Friday, July 16, 2010

How long is your story or why writers speak in word count

"You're writing a story. That's awesome! How long is it?"

"About 11,000 words."

Blank stare. " many pages is that?"

"Oh, about 30."


"How long is your novel?"

"Around 98,000 words."

"Wow! That's a lot of words. How long of book is it?"

"Well, it depends on how they format it."

Another blank stare, even more intense than before.

"It's a little shorter than the third Harry Potter book."

"Oh, okay. That is a long book."

For better or worse, we writers often live in word counts because they dictate what our story is considered.

There are four main types of stories involving word length, and they vary by publisher, so I'll be talking in very general terms. There are also subsets within these word counts, but I'm sticking with the major four: flash, short story, novella, and novel.

Flash Fiction is the shortest of stories ranging anywhere from 1 to 1,000 words. These stories are known for their brevity, and they have their origins dating back to Aesop's Fables. It's not easy writing a comprehensive story (beginning, middle, and end) in only 1,000 words or less. A writer has to find a way to say a lot with very little, but they are wonderful exercises in the writing craft. As for myself, I've been working on flash fiction in just the past month and enjoyed it so much that I created Flash Fiction Fridays on my blog. Every Friday I put up a new flash fiction piece. You can read this Friday's flash here. Our very own Lisa Rusczyk has also joined me in this fictional pursuit on Fridays, and you can read hers on her blog here

The next type of story is the short story. This is the type I would say most of us are familiar with beyond the novel. At Raven and the Writing Desk, we strive to publish a short story a week on the blog. According the Wikipedia, a short story has to be more than 1,000 words and less than 20,000. Of course, word counts may vary. Back in English class many moons ago, I had a teacher who told the class that a short story is something that can be read from start to finish in thirty minutes. Some famous short stories include Poe's work, and one reason we named the blog Raven and the Writing Desk, inspired by the very same writer. A short story is written as a moment of time in a character's life.

Novellas are longer than a short story but shorter than a novel. According to Wikipedia, they can run from 17,500 words to 40,000 words. Stephen King has some well-known novellas in his The Mist and UR. Our Aubrie Dionne has a wonderful novella with Lyrical Press titled Nebula's Music. It's a beautiful science fiction romance/space opera story. I am attempting to write my first novella-length story, as well, and I am enjoying it.

Novels are what we know the very best. We read novel-length books all the time or at least see them around us. Depending on the publisher, novel-length varies, but I will use NaNoWriMo's writing length of 50,000 words or more. Some novels are short, yet others are really long (Stephen King's Under the Dome, for example). Aubrie and Lisa have both published novel-length books, and I am working upon my own manuscripts (two completed first drafts and two works-in-progress).

As you can see above, word count is important. If we want to write a novel, but it's too short, then we have a problem. Same with a short story being too long. And, don't even get me started on the various places that have their own word counts writers must strive to reach or cut a story to fit.

So, when we writers start going off about our word counts, remember the lengths of stories out there and at least smile and nod at us. We appreciate it.


Eric W. Trant said...

Size matters, eh. So the truth comes out.

I still don't get why publishers pick on novellas so hard. I guess because the cost of printing out a novella is roughly equal to printing a longer piece, but they can't charge as much.

See, I've never heard a person say they didn't like novellas. It's only the publishers who say it.


- Eric

Lisa Rusczyk said...

I go by word count for each day when I'm writing a novel - I try to hit 2000 words a day.

Nice post!

Aubrie said...

Word count is such a tricky issue. I'd had novels rejected before because of the word count. Now I'm more aware of it as I write.

Tara McClendon said...

This is a nice general overview. I use word count as a general guideline, but utlimately I feel a story should be the length it needs to be.