A question that frequently does the rounds of the #WritingCommunity groups is ‘How long is a Novel meant to be?’ The answer as far as I can see is ‘Well, how long is a piece of string?’ I’m not trying to be a pedant but I’m also not entirely sure there’s a ‘right’ answer. So, let’s have a look at some of the ‘standard’ classifications for works of fiction of certain lengths, and what works fall into those categories.
The first stop is Flash Fiction, that’s anything around 500 to 1000 words. Here we’re talking about vignettes featuring in larger publications, say RPG books. They’re the samplers and flavour pieces to give the reader an idea of settings and archetypes. I admit, it’s not impossible to tell a full story in 500 words or less, but it’s bloody hard. They also feature in anthologies sometimes, which leads us into…
Short Stories, anything between 1000 and 10,000 words. Short stories usually feature in anthologies rather than being published as stand-alone. Sometimes they are published as satellite stories for ongoing series, filling in dark spots, or featuring background characters the author wants to give more page space or as ‘taster’ handouts to generate readership. The short story should never be sold *ahem* ‘short’. 2021’s BSFA (British Science Fiction Association) Award for short fiction, for works of 40,000 words or less, was awarded to Ida Keogh’s Short Story, ‘Infinite Tea in the Demara Cafe’. That story can be found in ‘London Centric: Tales of Future London’ edited by Ian Whates.
Next in line is the Novelette, here we start to see overlaps in the length classification and the reason for the uncertainty a lot of new writers face. A Novelette is classed as anywhere between 7,500 and 19,000 words so, are you writing a long Short-story, or a short Novelette? A quick search for ‘Famous Novelette’s turns up ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde‘ by Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘The Call of Cthulu’ by H. P. Lovecraft and ‘The Faerie Handbag’ by Kelly Link.
Now we reach the Novella, clocking in at anywhere between 10,000 to 40,000 words. Another quite massive overlap, the search for famous Novella’s turns up many of the same titles as the search for ‘Novelettes’. George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ clocks in at nearly 30,000 words, John Skalzie’s ‘The God Engines’ finds itself in the search as does ‘Aurora in Four Voices’ by Catherine Asaro.
Now, here comes the root of the problem. As a search ‘How Long is a Novel’s top hit is a Masterclass website article about Word Count. The article suggests that a Novel should be anywhere between 80,000 to 100,000 words. So where does anything between 40k and 80k reside (The article states that anything over 50k can be considered a ‘novel’ but there’s still a 10,000 word gap between that and a Novella). So, we’ve gone from overlap to massive gap hence a lot of folks confusion. James Herbert’s ‘The Rats’ falls through this gap at 52k, even though the first print of the horror sold out in three weeks. Searching for books by word count is tricky, you can easily look for the word count of a book, but books categorised by word count? Notsomuch.
Another answer to the confusion is down to different genre’s readers, supposedly, having different expectations (according to publishers). This is why Fantasy can be sub-categorised with ‘Epic-Fantasy’. Blog site The Write Life has a partial breakdown along the lines of non-fiction, YA, and a few genre specifics but the consensus I’m seeing across the board is this. If you’re an unknown trying to get a new book published the ‘sweet spot’ across genre is around the 80,000 to 100,000 word mark for a ‘Novel’, but does that matter?
At a workshop recently a writer in the room related the tale of their 30,000 word story that seemed ‘too short to publish’. So they added another five thousand words and then didn’t like the story anymore. The length, or lack thereof wasn’t the problem here, the story could absolutely have been published as a Novella, Novelette or even in an anthology, the problem was the writers perception that the story was ‘too-short’ and that might be due to this confusion about story lengths and the resulting classification. If the story is complete and compelling why pad it out? It can find it’s place among those categories listed above or, as a self pub, among the readers out there.
Length is only really important if you’re looking to get a traditional publishing deal and only to get that door open. Of course, if you hit it big, word count can go out the window. I mentioned ‘The Rats’ by James Herbert? It has two sequels ‘Lair’ and ‘Domain’. The advice for Horror is to stay under 80,000 words. After ‘Rats’ 52k (and massive success) ‘Lair’ clocked in at 72k and the finale ‘Domain’ hit it out of the park at 145,000 words and still and International Bestseller. So, go out there, do the thing and, if it clocks in at ‘a bit weighty’, save it for when you get famous.