How Low Can You Go? Novels, Novellas and The Renaissance in Short and Micro Fiction

It had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!
(The Shrinking Man)

I’m starting to flex my writing muscles now! As well as working on my novel, And The Buntings Flew, the past few months have been increasingly creative for me; I’ve rediscovered the joy of writing short fiction. I have a couple of stories with magazines right now, and will post links if/when they’re published, but this has caused me to relearn what actually constitutes a “short story”.

When I was younger, the advice for budding writers was, avoid short stories – unless you were already a successful author, short stories simply weren’t something publishers were interested in, as they didn’t sell well. But recent years have seen a resurgence in the popularity of the short story; which is undoubtedly linked to new technology and possibly to our decreased attention spans.

The short story has more platforms than ever with which we can engage; reading War and Peace on our phone or tablet may not be an attractive proposition, and many readers may not wish to engage with 1,000 page epics, with today’s hectic lifestyle that has many tied 24-7 to a Blackberry or to work via emails, but the short story is more manageable in terms of time spent on mobile devices and in terms of attention span. They give us a “quick fix” of literature, in a quick fix, espresso age.

The rise in online platforms for both published and unpublished writers has also exploded, and more writing is “out there” – short stories provide the perfect taster to a writer’s works, and are a useful and easily sampled “try before you buy” for longer works.. Platforms such as Blogs, and latterly sites such as Smashwords,and  Amzon’s Kindle Singles, where authors post short stories from 99p or even in the case of Smashwords, for no charge, have transformed the genre.

So all of this is great news for people like me who enjoy writing and want to make their work quickly accessible, and also to build a reputation. Where I lagged behind was understanding the classification of fiction in terms of length, which have moved apace with the electronic revolution; when is a short story not a short story, but a piece of flash fiction, or a novelette, or even Twitfic?!

Discerning minds need to know, so I’ve listed below the main categories for fiction with some of my favourite examples; which ones do you prefer? It should be stressed however that although stories can be categorised by word length, this isn’t the whole story – the nature and depth of the story being told also determines where the story is most at home, category wise.

The Novel

The novel is generally recognised as being a work of fiction between 80,000 to 95,000 words; furthermore the novel is expected to reflect broad aspects of the human condition. So far so good, although there are broadly accepted variation by genre for the average novel length; for example commercial literary fiction and romance novels tend to be shorter than for example crime and historical fiction.  Literary Rejections has a good summary of these genre guidelines.

“The Hobbit” and “1984” are two of my favourite, typical length novels (80-95,000 words)

The Novella

I wasn’t aware how many of my favourite books were actually novellas until I was writing up this post: most authorities and literary awards define a novella as being between 17,500 and 40,000 words in length.  Based on this criterion, “Animal Farm”, “The Metamorphosis”, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “A Clockwork Orange” are novellas. What these stories have in common, and what defines the novella is that they obviously explore more back story than a short story, but cannot develop themes and conflicts in as much detail as a full-blown novel.  For stories like my favourites listed above, I think the common factor is there is a single vision or message the author is relating, and the concentrated length of the novella delivers this message to us, undiluted by lengthy character development.

The Novelette

The novelette is the baby brother of the novella, or an overgrown short story, based on your viewpoint. Historically, novelettes tended to be seen as trivial stories, mainly romances, but there is now a recognised category for this work, particularly in the Science fiction genre. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America specifies that a novelette is a work between 7,500 and 17,500 words, and has a category for novelettes word lengths as part of its Nebula award. 

I admit, I’ve struggled to find any examples of novelettes that I’m familiar with – most fall between novella and short story; please comment if you can enlighten me!

The Short Story

The short story is generally agreed to be a work between  3000 – 7,500 words, although if flash fiction is generally considered to be from 300 – 1,00 words (see below), in theory the short story is any work between 1,000 and 7,500 words.  Think short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Roald Dahl, Stephen King and James Joyce’s “Dubliners” collection. Online Classics has a great list of 50 of the best short stories of all time you might like to check out.

Flash Fiction

Although the term “Flash Fiction” has relatively recent provenance, very short stories have been around for several thousand years – think Aesop’s Fables, from the first century BC. Flash fiction is a short-short story which still contains the main elements of a complete story, such as a protagonist, conflict, obstacles or complications, and some sort of resolution. In this way Flash fiction differs from a vignette,which tends to concentrate on a given slice of time or an impression of character, or setting.  Flash fiction also differs from the traditional short story in that the limitation on word lengths requires that some elements of the story are absent, or merely hinted at. As noted above the platform for flash fiction has widened enormously with the advent of online and mobile platforms.

I currently have two flash fiction stories submitted to online publications; they’re a great distraction from my longer novel, they flex different writing muscles and they’re a much quicker means to bring your writer’s voice to a wider audience. Which brings us to…..

Micro Fiction

I have to admit this was where I was lagging behind the times, but there are lots of great Blogs out there that helped bring me up to date;  Karen Woodward’s Three Kinds of Micro Fiction introduced me to the Drabble and the Twabble, neither of which I’d heard of before!

The Drabble

A drabble is generally held to be a story of around 100 words or less; the challenge clearly being to write something entertaining and engaging with such a tight restriction. Most prominent in the Drabble genre seems to be Sci-fi, Fantasy and Fan-fic; the Drabblecast on Twitter showcases typical drabble works. Drabble contests often consist not only of a word limit, but also a time constraint. Drablr.com is a site dedicated to publishing 100 word fiction pieces.

55 Fiction

This was another new one for me; a variant of the Drabble, 55 fiction is micro fiction, limited to no more than 55 words. There are fairly strict requirements for a piece of work to be considered 55 fiction in addition to the word count; the story must still contain a setting, at least one character, and an element of conflict and resolution. The title of the piece is usually restricted to no more than seven words. 

Twitfic/Nanofiction

My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!” (The Shrinking Man, Richard Matheson)

And so to the ultimate (so far) in micro fiction. Twitfic, or Nanofiction, refers to stories up to 140 characters; the limit for a single tweet. The need to make ourselves understood in such a small space has given rise to the Twitfic phenomenon; (tiny) bite size pieces of fiction. #twitfic throws up an array of micro fiction, as do many dedicated Twitter pages and websites – Daily Twitfic and Nanoisn.net are two good examples. I haven’t got to grips yet with using Twitter as a communication tool, much less as a story form, but I might have a go; watch this space!

Until we follow Scott Carey, the Incredible Shrinking Man, on his journey to zero, Twitfic/Nanofiction is the smallest category of fiction recognised, but I have no doubt we will see even more compact and bijou literature in the near future!

I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments; what’s your favourite form and length of fiction, and do you read (or write) Flash or Micro fiction?

My Name Is? Character and Place Names in Literary Fiction

I was introduced early on to the importance of names in literary fiction, being a young fan of Dickens – nearly all of Dickens’ character names feel relevant, even if we can’t place our feelings about some of them.  Compeyson, Magwitch, Pumblechook, Orlick – these names are all from one novel, Great Expectations. Other memorable Dickens names include the sinister and monstrous Daniel Quilp,  downtrodden clerk Bob Cratchit, stiff and paralysed Lord Dedlock, and one of my favourites, the memorably saucy Dick Swiveller, who is almost as naughty as Oliver Twist’s Charley Bates, otherwise frequently called Master Bates by Dickens!

Dickens’ character names are often memorable, but apart from sounding “right”, do they have thematic meaning? Nineteenth century literature seems to offer the most evidence for the use of thematically important naming conventions; Thackeray’s Vanity Fair offers us the plodding “anti hero”, Dobbin, the plain and meek Lady Jane Sheepshanks and the morally bankrupt Lord Steyne (pronounced “stain”?) Similarly Hardy gives us Angel Clare, a pure, harp playing man from a clerical family, while Charlotte Bronte names the family who wrong Jane Eyre, “Reed” – are they broken reeds, morally and physically? Jane’s saviours when she casts herself on the world, destitute, have the surname “St. John”.

Such examples seem to dwindle in twentieth and twenty first century literature. Daphne Du Maurier’s Gothic romance, “Rebecca” is often mistakenly believed to be the name of the young narrator, new wife of Maxim de Winter, but Rebecca is actually the first Mrs. de Winter – we never learn the narrator’s name. As the novel is really about Rebecca, this seems fitting; the second Mrs. de Winter is nowhere near as formidable, (and maybe not as interesting either?), as her predecessor, and thus undeserving of a name?

I’ve previously professed my love of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; the Finch surname not only nods to the title, it is symbolically significant – both mockingbirds and finches are small or otherwise vulnerable, yet harmless birds. “Atticus” is probably derived from the famed Roman orator, Titus Pomponius Atticus, known for his just decisions, and friend to Marcus Tullius Cicero, another of Rome’s most renowned orators. Check out, if you haven’t already, two fantastic historical novels about Cicero by Robert Harris -“Imperiumand “Lustrum.” Likewise Calpurnia; the name is most associated with the wife of Julius Caesar, who tries to warn her husband,to prevent his murder.

In my novel And The Buntings Flew, I have used both character and place names symbolically and thematically; the name of the main character and narrator, Purdey, is short for Perdita, which means “lost one” in Latin, and is the name of the the heroine in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” – Perdita is born in a prison;  her father imprisoned her mother, believing her to be unfaithful. Some of these meanings apply symbolically and thematically in my novel. The buntings referred to in the title can refer both to a small bird, the Reed Bunting, which can be found living in marshes and other wetlands, including Belfast Lough, one of the settings in my novel. The other buntings referred to are the small flags which adorned many Loyalist and Nationalist areas of Belfast during the Troubles, the period in which the novel is written.  Look out for other bird character names peppered throughout my book – there are corrs, (a type of heron), jays, doves (Colm) and some which aren’t so obvious; keep an eye out for Sooty Sheerwater!

Lastly, and perhaps surprisingly, I have made reference to biblical stories and gospels for the names of several characters (surprising because I’m a lapsed Catholic atheist who leans towards Buddhism!). The first murderer, Cain, is referenced, as are the two disciples of Jesus who preached a gospel of forgiveness, and in whose gospels the Lord’s Prayer features. Forgiveness and our own trespasses and those of others are also key to my novel; the ethnic and sectarian divide at the heart of The Troubles, although not religious in nature, was broadly drawn along religious divides, so  Christian references felt appropriate.

I have also included one or two references to classical literature and to Irish legend, but I don’t want to give away all my secrets – if you read my book, please do let me know if you pick up on any more!

xx