Tom Fowler

Mystery and Thriller Writer

Category: Craft

Writing a Novella

Not every idea germinating in a writer’s mind is a novel. Some are short stories. One that gets trapped between those two is a novella.

Novellas don’t get a lot of love. Everyone wants to write novels. Readers want to read novels. Some writers will put out a collection of short stories (which I’ve done). Not many will write novellas. I think there’s some unexplored space here.

I think part of the reason we don’t get a lot of novellas is pricing. A lot of traditionally published paperbacks are $9.99. Where do you price a novella? Many are about half the length of full novels, but will the publisher and author make money on a $4.99 book? Probably not. What about $6.99? Would readers think that price is too high for half a novel? This is another advantage for independent authors, in my opinion. If a full novel is $3.99 or $4.99, it’s easy to price a novella at $2.99. The author still makes money, and readers don’t feel like they’re paying too much.

A few days ago, I finished a novella. My goal was 30,000 words, and it checks in just under that. What’s that? You’d like to see the cover? Sure thing!

Confessional novella cover

This novella began its life as a short story. In fact, it was the first short story I wrote featuring my private investigator protagonist C.T. Ferguson. I’ll be honest: the story wasn’t very good. What it did, however, was start me on the road to finding C.T.’s voice, both as a character and a narrator. This novella is a lot different than the original short story, and I think it’s a lot better.

My process was similar to writing a full novel. I start with the story idea, usually know who did it, and know how I want the book to begin and end. Then I make a brief outline, setting out my expected number of chapter and how I think the story will progress over them. It never works out the way I outline it, but my system (if we can call it that) is flexible enough to add, remove, and shift events around. My full mystery novels check in somewhere in the 70,000-75,000 word range. The Confessional is around 29,000 words.

Here’s something that may surprise you: I’m not selling this book. It’s a giveaway, exclusively to readers who have signed up for my mailing list. I’m going to keep doing novellas this way. Each will be set between novels, so this one takes place between The Reluctant Detective and the still-unnamed second novel. Spoiler alert: C.T. survives the first novel, but because this is a series, you probably figured he would.

Now I’m on the hunt for ideas that are compelling but wouldn’t make a full novel. A writer’s work is never done, and we prefer it that way.

What do you think about novellas? Their pricing? Hit me up with questions or comments.

To get your free copy of The Confessional, in your ebook format of choice, sign up here.


Working with an Editor

I’ve written a couple reviews recently, and I’ll have more coming in the near-ish future. What I haven’t done recently is write about writing. Today, I want to share some experiences I’ve had working with an editor. This will be an irregular ongoing series, one I’ll add to when I have new or interesting experiences to share.

First, I think every independent author should hire a professional editor. No, they don’t work for free, but we also shouldn’t expect them to. No one can find all the flaws in their own manuscript. Even if you’re good at proofreading (and I think I am), you’re going to miss things. Your readers will notice them.

I hope your editor isn't like this.

Not how it should go. (Image (c) Nicola R. White)

Additionally, a good editor does more than just double-up your spelling and grammar checker. They’ll also check for word repetitions, grammar issues Word may not catch, genre conventions, character and plot issues, and more. (Some of this approaches a developmental edit, which is separate. But a good editor should be able to tell you if your protagonist stumbles into a plot hole.)

I had an editor for The Reluctant Detective, and it was a great experience. It’s kind of like paying someone to tell you all the things you’re doing wrong. But that’s how we grow as writers. I learned some of the things I don’t do well in the process, and now I know to look out for them in the future. (The editor also told me what I did well; it shouldn’t just be a string of criticism.) Knowing this doesn’t mean I won’t need an editor next time. In fact, I plan to work with the same one again.

Working with an editor made my book stronger. I think you’ll be able to see that when it comes out. You can put my claim to the test and go here to get the first two chapters.

Have any stories about your own experiences? Drop me a line.

Happy writing and editing.

How Important is Setting?

Today, my wife and I took our daughter to see Peter and the Wolf in Hollywood. “Wait,” you may be thinking. “Since when is Hollywood the setting for Peter and the Wolf?”

That’s the point. It’s usually not. But for this performance, it was, and it worked. There were a few changes, but anyone familiar with the story would still recognize it, and the narration and music accompaniment were very good.

That got me thinking about setting. For some books, it’s vital. The Spenser novels wouldn’t be the same if they got transplanted from Boston to, say, Dallas. With some series, the setting almost becomes a character unto itself. We as readers get used to the author describing certain roads, houses, buildings, restaurants, etc. Would Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder novels have been the same in Phoenix instead of New York? Would L.A. Confidential have been the same if it were Memphis Confidential?  You can certainly tell a crime story in Memphis, but not that one. An unlicensed PI could solve cases in Phoenix, but he wouldn’t be Scudder. Someone could write a mystery series set in Dallas, but not the Spenser novels.

Insert tumbleweeds here...

Not the setting of many noir novels.

For other books, setting may not be as important. (Let’s leave out speculative fiction set in author-created worlds; those are obviously hard to relocate.) Maybe it’s a genre thing. A gritty urban fantasy set in New York may work just as well set in Washington D.C. A literary fiction novel may be taken from Portland, Oregon and plopped into Portland, Maine with little loss. The Jack Reacher series by Lee Child is set everywhere. Reacher as a character moves around a lot. One book will be in Europe, and the next will be in some tiny town in the US. And they all work because Reacher (and good storytelling) keeps everything together.

My crime novels are set in Baltimore. I hope I can make it seem like another character in the books, like Parker did for Boston and Block did for New York.

For writers, here are your books set? Could they be set somewhere else? Do you want to make setting more important? Those are things you’ll need to decide. For readers, how much do you value setting? Do you prefer books where the setting is important? Drop me a line and let me know.


The Fumblerules of Grammar

Years ago, the late New York Times columnist William Safire compiled “The Fumblerules of Grammar.” I got reminded of one of them today. If you’ve never seen them, they are hilarious and tremendous. If you’ve seen them before, enjoy another chuckle.

The Fumblerules of Grammar

Sage advice

1. Avoid run-on sentences they are hard to read.
2. Don’t use no double negatives.
3. Use the semicolon properly, always use it where it is appropriate; and never where it isn’t.
4. Reserve the apostrophe for it’s proper use and omit it when its not needed.
5. Do not put statements in the negative form.
6. Verbs has to agree with their subjects.
7. No sentence fragments.
8. Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.
9. Avoid commas, that are not necessary.
10. If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
11. A writer must not shift your point of view.
12. Eschew dialect, irregardless.
13. And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.
14. Don’t overuse exclamation marks!!!
15. Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.
16. Hyphenate between sy-llables and avoid un-necessary hyphens.
17. Write all adverbial forms correct.
18. Don’t use contractions in formal writing.
19. Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.
20. It is incumbent on us to avoid archaisms.
21. If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
22. Steer clear of incorrect forms of verbs that have snuck in the language.
23. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixed metaphors.
24. Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
25. Never, ever use repetitive redundancies.
26. Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing.
27. If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, resist hyperbole.
28. Also, avoid awkward or affected alliteration.
29. Don’t string too many prepositional phrases together unless you are walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
30. Always pick on the correct idiom.
31. “Avoid overuse of ‘quotation “marks.””‘
32. The adverb always follows the verb.
33. Last but not least, avoid cliches like the plague; seek viable alternatives.

The Fumblerules are supposed to be a joke and make you laugh. But here’s the rub: they contain a lot of great grammar advice. As writers, most of these are things we should try our damnedest to avoid doing. While you might chuckle at, say, Fumblerule #28, maybe you’ll recall it when you see a long string of alliteration in your own writing.

Other Fumblerules, maybe attributable to Safire, exist. My favorite of those is “eschew obfuscation.” I saw that on a bumper sticker once. Never have I wanted a bumper sticker more than I wanted that one.

Safire’s Fumblerules of Grammar are concise and excellent to look at every now and again to make sure you’re not falling into bad habits.

I’ll close with this joke I heard about Safire: William Safire walks into Burger King and orders two Whoppers Junior.

Share your own Fumblerules in the comments or via email.

Spring Cleaning Your Stories

I took a couple days off to enjoy spring break with my family (my wife is a teacher and our daughter is off for the week). Like a lot of people, we used some of the time to do some spring cleaning–or, in our case, some spring clearing-out. We have too much stuff and some of it has just got to go.

Early spring is a time many people use to get rid of old or unused things.

What do you do with old stories you never finished?

I have a few (well, presuming we can stretch the definition of “a few” beyond its usual boundaries) lying around. Every now and then, I’ll go back and look at them. The main thing I discover is that I stopped working on them for a reason . . . usually several reasons, in fact. Sometimes, the plot is thin. Other times, the characters aren’t well defined.

Most of the time, though, it’s because the writing makes me cringe.

Sure, I’m reading these with the writing equivalent of hindisight. Presuming we get better at this craft the more we do it, old stories should make us cringe a little. If we can get past the cringing, is there anything we can do with these stories?

I say there is. Read them. Get past the cringing and look at the plot. Look at the characters. Is something usable there? If so, take it and run with it. Come up with a better idea, or make the conflict more apparent, or whatever. But take a good idea and give it a good story.

My mystery novels feature a character born in short stories. While I think most of the stories are pretty bad, what they did was allow me to find the character’s voice. I fleshed out his background and the supporting players. And some of those stories have become the basis of novels. Why? The ideas were worthwhile. I just had to do better with them.

So when you find your old stories and they make you want to cringe, go ahead and cringe. Recognize that you’re a better writer now then when you wrote that story. But don’t throw the story away. Your present better-writing self might be able to take the bones of it and make it into something great.

© 2020 Tom Fowler

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑