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.
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.
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?