Monday, June 2, 2008

Does Size Matter

Does length matter?

Of course it matters (and not only if you forget how short your cute new skirt is, and bend over), but exactly how it matters depends on mood, desire, whim, commitment level, and even the comfort of your bed. So many factors to consider. Sometimes you want it long and thick. Sometimes, not so much.

No, I’m not talking about collecting sex-toys of different sizes to suit your whim de quim (although I support that idea) or whether longer or thicker has more to do with how much fun you get from a particular cock.

I’m talking about short stories versus novellas versus novels. And since my mind spends so much time in the gutter I pay income tax to the Rat King of the Sewers, I’m talking specifically about erotic versions of the above.

But the cock/fiction analogy doesn’t really hold, other than the appeal of being able to weave some penis and sex-toy innuendos into what’s basically a post about reading and writing. Stories, novellas, and novels aren’t very much like cocks. They’re more like sexual encounters, or even relationships.

Whether you’re the reader or the writer, you embark on an adventure that requires more or less commitment, more or less attention. You’re exploring, seeking pleasure and satisfaction, and often some more complex elements as well… suspense, romance, growth, connection, knowledge. And whether you’re the writer or the reader, the other “partner” is with you, not just along for the ride, but the reason for the ride. Readers can’t read without writers. And writers can certainly write without an audience, but like masturbation, it’s a different form of gratification than having a partner, a lover… a reader. (Not always worse, but different, and after a while it can get lonely and frustrating.)

You don’t want the same thing from every literary “relationship.” Luckily, readers and writers can enjoy variety without guilt, regret, confusion, calendar-juggling, or anything worse than lots of bookstore charges on the old credit card bill. Reading and writing are wide open to explore—although after a while you may find you have definite preferences, as you do in the bedroom.

Sometimes you want a quickie, a little slice of something sexy and fun. Maybe you want to rev up for a real-life date, or to make the most of a quick pocket of alone time to, well, get yourself off. Maybe you want to explore something a little different, say BSDM or Rubber Sex, but don’t to commit to something long and involved when you’re not sure you’ll like it. Short erotic fiction is what you want then. It can be a flash-fiction quickie, the reading equivalent of a stolen encounter in the supply room, or the slightly more leisurely 2500-word afternoon delight where you have time for some foreplay, some tenderness, some connection, but it’s still really about the action. Or maybe you’ve managed to set aside more time for your “encounter” and can enjoy 4000-6000 words, like the Black Lace Wicked Words anthologies…more setting, richer characterization, more depth, and of course more sexy details. It's like having a leisurely date where you take the time to tease and flirt and get to know each other better before going home to rip each other’s clothes off.

I’m talking from a reader’s perspective here. It’s all different if you’re the writer. Those flash fictions? Minutes to read, incredibly hard to write well, like a poem that may have only a hundred words but takes a dozen revisions to get right. (Then again, an excellent quickie expends a lot of energy in that short time!) Longer short stories, on the other hand, run the risk of bringing a moving van to that first date and setting up housekeeping on your computer. The world-building and character development take over and the next thing you know you have a budding novella or novel on your hand. Which, like a serious relationship, is a wonderful thing if you’re ready for it, but potentially daunting if you’re not.

A novel, whether you’re reading it or writing it, is a more serious commitment. An erotic novel, like a long-term relationship, may be drenched in sex, but it has a lot more going on and probably needs to appeal on more than just the gut sexual level to keep you involved. In the case of the novel, it could be a mystery, werewolves and witches, a touch of fantasy, a great love story, an interesting setting, or simply fascinating, flawed characters complicating their lives in ways that compel you to keep reading. (I was going to link to examples of each, but there are too many, even among the LustBiters, let alone other favorite writers.)

With so many ways to entertain ourselves these days, reading a book takes time, commitment, willingness to set aside other distractions to finish it. There’s risk: It could be a stinker that frustrates you in the end, or conversely so good you stay up all night or read past your bus stop and end up late for work. Like a relationship, it could make you laugh or cry or think about things in a new way or get so turned on you can’t think at all—all of the above, if you’re lucky. Will you open that cover, read that first page, and take that chance? Or has your heart been broken too many times by novels that started out promising and petered out into boredom or worse?

For a writer, it’s worse. I don’t know if a better analogy is the obsessive lust/lust stage of a new relationship (because you can’t think about anything else, can’t sleep, eat, breathe without it somehow connecting back to the beloved/Work in Progress), or to marriage. Of course one hopes a marriage will last forever, while writing a book will come to an end—but a novel, like a committed relationship, is a huge undertaking that requires a lot more work than you’re likely to consider when you leap into it, excited and blinded with passion for your story and characters and oblivious to the reality of dirty laundry and snoring, or rather “mid-book sag” and revisions. And like any relationship, you can’t neglect your novel too long, or the Muse may pack her suitcase, slam the door, and leave in a huff. (Fortunately I was a quicker learner about marriage than I was about novels.)

And what about novellas, you may ask. To me, as both a reader and a writer, novellas are the ideal length for an erotic tale. (Unless, of course, you’re in the mood for something shorter or longer. I like variety! How about you?) For readers, they’re like that two-week vacation in Tuscany with your beloved and without the kids. You can immerse yourself in another world, one full of sensuality and passion and wild sex and larger-than-life romance—but in a short burst that fits easily into your busy life. And unlike that perfect romantic vacation, you won’t have to wait years and save up scads of money to enjoy another one. Just find another likely collection, or download a juicy-looking ebook, curl up in your favorite comfy chair, or in bed with a big pile of pillows, and set off on another sexy adventure!

For me as a writer, novellas allow far more depth and scope than a short story, but offer a little more “instant gratification” than the seemingly endless process of writing a novel. (The only thing I love more than sending off a manuscript is getting a contract back for one!) They also create interesting technical challenges. In Lady Sun Has Risen, for instance, I had to convey enough of my fantasy world to make it real for readers, but not so much that the details bogged down the story. The first draft was too sparse. The second was too long, cluttered with too much mythology and made-up history. The third was apparently the charm.

And while I can’t speak for anyone else, I find that in writing a novel, I can either get carried either by the sex scenes, including snippets that, while smoking hot, have nothing to do with the plot (I’m fairly sure I lost the plot altogether on one novel that’s waiting to be revised—a lot—but boy howdy there’s some great kinky sex going on!), or conversely make the overarching plot so complicated that it might become a good book of some kind, but it’s not going to be erotica or romance because the main couple is too busy saving the world to hook up. Because I know I have a shorter word count in a novella, it’s easier for me to focus, to find the right balance between hot sex and good storytelling to satisfy on both counts.

So, readers and writers, what do you think? Is there a perfect length for tales of lust (with or without the romantic ending) or is that, like the perfect date, subjective and dependent on the situation?

20 comments:

Janine Ashbless said...

whim-de-quim?! Awesome!

Teresa I loved this post, loved the
pictures and I love writing ... novellas.

Yep, that's my length of choice. Not so big it's hard to keep it up, not so small it doesn't make much of an impact. (Sorry!)

I've written 2 novellas for Black Lace and one for CatScratch. In a novella you can get in everything you want to say and develop the plot/relationship over multiple sex-scenes, but there's no room for flab. Everything is focused.
I love the novella.

Portia Da Costa said...

Yeah, I agree with Janine.

I never thought I'd be able to write a novella, but I've done several now and I really enjoy doing them. Not being a particularly strong plotter, I enjoy writing the shorter length, where there just isn't room for a mighty and complicated plot. It means I can focus on what I enjoy most, the characters, their emotions and their relationship.

Yep, definitely into novellas... :)

Nikki Magennis said...

I vote for shorts! Reading and writing. I mean, if an erotic novel is good, I never read it in the right order anyway - I'm always skimming ahead or re-reading the juicy bits.

And I think short stories work beautifully when it comes to describing an erotic scene or encounter.

I *tried* to write a novella, but it threatened to morph into a novel and then a trilogy and the possibility of all that work scared me, so I stopped. : )

Natasha said...

Great post! Novella is also my length of choice, both reading and writing erotic romance.

BUT...as you said, sometimes I need it NOW and reading or writing a short does the trick. And now and then I want to get realllly involved. Then only a novel will do.

Madeline Moore said...

I think I'd like novella writing but - I'm shy - I need to be asked.

Ahort stories are fun because the characters can be whatever I wamt: a bearded lady in a circus, a vengeful ex intent on causing injury, a woman who sees a specific dress as armour or a girl who finds the perfect pair of shoes and takes it as a sign from God. In my novels (ooo I get to use the plural now!) the main character is multi-faceted, complicated, not necessarily consistent - because that's the way real women are and I write contemporary erotic fiction.

Besides, the greatest living writer, Alice Munro, writes short stories...sometimes a book will be a collection of shorts about the same character but they're still shorts. If it's good enough for Alice, man, it's good enough for me.

Terrific post Teresa - and nice allegory, so appropriate for our blog-with-only-one-thing-on-our-colloective-mind.

Erastes said...

Great post.

It's nice to see you talk about reading as a journey. I've been blogging about this and am horrified at how many readers want to look at their destination first before they get on the train!

I have to agree that a novella is an ideal length for an erotic story - I've read many full-length novels where the characters have sex ALL THE BLOODY TIME just to fill up the book, and it has no relevance to the plot and I end up skipping and flipping forward to find out what happens next!

t'Sade said...

Highly dependent on the situation. :) I like my quickies and I like the longer stories, depends on my mood and my obsessions.

And I love the "whim-de-quim" phrase too. :D

As for writing, well... I seem to write either long stories (10k words) or novels (100k), my brain hasn't really accepted many other lengths yet. :)

Janine Ashbless said...

I always found the problem with reading a really good erotic novel is that one gets ... worn out ... before getting through much of the plot.
;-)

Madelynne Ellis said...

My vote is definitely for novels, but I do like my casts of thousands and everything hopelessly convoluted. Novellas are fun, but I have trouble seeing them as more than beginnings. I always want more.

Short stories are the bane of my existence. I don't write many and they don't rate very highly on my list of things to read. If I want something quick I tend to opt for comics or manga.

Olivia Knight said...

I enjoy all three, reading and writing, although I rarely write anything shorter than about 5000 words. (And everything ends up too long by a fifth, but pruning is always worthwhile too.) Short stories and novels are entirely different beasts - as Madeline said, you can use short stories to explore just one concept - whereas most of the novellas I write could be deepened and broadened into novels. What I'm itching to write now is a TOME...

Jeremy Edwards said...

Janine wrote:
I always found the problem with reading a really good erotic novel is that one gets ... worn out ... before getting through much of the plot.

Hehe, I have that "problem" even with erotic short stories (both as a reader and writer). I often end up writing/reading in installments, even with shorts.

Kate Pearce said...

I think I like them all as a reader. As a writer I love the long convoluted sexual epics I get to write, but sometimes the instant gratification of writing a short story works for me as well.
God, I'm so confused :)

Dayle A. Dermatis said...

I like whatever works for the characters' emotional arc via the sexuality. If that makes any sense!

Deanna Ashford said...

I agree with Kate. I love to read a novella but I can't write them, my plots are always too complex and convoluted, or maybe I'm just too verbose by far.

Teresa loved the post.

TeresaNoelleRoberts said...

Well, I haven't been excessively interactive today. Apologies, I've been suffering at the dentist and then writing one of those incredibly focused 2000-word stories that allow me to wallow in one intense, sexy scene(spanking, in this case....yum!)and then move on.

Interesting how many of us fancy novellaa! They seem to be enjoying a resurgence. Yay!

Dayle of course makes a very good point: Unless you're trying to write something to length for a particular call for submission (and sometimes even when you are--I've certainly had it happen!), the story itself, and the characters, will tell you how long it needs to be.

The novel I'm editing now was supposed to be a shortish novella. Instead, it's 100,000 words and crying out for a sequel because the characters kept giving more to do!

jessewave said...

Hi Guys

I discovered your blog recently and read a number of the great posts. I thought I would respond to this one which really peaked my interest.

I'm not a writer but I'm an avid reader and I also review books. I usually prefer novellas as a reviewer because of the time commitment - so many books, so little time. Also it's difficult to read a novel on a computer screen (or hand held) for a long period of time without taking frequent breaks and (sometimes) risk losing the train of events, although I have reviewed a lot of novels and I do love them. For a Sunday afternoon read, curled up in a chair with a glass of wine (occasionally) I prefer a novel (in print) so that I can lose myself in it and enter the world created by the author.

I hope this gives you a different perspective.

Janine Ashbless said...

Hi Jessewave - and welcome! Glad you like our blog!

Madame Butterfly said...

I have the attention span of a monkey and also get a bit agitated if I have to sit for too long, so, as a reader, I like to read novellas more often than novels.

Even if a novel is intensely engrossing, I still find myself feeling at a certain point, when is this going to be over? There are the exceptions of course in which I do get to the end of a novel and want more, but mostly not.

I also like short stories here and there because I do read a lot of erotica and it gives me a chance to explore some areas and themes that are outside of my known liking, which I would normally not invest any time on.

Jade Taylor said...

Can't believe nobody has put the obvious it isn't length that's important but what you do with it comment!
I think the length of the story does depend on the characters and situation you're writing, I have two ideas that were meant to be shorts, and are now racing past novella length, desperate to be so much more. Sometimes there's just so much more for your characters to say and do it's difficult getting them yo be quiet!

Angell said...

Most days, I love it fast and hard. After all, who's got time for a leisurely stroll down erotica lane with nothing but your imagination and vibrator to keep you company?

But there is something to be said for longer, more details and romance. After all, someone has to be there to cuddle with when you come down right?