To cut a long story short… or should that be the other way round? – Vivien Hampshire
By Vivien Hampshire
There is a huge difference between a short story and a novel. And I don’t just mean that the novel uses up a lot more paper and takes much longer to read.♥
For the past twenty years, as well as holding down a ‘proper’ job, I have been happily writing stories for UK women’s magazines, with around 130 published so far. Some have been as short as 700 words and the longest around 4000, but each one managed to tell its own tale – with a beginning, middle and end. Admittedly, they all told a very short tale, with events usually taking place over the course of just a few days, or quite often no more than an hour or so. And, as for settings, sometimes my heroine never even left her own kitchen! There is no place for sagas that span generations or skip between continents in a 1000-word story that fits onto one page and that the average reader picks up and finishes in as little time as it takes her to drink a cup of coffee.
It was very unlikely that I would ever include more than four characters in a short story – ones I gave names and/or dialogue to anyway (Bit-part taxi drivers and waiters who don’t speak other than to say ‘Thank you’ don’t count). Any more than four and readers would just be starting to work out who they all were when the story came to an end! In fact, quite a few stories in women’s magazines have only one character. Yes, really. Just one. As long as something happens to shake her world a little bit, to help her solve a problem or reach a decision, that makes a story. Imagine a novel trying to get away with doing that!
But then, suddenly, I found myself writing a novel, or trying to. It felt like a natural progression, and a challenge I needed to take up in a ‘now or never’ sort of way. And that meant I was finally able to develop a cast of characters without a limit to its numbers – I could give my hero and heroine parents, siblings, friends, colleagues, even enemies if I chose to. I had to work out a full-length plot, add in lots of twists and turns, think about sub-plots and minor characters and how they all slotted together, make sure there were peaks and troughs, fast bits and slower bits (something called ‘pace’ apparently!), pack in lots of emotion and come up with just the right ending… and write a synopsis that explained it all in just one page. Phew!
In short (or should I say long?), writing a novel was a whole new experience for me. Whereas I can turn out a decent short story in a couple of hours once I have the right idea in my head, my novel took me the best part of a year to write. Accustomed to sending my stories off to a fiction editor by email on the day I write them and getting an acceptance (or occasionally a rejection) and payment within weeks, I found the whole process of looking for an agent or publisher quite daunting, time-consuming and, to be honest, it can start to border on the soul-destroying. A whole year of unpaid work, with no guarantee anyone will even like it, let alone publish it? What are we novelists? Crazy?
But I didn’t give up. I found the right publisher, and together we spent weeks editing the manuscript to within an inch of its life. Change this scene here, build up the emotion there, cut out one of the characters altogether… But I loved seeing what cover had been designed for it, and what title had been chosen (oh, no, the title on the cover isn’t my original title, but I’ve got used to the new one now, and it works). Magazine editors don’t consult in the same way. I have never seen the illustration commissioned to accompany any of my stories, or discovered that the title or one of the characters’ names has been changed, until the magazine appeared on the newsagent’s shelves. Being a novelist feels more collaborative somehow and, after working so hard and for so long, a whole lot more satisfying.
So, my novel How To Win Back Your Husband was finally published by HQ Digital on 20 September. Will anyone download it? Read it? Like it? Review it? Only time will tell. Either way, I can hardly believe I managed to stretch a story to a whopping great 96,000 words, but I did. And I’m proud of it, and of myself.
Will I put myself through all that and write another one? Yes, of course I will. I loved every minute of it!
Vivien Hampshire lives with her husband and two cats on the outskirts of London. After working in banking and accountancy jobs since leaving school, she made the move from numbers to words after the birth of her twin daughters. She entered her first attempt at fiction for the Mail on Sunday’s Best Opening to a Novel competition in 1994 and won first prize. Her first published short story appeared in Woman’s Weekly magazine in 1997 and she has been writing women’s fiction ever since. Vivien loves solving and compiling complicated cryptic crosswords, taking part in TV quiz shows, reading in the sunshine and eating Belgian chocolate.