Saturday, January 31, 2015

Starting With The Basics - 101

If you are itching to write a story don't let me get in the way. Get that story out of your system and clean it up later. However, while appeasing that itch, there are some things to consider. The first is – How long should it be? That depends on the various types of writing. In this, think fiction, but these types apply to non-fiction as well. They just have different names.
  • Vignette
    • This is a short scene focusing on one moment or gives a sharply defined or clear-cut impression about a character, idea, setting, or object. Liken it to taking a photo, say of a friend. It shows them, their emotion, and what they are doing in one second of time.
      • My dog has leaped into a wading pool, rolled around, and now looks at the people laughing at him with a big, panting smile just before shaking.
  • Flash Fiction
    • This typically maxes out around 300 words, but could go up to 1,000 words. Flash Fiction often contains the classic story elements of a protagonist (this will be explained in a later lesson), conflict, obstacles or complications, and resolution of the conflict. Because of the limited length, the writer is often forced to only hinted at these elements or imply them.
      • See stories by O. Henry, Aesop's Fables, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, and Ernest Hemingway.
  • Short Story
    • The classic definition of a short story is something that should be read it in one sitting. In today's world that could be a lot shorter than a hundred years ago when life was more leisurely. To put a number on it, the length seems to run from 1,000 to 20,000 words. Here story elements have a bit more space to evolve and be filled out. However, if writing for publication, you will find an upper limitation around 7,500 words.
      • I try to keep the story around 3,000 to 4,000 words, but that is a personal preference allowing for expanding or shrinking to appease the publisher.
  • Novella or Novelette
    • This form is longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel. Because of its length the conflicts are fewer than in a novel, but more complicated than in a short story. Where novels are typically divided into chapters, Novellas often use white space to divide sections.
      • The length recognized by publishers tends to be all over the place as shown in the table below. Generally, the Novella falls somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 words.
Nebula Award for Best Novelette
Science Fiction or Fantasy
17,499 or 39,999
Hugo Award for Best Novelette
Science Fiction or Fantasy
17,500 or 40,000
RITA Award for best novella
British Fantasy Award for Novella
Paris Literary Prize
Literary Fiction
Black Orchid Novella Award
Shirley Jackson Award for best novelette
Psychological suspense, Horror, or Dark Fantasy
7,500 or 17,500
17,499 or 39,999
  1. (abbreviated)
  • Novel
    • This is the most familiar form where the writer can go into great detail to describe characters and events, not necessarily in a sequential format. The length starts around 40K and has been known to top out at 2,100,00 words. (Realistically, 300,000 to 500,000 words catches most of the upper end), while more sane novels run about 100,000 words, but the number can vary according to genre. Each November, the Office of Lights and Letters holds an International challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in 30-days. This is not a bad length for a first draft. A novel's finished length is entirely up to the writer who choses over what period of time the story covers and how much detail to include.
      • J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series looks like this:
          Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - 76,944 words
          Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - 85,141 words
          Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - 107,253 words
          Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - 190,637 words
          Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - 257,045 words
          Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - 168,923
          Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Approximately 198,227
My writing career has span some 55 years starting in high school (I was telling stories before that, but they usually got me into trouble rather than out.) Upon graduation, I began professional writing as a cub reporter for a metropolitan newspaper. That style is Vignette or Flash writing. The offerings had to be short and concise so not take up valuable ad space. Looking back, that was a great introduction to writing.
From there, I graduated to short stories, crafting that skill over the next 35-years. Publishers, like newspapers, have only so much space, so I became very comfortable writing a story around 3,500 words. The challenge was when requested to cut the word count to 1,500 to 2,000 words, a great game for testing and sharpening skills.
In 2002 I was encouraged to try a novel. Since then I have published ten novels ranging from 70,000 to 100,000 words.
The point is, don't let your writing jump out of the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby. Start small, learn the trade, and let your abilities grow into whatever size you feel necessary to tell your story.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Fingerprints - Has CSI Been Compromised?

A bit more than a few years ago part of my job included crime scene investigation. Of course, that included taking, lifting, and analyzing fingerprints. The science became a great boon to solving crimes. It still is, but it appears fingerprints can be compromised. A claim has been made that it is possible to re-create a person's fingerprints from photographs. Useful information for those developing a plot. For the entire article see:

Happy writing.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Do Books Need Chapters


 A recent question surfaced during a writer's chat – Are chapters necessary when writing a book. Short answer? NO. The novel is a free form of writing which means exactly that. The author is free to tell the story in any form they want. The caveat is – the reader.

I'll not go into the history of writing. I was not thrilled using leather or papyrus with their limiting space. However, the chapter developed in those days because of space.

There are several reason to break a novel into chapters. One reason most put forth is that they make navigation and place marking easy. My wife is an avid reader, and some books put her to sleep, which of course, generally drop to the floor. Knowing the chapter she has been reading facilitates quickly finding the lost place and resuming the read . . .  until falling asleep again.

Chapters are useful in dividing the action or subject matter. In effect, they become similar to movie scenes. For instance, let's imagine a story with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. We introduce the crime, bring on Holmes & Watson, Holmes investigates the scene, potential suspects are introduced, Watson goes to his laboratory to analyze whatever, the suspects are brought together, and the perpetrator is uncovered. Placing each of these in separate sections or chapters helps the reader navigate through the story.

In a story under construction, changing viewpoint is very effective in describing events leading up to and during a battle. A lot goes on, each element of the action is important to each of the others, like a basket of writhing snakes. Some elements take longer to develop and describe so they become chapters. Other elements are like vignettes, but the reader needs to be alerted to a sudden change in the narrative, thus the use of * * *, ~ ~ ~, - - -, extra spaces, whatever, between paragraphs.

In another novel, the protagonist is introduced, his problem, the reason for running away from home. Some other important characters are introduced/mentioned, and his running away from home. Next chapter – his wanderings in a world away from home, other important characters are introduced, and the discovery of his real problem that puts him at odds with an unknown antagonist. Chapter three – developing skills for survival against the antagonist. It goes up and down hill from there.

In each chapter, there is an obvious change in the action and subject matter. They cover a particular period of time. It is possible to jump ahead or back, depending on the voice chosen for the tale, or switch to the actions of characters away from what is happening to the protagonist.

The key is that the reader should be alerted to these shifts. Yes, readers are generally intelligent enough to figure it out, but they have been conditioned by books, plays, screen, and TV stories to expect chapters and scenes to help them remain organized. Even in longer short stories, it is advisable to denote a break in viewpoint by using a physical notice as mentioned earlier. The reader is then comforted knowing that, “Hey! We're leaving here and going over there.”

A final note. A chapter does not necessarily have a beginning, middle, and end as the completed book does. Also, it can be short (I've seen as little as one paragraph). Interestingly, I have written many short stories where the requirement is about 3,000 to 3,500 words. When doing a novel chapter, guess the length I have unconsciously written? That's not to say there the reader won't find shorter or longer chapters. Word count is only the by-product of what is needed to tell that particular part of the story.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Failing Science Fiction

From Discover Magazine:

“The first teaser trailer for the upcoming film “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” treated viewers to the familiar sights and sounds of many science fiction ideas that moviegoers loved from the original trilogy: a hover vehicle skimming above the ground, a whimsical droid’s beeps and bloops, a shot of X-Wings flying in formation, and the hiss of a lightsaber being revealed. Such technologies have inspired young girls and boys to become scientists and engineers, and have even helped spawn several U.S. military projects. Yet the Star Wars films manage to dazzle us with their technological fantasies without having much meaningful to say about how technology actually works.” (

When the Science Fiction genre came into its own, authors explained how and why things worked, and for this reason I find less enjoyment with many modern stories that are label SF, yet lack this element. Without such explanations does the writing move from SciFi to Fantasy? Are writers' grasp of scientific principles too shallow to meet this requirement? Is that a fair assessment?

So, what exactly is Science Fiction? Turning to Wikipedia, there are a couple attempts to define this somewhat elusive genre. “According to science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, "a handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method." [Heinlein, Robert A.; Cyril Kornbluth; Alfred Bester; Robert Bloch (1959). "The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism". University of Chicago: Advent Publishers.] One of my early mentors, Rod Serling's definition was "fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible." [Rod Serling (1962-03-09). The Twilight Zone, "The Fugitive".]”

I use the term, “elusive genre” because it can be divided into hard and soft categories with a slew of sub-genres. I all too frequently see fantasy stories labelled as SF thus confusing the two. It is important to label one's story correctly if for no other reason than marketing to the right group. Therefore, it behoves a writer to look up each of those genre and understand what they are, and what they aren't.

SF -

Fantasy -

In fact, whatever genre a person writes in, or thinks they are writing in, the writer should become familiar with the definition and parameters. It only takes a few strokes of the keyboard.

If you are interested in writing SF, looking for story prompts, or simply interested in what's happening around you, here's a link to obtain Discovery Magazine in your eMail free: