Thursday, July 23, 2015
Tomorrow morning: Fresh serial!
First of all, this is all about promoting my serialized novelet, "Silence Like Diamonds," which begins appearing on Friday, July 24, in Light Reading, which is a moderately serious online journal covering the tech-management interface in the advanced communications industry (when it was founded, optical was the hottest area; they've broadened a bit since). So if you'd rather just read some fiction, get on over there; the web link is live now, so you can get a sneak peek, the equivalent of crawling under the tent into the sideshow while the geek is still saying his bye-byes to the chickens.
And with that promotional bit taken care of, I shall now digress all over the landscape of the ruins of my once-active mind, as is my wont.
A long time ago I wrote a long-forgotten blog post about the difference between novellas and novelets. I think it still holds up.
The gist of it is this: the magazine length standard originated back when reading was the main off-work entertainment for a very large (compared to the present) fraction of the population. Fewer people were able to read in the 1910-50 era (though perhaps not as few as some people imagine), but the readers of the time were at least proficient decoders, they didn't have a lot of alternatives, and they read a lot.
So magazines, knowing that they had to produce reliable entertainment to fit into people's lives properly, very sensibly started labeling stories with their length. "Short story"= read at one sitting, i.e. an hour or so. "Short-short," read on your fifteen minute break. "Novelet" or "novelette"* meant "after dinner before earlyish bed or a good radio program," or perhaps "read over a few trolley rides." Novella meant "long Sunday afternoon" or "about a week of commutes."
But the words themselves came from the literary sphere. I guess I'll just quote myself from the earlier post; I don't think I'm going to say it better this time:
Novelet: Novelettes, in the 19th century popular press where the word was popularized, were originally "good parts versions" of adventure stories – all the action scenes (action broadly defined – not just explosions and fights, but also kisses, quarrels, revelations, oaths, all that other stuff that is memorable in a book) with just enough narrative summary between so that the reader could follow the story – lots of do and minimal be. You could call them self-abridgements of never-finished novels, and because they were a way to present blood and thunder in a small package, oriented as much toward pure entertainment as any form ever has been, a stain of disreputability used to cling to the term.
Novella: Novellas, on the other hand, were conceived as a kind of fusion between short stories and novels; their origin is much farther up the brow. A flock of artsy-serious types in the 1880-1920 era thought short-story single powerful effects were great but wanted to do them with novel-like complexity. It turned out you could do that, but it was pretty hard to sustain at the kind of length that you find in Dickens, Thackeray, or Trollope (even Dickens couldn't – A Christmas Carol is a novella).
Novellas became a somewhat awkward form commercially (which only enhanced their prestige) because they made for a too-slim volume for book buyers (who wanted to make sure they were getting enough literature per expenditure) and too long a piece for most magazines (whose readers wanted variety, something harder to give them if you let one novella take up room that could be occupied by five to seven short stories.) It's a heavy-on-the-be form in which a dense structure of meaning is laid onto a few interesting incidentes (sometimes only one). Think of how much The Secret Sharer, Beyond Bedlam, or The Last of the Winnebagos revolve around what it's like to be standing there in the moment when a conventionally honest man makes a self-admitted killer his best friend and confidant, when several people who are by our definitions mad come to realize how much they prefer what we call madness to what we call sanity, or just to be the owner/keeper of one of the world's last dogs and to have to cope with its death.
As longtime readers have probably noticed, I tend to think that the real distinction should not be length at all.
Novelets are about a high speed ride thrill ride in which we skip most of that "makes it real" state of being stuff and just get to the stuff blowing up. Novellas are about a state of being a particular person at a particular time. You can mix them, for sure, but you tend to gain words as you do, and end up at the novel, which is not what I'm talking about today.**
Well, a few weeks ago, Mitch Wagner, who is a general purpose cool guy and one of my favorite editors to work with, called me up with an idea; we hadn't worked together in a while, and he'd come up with an idea for livening up things at Light Reading by adding some near-future hard sf, maybe playing around with some of the ideas that are in the labs now and will be busting out to disrupt all our lives*** The unusual venue and form dictated a few things:
•it would be published in a tech magazine with strict space limits,
•they wanted a serial to keep the regular readers looking in during the slow summer months
•they wanted science fiction to lure more of the techish audience to see what they're doing at Light Reading****
I was apparently a good guy to talk to because I've written a certain amount of science fiction, some of it hard and some of it adventurish, and moreover I'd recently done some tech journalism covering communications issues (example).
So we cooked up the basic rules: Exactly ten episodes, as close to 1000 words each as possible (to be broken someplace very close to the middle), some kind of cliffhanger at the end of each episode, and a fair bit of tech speculation over the whole thing.
And to my surprise, I found that was fun to work within. It's like haiku, sonnet, rondel, sonata, twelve-bar blues, or the well-made play; the form is strict but it somehow pushes you into creating rather than strangles your drive.
Quintessentially, those rules pushed me into a real old-fashioned, literary-not-word-count sense novelet. At least I think so. There's actually enough story rammed into there for a short novel, and I spend as much time in the action scenes as I can make myself do, but the whole thing can be read by a quick reader in around an hour.
At the end of that post a few years ago, I found myself wistfully saying that I wasn't reading enough of the old-fashioned kind of novelets, i.e. the ones where the definition wasn't about how many words, it was about the excitement and the lighting-fast display of exciting scenes.***** And there's an old saying in the writing/publishing business that a writer does pretty well if they write the sort of book they themselves want and can't find. (I suspect this is true if you're always looking for great big romps full of sex and violence. On the other hand if you're looking for the story of a romance between two shy, grumpy, older bus drivers who are running against each other for a position on the board of their church ... well, write it, then. Prove me wrong).
Meanwhile, though, while you're planning Love on the Rush-Hour Crosstown, you might want to go over and check out "Silence Like Diamonds." More about that soon -- along with stray thoughts, math, the usual sort of Approachably Reclusive stuff.
*wonder if anyone spelled them differently according to the gender of the reader, or the protagonist, or the writer?
**kind of like you can mix the energy of garage-band rock and the vocal and production technique of the "American songbook" performers, and where you end up is called pop and it's a whole other subject.
***possibly for the better. I myself am quite fond of horseless carriages, antibiotics, and movies in color.
****quite a lot of good things, by the way; after you finish each episode, take a look at the sidebar -- there's a lot more cool stuff in the future than I had room to put into one story!)
***** in my first draft I typed "the length didn't matter, it was the rapid, intense, continuous motion." Probably should have left it in, but I thought you might be distracted. But isn't distraction the point of entertainment? Is it time for lunch?