"I'm a very organized and rational and linear thinker, and you have to stop all that to write a novel."
- Hilary Mantel
It's always a pleasure getting to chat with author and social media expert, Jenn Nixon, and author and editor, RobRoy McCandless. Especially when it's about book-writing. We had a delightful half hour of meanderings, banter, and chicanery discussing our writing process, the slog of marketing, and how awesome parents are.
Be sure to check out the latest Mythbehaving podcast on Spotify, featuring yours truly, Jenn, and Rob.
People have a tendency to classify things--animals get tagged and sorted by biologists, languages are divvied up in philogy, geologists spend their days stratifying the earth. Stories, it seems, are no exception.
In fiction, most folks have a ready understanding of what a novel is. On the surface, it might be a thick tome in leather binding or a pulp paperback sitting in a spinner rack, but everyone knows what's going to be inside the covers. A lengthy story with protagonists, antagonists, rising and falling action, a subplot or two, that's going to take the typical reader a few sittings to get through.
But there's a range of shorter fiction writing out there, works that don't run the length of a novel. Over time, there has come to be a commonly recognized delineation between different kinds of shorter fiction based on word count. So we have the ...
Novella: 17,500 – 40,000 words
Novelette: 7,700 – 17,500 words
Short Story: Less than 7,500 words
(* You could add to this list, "flash fiction," which is a short story under 1,000 words)
Most people have a pretty good intuitive idea of what a short story is. It's a piece of fiction that you can sit down and read in one sitting. Usually it will entail no more than 3 or 4 scenes. Rarely will a short story venture far from a primary character (it's a hard trick switching point of view between multiple characters with only a 7,500-word runway). But novellas and novelettes aren't terms that are frequently used outside of writing circles.
Here is what Jericho Writers says about the novella and novelette:
Novellas tend to follow a linear structure with the main action centred on the protagonist's development. This could be an inner conflict that is resolved or simply explored, rather than a series of events. Due to brevity, there isn't the scope for several sub-plots or settings although some elements of the novel may have some complexity.
If the novella is the younger sibling of the novel, then the novelette falls somewhere in between a short story and a novella.
With a word count of around 7,500-19,000 words, the novelette borders both the top end of a short story and the length usually acceptable for a novella. As with the short story and the novella, writers may be constricted in terms of the number of characters they can use and the amount of plot development they can include.
The plot will probably be linear and uncomplicated with few, or no, sub-plots. One or two characters will feature – not a cast of hundreds. It will have a defined focus and will be complete as a story. The novelette enables writers to give more flesh to the bones of their short story, though the writing still needs to be concise.
I've found novelettes and novellas an enjoyable pastime for fiction writing. In fact, that's been my focus lately. Look With Your Eyes was my first published novella. I've had a couple of novelettes included in short story mags. True, these kind of stories don't enjoy the popularity they used to (although trends can always change), but they're so much fun to write. You can experiment, work with off-the-wall ideas you'd never sink into a full-blown novel, because there's not nearly the same time commitment. The focused attention these forms demand is good for me (you can't chase rabbits down holes when you're limited to 50 or 60 manuscript pages).
Stories have always come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Today we have some handy labels to keep track of them.
Apropos of my day job, I was interviewed on the family law podcast, How to Split a Toaster. It was a nice chance to have an informal chat about some of the more important aspects of appeals in family law cases. Who totally deserved to win a "golden panther" award in high school but didn't? You'll have to listen to the episode to find out.
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
- President Theodore Roosevelt (from his speech, "Citizenship in a Republic," delivered at the Sorbonne, Apr. 23, 1910)
Our younger son has gone on a Mad Lib tear lately, where he and I are doing 3 or 4 a day. I had forgotten how much fun these can be. It's not just the liberal replacement of bodily functions for ordinary verbs. It's the whole ridiculous, co-creative process. There's an art to picking Mad Lib words for maximum absurd comedy. You want randomness, of course. But the more specific your words can be, the funnier the result. If you pick "foot" when you're asked for a noun, you might get something funny. But if you pick "my brother's big toe knuckle" for that noun, I can almost guarantee a laugh.
Just for fun (and because we were running out of Mad Libs), I decided to try my hand at authoring a Mad Lib. It's really just an exercise in flash fiction scene writing. You get an idea for a quick scene that will be told almost entirely as exposition; then just remove certain key words. You don't want to overdue the number of blank words or else the underlying story concept will get lost. But you also want to give plenty of opportunities for hillarity. Since our younger son has also been getting into Dungeons & Dragons lately, I decided I'd meld the two interests into the first (of hopefully several) Mad Libs centered around a fantasy roleplaying adventure game that sort-of-kind-of parodies the classic D&D.
He had a ball when I read the responses! So in the interest of spreading the fun, here, good reader, is the D&D-ish Mad Lib yours truly created. Try it out with a friend or family member and enjoy!
CASTLES & CARNIVORES
a Role-playing Game Fill-in-the-Blank
that has nothing whatsoever to do with Dungeons & Dragons or Mad Libs
by Matthew C. Lucas
It's Friday ____________________ [time of day], which means it's time for your favorite weekly ____________________ [noun], Castles & Carnivores. You and three of your ________________________ [adjective] friends have gathered at the Castle Master's, ____________________ [someone's name], house to start a new C&C adventure! There's plenty of ________________________ [food] and ______________________ [drink]. Everyone's got their dice, their character sheets, and their ____________________ [plural noun]. Your three friends already have their characters, a warrior, a wizard, and a thief. Now it's your turn to _________________________ [verb] a character of your own.
First, of course, you have to come up with a name for your ____________________ [adjective] adventurer. After ____________________ [verb ending in -ing] long and hard about it, you settle on ______________________________ [ridiculous, made-up name].
Next, you need to roll __________ [number], __________ [different number]-sided dice to determine your character's traits. You roll the dice and write down the scores on your character sheet. Your strength score is pretty good; but your intelligence score is downright __________________________ [adjective]. Your dexterity, constitution, and charisma scores are all __________________________ [adjective]. What a/an __________________________ [adjective] combination of traits!
Now you have to decide your character's class. What do you want to be? A gallivanting bard who sings magic into being, a holy cleric who can summon the gods? Or perhaps a _________________________ [adjective] ____________________________ [job or occupation] who can _______________________________ [verb]? After talking it over with the CM and your fellow adventurers, you decide that _____________________________ [same ridiculous, made-up name] will be a _____________________________ [job or occupation]. That's just what your party needs to explore the ___________________________________ [adjective] dangers and discover the hidden __________________________________ [plural noun] of the world of C&C.
Last of all, you need to outfit __________________________________ [same ridiculous, made-up name] with some ___________________________________ [adjective] adventuring gear for your first C&C adventure. After rolling a single, __________ [number]-sided die, your CM informs you that you have _____________ [number] pieces of _________________________________ [kind of metal] to buy gear with. You study the list of what's available and buy your character a cloak and a set of boots, __________ [number] feet of rope, a dagger, some torches, a/an ___________________________ [noun], a/an ________________________ [noun], and, most important of all, a polished steel _______________________________ [weapon]. Now you and your party are ready for your first C&C adventure!
The last show my wife and I found that was worth binging was Ted Lasso. Before that, The Walking Dead (the first seasons, not the spin-offs). Before that? I honestly can't remember a show we both felt like we just had to watch. Suffice to say, "must see t.v." is a high bar in the Lucas house. Recently, though, we came across one that's got us hooked. Yes, we're a couple years late to the party, but Only Murders in the Building has got us planted on the couch for two episodes a night, every night, and looking forward to the fourth season.
A washed up Broadway director (Martin Short), a washed up small screen actor (Steve Martin), and an enigmatic, out-of-work twenty-something woman (Selena Gomez) all happen to live in the same tony Manhattan apartment building, the Arconia. Strangers at first, each with their own complicated backstories and hang-ups, they share a love for a certain true crime prodcast, which brings them together. When a young man is found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot in the Arconia, the trio believes there may be something more to his death than what it appears. They team up to investigate and, since the elder thespians have nothing better to do, decide to record their endeavor as a podcast of their own (eponymously called, Only Murders in the Building). Somehow the hapless team stumbles onto clues and make more headway in homicide investigations than the NYPD.
Martin Short is delightful as always; and Steve Martin and Selena Gomez round out the trio with solid performances of their own. What unfolds over the course of the first season is wry and witty and, in places, emotional. It's a great blend of twists and turns that dishes out just the right size of revelations at just the right times.
As to that last point, as a writer, I can only admire how deftly the show paces the reveals--whether it's backstory or new twists or exposition. There's a knack to that kind of pacing, and it's very different than plot pacing. The latter concerns the story's flow (which, ideally, should vary, beat to beat, so that the audience feels compelled to follow along but not exhausted). Revelatory pacing is a trickier thing. A lot of modern fantasy fiction suffers from bad revelatory pacing. So many stories are stuffed to bursting with exposition at the beginning ("Ten thousand generations ago, King Malagascter the Malevolent sallied forth under his dark banner to claim the first of the twelve dragonstones guarded by the Saphire Paladins of Scara Notis, who were captained by the bold Lord Aethelban, sworn to protect it by his family's oath to the Archmage Dzzlbintil'dagon ..."). That's not pacing, it's an info dump. On the other hand, a reader needs enough backdrop and storyline to be able to know who's who and what the stakes are in a scene. Finding the sweet spot where the story unfolds organically and understandably is one of the harder parts of speculative fiction writing.
Though it's neither literature nor fantasy, Only Murders in the Building offers a good glimpse at how to find just the right revelatory pace. I highly recommend the show.
So long, 2023. Hello, 2024. Out with the old, in with the new. Rinse, recycle, repeat.
In the time-honored spirit of new years, here's a look back--and forward--at what I've got going in speculative fiction.
In terms of publication, 2023 was good, though not great. 2021 and 2022 each had a novel. 2023 was a year of shorter works getting published. In something of a first, my weird Florida novella, Look With Your Eyes, was released by Ellysian Press. I also had two short stories come out in two anthologies from Raconteur Press: a historical fantasy, The Ass of Stratford (in I Can Explain Your Honor ...) and a Cormac-McCarthy-inspired humorous action piece, No Country for Dumbasses (in He Was Dead When I Got There ...).
I turned in a pair of novels, though, so 2024 should see some new books coming out. The second installment of Yonder & Far, tentatively entitled "The Tarot Tale," picks up where our favorite fae odd couple, John Yonder and Captain Far, left off on the cusp of the 19th century. More wild adventures, more fortune-telling, more general strangeness in post-colonial Boston. If you liked The Lost Lock, you'll love Tarot Tale. I've also got a stand-alone, low fantasy one-shot tentatively called "God of the Godless" on deck that will be coming out from Montag Press. That one came from a novelette I wrote a while back (Don't Call Me Godless) and I'm very much looking forward to its release.
I also climbed a Mt. Everest of sorts. I had poked and piddled with a weird Florida legal thriller off and one for nearly eight years. Well. This past October, I finally typed "The End" on McJustice. It's the story of a Miami street lawyer on the run from a debt collector who finds himself trapped in a north Florida town where life revolves around a century-long lawsuit, dark secrets, and occasionally murderous alligators. I'm hopeful it'll find a good home because there's a lot packed into it. I've also decided to switch gears back to my first love, epic fantasy. So I've nearly finished an extensive outline (and an opening prologue) for my newest work-in-progress, which, for now, I'm calling The Grenadier. If all goes well, this time next year, I'll have it finished.
I hope your past year was filled with successes and that the one to come brings you all the prosperity and joy you hope for. Thanks for stopping by the blog, and thanks for reading my work.
Today (or more specifically, tonight at 10:27 p.m. EST) marks the winter solstice. It's the day of the year when, even in Florida, sunlight comes at a premium. Old Sol doesn't make it nearly as high in the sky as usual and skirts off into the horizon more quickly than ever. Shadows grow longer. The air grows cooler (yes, even in the subtropics, we get a little chill).
Here's what Almanac.com has to say about the winter solstice:
The winter solstice marks the official beginning of astronomical winter (as opposed to meteorological winter, which starts about three weeks before the solstice). The winter solstice occurs once a year in each hemisphere: once in the Northern Hemisphere (in December) and once in the Southern Hemisphere (in June). It marks the start of each hemisphere's winter season. . . .
This is all thanks to Earth's tilted axis, which makes it so that one-half of Earth is pointed away from the Sun, and the other half is pointed towards it at the time of the solstice.
We often think of the winter solstice as an event that spans an entire calendar day, but the solstice actually lasts only a moment. Specifically, it's the exact moment when a hemisphere is tilted as far away from the Sun as possible. . . .
The word solstice comes from the Latin sol "sun," and sistere "to stand still." So, loosely translated, it means "sun stands still." Why? The Sun's path across the sky appears to freeze for a few days before and after the solstice. The change in its noontime elevation is so slight that the Sun's path seems to stay the same or stand still.
For thousands of years, ancient cultures across the northern hemisphere have marked the winter solstice in December. One of the most famous monuments in the Western world, Stonehenge, was built to commemorate the setting sun on the winter solstice. The ancient Romans threw parties, and hung wreaths, and exchanged candles for Saturnalia, a weeklong feast tied to the solstice. Those who celebrate Christmas with lights in their yard and a bright, merry tree in their family room are, indirectly, observing the winter solstice.
Whatever holiday you may celebrate and however you mark the days, may this day be filled with joy and wonder and light.