Word Limits

I have been really neglecting my blogging duties lately. Apologies to anyone out there who actually wanted to hear from me. The reason for this, besides deadlines to write yet more release notes and update the user guides again at work, is that I have been writing a set of serial stories which will begin running in July in Digital Dragon Magazine online, and I decided to release them as a book and include chapters from my two novels. The idea is to get my name out there by handing them out at conventions to writers, editors, agents, publishers and whomever else strikes my fancy. But because one of the two conventions I have blocked out for this year happens at the end of May, so I had to rush the project through to be ready in time.

So in the past two weeks, I have written 11 stories. Not all that impressive given my usually daily output, but nonetheless good for me given that I was not working from an outline or mental plan like I usually do with my novels. Additionally, I was working with a 1500-1600 word limit, something I am not used to.

When I first heard of Digital Dragon, it was from the loop of Lost Genre Guild, in which I participate. Several others had stories accepted there and I decided to check it out. Though it doesn’t pay anything, I liked the family-friendly focus, so I checked out the guidelines. 1500 words?! Are they crazy? I couldn’t imagine writing anything so short. None of my short stories had ever been less than 2900 words, and that one was a rarity. Most were at least 4000. Many came in at 6500. 1500 seemed impossible. But nonetheless, I sat down and decided to give it a try.

The idea which came to me was of a space opera about a Christian starship Captain and her crew fighting pirates/raiders from a neighboring empire. Since space opera is my favorite sub-genre of science fiction, and the sub-genre in which my completed scifi novel falls, it seemed a natural. As usual, I chose to make the characters more Christian-influenced than blatantly Christian because I want to write for a wider audience, not just Christians. What came out of me was a story about a female Captain on her first command leading an inexperienced crew into battle. And I thought it turned out pretty well. TW Ambrose, the editor at Digital Dragon, thought so too and suggested I might consider writing other stories in that world.

About the time the first story, “The Korelean Raiders,” appeared in the April issue of Digital Dragon, I wrote a follow up story, and found myself stuck on the idea that I could indeed do a lot more with these characters. Not just that I had story ideas, but that I myself wanted to know more about them. An idea soon developed to write ten more stories, all earlier than the previous two and bring the characters from when they first met up to the current stories, setting up their relationships, the origination of the conflict, etc.

With all the stories, I stuck to the 1500-1600 word limit, knowing not only that Digital Dragon would like to publish them, but also that as a pulp-type story, it would work best. For a guy who dreaded word limits, I found it amazingly easy and as time went on, found myself having to trim less and less as I somehow found a natural rhythm matching the desired length. The advantage of doing a serial was to do character development and story development which just couldn’t happen in one or two 1500-word stories. I also added a couple of new crew members and one more major enemy character and devised a plot line I believe could sustain not just these twelve stories but perhaps 30 or so.

In any case, I encourage any writers out there to test yourself by writing to a limit. With 1500-words, every word really has to count. It’s tricky to balance dialogue and description, and thus, some of my stories are dialogue heavy, while others are better mixed. But I did learn a lot about precision writing and thinking through character arcs in small chunks of very few lines and words. I think it will make me a better writer, and I think it will make you better writers too. If nothing else, I now feel a lot better prepared to trim stories for specific market’s demands. That is a valuable asset in and of itself. I even took the prologue of my scifi novel down to 1600 words from 2900 in an abridged version which will be featured in the May issue of Digital Dragon.

All the stories so far for the North Star-Korelean saga will be available soon via Amazon and my website, but other stories are also available at www.bryanthomasschmidt.net. If you want, go check them out. Meanwhile, thanks for reading my thoughts on writing with word limits. For what it’s worth…