has read it.) But I still haven’t gone back to try that trilogy again…because it’s a huge overwhelming story that I still don’t feel ready to tackle yet.
It would probably do good for you to choose smaller projects for now. Save your grand novel, series, saga, or epic idea for later in your career. You’ll be glad you did.
A novella is simply a short novel. It follows pretty much the same rules as a novel, but on a smaller scale. A novella might range between 8k and 40k words in length. Within that, you could even break it down again, with another category called a novelette, which is even smaller than a novella. To be more specific, some literary awards define a novelette as a work between 7.5k and 18k words, and a novella between 18k and 40k words. Other awards don’t distinguish the two at all. It’s kind of arbitrary, which is why I gave you a general 8k to 40k. So if it’s between 8k and 20k, call it a novelette. If it’s between 20k and 40k, call it a novella. If it’s over 40k, then it’s a novel.
This brings us to the short story. If you’re paying attention, you saw that some works as small as 7.5k can be classified as a novelette. That’s a really small novelette. I’ve read short stories longer than that. In fact, some people just refer to novelettes as long short stories. A short story is usually between 1k and 8k (novelette size), though a short story can get longer in some cases. But at some point you just have to give up on it being a “short story” and just call it what it is…a novelette.
So what’s the difference? I’m not sure there is one, really, but in my mind I like to think of it like this. A novelette has all of the foundational elements of a novel: character development, setting, story development, tension, climax, resolution, etc; just on a smaller scale than a novel. But a short story doesn’t need all of that.
A short story is a specific scene in the life of your character. It’s a snapshot…a moment in time captured on paper. The reader doesn’t need all the exposition details you’d put in a novel…just the important ones to the story. The story doesn’t need as much development, because you’re really only developing one scene and one major character. Short stories tend to focus on emotions or morality rather than fully developing a plot.
I’ve written short stories, but I’m bad at them. I like detail too much and I write on much larger scales to ever be good at short stories. But I have a friend who is a very active short story writer, so if you want some more on that I can get her to write a letter for you.
Finally, there’s flash fiction. Flash fiction is what you call anything less than 1,000 words. At this size, you can’t help but take small snap-shots of what’s happening, and you have to be very clever to get the dramatic elements you need to keep it interesting. Flash fiction can be broken down into other categories, such as: micro-fiction (300 words or less) and nano-fiction (50 words or less). Of course, the smaller the word count, the less details you get to write, and the more clever you have to be to weave a complete story. Try writing a complete story in 50 words or less! It may not be as easy as you think!
Before I end the letter, I want to tell you about two things you might try. First, there’s a thing called fan-fic or fan-fiction. Basically you take the characters and settings of your favorite things and you write your own stories with them. It’s fun and there are entire communities online out there where fan-fic writers get together and share their stuff. You could write a Doctor Who fan-fic, where the Doctor shows up at Hogwarts and takes Dobby to his home planet (because house elves are really aliens). There are no rules on what you can do with fan-fiction! Just have fun! Well…there is one rule. You can’t publish them. 🙁 (Although, there have been cases where fan-fiction was so popular that a publisher changed all the details and published it as an original story. Fifty Shades of Gray was originally fan-fic of Twilight. How sick is that?)
Second, there’s this thing called NaNoWriMo…that’s National Novel Writing Month. It happens in November, when writers all over the world, professional and amateur alike, commit to writing a complete 50,000 word novel during the 30 days of November. You can go to the website and officially register to participate (it’s free) and log your progress along with writers all over the world. Or just unofficially declare your participation. I’ve done the unofficial thing (as a way to try to get motivated to finish the book I was working on) but I never completed the month out. I’ve never won NaNoWriMo. To win all you have to do is finish your 50k word novel and you get to claim yourself a winner. It might be a fun thing for you to try…but it’s a lot of work and it takes a lot of pre-planning before November even gets here.
So there you have it! All kinds of exciting projects for you to try. Let me give you a quick breakdown of them. Remember, the wordcounts are only guides…there’s no definite rule…and some writers may even disagree with me on these definitions. But you’ll probably know what it is you’re trying to write, even if it doesn’t always fit into these wordcounts.
- Epic – A fully developed stand-alone work 200k+ words.
- Novel – A fully developed stand-alone work 40k-200k words.
- Series – Multiple stand-alone novels that use the same characters, settings, and/or themes, that don’t necessarily depend on one another and usually tell separate stories.
- Saga – Multiple novels with the same characters, settings, and/or themes, that depend on one another for a continuing story.
- Novella – A fully developed stand-alone work 20k-40k words.
- Novellete – A fully developed stand-alone work 8k-20k words.
- Short Story – A developed “scene” 1k-8k words.
- Flash Fiction – A developed “scene” 1k words or less.
- Micro Fiction – A “scene” 300 words or less.
- Nano Fiction – A “scene” 50 words or less.
Good luck and go write something!