Writing at Length

I believe firmly in the idea that one way to learn how to write prose is to write and finish and share a bunch of short stories; you can even try to market them; the rejection of those first few stories is always a bracing experience, letting one know that one hasn’t gotten the hang of the thing. Yet.

Some folks stick with the short format, (in Science Fiction I think of James Tiptree and William Tenn; in the mainstream I think of Raymond Carver), but most branch out and write at longer lengths. Dean Wesley Smith’s thought experiment aside, there are virtually no professional short story writers anymore, and haven’t been for decades, so for those pursuing prose as a paying career, the short stuff is for training and marketing and experimentation.

In Danse Macabre, Stephen King explains why writing short stories, for him, makes no financial sense.

And he’s Steven King.

When should one start writing at length? When should one write novels? As soon as possible. One handy thing about the novel is that, once started, many have a kind of inertia which can keep you writing, carrying you through your first few million words, your first five years, or 10,000 hours of writing. (Gladwell’s Outlier metric for success.)

Really, I think, it doesn’t matter what you write, just that you do write, and read, and get feedback, for 10,00o hours. I do think that short stories have the ability to let one write, and let go, of a lot of things quickly; a novel will hold you, in a tone, in a voice, in a milieu, in your own understanding of what writing is and isn’t. If you are anything like me, and you sucked horribly when you started , it’s best that you pass through a series of mental models for the activity, as quickly as possible.

There is a magic moment, in between writing THE END, and staring at the blank page once again, during which something inside you can shift, recalibrate, reset itself. Every ending; ever beginning, resetting; recalibrating.

You need to get through the “I have a neat idea and the story exists to illustrate it’ phase, the “I have a wonderful plot and a series of robot like characters trapped inside obeying the Plot,” phase, the didactic, “I have a message about how to live” phase, the “playing dungeons and dragons by yourself, the living breathing characters in search of a story” phase, to the integrated phase, where you do all of these things at the same time without really thinking about it.

Because you don’t really write by thinking about it. Writing isn’t really thinking. It’s something else. I’m not sure what.

Writing contains ‘thinking about it’ phases, of course, research and notes and editing, which are all think-intensive activities. But the writing is something else again.

So, Mr. Miyagi has us wax the floor and paint the fence, do All The Things, separately, and then, somehow it comes together in the end and we kick the bully in the face and we triumph and write a book that we sell and live Happily Ever After.

My problem is that I haven’t figured out how to write anything longer than a short story, yet. I’ve internalized a set of rules, for starting the story close to the end, for paring back the list of characters to a few, for revealing worlds in a few choice lines of exposition, and through the Edges of Ideas (I always have to cheat some, and use some exposition, but I try.)

Oh, and by the way, if you haven’t already read the Turkey City Lexicon, please, just go and do that and get back to this if you feel like it.

So, I write, I slip into the dream and I keep waking myself up, my short story alarm keeps going off, saying, “This is backstory. You can’t get to the end in 7000 words at this rate!” “You are spending too much time in someone who is not the protagonist or the antagonist. Stop!”

I’m afraid the only way through it is going to be write a shitload, and throw away half of it.

So. I guess I better get writing.

Wish me luck.

I’m working on my second novella now, God help us. Ms. Williams at Asimov’s told me to write at this length; they publish a lot of novelettes and novellas.

Hopefully, one day, mine.




Posted in Making a Writing Life
3 comments on “Writing at Length
  1. Good post, Jay. I’ve heard of the 10,000 hours of practice, and I do believe in writing every day. But when you look the raw numbers it makes it very difficult for the average person to hit 10,000 hours. Take me as an example (I have good data on this). I write every day (at least, I’ve written for 220 out of the last 222 days for which I have been keeping detailed records). This averages out to about 900 words/day and 40 minutes of writing. Suppose I manage to continue this writing every day. With a full time job, kids, and everything else, I can’t afford much more than 40 minutes, on average. If I wrote every day for a full year, that amounts to 40 x 365 = 14,600 minutes–or 243 hours/year. This is about 1/10th of what I work in my full time day job.

    Okay, so for “success” you need 10,000 hours. So 10,000 / 243 = 41.1 *years* before I’d hit that 10,000 hour mark. Now, I’m not starting fresh, but I also don’t have good numbers for previous years.

    But suppose you decided that you wanted to be a writer at the age of 20, as I did, and suppose you started writing every day. At 20 many people in the U.S. are still in college, and writing more than 1 hour/day is probably not realistic. Assuming 1 hour, you write for 365 hours/year. At this rate, it will still take you over 27 years to reach the 10,000 hour mark. At which point you will be 47 years old.

    My experience is that writing every day is extremely helpful. Writing at length doesn’t matter so much as learning to finish what you start. This allows you to learn how to write a beginning, a middle and an end. Learning how to do that at any length is a big step in the right direction. Short stories allow you to practice the art of storytelling in shorter spurts. Writing at length can do this, too, but if you haven’t learned how to tell a story, you are not doing yourself any favors writing long stories.

    On the other hand, if you write 100 shorter stories (shorter than a novel, anyway) and can sell those stories, you can probably safely transition to longer stories with a reasonable assurance that you know how to tell a story and that the longer piece will sell as well.

    But nothing is wasted. Even the stuff you “throw away” is useful in helping you learn your craft. It’s like learning to hit a curveball. You have to see a lot of curveballs before you get comfortable hitting them.

    • admin says:

      I think that the business writing and all the fiction reading we do also counts, in some way, towards the 10,000 hours. Because it’s vital; the reading anyway. And the ability to communicate in business, in writing, is something we perfect over years of practice, too.

      There may be a co-efficient for these other activities; reading without writing doesn’t teach you much about writing, but mixing the two together, every day… business writing by itself may not do much more than get your typing speed and your grammatical sentence building module tuned up, but… it’s something. Like you say, it all counts.

      We also live, as much as many of us tend to bemoan the present, in a new age of literacy, where everyone writes all the time, in email and text and social media. Some of that counts too.

      But you nail it here, though, 10,000 is a big number. You have the data, and you’re finding success at a tiny fraction of that number.

      What reassures me about the 10,000 number is the notion that we’re not done getting better yet. We’re still growing towards a Beatles like proficiency. That’s a great thing to think about.

  2. Ron Hale-Evans says:

    Jay, don’t worry about hitting your 10,000 hours. As a number, it doesn’t mean anything more than the figurative “thousand pages of shit” you used to say one had to write before writing anything worthwhile.

    In fact, please don’t take anything Malcolm Gladwell says seriously. Here’s a good recent critique:


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