Monday, November 21, 2005

Story Length

A recurring quesstion among new (and not-so-new) writers is "How long should my story be?" The standard answer is "As long as it needs to be!" I once heard (from Mark Twain, I think, but I'm not certain) that a speech should be like a woman's skirt: long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to be interesting. The same could be said of a story.

That's all well and good, of course, but it doesn't really answer the question. Yes, to a certain extent, the story you have to tell will dictate it's length. You may be aiming for a short story, but if your tale really needs multiple plotlines in order to be told properly, then what you're really writing is a novel, you just haven't realized it yet. The "official" word counts (as measured for the Hugo awards) for the various forms are:

  • Short-short (or flash or sudden fiction): less than 1500 words
  • Short story: 1500-7500 words
  • Novelette: 7500-17,500 words
  • Novella: 17,500-40,000 words
  • Novel: 40,000 words and up

This is why National Novel Writing Month participants are expected to write 50,000 words in one month: this is the minimum length for a novel. In reality, though, a publisher will almost never buy a novel this short. Between 40,000 and 80,000 words is a "no man's land" in which there are very few markets (I'm sure there must be some, but I can't think of one off-hand). If your story falls in this range, then it may be unmarketable (even it would otherwise be publishable). In general, editors say they want novels of 80,000 to 120,000 words, though a first novelist would be wise to stay around 100,000 words or less, since 120,000 words is something of a gamble for the publisher -- a gamble they probably aren't willing to take on an unknown author. Young adult (YA) novels tend to run a bit shorter, usually around 60,000 to 80,000 words, but again, tending towards the upper end of that.

I think more people have trouble keeping within the word count limit than they do reaching a word count limit, though. That's because all of us write great scenes that don't really advance the plot, but hurt too much to cut out ("If they don't read this scene, the readers aren't going to fully appreciate what happens later!"). I can sympathize, since I do the same thing. If we're writing for ourselves, that's one thing, but if we want to sell a piece, then we have to be pretty ruthless. I read somewhere that those cut scenes can often be expanded into a great short story after the novel becomes a best seller. Works for me!

For myself, I'm shooting for the 100,000 word mark. No, I'm not going to artificially try to hit a predetermined word count, but I will add just enough depth to story to put it into that ballpark. While it's true that the story sets the length, you control how deep a story you set out to tell, so in the end, you do have some measure of creative control. I think the big thing is to just write. While I know editing is incredibly painful for some, I still think it's a lot easier to cut than it is to create. So, write your tale and don't worry (too much) about the form. In your editing phase, though, it's time to look at all the story elements and decide just how long it really needs to be.

No comments: