Thursday, October 20, 2011


A Half Dozen Hints for Advancing to Full-Length Books

© Katherine Swarts

Katherine Swarts is a professional copywriter and journalist, founder and owner of Spread the Word Commercial Writing in Houston, Texas. Spread the Word is certified by the Women's Business Enterprise National Council.

Since 1993, Katherine has published over 50 articles in numerous periodicals, including Carus Publishing's Appleseeds, Faces, and Odyssey; Children's Writer (on which see comments in next paragraph); and Christian Home & School. She has also prepared two anthologies for Thomson Gale.

Katherine has a bachelor's degree in English from Austin College in Sherman (TX), and a master's degree in written communications from Wheaton (IL) Graduate School. She has also studied with the Institute of Children's Literature, which publishes the monthly newsletter Children's Writer; two annual market guides; and an annual writer's yearbook.

A list of short-story publishing credits doesn't necessarily mean you're ready to write a book. Before you make the big decision, consider these points. 
Publication in magazines is exhilarating enough; but a book of your own is the ultimate thrill.
One not easily achieved. You can’t train for a marathon by hundred-yard dashes, and you can’t “pad” a short story and call it a novel. Before you take on the “big time,” ask yourself:

1. Are you prepared to take at least a year? A short story may be ready in a week, but a novel is fifty times as long.

2. Are you already writing daily? “Hobbyist” short-story writers may get by on a few days a month. Novelists have to work virtually every day until completion, lest they lose track of their plots (or miss publisher deadlines).

3. Are you prepared for the inevitable periods of boredom? There will be days when your fingers dread the effort to catch up with your brain, when publication seems as remote as the Andromeda Galaxy. If your favorite thing about short stories is their “shortness,” you may not last through a novel.

4. Are you capable of creating complicated problems, many-faceted personalities, and multiple characters? One or two characters with simple plot problems work for short stories. But with a novel, this may mean you run out of story before you have sufficient text for a book. So create a problem that is extremely difficult to solve and confronted by multiple complications. And consider including four or five significant characters. No more than six in anything besides “bit parts,” though, lest readers get confused over who’s who.

Readers get really confused if people are hard to tell apart. Don’t name your characters Louise, Lois, Lee, and Lyle. And for each individual, create (without spelling out dialects) a distinct way of speaking; many manuscripts invite the complaint, “everyone sounds alike.” Review dialogue passages—if you remove all speaker attributions (“Maureen said”), how easy is it to keep track of who’s talking?

(Check elsewhere in “Writing Fiction” for dialogue hints.)

5. Can you accept that plot sometimes defies plans? Say that, three-quarters of the way through, you realize the story is taking a direction that will force you to kill off your favorite character, or change your intended ending. Do you:
  • Insist on doing things the way you planned, making the story sound forced;
  • Go back and rewrite the story—or scrap the whole project for something new—declaring months of work wasted; or
  • Grit your teeth and do things the way the plot demands?
Experienced writers nearly always pick the third option—and nearly always admit their stories are better for it. Are you brave enough to do the same? If not, maybe you’d be happier sticking with short stories, where it’s easier to see the end from the beginning and where major rewrites discard only days of work.

And with a novel, the work doesn’t end even with publication:

6. Are you prepared to help sell your own book? A magazine story rides the periodical’s name to a guaranteed number of readers. A first novel by an average citizen has to sell on its own merit.

Moreover, few publishers have much time or budget for promoting individual titles, so the work falls on the writers. Are you prepared to create and submit press releases, find reviewers and sales venues, and advise everyone to read your book? Moreover, are you prepared to talk about your book, about its plot and characters?

Once your novel does succeed, chances are readers will ask for more—perhaps more about the same characters.


  1. You make some good points. I have done some novel-length works (or for some of them, just about novel length), but I am still having trouble getting past 50-55K words. Going from short stories to novels is not a slam-dunk, but it can be done.

  2. It's true that every writer should write every day. And it takes longer than a week to get there. When I first started writing I thought I'd be done after the first draft...well, joke's on me. :) Welcome back, Joylene! Have a great weekend.

  3. Hi Joylene .. great to have Katharine here again - she has some no nonsense, sensible and plain practical advice .. interesting .. thank you - cheers Hilary

  4. @Jim, hi. Thanks for stopping by. I'm having the opposite problem. I need to cut 25K from my WIP. It's much harder than I like.

    @Laila, when they said write every day, I thought they meant stories. But it turns out blogging counts. Yay.

    @Hilary, thank you for all your support, and for appreciated Katherine's contribution. Have a wonderful day.

  5. Hi ladies!

    This is such a great post! What Katherine is saying here is so true. Many times, a writer's story runs out before the appropriate number of words are reached (that is, enough words to be considered novel-length by industry standards). And it does take daily writing when it comes to a novel.

    These tips are great! Thanks again, Joylene and Katherine!

    And thanks, too, Joylene for commenting on my blog! It's great to see you!

  6. It's true for me...I tell my story in less than 50000 words. How will I ever win NaNoWriMo? I agree padding does make a longer story, but not a better one. Thanks for breaking this down for us.

  7. It's funny... I never did write short stories before I began my novels. Magazine articles and devotionals were my writing roots, and I've still only written a handful of short stories. I've found the principles of good writing apply just as much to them, and although they're shorter than a novel, sometimes I think they can be just as hard to craft.

    I particularly like Katherine's fourth question, because I know it's easy to minimize the necessary conflicts and complexities of an interesting plot.

    Thanks, Joylene and Katherine.

  8. @It's always a pleasure, Lauren.

    @Thank you JQ for stopping by.

    @You're very welcome, Carol.

  9. Much as I love writing short stories, novels are an incredibly appealing brain teaser that entertains me for a long, long time.

    The initial trick for me was in realizing I could write a novel-length work. Once I gained confidence, I learned to relax and allow the story to take shape at its own pace.

    Thanks for the post!

  10. I'm glad you said that, Martha. I've always wondered how short-story writers did it. Then there's me who can't seem to stop typing. My novels tend to be too long, and I'm left struggling to shorten them.

    Thanks for commenting, Martha.

  11. After reading Carol's comment on writing magazine articles, it dawned on me perhaps the reason I write my story quickly is because I "cut my teeth" on writing as a freelance writer. Writing articles for newspapers means cutting right to the heart of the story including all the information for the readers to pick up quickly. (Also the editor chops out any unnecessary parts due to space allowance.) Thanks for allowing me to examine my writing method. Very helpful.

  12. Super post!

    I just killed off a minor character I hadn't planned to. I'd hoped to give him a heroic job in the novel eventually. Things don't always go as planned.

  13. @I know what you mean, JQ. Often after reading a certain post I come away with a better understanding of myself as a writer. Glad Katherine's article helped.

    @Hi Amanda. I love the uncertainty of novel writing too. I'm so sure I have the story down pat in my head ... until I actually start writing. Those little surprises are inspiring.

  14. Many great points! I like the one about distinctive voices...sometimes that requires a lot of rewriting and tweaking.

    And yes, we do have to market our own books!

  15. I'm trying so hard to write every day. I promise my crit partner AT LEAST 50 words a day. And even THAT is difficult sometimes.

    Good tips, as always. Thank you for sharing.

  16. @Laurel, I've become a marketing animal, and I'm not near as good at it as I'd like. But I'm getting there. Thanks for stopping by.

    @And as always, thank you for stopping by and taking time to read my posts, Carol. You are a darling girl.

  17. What a great read! I've never been much of a short story writer, but it's good to know. ;)

  18. One other comment, I have used two different approaches to this.

    With one story, I just added a lot more words, fleshing out the short story to novel length ... not padding as such, just more details about what happens, more background, some more characters, more description. This is what I did that came out as "Magic Is Faster Than Light."

    But another story, I had two shorts with the same character and wanted to expand. Now one short story (edited somewhat) is chapter 1, the other (again edited somewhat) is chapter 4. This provided enough framework to get the novel underway. This was the approach I used that ended up as "Cop with a Wand," due out in April 2012.

  19. Thanks for sharing your story, Jim.

  20. Informative post. I haven't jumped into the novel length story yet, but hopefully one day.

    Karen Cioffi Writing and Marketing

  21. Hi Karen. I'm glad you liked it. Have a great day.


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