4/25/2016

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.

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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.