Monday, 30 July 2018

The Long and the Short of it - Guest Post Vivien Brown

I am always thrilled when authors who I've met and liked in 'real life' ask if they can be a guest on Wendy's Writing Now. Vivien Brown, who started her writing life as a fellow magazine writer, is one of those lovely people. In fact, it is Viv's third visit to my blog and I'm delighted to welcome her back as part of her blog tour for her second novel, Five Unforgivable Things, which was was published on 26th July by Harper Impulse.

Today, she's here to talk about how she's found the switch from writing magazine stories to novels. This will be of particular interest to those writers who are are struggling to make sales in the ever-decreasing magazine market and are considering writing something longer.

Over to you, Vivien.


After more than twenty years of writing short stories for the women’s magazines, the switch to novels has been a real eye-opener for me. Now I have had two published and I’ve finally proved to myself that I can actually sustain a storyline that’s about a hundred times longer than the ones I’ve been used to… but I’ve found length is far from the only difference between the two disciplines.

1.      How long is a piece of string?

Although I have always loved writing women’s magazine short stories, the womag world is very restrictive in terms of story length. Stories have to fit into a magazine which has a set number of pages, and they have to share space with all the features, letters pages, poems, and, of course, adverts. Editors have strict guidelines about length, so a 1000 word story might fit perfectly on the page that’s been set aside for it, but a 900 or 1100 word story will not. There is sometimes a little wriggle room if the story is too short, in that an editor can choose to fill unused space by using a bigger illustration, and in theory it’s possible to make space for a few more words by not using a picture at all, but generally speaking the only thing to do when a story is too long is to cut it down to fit the page… because one thing you can be sure of is that the page cannot be made bigger to fit the story! The more over-the-limit your story is, the more words will have to go. A scene, a piece of dialogue, a description… if it’s not absolutely necessary, it may have to be cut. And that can hurt!

Novels, I am so glad to say, don’t work that way. How long is a novel? Well, how long is a piece of string? In other words, how long do you want it to be? Because, as a novelist, you can choose! Anything from around 70,000 to 120,000 words is perfectly acceptable, and there are always exceptions to either side of those figures too, depending on your genre and who your publisher is. The word count for ‘Five Unforgivable Things’ went up and down as the book was edited, and finished up at around 105,000, with the odd thousand or two words one way or the other really being neither here nor there. The important thing was to tell the story… and then stop!

In a novel there’s room for that detailed description of the scenery you really loved writing, all the back-story you need to help you add richness and explain motivation, more room for those essential pages of character-revealing dialogue, and the opportunity to include a prologue, lots of twists and turns, and as many sub-plots as you like. That’s not to say you should waffle on to your heart’s content. More words still have to be good words. Readers want action, and characters they can identify with, and emotion in bucket-loads… and we don’t want them to get bored or wonder when the end is ever going to come! But I have definitely found that having that wider canvas to work with, after years of word-counting and cutting, is very liberating.

2.      Characters coming out of my ears!

Apart from the odd un-named waiter or the man driving the bus, it’s almost impossible to get away with having more than three or four main named characters at the most in a magazine story. In a tale that can be read in five or ten minutes, rather than the many days it might take to read a whole novel, there just isn’t time to introduce more, and we do need to give the poor reader a chance to get to know who they all are. In fact, many short stories have just one or two. Imagine a novel trying to do that!

And, as for points of view, writing your short story from more than just one or two is not likely to work. The reader is just getting into one person’s head, starting to understand who they are and what they want, when she is expected to swap to another… there just isn’t time to do it well.

In ‘Five Unforgivable Things’ I have six main characters, five of whom are ‘POV’ characters, each taking their turn to tell their part of the story. By giving them a chapter each before I ‘switch heads’, I am even able to jump back and forth, between chapters, from a first to a third person narrative - something I could never get away with in a short story. There are other minor characters too – people my ‘mains’ talk to at work, friends and relatives, and one or two they might get romantically involved with. In a novel, there’s room for as many as I need to tell the story without them having to be mere walk-on extras. At a rough count, in this novel I have probably got at least a dozen of these, and there’s room, and time, to get to know them all!

3.      No sex please, we’re The People’s Friend!

Themes! This is where the really big difference comes in. And by themes I mean the subjects I am allowed to write about. In the years I have been writing for The People’s Friend I have noticed a slow but important shift in what a story may contain. Not so long ago the characters could not be divorced, nobody had affairs or babies outside marriage, there was no violence, no ghosts, nothing too heartbreakingly sad, and absolutely never any mention of actual sex! I am proud to say I wrote the first baby-out-of-wedlock story and I believe the first disabled-child story for the magazine, so I know things are changing as they try to catch up with the modern world. Some of the other magazines have adopted a more liberal attitude, but even so it would be rare to find anything really tragic or depressing or ‘downbeat’ in a womag story. No nasty accidents, gory deaths, scary goings-on, or blatantly sexual content. It’s not what readers want when enjoying their coffee break read.

I am not saying that novels should be packed with the ‘bad stuff’ but there is room to explore it, and room for it to be resolved, so even novels where sad things happen can have their happy endings. And so ‘Five Unforgivable Things’ reflects real life, warts and all. There is infertility and miscarriage, there are relationship breakdowns, people tell lies and don’t always act as honourably as they might, and there are hospital scenes that just might make you cry, but in amongst all that there is love, romance, friendship, family, career fulfilment, and moments of joy. The book is not ‘about’ the bad things, but they are part of the story, just as they are part of life. I’m not sure I could do all that in a women’s magazine. And certainly not in a thousand words!

Many thanks to Vivien for sharing her experience. To whet your appetite, here is the blurb for her novel.

Almost thirty years ago, Kate’s dream came true. After years of struggling, she was finally pregnant following pioneering IVF. But the dream came at a cost. Neither Kate nor her husband Dan could have known the price they would have to pay to fulfil their cherished wish of having their own family.

Now, years later, their daughter Natalie is getting married and is fulfilling her own dream of marrying her childhood sweetheart. Natalie knows she won’t be like most brides as she travels down the aisle in her wheelchair, but it’s the fact her father won’t be there to walk beside her that breaks her heart.

Her siblings, Ollie, Beth and Jenny, gather around Natalie, but it isn’t just their father who is missing from their lives… as the secrets that have fractured the family rise to the surface, can they learn to forgive each other before it’s too late?


About Vivien Brown

Vivien Brown lives in west London with her husband and two cats. She worked for many years in banking and accountancy, and then, after the birth of twin daughters, made a career switch and started working with young children, originally as a childminder but later in libraries and children’s centres, promoting the joys of reading and sharing books through storytimes and book-based activities and training sessions. She has written many short stories for the women’s magazine market and a range of professional articles and book reviews for the nursery and childcare press, in addition to a ‘how to’ book based on her love of solving cryptic crosswords. Now a full time writer, working from home, Vivien is combining novel-writing and her continuing career in magazine short stories with her latest and most rewarding role as doting grandmother.


  1. Thanks for having me on the blog again, Wendy, and the best of luck with your own move into writing novels.

  2. I'm looking forward to reading the book.

  3. Great points, Viv - all the best with your novel writing career! Sounds a great read.

  4. A good piece, Viv. I'm almost halfway through the book and really hooked!

  5. I do agree that there's room for things in novels that simply couldn't be made to fit in a short story – especially those for womags.

  6. Sounds like you're really enjoying yourself writing longer stories. Best of luck with your novel.

  7. Thanks Maria. Yes, I am loving the novels but I wrote a short story today. Old habits die hard!