A question of length

Most of the time when I sit down to write, I know whether I’m working on a short story or a novel. They simply feel different. Some feel full of ideas and want to be long, and some don’t.

Occasionally I’m wrong. Occasionally I end up with a story that just doesn’t take off the way it should, and I run through my list of reasons, and none of them quite fit, except, as always, the idea that I’m a complete hack and can’t write my way out of a paper bag. For some reason that one always fits.

Anyway, none of the reasons fit, and I decide the story doesn’t work as a story, and I put it away. Then something happens. I’ll be driving home and a line in a song will hit me, or I’ll be thinking about gardens, or moose, or the Badlands, and all of the sudden I’ll realize the story doesn’t work because I’m trying to make it the wrong length.

(Alternately, I’ll be writing a blog post and will realize that every single paragraph has three sentences in it, and it will disturb me to no end, and I’ll forget my point entirely…)

I have a story I started in the winter. The idea came to me last year, and it had to do with this poem, which was in a poetry book I had as a kid. I wanted Bess as the highwayman, with her long black hair and her fury at the world.

But it didn’t work. Something was missing. Why was Bess so angry? I didn’t know, so I set it aside. I didn’t think of it again until I was talking with a friend about OWS and the appalling distribution of wealth in the U.S. Suddenly I knew exactly where her anger came from.

Better, but still not right. I could get to a certain point and go no further. Once again, Bess went on the back burner.

Then yesterday, while watching Trouble the Water (about New Orleans and Katrina, and so important to see), I realized what was wrong. Bess’s story was never meant to be short. There were too many elements to fit in. I’d been squashing the characters in an effort to keep the length down.

It’s a relief of sorts, because I hate to dump ideas. It’s also frustrating, because I have more than enough on my plate when it comes to novels. I’ll just have to add it to the list.

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