You Are Responsible for Your Stories

I started out writing novels. I feel like that’s true of a lot of writers I’ve talked to. I mean, when I say “novel,” I mean an easily-distracted thirteen-year-old’s version of a novel. Which was…20 pages? But that was a lot to me. And I only kept getting longer, and longer. Then I went to school for writing, and they made me write short stories. I learned to adhere to a smaller structure. But I still longed to write a novel again.

At some point during my education, I remember telling two of my professors that in my opinion, novels were much easier to write than short stories. They booth looked at me as if I was crazy. I attempted to clarify. The way I saw it, a short story, in order to qualify, had to be just that. Short. After about 10,000 words, you couldn’t call it a short story anymore, which meant you were confined to those limits. Usually you had to keep it even shorter, if you were seeking publication. That was torture to me. I wanted room to move, room to play. I could do that in a novel. I could do whatever I wanted. Novels didn’t have length rules, unlike a SHORT story, right?

Five years later, I know how untrue that is. And it all comes down to the fact that the longer a story is, the more of it I have to control.

Most of what I’ve published already has been short stories, so evidently I’ve figured out something about the genre in order to find a modicum of success. And now I’ve spent the last two years writing and polishing a novel under the guidance of my grad school advisors (and, during the past year since I’ve graduated, their disembodied voices in my head). And what I’ve discovered is that novels, in fact, are more difficult than short stories after all. At least for me.

Specifically, I learned something about limits: it’s very dangerous to think you don’t have any. Because what I didn’t realize the first few times I sat down to write a novel was that when I felt I didn’t have limits, I also felt that I didn’t have responsibilities. Writing shorts stories always seemed so difficult because I knew from the get-go that there were responsibilities. I had to keep it under a certain word limit. I had to introduce the main characters and their problem right away. Since there would be no sequels, I had to come up with a solution and figure out the best way to end these characters’ stories forever. Every word had to be perfect, precise. There was no space to waste.

It was pretty silly of me to think the same things didn’t apply to novels.

Novels do have word count limits, especially if your aim is to publish them. Sure, there’s always the 200,000 word debut YA, but that’s the exception. I had to shoot for about 70-75k. Depending on your genre, there is both a maximum and a minimum, and yes, you need to stick to it.

And length, honestly, was the least of my problems. Because what I discovered when I wrote was that it was that with great word count comes great responsibility. For your characters, for their arcs, for the dialog, for everything. And responsibility is probably the best way to describe what I experience: a great, overwhelming sense of it. When I started taking the craft of my novels really seriously, I realized that it meant that I was responsible for the content of every single page. And right now my current WIP is 263 pages.

I’m the boss off all those pages. But when you’re the boss of something, you’re also responsible for it. And if you wanted proof that a story is a living, breathing thing, consider that like a living thing, a story that you haven’t taken responsibility for, haven’t taken the time to care for and nurture and push it to be awesome, will spiral out of control. 

Take responsibility for your story. Be kind to it (and I DON’T mean be kind to your characters), nurture it, and don’t let it out of its room until it’s the best damn story it can be.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Aaron Lieberman
    Nov 11, 2013 @ 21:33:11

    Your intensity, commitment, and sincerity moves me deeply. I celebrate your integrity and your wonderful ness. You rock! Having said that, I wait with bated breath to read your novel.


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