Friday, August 4, 2017

Standards And Practices

Do you write to a specific pre-determined manuscript length? Does your publisher require you to stay within a word-count range?

Well, folks, all I have is the one. So far, anyhow. I can elucidate the difference between being self-directed with no limit for my first novel and having very tight constraints on my short story work, of which this year I'll have a few in print.

As Deitrich mentions, the sweet spot I had heard from many sources is over 50,000 words, settling somewhere less than 80,000. I think the anecdote went anything less than 70,000 and editors won't take the book seriously. Anything over 80k and I'd be considered pretentious, or difficult. I remember the notion as bound to perception rather than efficacy. Sure, everyone likes to tell writers it's about quality, but that's as notional as the idea one is a hack. The essential message in all the unsolicited advice was with novels, which no one invites you to write, you have plenty of rope to hang yourself.

I'm slowly developing the courage to crack open the paperback of A Negro and an Ofay and read it cover to cover in order to understand if my novel thrives because of its word count, achieves what it does despite it, or if none of that really matters. I'm also a bit worried so much examination will spoil my ongoing efforts. Folks seem to really dig it, and I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote it. I'd like to preserve that wonderment of experience while also bringing up my long form writing skill. Was fascination with this new thing I was doing the element that made it all work? Analysis being paralysis and all that.

My short story work, on the other hand, always comes with the challenge of an upper limit on word count and adherence to an overall theme. For The Obama Inheritance: Fifteen Stories of Conspiracy Noir (Three Rooms Press, October 2017,) editor Gary Phillips (the great) provided loose parameters: anything you want, so long as it addresses alt-right conspiracy theories and notions surrounding the period during and/or post-Barack Obama's two-term presidency. All contributors were allowed between 5,000 to 8,000 words. My story, Brother's Keeper, is a full swing that catches the Trump administration at impact yet also clips the Obama Administration in the follow-through. I attempt to skewer presidential politics as a whole by supposing a dystopian future governed by a permanently installed Trump oligarchy, which I posited upon our collective love and/or fascination with Obama, suggesting it as the fertile soil that the seed of tyranny could grow. The word count helped me remain tucked-in with my world building and speculative future imaginings. It also kept me from tugging on the loose thread at the hem of my brand-new career too much before the entire fragile affair unravels because I've pissed off everyone.

Then there's Just To Watch Them Die, the Joe Clifford-edited follow-up to Gutter Books' hit crime anthology Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Based on the Songs of Bruce Springsteen. Joe invited me to participate in his new project that explores crime fiction inspired by Johnny Cash songs. You'd figure, in all my unabashed blackness, I wouldn't be such a good fit, but I grew up loving the Man in Black (duh!). His affinity for gospel music, his refusal to allow attitudes of race and class in America to bog him down as an artist, and that conspiracy theory his first wife was black (whaaaaa?) endeared him to many African Americans. Growing up, we had the album he recorded at Folsom Prison in our collection (as well as relatives in prison.)  I think Joaquin Phoenix was robbed for the Oscar for Best Actor. I was all in.

For this joint, I chose the Johnny Cash classic "Don't Take Your Guns To Town" as inspiration for a tale of firearm violence and economic despair among black youth on the South side of Chicago. In the story, I show where these kids' guns actually come from. I then highlight the unlikely souls they destroy. The difference here is my firm upper limit was 3,000 words. There are a lot of writers in this anthology, all of whom represent some stiff competition. I couldn't pass on my idea, so the confines of fewer words than most of my blog posts around here was not just a challenge, but also a pressure-cooker for my writing. Most folks know these are passionate subjects for me, and my views are welled with deep emotion. To be true to both myself and the world that raised me, I made each of those 3k words count. Characterization was where I spent the most. My story isn't about guns, but the people who think they need them, and the people who think they don't. I forewent the world building of my usual style and used landmarks most already know or can easily imagine. Sparse dialogue and few descriptors kept me from turning that live-wire on myself. I think I did a good job. I'll let y'all know when it's coming.

So meeting the requirements and limits my editors and publishers of these fine short fiction anthologies has shown me I can balance their needs with my passionate desires. It's also revealed that I can be sharp and fluid with my work when I have to deliver under a ceiling at a hard deadline. I'll certainly take that valuable insight into my next novel project.

- dg


Unknown said...

Courage to read your own work after there's no going back...I can relate to that. The short stories sound intriguing!...I want to read and write more shorts lately. Also I love the cover of A Negro and an Ofay. Great post.

RJ Harlick said...

You're brave, Danny, to read your book once it's published. I've never gathered up the nerve. I'm terrified I will read too many mistakes. Good post.

James Ziskin said...

Nice piece, Danny. So pleased to be part of this group.

Susan C Shea said...

You're hot with the short stories, Danny. Impressive. The Obama anthology sounds like a fresh idea - leave it to Gary!

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Great post, Danny. And I'm really looking forward to reading your Obama and Johnny Cash stories.

E.A. Cook said...

Great post, Danny. I'm a firm believer that most 400 page stories could have/ should have been told in 150.
A fair share of pulp fiction paperbacks over the decades have been under 200 pages and didn't affect the story's nor the author's desirability one bit.