It’s all about Length

Three years ago, in a fit of beer induced silliness, I told some friends about the great virtues of those who write in newspapers, especially journalists. Irritated by my smug tone, a friend challenged me to write a novel and/or short stories. Her dismissive and derisive tone annoyed me. So, like a fool, I decided to do both, that is, write a novel as well as short stories. The novel has just been published and, if only four of the 20 short stories I have written have been published so far, it is because there is no market for them. Newspapers and magazines in India no longer publish short stories, at least not in English.

It has been an interesting experience. I have discovered that if you plod on at the rate of 1,000 words a day, it is not that hard to produce a novel which, truth to tell, is nothing more than a bunch of fabrications told around a kernel of truth. Ditto for short stories. The publisher who had accepted the novel made a three-word suggestion for improvement: Add 20,000 words. Then a few weeks later came one more suggestion, in six words this time: capture the sense of the times. The book is about Delhi in the latter half of the 1970s. As to the short stories, the Editor was very young and gave me a lot of earnest advice. I ignored most of it.

I chose to write a 250-page novel because I didn’t want to forget on page 300 what I had written about on page 50.

As I trudged along, it became evident to me that both present difficulties of different sorts. The hardest part comes at the very start: Deciding the length. You can write one 800-page novel, or two novels of 400 pages each, or three each of 250 pages. Likewise, you can write a 10,000-word short story or a 5,000-word one, or one of 1,000 words. Or, if you need to, an even shorter one.

I chose 250 pages for the novel because I didn’t want to forget on page 300 what I had written about on page 50. It happens as you age. For the short stories I decided on 1,000 words which has an interesting and illustrious pedigree. John O’Hara wrote hundreds of them for the Saturday Evening Post. I had always wanted to emulate him, and, even if I say so, I think have succeeded just as well in terms of quality.

When the contracts arrived, I found they covered all possible contingencies. These ranged from the publisher acquiring the rights to sequels, movie rights, TV rights, radio rights, and, lest we forget, Braille. There were some other options they took as well. Forty years ago, when I was working in a publishing house, I used to treat authors in exactly the same way. There was special joy in making them forgo royalties, which didn’t amount to much. But still, bullying has its own reward. Now I was at the receiving end.

But seriously, how long or short should a novel and a short story be? Who decides: The publisher, the author or, god forbid, the reader? Fat novels are hard to read because of their weight. Also with other competing sources of entertainment, they are hard to finish reading. A long short story doesn’t quite work. The reader knows it is a short story and wonders why it is going on and on. Many writers join together what are really a series of short stories and call it a novel. I call it the ‘one damn thing after another’ format.

But having been there and done that, I can offer some advice in case you want to write a short story or a novel. Here’s what I think should be done. But remember, you need an iron will to execute the plan. So, first, ignore the publishers. Second, make your novel like a limited overs match or a flight in the way it is laid out — a good start of 50 pages, cruise in the middle and a good ending of 50 pages. And third, if it is a short story, always end it in a surprise. That’s the hard part.

But try it. It’s good fun.

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