Size Matters: Novels vs. Novellas, Standalones vs. Series
By Jordan Castillo Price
“Chunking” information is a method we use to recall things. Recalling a random seven-digit number might be difficult, but when we add a dash after the first three digits, it becomes easier. (And have you ever had anyone giving you a phone number pause for breath at the wrong part of it, like after the first five digits? Talk about confusing!)
While chunking is a short-term memory phenomenon, conceptually I chunk my stories in 15,000-word increments. For me, unfolding a story in a series of novelettes is absolutely the perfect way to go. I think that having a single, focused mini-crisis and resolution happen in 15-20,000 words, while maintaining a longer series crisis until the last story, feels exactly right. Because more and more of us are consuming our fiction on e-readers these days, we’re no longer bound to the size constraints inherent in traditional paper publishing. We can create works that are just as long or short as they need to be.
Unfortunately, there are considerations that go far beyond format. Pricing ebooks is tricky anyway, but generally readers don’t want to feel like they’re being strung along with crumbs of a story to inflate the price of the series. If each installation of a series is novel-length, fine. But break up that same story in 20,000-word chunks and it begins to feel like an attempt to milk the market. Even if that’s not the author’s intent at all.
There’s also the matter of resolution. I’ve discovered that many readers in M/M want all conflict to be resolved at the end of a book, even if there’s a followup planned. As a storyteller, this is distressing to me, because when everything’s resolved in one book…that’s a standalone. Trump up a new conflict for the subsequent book and it feels contrived.
It’s a catch-22 situation. Series sell better. Readers want to fall in love with characters and watch them develop and unfold over the course of many, many scenes. Yet often readers are vocally dissatisfied if conflict isn’t entirely resolved.
For writers, I don’t think there’s any good answer for this. Once all conflict is resolved, there’s no reason to continue the series. You can try introducing new conflict, but eventually you’ll jump the shark—and no one wants to hear “…and this is the book where the series started to suck.”
Meatworks was a story that took me several years to write, and originally, I planned it as a novelette series. But then I decided I’d be shooting myself in the foot if I didn’t give my Meatworks characters a big ol’ resolution. Now I see this was a good choice. I was already pushing a lot of limits by making the main character a total bastard. I think stringing out the story over the course of several novelettes would have made it even less palatable, since the lightbulb doesn’t go on for my protagonist until the very end. Also, when I combined the novelettes, I realized that there was some resolution I’d built into the middle that would actually work much better at the very end. So the structure then shifted. Without the need for mini-resolutions, I was able to plunge the story even deeper into the black pit of conflict and despair.
So Meatworks became a standalone. And while my series are far more popular than my standalones, I’ve already had a few new-to-me readers say that this will be their gateway JCP novel.
They’re in for a wild ride.
“You’re here for the meeting? It’s supposed to start at seven. And you are?”
“Me? I’m Desmond Poole.”
“Hi, Desmond. I’m Pam Steiner. Come in, make sure you close the door behind you.”
Nah, I figured I’d just let it rain in. I forced a smile. Baring my teeth probably wouldn’t fool anyone, but I couldn’t afford to make a new enemy.
My hostess Pam, a thirtyish chick with sandy, blunt-cut hair and a painfully earnest face, smiled in return. Her smile looked as forced as mine felt.
“I can take your coat. Shoes go there.” She took my wet jacket and pointed to a pile of shoes beside the door. Most of the shoes were in pairs. But a few of them were single.
Gah. I knew the support group was a shitty idea. “I’m gonna leave my shoes on.”
“Oh, is it an issue with your prosthetic? I thought it was your arm, not your leg.”
How she could say the P-word without gagging on it was beyond me. My arm felt like it was full of lead weights. Even though the thing stuck to the end of it supposedly weighed less than my original arm had.
“No, it’s an issue with my…socks.”
“I’m sorry. I just had the hardwood floors waxed last week, is all.”
Pam stood, blocking the doorway from me and effectively trapping me in the front hall until I relinquished my shoes, which would mean being stuck in my socks—and that meant no quick getaway. I considered grabbing my jacket away from her and sprinting out the door. But this was my last chance to prove I’d done the mandatory “sharing” that would help me “heal.”
Like I’d ever heal.
Unfortunately, my social worker said if I kept cutting class, Social Services would stop cutting checks.
Pam clutched my jacket harder. I could wrestle her for it, but half a foot shorter, thirty pounds lighter or not, it was a good possibility that she had a robo-arm too. I didn’t know that for a fact, since one of her hands was currently hidden, with my leather jacket draped over it. But come on, why else was Gimp Group being held at her house? If she did have a robo-arm, it’d be just as strong as mine. Plus, she’d probably have a lot better control over hers than I did, given that for the past three months, I’d been doing my best to pretend the hunk of junk on the end of my stump didn’t exist. Meanwhile, she’d been hanging balloons off her porch light, dusting off the folding chairs, and laying out a spread of stale cookies and decaf.
I bent, untied my combat boots with my real hand, and slipped them off. Pam was smiling harder when I straightened up. “Okay, then. You’re the last one on the list. Shake hands with the housebot and we can get started.”
“I’ll take a pass.”
Pam looked at me like I was nuts. If I didn’t “shake” with the housebot, how would it be able to add my temperature preferences to those of the group and adjust the HVAC system accordingly? And the lighting system? And the music mix? While my own preference for old school punk usually resulted in some bizarre selections when I mingled with a group of more conservative folk, and the housebot averaged our musical taste into something that all of us could snigger at…I’d been less than enthused lately about baring my soul to just any old piece of machinery. “If you don’t scan in,” Pam said, “your social worker won’t know you made it to the meeting.” She gave a little nervous chuckle.
“Besides, if you don’t scan in, you could be anybody, and I wouldn’t know the difference.”
Did I even know anyone who’d be willing to pretend to be me? Maybe someone from the gin mill who wouldn’t mind an easy twenty bucks. Too bad none of ’em were gimps. “I’ll show you my I.D.”
“Theoretically, I mean. I don’t actually think you’re lying about who you—”
“Couldn’t you just call him or something?”
“Call your social worker? On the telephone? I don’t think I even have his number.” I did, but I was busy convincing myself I’d forgotten it. Pam hugged my jacket to her chest as if by doing so, she could vicariously comfort me. She lowered her voice so that she sounded very confidential and concerned, and said, “Is it some sort of phobia?”
“Something like that.”
A muscle twitched in my neck, and my robo-arm flung its fingers wide, like it was so happy to meet Pam it wanted to slip her an exuberant wave whether or not my shoulder chose to get into the act. I ignored it.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “it’s totally safe. There are no moving parts in the scanner. Not one. And I just upgraded a few months ago. It’s very fast. You’ll have your hand back before you know it.”
I would not have my hand back before I knew it. I would not have my hand back, ever. It was an effort not to say as much. Hell, it was an effort not to scream it at the top of my lungs. But I couldn’t take the chance that Pam might decide to actually figure out how to use her phone and tattle on me to my social worker if I started acting like a prick, so I kept my mouth shut and let the fucking housebot scan my remaining hand.
It wasn’t that I was afraid of the dumb thing—I’d repaired enough of them to know there were no moving parts—it was the principle. Can’t a guy go somewhere without being read? What if I want to sweat for a change—or shiver? What if I’m in the mood for some country and western? What if I want to tell my social worker where I’ve been and have him take my word for it?
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Desmond Poole is damaged in more ways than one. If he was an underachiever before, he’s entirely useless now that he’s lost his right hand. He spends his time drowning his sorrows in vodka while he deliberately blows off the training that would help him master his new prosthetic. Social Services seems determined to try and stop him from wallowing in his own filth, so he’s forced to attend an amputee support group. He expects nothing more than stale cookies, tepid decaf and a bunch of self-pitying sob stories, so he’s blindsided when a fellow amputee catches his eye.
Corey Steiner is a hot young rudeboy who works his robotic limb like an extension of his own body, and he’s smitten by Desmond’s crusty punk rock charm from the get-go. Unfortunately, Desmond hasn’t quite severed ties with his ex-boyfriend, and Corey isn’t known for his maturity or patience.
Meatworks is set in a bleak near-future where cell phone and personal computer technologies never developed. In their place, robotics flourished. Now robots run everything from cars to coffee pots. Taking the guesswork out of menial tasks was intended to create leisure time, but instead robots have made society dependent and passive.
Desmond loathes robots and goes out of his way to avoid them. But can he survive without the robotic arm strapped to the end of his stump?
See more of Jordan at the Gay Romance Northwest Meet-Up in Seattle on September 20! Until then, you can visit her at her website: http://jcpbooks.com/