Story? Novella? Novel? What Am I Writing?

This past week, I worked quite a bit on a short story — a young adult paranormal about a shape shifter. I really got into it, and the ideas and words and excitement just spilled out on the page.

At some point, however, I realized  was dangerously close to 15,000 words — which was, as I’d seen, the outer limit of short stories. Indeed, short stories are often preferably less than 10,000 words. Yet, the story wasn’t done! The characters were still going. So I kept writing.

While I finally typed THE END, I scanned for word count again and realized this.

Facebook status update

Oops! So I started researching exactly what I’d written. Here’s a general summary of word counts I found:

100 to 1,000 words

You’ve written flash fiction. Flash fiction is a particularly good way to warm up the writing juices. English teachers often use flash fiction by providing a story prompt for their students as a classroom exercise. Writers can also run an Internet search for flash fiction and find plenty of prompts. Flash fiction tends to be a single scene or two, a teaser for a larger story, and/or a mood piece.

1,000 to 10,000 words

For the most part, this is a short story. There’s some debate about where that outer limit is drawn, and you can find anything from 7,500 to 15,000 words as the maximum for a short story. Short stories usually follow a single plot and don’t delve into subplots; there just isn’t time and space for that layering. Shorts are great at honing in on a specific storyline.

10,000 to 20,000 words

I prefer Emma Burcart‘s response to my Facebook status update and want to call this a novelita! But my research finally turned up the term novelette. (I suppose the difference is whether you want Spanish or French to have a say in the suffix.) Acknowledging this rare category, my “short story” actually fell into this camp. Why write a novelette? I don’t know generally because I see so few of them, but in my case there were two plots, even though they substantially interwove, and I needed more time on the page to resolve both of them.

20,000 to 40,000 words

Welcome to the novella, a story length that has been enjoying quite a bit of success in the ebook world. Novellas are long enough to have more than one layer, even follow multiple characters, and tell a pretty substantial story. But they’re also quick reads, which is quite appealing to many people in our fast-paced world. Novellas weren’t that practical as a story length when printing costs and bookstore shelf space were restrictive, but ebooks require less upfront cost, making shorter length fiction more viable. When all was said and done — that is, when I revisited a scene and beefed it up — my “short story” became a novella, its first draft currently coming in at 21,600 words.

40,000 and up

We’ve finally arrived at a novel. Of course, different genres call for different lengths. For instance, you won’t find much in the way of adult fantasy at 40,000 words, but that’s a great length for a middle-grade read. Epic novels are much longer, maybe 110,000 words or more, while cozy mysteries will be far closer to maybe the 60,000-word mark. To get specifics, you can search “word count by genre” and find plenty of resources on that question.

Of course, there are always rule-breakers. Like Margaret Mitchell writing Gone with the Wind at over 410,000 words and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea at only 26,600 words.

And where a story falls within these word counts can also depend on how the publisher wants to market. For instance, a middle-grade book that’s 30,000 words isn’t going to be called a novella, period. Because for a fourth grader, that is a novel, and he sure isn’t going to refer to his book as a “novella.”

Whatever I just wrote — short story, novelette, novella — I’m not sure the reader really cares. The reader simply wants to be swept up in a great story that compels them to turn the pages and savor the tale.

So whether I hack away at my shape shifter story and return it back to its novelette or even short story length, or keep it solidly in novella territory, what matters is: Did I write a wonderful story?

And that’s not so easy to pin down until I get it into the hands of readers.

ROW80 Update

Now let me pin down my writing progress for this past week. I participate in A Round of Words in 80 Days, the writing challenge that knows you have a life, and here are my goals for the round:

1. Read 12 books. Read #10, The Up Side of Down by Megan McArdle (nonfiction). Just two more books to meet my goal. Doing well here.

2. Complete two drafts of short stories. One draft done, and the other halfway done. I’ll be working on it next week. Made progress.

3. Take care of ROW80 sponsor responsibilities. Checked in for Sunday and Wednesday updates and heard lots of good stuff! Of course, life sometimes still gets in the way of our goals, but we’re making progress. Done.

4. Edit at least once through Good & Guilty, young adult mystery. Not this week. I focused on my short story/novella. Nope.

Bonus. I entered my opening chapters of Sharing Hunter, a young adult contemporary novel, in two RWA chapter contests. Since contest participation is a goal of mine for the year, I felt pretty good about finally pressing SEND on my entries and entering the contests. This is my first shot at writing contests, so we’ll see what kind of feedback I get.

What length of story do you like to read and/or write? Do you care what label a story is given? And how was your week?

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32 thoughts on “Story? Novella? Novel? What Am I Writing?

  1. I NEVER knew this about novels, novelettes, etc. Thanks so much. I swear, sometimes I get so tired of all these “rules and regulations” about writing. Truly, I don’t think the reader gives a hoot about what the book is length-wise and before I was a writer, telling me 40,000 words or whatever, meant absolutely nothing because I never knew how long a book was anyway!

    1. I tend to see these as guidelines, Patti, not hard and fast rules. But I agree that the reader doesn’t typically think about it. They might look at page count (like if they’re looking for a quick read), but that’s probably about it. Thanks! Have a terrific week.

  2. Love how you sneak in there how you finished your story. Bravo again by the way. 🙂
    I’m a fan of flash fiction and the novelette/novella lengths. All of my work falls in these categories so far. I think it’s great training for writing succinct stories. The last think I want is a slow middle or pages my readers want to skip over. I do enjoy reading the 300-page romances though. So, eventually I hope to write at that length.
    Congratulations on submitting your Sharing Hunter chapter. I like hearing about things you’re doing with this book. Good luck and have a great week.

    1. Yes, your novella length was terrific! You packed a lot of story in there, but it was the right length for a weekend read.

      And you make a great point about how it hones the succinct story skills. I think the short story writing is helping me see how to make every section count — a lesson I’ll carry over to the novel editing.

      Thanks for your encouragement! I’ve benefited so much from it. Happy writing!

  3. I’d never really sat down to figure out what was what, so THANK YOU for doing this, Julie. I used to write tons of short stories…now I want to go dig those up.

    Happy writing this week and good luck in those contests. That’s a bug deal. Miss you, girlie!

    1. You. Are. Welcome. 🙂 And dig up those shorts, Jenny! You probably have some great stuff.

      As to the contests, Margie was one of those really pushing me to do contests. Regardless of whether I win anything, the feedback will be great, so I’m looking forward to it. Miss you too!

  4. Congrats on finishing the story!!

    I read so fast that I generally look for 75K + word count. As a reader, I could care less what people call the different size stories. As a writer, I have a similar chart taped to my office wall 🙂

    You are making great strides toward your goals this round Julie!

    1. Thanks, Raelyn! Ah, fast readers. Yes, I remember being slightly astounded by the number of books you read. Good for you!

      I agree that as a reader, word count lengths don’t matter so much, but as I writer, we need to know. Thanks for the cheerleading! Have a great week!

  5. Rules need to be known so that one can break them with knowledge – never been much on rules myself – but as a consumer I would feel cheated if I paid as much for a short story as a novel – as an extremely rapid reader I personally prefer big books – but a well written riviting novelette/novela, 50/60 K story will surfice for breakfast:)

    well done on your new production – I went through the research when I wrote my first – twas meant to be a short story and kept on growing – in the end it didn’t matter as it finished at over 1K anyway – which according to the ‘rules’ a first never should!

    looking forward to reading this shapeshifting book:)

    1. Thanks, Alberta! Yes, I think rule-breaking is just fine if you’re doing it intentionally for a good reason. Let’s hope we writers know our stories best and how they can best be told: as a short, novella, novel, whatever. Hope you have a marvelous week.

  6. I love short stories and novellas, but I also love novels and novelettes, as well as flash fiction. I like e-books because you have the freedom to write the length you want. I seem to have good luck writing short stories. Congrats. on finishing and good luck in the contests you entered.

    1. Like you, I enjoy all good stories — for different reasons. What I read often depends on the time I have and the mood I’m in.

      Glad to hear you write short stories! I think it’s good that the ebook surge has brought short stories and novellas back into fashion. 🙂

  7. I’ve long had a preference for longer books (100k+) but it seems the older I get, the more I like to mix shorter works in with them. It really depends on the story – they need to be however long they need to be! Your post is funny, given that I am also working on a short story that turned into a novelette that is now firmly in novella territory. 😀 Congrats on finishing yours!

    1. I used to have more stamina to read epic novels. Like a big Russian literature novel felt excited and wonderful in my hands. These days, I’m a bit less inclined to take on a huge tome.

      Thanks for sharing your own experience! Nice to know I’m not alone in the “It’s a short story. No, wait! It’s a novelette. No, no, it’s a NOVELLA!” LOL. I’m sure your story is great, Jennette!

    1. Isn’t that a nice length, David? Long enough to really dig in, but a quick read for the reader.

      I still enjoy big books, but I like to vary what I read, and novellas certainly have their place in my reading list. Have a super week!

  8. What’s important is that you completed your inspiration. In this day and age you can use that story somewhere. Readers won’t care unless you market it wrong. If television can do everything from 30 minute sitcoms to mini-series then why can’t we have as much latitude? A short story or novelette is great for an evening when there isn’t much time, but I also enjoy losing myself in a lengthy novel.

    1. Great comparison! Indeed, I watched a web series where each episode was 12-13 minutes long. I couldn’t imagine how they could pack story into that short window…but they didn’t. And it was good!

      Thanks for the encouragement!

  9. I prefer the novel/novella range, but that’s partly because I feel the shorter works are harder.

    Great job on finishing the draft, whatever you want to call it!

    1. Thanks, Nicole!

      For some time, I thought I didn’t like short stories. But when I really thought about it, some of the stories that have stuck with me for years are shorts: like The Veldt by Ray Bradbury, The Gift of the Magi by O’Henry, and The Tell Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe (or really anything by Poe). It’s been nice exploring how it is to write this shorter length. But I probably lean as well toward the novella/novel range.

  10. I wrote a novella last year that ended up being over 50k. After I revised it, it’s down to a little under 47k. I sent it to my CP and now thinking about expanding it to novel length.
    Good luck on your goals this week.

    1. I think 47k IS novel length, Fallon. At least that’s what I’ve seen. But of course, you can expand your story to dig deeper and hit a certain genre’s expectations. Enjoy!

      Thanks for the encouragement!

  11. Congratulations on finishing your draft! That’s such an excellent achievement. 😀

    As much as I love reading epic-length novels, I’ve come to enjoy the novella. I’ve got a few ideas I’ve been kicking around for a series of novellas, which have been languishing on the back burner with everything else. But maybe in Round 2 I’ll pick them up again–that might be what I need to get back to writing!

    Have an excellent week!

    1. Thanks, Lena! It’s so nice to type “THE END” on a story.

      Hope you can get crackin’ on your novellas soon! Sounds like a good plan to get back in. Best wishes for a great week yourself!

  12. I took a class on the American Novella in college, and I really loved the form. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of a market for novellas at the time. Now that technology and the publishing world have changed, I’m excited to be able to write novellas, novelettes, and short stories that can be published as e-books.

    I’ve certainly had novellas that turned into novels and short stories that turned into novellas. Sometimes the story evolves beyond the form we’re trying to place it in. Good luck with your story, Julie!

    1. A whole class on the American novella? How cool.

      It’s true about a story evolving. Sometimes your characters have more to say/do and sometimes it all streamlines to short-story focus. Thanks for stopping by, Denise! Hope your week rocks!

  13. I alternate between reading novels and short stories, and find myself drawn to writing shorter fiction. NaNoWriMo has gone over like a lead balloon the last couple of times I’ve tried it, so I’ve focused on short stories. Unfortunately, they come in at around 20K words…

    1. Can you write two novellas for NaNoWriMo? Or do your 50k words all have to be on one project?

      Glad you enjoy writing short stories. I’ve grown to really love it. Thanks, John!

      1. According to the Sacred Rules, one must begin a brand new novel at 0000 local time on November 1 and have completed at least 50K words on it by 2359 on the 30th.

        But, most people say, “screw the rules” and do whatever the heck they want. Some people just continue their current project and write 50K during the month. My plan for last year was to write a 25k-word novella and a 25K-word memoir, but even those were a little long. It would make sense that one could write ten 5K-word stories, or five 10K-word stories and call it a novel. (Amy Tan said that “The Joy Luck Club” was a collection of short stories held together by a common theme that she bundled and sold as a novel. That’s good enough for me.)

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