How Long Should Your Story Be?

The first time I set out to write a novel I was fifteen. I was taking a writer's workshop class in high school, and I had asked my teacher permission to submit chapters of a single work each month instead of short stories and poems, like most of the other kids.

But like, if I miss this concert, my life is like, over! You'll
 never understand my sophomoric, middle-class problems! 
As you might imagine, I didn't get very far. If memory serves, I turned in two chapters of a Dirk Gently-inspired paranormal detective story, another two chapters of a Final Fantasy-inspired sci-fi/fantasy epic, and by the end of the class I broke down and wrote a bunch of angsty teenage poetry, some of which might have made good emo lyrics.

Part of my problem was that I was fifteen. Part of it was that I didn't know the distinction between Plotting and Pantsing. I figured I could just wing my way through an entire novel, as if a novel is something you just sit down and write, and when you're done it's done.

But a subtler problem was I had no idea how long a novel should be.

This problem stayed with me through college, through my mid-twenties, when I didn't write anything, all the way until the early years of my career. Until about three years ago, I was still thinking of novels in terms of page numbers. But the truth is, that's like measuring your tire pressure by calculating the volume of the tire. (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!)

novel's page count is up to the publisher. I mean, they can print the entire bible (approx. 750,000 words) in a book about the size of a box of matches. True, you have to read it with a magnifying glass, but it can be done. On the other end of the spectrum, 3 Futures was barely 35,000 words, but Catharsis Fiction fudged it up to 200 pages.

So how long should your story be? That depends on what you want to do with it. If you're trying the traditional publishing route, thoroughly read the publisher's website, contracts, and any other documentation they provide. Chances are, their word-count expectations are in there somewhere. For short story writers, I've found that most markets favor stuff in the 4,000-7,000 range, but that's not a hard-and-fast number. Whatever you're writing, wherever you're trying to sell it, check the market's guidelines first. If all else fails, email the editor and straight-up ask them.

But if you're self-publishing, or if you're not writing for a specific market, it's good to have some idea of what separates a novel from a novella, from a short story, etc. Before I launch into this list, I should note that different genres carry different expectations. Fantasy and sci-fi readers expect and want longer books, and literary fiction is all over the map. But the following list is the general guideline I use to categorize my own writing, no matter what I plan to do with it.

Flash Fiction/Vignette: 1,000 words or less

Flash fiction is intended to highlight a particular moment, idea or emotion. It's intended to be read in just a few minutes, so anything longer than a thousand words is pushing it. There are lots of markets for flash fiction because it's as easy to present as a blog post (and even a troglodyte like me can throw together a halfway readable blog).

Short Story: 1,000 - 10,000 words

Short stories can be anything from an extended vignette that really delves into a particular theme, to a fully structured story that happens over a relatively compact timeline. There are dozens of ways to structure stories in this length range, which is part of what makes them so fun to write. Generally, a short story is meant to be read in a single sitting, two at the most. I find that a meaty short story takes about as long to read as it does to watch an average movie, and I'm a pretty slow reader.

Novella/Novelette: 10,000 - 50,000 words

In my own work, I make no distinction between a novella and a novelette, but some genres do. A novelette is shorter, about 10,000 to 25,000 words. Anything below 50,000 is generally considered a novella. While a publisher might find this distinction important for marketing purposes, I find readers aren't hip to the difference, so for me, the distinction is splitting hairs. I figure anything under 50,000 words can be read in one to three sittings, and will present a short, cohesive series of events without subplots, multiple POV changes, and all the complexities of a full novel.

Novel: 50,000 words or more

Here is where you start seeing major differences between genres. A lot of lit-fic sits down at the low end of this range. Slaughterhouse-Five and Fahrenheit-451 are just a smidge under 50,000. Then again, Alan Moore wrote a draft of a novel that was over A MILLION words long, and he refused to cut it (the self-indulgent bastard). Most sci-fi and fantasy rests between 80,000 and 120,000. Mysteries and pulp novels tend to be shorter. When I set out to write a novel, my default goal length is around 80,000. In other words, I try to make sure there's at least 80,000 words of actual story. For me, this usually means I have to fully develop two, three, or even four POV characters, and include a handful of subplots. As of the time I'm writing this, I have yet to come up with 80,000 words of story centered on a single character. It can certainly be done, but my brain just doesn't work that way.


Whatver you're writing, whatever you plan to do with it, it's a good idea to set a goal length, and track your progress toward it. That's the main reason I came up with my Process Breakdown template, which you can download if you wish. However you choose to count words, it's an essential part of being a professional writer. Readers and publishers have certain expectations, and the people who meet them sell more books. Even if you don't give a hoot about expectations, it's good to be specific about your goals, so you know what you have when you achieve them.


Rules for Writing Numbers

Let's face it, most of us didn't become writers because we're good with numbers. A lot of us are the same people who got straight A's in Literature classes, but struggled to pass Trigonometry. We're writers! We're good with words.

But in many contexts, numbers are words. If you write long enough, you'll have to deal with them eventually. When you do, you might find out--like I did--that you aren't sure how to handle them.

Like many rules, the main thing is to be consistent. Whatever you choose to do about writing numbers, make sure you stick to it.

The most widely accepted stance on writing numbers is that in non-technical writing, you should spell out the numerals. 1 becomes one. 43 becomes forty-three.

But what about 328,747?

When I first went looking for a rule on this subject, I read that you're supposed to write out any number under a hundred. But I found that didn't quite capture it, after all, I'd rather write "a million" than 1,000,000. So there shouldn't be some arbitrary point where you stop spelling out numbers and start writing numerals.

The rule I settled on is that I always write out any number that can be expressed in three words or fewer. 600 becomes six hundred. 47 becomes forty-seven.

That right there is enough to cover most situations, but there are a host of specific types of numbers that have their own rules; time, date, etc. And how do you punctuate numbers? Here is the best, most comprehensive list of number-related rules I can come up with.

  • Write out all numbers that can be expressed in three words or fewer.
    • Nine
    • Twenty-three
    • Eight hundred thousand
  • Hyphenate compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine, even when they are part of a larger number.
    • Thirty-six
    • Three hundred ninety-five (I wouldn't write this number out in fiction, but this example demonstrates the next rule
  • DO NOT hyphenate orders of magnitude like hundred, thousand, or million.
    • WRONG: Two-hundred fifty-two
    • RIGHT: Two hundred fifty-two
  • Using numerals and words combined is acceptable for orders of magnitude one million and higher.
    • 34 million
    • 5.7 billion
  • However, if the number can be easily expressed without numerals, do so.
    • Five billion
    • Six trillion
  • Hyphenate written-out fractions.
    • Two-thirds
    • Three-fifths
  • Write out ordinal numbers, and hyphenate any between twenty-one and ninety-nine.
    • First thing's first.
    • For the thousandth time!
    • Thirty-third place.
  • Always use commas when writing numerals.
    • 1,584,282
    • 2,483
  • But don't use commas when writing out large numbers.
    • WRONG: Six thousand, forty-five
    • RIGHT: Six thousand forty five
  • Always use a zero before a decimal when using numerals. It helps readers catch the decimal point.
    • WRONG: Voter turnout was only .5 percent.
    • RIGHT: Voter turnout was only 0.5 percent.
  • NEVER begin a sentence with a numeral.
    • WRONG: 5,400 people were there.
    • RIGHT: Five thousand four hundred people were there.
    • RIGHT: Fifty-four hundred people were there. (Informal, but preferred, as it condenses the number to three words.)
  • Currency
    • Write out any amount that can be expressed in three words or fewer.
      • Seven dollars
      • Twenty thousand dollars
    • Add a comma between dollars and cents (or between other currencies and their coinage):
      • Nine dollars, twenty-two cents
      • Five pounds, three pence
    • ...unless you're writing it informally
      • A dollar fifty
      • Six and a quarter
    • Do not add the name of the currency when using numerals, use the associated symbol.
      • WRONG: $1,284 dollars
      • RIGHT $1,284
  • Time
    • Write out times that are easily expressed in one word, unless you're being formal.
      • Noon
      • Midnight
      • Nine
      • Six in the morning
    • Use numerals for all other times.
      • 7:30 PM
      • 1:25 AM
      • It is acceptable to drop the :00 for the top of the hour (9 PM), but I don't do it because a) I usually just write out the number and skip the AM/PM, and b) I like the consistent look of having the colon in every time I write.
    • Pick a spelling for AM and PM, and stick with it.
      • AM and PM is the most preferred.
      • A.M. and P.M. 
      • a.m. and p.m. 
      • and am and pm 
      • are all acceptable
    • Put a space between numerals and the AM/PM designation.
      • WRONG: 7:30PM
      • RIGHT: 7:30 PM
  • Date
    • Use numerals for dates when you're stating them formally.  Commas are required in this format.
      • June 30, 2015
      • The 30th of June, 2015
    • Use words when stating them informally.
      • The twentieth is a Friday.
      • He was born March eleventh, right before me.
    • Spell out decades.
      • The sixties
      • The late eighties
    • Use numerals for centuries
      • The 1900s
      • The 2000s
    • DO NOT use apostrophes to pluralize decades or centuries
      • WRONG: The 80's
      • WRONG: The early 1900's
      • RIGHT: The '80s [Do use an apostrophe to stand in for omitted numbers, as I explain in my article on apostrophes]
      • RIGHT: The early 1900s

Any awkward situations I missed? Any rules you disagree with? Drop me a comment!


Apostrophe Dos and Don'ts

One of my greatest fears is that one day the plural apostrophe ("Take off your hat's and coat's.") will become accepted standard usage. The error is so widespread on the internet and in the real world that I fear the sheer volume of uncorrected uses will eventually lead to a change in official position, as it did for the new definition of the word literally: "Used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true" (Google). Language is fluid and occasionally arbitrary, and the rules seek to reflect genuine usage, so the plural apostrophe may have its day. If it does, we will no longer be able to tell plurals and possessives apart--which is why we invented apostrophes--and I will probably take my own life.

I bet Zappa has an opinion on this subject. And he's
probably right. I mean, look at that mustache.
Apostrophes confuse a lot of people. I'm one of them. The title of this page is a peculiar and confusing case in itself: most writers have an urge to put an apostrophe in the plural of "do" in order to avoid confusion, but the word "don't" already has an apostrophe in it. So should we write it do's and don't's? Or dos and don'ts? Or should we be inconsistent with apostrophe use, and write it do's and don'ts? Thankfully, the wise and oracular Grammar Girl has already weighed in on this subject. She's the final authority for me, and it's her recommended usage you see at the top of this page. When I read it, I can't help but think of an early text-based computer operating system, but hey, sometimes you just have to pick a rule and go with it.

In the spirit of keeping written English sane and sensible, I present the best list of apostrophe rules I could come up with. Keep in mind that some of these rules are not universally agreed upon. In fact, I'm not even consistent with which style guide I follow. I follow the rule that makes the most sense to me logically, and I respectfully submit them for your perusal.


  • Use apostrophes in contractions: Can't, won't, I'll. This is the reason we invented apostrophes: to stand in for omitted letters. Be careful though, not to overuse ugly, non-standard contractions in order to capture the rhythm of speech; "This's Bill." (which sounds identical to "This is Bill."), or "Bill'll get you fixed up." Phrases like this may make sense in speech, but they're horrid to look at on the page.
    • Use apostrophes for omitted numbers as well: the '60s. Notice, however, that the apostrophe is not placed between the 0 and the s. The apostrophe stands in for the 1 and the 9, but putting it between the 0 and the s make the word possessive, which is not what you want,
  • Use an apostrophe and and s for possessive nouns: Sally's car, the company's building, the constable's billy club. The other reason we invented apostrophes.
    • If two people own something jointly, only the last one needs and apostrophe: "Bill and Joan's house is for sale."
    • If each person has their own thing, both take apostrophes: "Bill's and Joan's cars are brand new." [While correct, I find this phrasing awkward. I would probably rephrase to simply say "Bill and Joan have new cars" or "Their cars are new."]
    • If you substitute a pronoun for one person, it needs to be possessive: "My and Joan's son is going to Stanford" [Again, correct, but awkward, I'd prefer "Our son is going to Stanford."]
  • Use an apostrophe and an s for possessive singular nouns, even if the word itself ends with an s: Marcus's favorite bar, Kansas's new statute. [William Strunk Jr. is with me on this one. Grammar Girl is not, although she does point out that it's simply a matter of which style guide you refer to. This is one of the few cases where I deviate from Grammar Girl, and here's why: using the extra s gives you an easy way to distinguish between nouns that happen to end in s, and plural nouns, as in the next rule.]
  • Use an apostrophe without an s to indicate possession for plural nouns ending in sMy parents' house, the Jones' pool party, Ladies' night at the dance club.
  • Use an apostrophe and an s to indicate possession for plural nouns that do not end in sThe children's table, the geese's habitat.
  • Some phrases are tricky: For example, "For goodness' sake" takes an apostrophe. But think about it. In this case "goodness" is used like a possessive noun. Whose sake? Goodness' sake. Another sticky spot is the American holiday Veterans Day. The official, government mandated spelling does not have an apostrophe, even though it is a day to celebrate all veterans' sacrifice (notice the apostrophe following the plural s). If in doubt, check the official spelling.
  • Use apostrophes to pluralize single letters: This only happens when you are referring to the letter itself: "This word has too many e's." "Dot the i's and cross the t's." This rule is especially important when writing about a's, i's and u's, because it helps avoid confusion with actual words.
  • Use apostrophes to pluralize numbers: 1's and 2's. This is essentially the same rule as above, and feel free to use it when referring to the actual numerals. But in my writing I always write out any number, plural or singular, that can be written in four words or fewer. So I would write "ones and twos" instead of 1's and 2's. [For more on this, check out my article on numbers]
  • Use apostrophes for quotes within quotes. "I heard him say 'Sherry got a nose job' over at the bar." This goes for scare quotes (sarcastic quote marks) within dialogue as well: "Yeah, I was upstairs 'doing my homework.' " [Technically, for quotes within quotes you're supposed to use a single quotation mark (according to Grammar Girl), which apparently is a thing, and is distinct from an apostrophe. But I've used dozens of keyboards in my life and I've never seen a single quotation mark on any of them--just a plain ol' apostrophe (that little mark under the tilde on the top left of your keyboard is not a single quote, it's a grave accent, and I have no idea what its for). Personally I don't use smart quotes in my writing, so there's no distinction between open quotes and end quotes, and the apostrophe is just a little straight line. So visually there's no difference. For a more detailed look at quotes within quotes, check out this article on Grammar Book.]
  • Use apostrophes to form the past tense and participle of verbed acronyms: Occasionally, it is acceptable to form a verb out of an acronym, and if you need to use the past tense or participle form of such a verb, The Chicago Manual of Style recommends an apostrophe: "He's OD'ing!" (participle) "He OD'd" (past tense). This is especially helpful when writing jargon: "Have you MAC'd that widget?" One common abuse of this rule is to say someone "OK'd" something, but I personally find "OK" to be an abomination in fiction. The word is "okay", and "okayed" looks just fine to me. I'm not above writing "OK" when I'm texting my wife; after all brevity is the soul of the text message. But in fiction, I take a few more pains to use words correctly, and "okay" will always look better. And it's not like anyone is charging you by the letter, so there's no reason to omit the "ay".
  • Use apostrophes in the official transliterations of foreign language: Apostrophes are often used to aid pronunciation in official anglicized versions of foreign words. The best example I know is "l'chaim", a Hebrew word for toasting and celebrating. In these cases, there is always an official position for the apostrophe, so it can be thought of more like a letter. "60's" is a punctuation error. "lchaim" is a spelling error.


  • Don't use apostrophes to indicate plurals. I have actually rejected prospective editing clients based solely on this rule. I figure if they don't know this, there is probably a lot more they don't know, and I don't charge enough to teach them.
    • WRONG: "We're going to look at a few house's today."
    • RIGHT: "We're going to look at a few houses today."
  • Don't use apostrophes for emphasis. I'm not sure where this error came from, but I'm guessing it's an over-extension of scare quotes. However it came to be, we need to take it out back and shoot it.
    • WRONG: Who is that 'radiant' young woman?
    • RIGHT: Who is that radiant young woman?
  • Don't use apostrophes to pluralize acronyms. This is another gray area, and the correct usage depends on what style manual you prefer. In some manuals, the apostrophe is considered correct because it stands in for missing letters, just as it does in contractions; CD's is short for compact discs, and the apostrophe denotes those missing letters. I, however, prefer to skip the apostrophe in this case, because you can't put one in for every chunk of missing letters, and the rule of capitalizing acronyms makes it easy to distinguish between CDs (compact discs), and CDS (credit default swap), so the apostrophe does not serve the same purpose it does for single letters.
    • WRONG: CD's, DVD's. 
    • RIGHT: CDs, DVDs
  • Don't use apostrophes to pluralize decades or centuries. Interestingly, Blogger's built-in spell check seems to disagree with this rule and the previous one. I'm getting a squiggly red underline as I type the correct words. This, if anything should indicate that these rules are not set in stone. That said, The Chicago Manual of Style backs me up on this one. The important thing is to pick whichever rule makes the most sense for the type of writing you're doing and be consistent.
    • WRONG: 1960's, the early 1900's
    • RIGHT: 1960s, the early 1900s
    • [As I stated above, you should use an apostrophe to stand in for the missing numbers when you abbreviate decades, but it should not go between the 0 and the s. '60s is correct, although as I point out in my article on numbers, I prefer to write decades out: Sixties.]
  • Don't use apostrophes in possessive pronouns. Pronouns have their own form to indicate possession; we write hishers, and theirs instead of him'sher's, and they's (using words like that to capture dialect might be okay in moderation, but overuse will make you look stupid).
    • The difference between its and it's is a confusing case for many. I myself struggled with it for years, and I still slip up on occasion. The possessive form of the pronoun it contains the same letters as the contraction for "it is", but remember, possessive pronouns never take apostrophes. Contractions always do.
    • Lets and let's is another tough one for most people, including myself. Lets is a present-progressive verb: "He lets me sit up front." It indicates an ongoing state of allowance. Let's is a contraction of "let us": "Let's go to the store." Remember, contractions always take apostrophes. And present-tense verbs don't need them!

Maybe Sometimes

  • Use apostrophes to capture dialect sparingly. "I's talkin' to him, but he ain't listen." Using this device too much makes your writing hard to read, and I generally frown upon phonetic spelling of dialect, but sometimes it works. If you're writing period fiction, it may even be necessary, as apostrophes were much more common before spelling was as standardized as it is today. Just be sure not to overdo it, or readers will have to work so hard to understand what you're saying they won't have any attention left for your story.

Any other odd apostrophe situations I didn't cover? Any rules you disagree with? Let me know in the comments below!


The Ten Commanments of Fiction Writing, Part Ten

As a student of the art of fiction, there are several axioms and pieces of advice that I come across again and again; "show, don't tell", "write what you know", "don't trick the reader", etc. These aren't items from a single book, they're everywhere. Some of them surely originate with specific authors, but as ideas they've taken on a life of their own, becoming more than something one person said.

In this series, I will try to gather all those admonitions, encouragements, and adages into a single, definitive list; the Ten Commandments of Fiction Writing. Hopefully this will be as fun and educational for you as it is for me.


Commandment Ten: Thou shalt write what thou knowest, and know all thou mayest.

I think I might have gotten the "Olde English" wrong in the title. Wanna fight about it?


This last commandment is one you're sick of hearing: write what you know. It means you should share your experiences in your stories. It means you should create characters you understand. It also means that if you're a middle-class white guy like me, you don't try to write from the point of view of a poor black single mother during the civil rights movement. Wittgenstein put it best; "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent."

But there's another side to this old adage, and it's this: as a writer, it is your business to learn and experience everything you possibly can.

Direct experience is best. Every experience available to the human mind has its own secrets. People don't always talk about all the emotional subtleties, and as a writer you can make the experience more real for your readers by exposing them. But sometimes direct experience isn't a wise option. You shouldn't try heroin so you can write about being a junkie. You shouldn't murder someone so you can capture the mind of a killer more accurately.

In those cases, the best resource we have is other stories. Books, movies, and quality TV shows have a lot to share, and they have one additional advantage that direct experience doesn't: they're already structured into stories. Art imitates life, but it is not equal to life. Life is messy. Stories, in order to be comprehensible, should be much more orderly. So it behooves the writer to experience as many stories as he or she can.

But as long as you're living, you might as well try to have some life experiences too. They don't necessarily have to be the big, earth-shaking ones. Every day doesn't need to be a passion play. But the world is subtle and complex, despite its humdrum appearance. There is poetry all around you; from regional dialects, to the unique flavor of a particular coffee, to the unexpected struggles of your fellow humans.

If you've taken my advice about taking notes, you know what I'm talking about. Writers should be keen observers of everything around them, particularly human nature. Watch the people who come through your life. Listen to the way they talk. Study their body language. See the face they present to the world, and try to guess what's behind it.

Never turn down an opportunity to learn about something. Be curious about the things you don't see in your everyday life; from the secret pain of a depressed person, to the daily routine of your local garbage man.

Even the most menial things like the floors you walk on contain hundreds of things you never think about. You never know what might spark an idea. Open yourself to the physical world around you. Pay close attention to all five of your senses, and always be on the lookout for details that aren't obvious. 

I remember the exact moment I started doing this myself. I was in a subway station in LA. Other than the years I spent there, I've never lived anywhere with a subway system. I had been on the NY subway when I was younger, but my senses weren't as keen then. This particular day in LA, I happened to notice the rush of air that proceeds the arrival of a train. You can feel it even before you hear the squeal of the train's brakes. This detail isn't particularly life-changing, but it gave me pause. It makes perfect sense why it happens; the air is being displaced by the train just as water is displaced when you slip into the bathtub. But I had never heard anyone mention it before. And its exactly those kind of details that make a setting real.

Details like that exist for all the five senses, and they cover the entire spectrum of human interaction. If you tune in to them, they will begin to populate your writing even without deliberate effort. The mere act of observing them plants them in your subconscious, and they begin to naturally emerge in your work.

Being open to the world around you is one of the most important habits a writer can develop. If we're to write what we know without writing exclusively about ourselves, we'd better know everything we can. (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!)