Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Winterlude, writing an e-novella


Quentin Bates went native in Iceland for ten years before returning to live in England.  He drew heavily on his intimate experience of life there to write his debut novel Frozen Out, published by Constable & Robinson.  He is also the author of Cold Comfort and the third book in the series Chilled to the Bone is due out later this year.

After the heated pace of finishing my next book, Chilled to the Bone, due to be published in April and written to a tight deadline, the last thing I could have done with was to be writing another one right away.

With Chilled to the Bone delivered, proofread, checked and signed off in the autumn, a short period of putting the feet up might have been in order, so I still do not quite know why I suggested to my editor that an e-novella might be worth doing.  It is common enough practice to knock out a budget e-book between novels.  In marketing speak it’s called ‘enhancing your brand.’  In real terms, it is giving your readers something extra, as a year or more between books can be a stretch for dedicated followers.

The arrival of e-books has given this format a boost.  Although I have written non-fiction at this sort of length, I had never written short stories as that length had never appealed, but this novella format is far more interesting.  In addition, it gives people a decent chunk to read; enough for the tube journeys to and from work, and maybe some left over for tomorrow morning as well, all for less than the price of a cup of coffee.

So I was taken aback by my editor’s enthusiasm in immediately slapping a deadline down in front of me.  Maybe she thought I had it already written when in fact it was still a bunch of ideas at the back of my head.  That’s not entirely true.  In fact, there was a mothballed novel, a Gunnhildur story that did not quite come together.  I don’t know if I had been over-ambitious with what I was trying to achieve with it, or had strayed too far from the straight and narrow of crime fiction, but one idea was to distil that story into something smaller and neater – and with another tight deadline to work to, I set about ruthlessly cutting and trimming.

It still did not want to work.  The characters were fine and the murder was a cracking piece of fantasy on my part that I will undoubtedly make use of at some point, but it still wouldn’t gel and I’m not sure why.  Maybe the villains were not properly villainous enough.

With a contract signed and my editor expecting results, there was nothing for it but to start from scratch, fortunately with the germ of an idea that had been at the back of my mind for a while.  To my relief, this one came together and it turned into Winterlude.

Writing Winterlude was not as straightforward as I had hoped.  I had thought naively that it would be a walk in the park working with something a third the size of a normal book.  Not so; although the volume of text is smaller, it still needs to be plotted properly.  There are fewer options for dropping in the odd red herring here and there and less scope for intriguing side-plots.  The characters still have to be credible, and with less elbowroom, it is less easy to give them space to develop while being vital that this still takes place.
The story needed to be stripped back, more linear than it would otherwise have been, presenting a few difficulties and calling for some discipline.  In some ways it’s harder to write a short book than a long one and as I was at the point where I’d normally have been slipping into fourth gear, it was disconcertingly time to start wrapping things up.

On reflection, I enjoy this format and see the relatively low cost, and the ease and speed of production of an e-book compared to producing a conventional book as providing a test bench.  It is less easy to take a risk with a proper book, least of all when a publisher has people in charge of the purse strings who are reluctant to see authors going out on a limb.  One of the attractions of this format is that it offers a way of flexing the muscles in new directions, trying out a new approach without breaking the bank.

Winterlude sees my rotund heroine, Gunnhildur, sharing much more of the storyline with Helgi, her colleague who has been more a background character so far.  I had wanted to make Helgi more prominent, but I am not sure I would have had the gumption to give him so much of the action in a full-length book; well, not yet at least.  I’m still a far from established beginner at this crime writing stuff and I’m not certain my shrewd and eagle-eyed editor would have let me get away with that either.

So here’s to the e-novella.  The format has already resulted in millions of self-published books, brought new writers into the bestseller lists and hopefully, it will give some of us a little more leeway to bend the rules and push out a few boundaries.

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