Before I began writing my novel, I did a lot of research into “how long should my novel be?” What constitutes a short story? Can a novel be too short or too long?” What’s the difference between a novella and a novelette? For anyone starting to write a novel these questions can be a bit daunting, especially since there really is no exact answer for how long your book should be. That is putting it rather frankly, but it’s actually true, to a degree. So let’s break it down into a number of different categories: flash fiction, short stories, novelettes, novellas, novels, and sagas / sequels. In my research I have found many definitions for each of these categories and have put together, what I feel, is a good scale to gauge story lengths by.
Now, there’s something important to mention here, and I can’t stress this enough. There is no set rule or specific length to classify your works by. Everything mentioned below is simply a guideline. Publishers may classify their book types differently than what you find here, or they may be exact, you just wont know until you work with a publisher. Sometimes they state their novel length preferences upfront, on their submission page, other times it’s a simple luck of the draw.
Additionally, there are always exceptions to the rule. Just because a certain type of book is harder to sell than others, doesn’t mean that a unique novelette wouldn’t grab a publisher’s attention with ease. So, here we go, a few guidelines to help classify your work and give you a goal to shoot for when writing.
Flash Fiction – Under 1,000 Words: Flash fiction is a type of story that is often found in magazines or publications to fill a single page. I’ve found that writer’s often tend to take on flash fiction (and short stories) as a sort of challenge. It can be difficult to write an exceptional story in under 1,000 words and still have a beginning, middle, and end. Being able to include those, and still develop a sense of character is a worthy challenge for any author. (I even plan on undertaking this challenge eventually)
Short Story – 1,000 to 7,500 Words: A short story is, obviously, short. If looking to get published, short stories can be a bit more complicated. Unless you happen to have a number of completed stories. Publishers usually aren’t looking for a single short story, only coming in under thirty pages, it’s often hard to justify the cost of publishing. A number of publications, such as magazines, newspapers, websites, and e-magazines, accept single short stories and are great ways to publish them. If, however, you have a number of short stories, that can add up to the approximate length of a novel, a number of publisher do publish compilations.
Novelettes – 7,500 to 20,000 Wrods: Novelettes are a tad easier to write than short stories or flash fiction, because you have more pages to work with. The trouble with novelettes is that they may be harder to sell to a publisher. The reason being is that they are too long to fit into a magazine, and they are too short to be published as a novel. From the research I’ve done, it seems that authors often times combine a few novelettes into a compilation. But, as stated above, there have been novelettes published by themselves. In my opinion, they’re actually perfect for a majority of modern day, on-the-go readers. A short, easy, good read that you can finish quickly and pick up a new one.
Novellas – 20,000 to 50,000 Words: Novellas are excellent for modern day readers, just like novelettes. They’re good for an easy read, but can be just as in depth as a novel. Characters can be deep, plots can be complex, but can still be finished in a couple days depending on how fast you like to read. While many publishers won’t bat an eye at a novel this short, novellas are excellent for e-books. Just like novelettes, they’re easy to pick up and put down, and reading it in your spare time on a screen just seems to work. Additionally, there have been many novellas published as standalone books, so if your story fits this category don’t try to stretch it out any longer than you need.
Novels – 50,000 to 120,000 Words: Now we get to what many writers, including myself, aim for. Novels are the easiest to publish (easy being a relative term, most accepted book length to publish, if you can get a publisher to read your book). The most recognized range of published novels would be between 70,000 and 100,000 words. As I said previously, I can’t overstate the fact that just because you’re not in that “sweet spot” doesn’t mean you won’t get your novel published. My Novel, “The Drive Home,” comes in just over that 50,000 mark. If your work is nearing the higher end of this range, you may want to consider some strict editing and cut your word count back a bit. For a first time author, or an author with little credentials, a publisher might be wary to publish anything over 100,000 to 110,000 words.
I decided on 50,000 words for my goal, because over the last couple years, I have participated in the NaNoWriMo competition. Thirty days, at least 50,000 words, that was the goal. So, that was my goal for my first novel. 50,000 words for someone who hasn’t written a full length novel before can be pretty a daunting task. When I began writing “The Drive Home,” I thought that goal was impossible. Now that I have finished, that seems like a piece of cake. During the time between finishing my novel and beginning the editing process, (“they” say you should put your novel away for two months or so, I took two weeks) I took the free time to start writing something more science fiction oriented. In that two week time period, I wrote one hundred pages, which came in just under 25,000 words. And I have only progressed through about 30% of the story line. By completing my first project, my confidence, my writing, and my speed have increased exponentially.
Epics / Sequels / Sagas – Over 120,000 Words: Novels of this length are often turned away when written by first time authors. If you fall into this category, you may want to consider separating your novel into a sequel or trilogy. Writers who create this type of novel are often well established, to the point that the publisher doesn’t really care how long your novel is, because they know it’ll do well. The most obvious and overly used example: Stephen King. If he wants to publish a novel that’s under 50,000 or over 150,000 words, his publisher will take it on faith, because he’s good at what he does. Personally, I love the idea of writing something that matches the weight of a newborn baby. A book that when you set it down on a table it shakes and lets everyone know, “Hey, I’m reading an enormous book!” But, until I make a name for myself and sell millions of copies, I can be satisfied with writing a trilogy of shorter novels, rather than a something this size.
Wow! That was a lot of information. Hopefully, this sheds some light on where certain word counts are classified. But the bottom line really is, that the story dictates the length of your novel. You don’t want to stretch something over 300 pages when it really should have only been 150 pages. The reader may get bored if you drag your story on. The opposite is true as well. Don’t upset the reader by denying them deep characters or climactic plot points, when you have enough content for a 250 page novel. Either of those scenarios could very well affect the sales of your current or future works.
That’s it. That’s your cue to start, or continue with your writing. No matter what the length, genre, or content, get it done and enjoy what you’re writing. It’ll be finished when it’s supposed to be finished and not a moment sooner.