How Long is a Piece of String?

 

Seaweed tangle on the island of Inis Oirr, Co.Galway

One of the questions most frequently asked in creative writing classes is “how long is a novel/play/short story/screenplay?” And, as is often the case in creative writing, the answer is that there are no rules but… there kind of are.

There is not an official cut off word count for any of the above literary forms but the publishing industry has generally accepted average lengths. Know that just because your word count has hit the “magic number”, it does not follow that you are finished. Apart from the fact you’ll be lobbing off at least a third in edits, you also need be sure that you have brought all the strands of your story to satisfactory conclusion, have made your point and your character has undergone some sort of change / journey / learning arc in the process. Otherwise, to paraphrase Truman Capote, you’re just typing.

What follows is a rough guide/ballpark figure for each literary form:

 Novel

The average commercial novel is 78,000 words in length; this roughly amounts to 300 A4 pages in double spaced twelve-point font. However, a novel can be anything from 45,000 words onwards. A book between 20,000 – 45,000 is usually marketed as a “novella”.

 Short Story

Traditionally, a short story is meant to be read in one sitting. Normally, this narrative form is quite pointed in its message, involves a single setting and few characters. A short story can be anything from 1,000-20,000 words.Writing short stories is a good way of building up your story telling skills, honing your craft as a writer and amassing a writing portfolio. Also, the short story is the literary form favoured by writing competitions. Such competitions usually look for stories in the 2,000-5,000 word bracket.

Flash Fiction

This is the short story’s kid brother. Somewhat akin to the Haiku, a flash fiction story often aims to capture a fleeting moment. It can be any thing between 100-1,000 words. Flash fiction is becoming very popular in competitions these days. Personally, I think this may be to save reading time for judges.

Screenplay

The standard “Hollywood” screenplay is 90 minutes long. Given the rule of thumb that one page equals one minute of movie, you should be aiming for a90-page long screen play. Obviously, this is an approximation.

 TV/Play

Likewise, the page per minute rule applies here too. Bear in mind the slot your are aiming for. commercial TV and radio stations will include advert breaks in their schedule – so a half hour comedy show might in fact be only 22 minutes long etc… If you have a slot in mind, time the duration of the actual show (excluding theme music and commercial breaks.)

 Stageplay

The page per minute rule can roughly be applied to stage plays too. If a stage play were to last an hour and a half, it should be 20,000 words long and span 90 pages.

 Poem

A poem can be as short or as long as you like. A  haiku is traditionally 17 syllables over three line. The Iliad is 25,000 lines long. For the try outs, however, you might aim for two or three verses.


It’s How I Roll, baby

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I’m at my professional best when I’m stressed, with a to-do list in hand and no time to take a break.

We all work in different ways. Some writers need planning and easy, soft pacing. My approach is broad stroke, manic, if slightly anarchic – but I get stuff done. Likewise, we all perform better at different times of the day. Many writers keep their notepad by their beds and make sure that the very first thing they do when they open their eyes each morning, is write, hoping the dream state will have left a creative legacy. The resultant notes are called “morning pages”. Morning pages might contain what a writer remembers of their dreams or perhaps the writer will simply jot down the very first words that come to mind that day. There are writers who say that this exercise helps them ‘slip’ more easily into what writers’ call the “rapture” when a writer feels ideas are pouring into their mind from elsewhere.

Just as the waking moments are a bridge from the sleeping state into sober reality – the hour before you go to bed is often a creative time with the brain slipping into that semi conscious state.  Hence there are plenty of writers who write late at night.

And to show that there are no rules, there are other writers who find their most productive hours are in the middle of the day when all of life’s busyness is in full swing (the Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling is a good example. She wrote her first book in a busy Edinburgh café).

What is important is that you write and that you find your ideal writing time. Experiment. Find what works for you and then set an hour aside each day at that time and write. Likewise, writers have very personal tastes regarding an environment conducive to writing. There are those who like music or TV buzz in the background and those who can only write in silence. Manic or meditative, find whatever works for you.


Saying Goodbye!

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Today, the last of my belongings were moved from my first ever property, a flat in Budapest. It was my first home, and in many ways, my first ever major art project. It breaks my heart see the keys handed to the new owner. However, I hadn’t even been inside the flat since 2009, and it was a headache to manage it from where I live now in the UK. So, when a very reasonable offer came my way, hesitant though I was, I knew I would have been dumb to say no. When it’s time, it’s time. So, today I say goodbye to Baross utca!

Saying goodbye is equally important when you are writing. It’s crucial to know when you’re done writing your particular text, be it a play, short story or novel… there’s only so much mo tweaking you can do, you’ve sometimes just got to say “it’s done” and send it out there. Here are some tips to help you decide if you’re done:

1) Have you read through your piece a number of times, each revision focusing on different aspects (character, theme, structure, tone, language, punctuation, grammar etc…)?

2) Have you shown your piece to at least one person and received informed and HONEST feedback, and have you then addressed any issues that have been highlighted?

3) Are you now re-reading your work, doing nothing but shifting around commas (and back again)?

If the answer to the above is ‘Yes’, then you’re done and the only reason you’re hesitating sending it off to the agent/theatre/broadcaster/publisher/magazine/competition, is that you’re scared of rejection.

Get over that. If you’re going to be a published writer, you’re going to have to suck up a lot of rejection. Be brave. Take the leap. And good luck!


Writin’ in Brighton?

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One of my followers has asked me to let you know about her writing conference and classes in Brighton. It’s such a  cool spot, full of creatives and there’s the sea, the sea, the sea!

See below:

Brighton writing conference Write by the Beach returns in 2017 for a whole weekend of talks, workshops and inspiration. Following on from the sell out success of the 2016 conference the organisers have extended the event, with a jam packed, not to be missed line up.

Held over the weekend of April 1st and 2nd , Write by the Beach brings together a host of industry insiders including agents, publishers and writers, all discussing how to write and how to get published.

Each day will see six amazing sessions discussing all aspects of the writing process.  We will help you with writing the perfect pitch, how to decide on the right form of publishing for you, honing your style, getting your script on air and so much more.

We have a host of industry experts delivery each session, including

  • Bestselling writers such as CL Taylor, Rowan Coleman, Tamsyn Murray and Julie Cohen.
  •  TV and radio royalty such as Sue Teddern (Radio 4),  Pete Lawson (Eastenders) and Karen Rose (Sweet Talk Productions).
  • Top agents such as Louise Burns from Andrew Mann, Rebecca Carter from Janklow and Nesbit, Camilla Wray from Darley Anderson, David Headley from DHA and Jemima Forrester from David Higham Associates.
  • Publishers such as Candida Lacey from Myriad, Xander Cansell from Unbound and Matthew Smith from Urbane.

New to this year’s conference we are also offering every single delegate the amazing opportunity to pitch their work to an industry insider.  Each delegate will get 10 minutes sitting opposite a top agent, publisher or commissioner.  And if you come on both days you get two chances to pitch to two different insiders.

Organised by local writer’s co-operative, The Beach Hut Writers, this is a conference which focuses on what writers want and need to know.   The five writers behind the event are Bridget Whelan, Kate Harrison, Erinna Mettler, Laura Wilkinson and Araminta Hall.

Held in the gorgeous Angel House on Hove seafront, the day runs from 10am-4pm and includes tea, coffee and a delicious lunch.  Tickets can be bought for one or both days, costing £130 for the day or £230 for the weekend.   Please check our website for the timetable for each day www.beachhutwritingacademy.com.  Tickets can be purchased from www.eventbrite.com.


That’s Pathetic!

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What’s happening here? Storm over a street fete in Monte Carlo.

It was a dark and stormy night…

“Pathetic fallacy” is an academic term that refers to the technique of ascribing human emotions to inanimate objects, usually to reflect a character’s mood. For example, say your protagonist falls in love: you might describe flowers laughing and trees waving their branches gleefully. Or perhaps there’s been a death, so the landscape looks bleak and with clouds brewing rain.

“Pathetic fallacy” was very popular with the Victorian novelists – think of Thomas Hardy. Therein, however, lies the problem – “pathetic fallacy” is out of fashion nowadays. This demise of its popularity is partly due to the modern attention span. If you’ve ever read novels by the Brontes, Dickens, Elliot or Hardy – you’ll know all about lengthy landscape description. It’s taxing for modern readers. If you absolutely need to say how each field in the valley looked, then spread your descriptions out over the course of your work. Above all, as Elmore Leonard wrote, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

Another reason “pathetic fallacy” is no longer beloved in the literary world, is that it can seem cliché. If your protag is heading home to see his wife and there’s a storm, and then they fight… your foreshadowing’s is derivative, predictable and boring.

Still, “pathetic fallacy” has its place in the literary toolbox. It can provide emphasis for mood. I suggest using it sparingly, with caution and avoid storm/argument, rain/depression, sunny days/falling-in-love clichés.I like to turn PF on its head; let the trouble come in sunshine or make a storm a symbol of peace. If you use PF, surprise your reader with it.

Oh, and whatever you do, never open with a PF weather report, that’s just pathetic : )


Stranger than Fiction…

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Writers are sometimes the least imaginative people around – we consistently use true stories we’ve been told, overheard or are part of our own histories, as springboards for our fiction. But hey, no one can come up with ideas better than real life.

If you base a story on an event in your own life you can lend your work real emotion to your work, emotion difficult to conjure otherwise. Tears in a writer will bring tears to a reader.

However, real life is often so bizarre that you’ll often have to tone down the story to make it more believable (avoid real life co-incidence stories). Also, a straight account is reportage, not fiction. You need to add colour and description, internal thought and other aspects to make it more real…

You may also have to leave out years of backstory if it does not serve to drive your own story on in any way. You may have been brought up by the funniest, most eccentric, most loving or most dysfunctional family in the world, but if they have no role in the story at hand, don’t mention them.

And remember if you stick too close to the truth, you may be setting yourself up for some legal headaches, especially if you are presenting another person in an unflattering light. It’s best to change names, nationalities and/or genders, and settings. Once you make those factual changes, most people will fail to recognize themselves in fiction, simply because we don’t see ourselves as we are seen by others…

 


Girls’ Night Out

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The inaugural Fizzy Sherbet evening of new writing by women, features my 12 minute play “Lakukuku”. The seven rehearsed readings will be presented at the Hackney Attic on January 24th – if you’re up that way, do come along!


London (and Mayo) Calling

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Exited to learn that the inaugural Fizzy Sherbet evening of new writing by women, features my 12 minute play “Lakukuku”. The seven rehearsed readings will be presented at the Hackney Attic on January 24th – if you’re up that way, do come along!

And, and, and…  A 30 minute play of mine, “The Dog in the Tree House” is a finalist for and will be presented at the Claremorris Festival, Co. Mayo this March (date TBA). By happy chance, I have a two week residency at the Heinrich Boll cottage in Co. Mayo at precisely that time (sweet serendipity) so will definitely be in Claremorris to see the performance.

If any of you are in London, or Mayo, I hope you can make it along!


New Beginnings

2016-12-28-13-27-30Winter sojourn at Tyn-ny-Pant, Builth Wells, Wales thanks to veteran playwright Donald Howarth.

Socially, politically that was a stinker of a year. Selfishly, I have to say that professionally, for me, it was kind of groovy. I had an arts council funded without decor production of my stage play, “Brazen Strap” at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington. A play of mine was workshopped at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. I was a finalist for the Nick Darke Award, the Eamon Keane Award and the Old Vic 12 and was granted a Peggy Ramsay bursary to fund my writing. I had my bi-lingual radio play “Blue King” produced and broadcast in Ireland. I was awarded a two week stay at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre for artists in Co. Monaghan, Ireland. I upgraded on my PhD and I got to spend time in the Loire Valley and Paris. I was promoted to Deputy Literary Manager at the Finborough, and attended a Criterion Theatre course in comedy writing. All of the above brought me into closer and new contact with interesting, talented and inspirational people.

Of course, every year brings its challenges and meeting them with grace is sometimes a challenge in itself! However, I think I’m doing alright – I’ve nurtured my friendships and I think I was there for friends and family when they needed me. So, I leave 2016 feeling good personally, if rather worried about the shape of things to come internationally.

I wouldn’t have achieved anything last year if I had not applied to all sorts of schemes and programmes, competitions and awards, theatres and theatre companies, media houses and arts bodies. It’s important to keep on keeping on. Put your work out there. Be tenacious. Make a plan and if it fails, make another.

Here’s hoping that 2017 will bring many good things, and the strength to deal with what look like bad things, with grace and optimism.


Wrapping the Year

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I’m tying up loose ends, writing missives and emails to friends and organising for the year to come. I’m making plans and carrying over and tallying up – not least my hits and misses on the writing front.

The best piece of advice I can give to a writer is don’t give up. Keep on writing and keep on sending out. The importance of this rule is never more apparent than when I’m looking over my yearly send outs, my applications, my pitches – of which I keep a log. Each story or play or idea or application I send out, I refer to as a ‘ship’ and if I am accepted or shortlisted or granted a bursary etc.. I deem it ‘home to port’, and if rejected, I log it in the ‘sunk’ column. This year 64 ships sunk and 22 came home to port laden with some sort of reward. And, I”m doing well…

Rejections are water off a duck’s back to me. It seems for every four opportunities I approach, one will welcome me, so to hell with the other three and I think it is really the only way a writer can survive.

Keep at it! Don’t let the bastards grind you down. Happy Christmas and wishing you all wonder and health in 2017.

Sue x