The Long and Short of Things

Anyone who knows me can tell you I certainly have a gob. I have a knack, a natural talent I call it, for spewing out so many more words than are ever necessary for any one single idea. So, too, am I endowed in my writing.

This week has been Spring Break in my school district and I have enjoyed several days of writing; just me, my iPad, and hours of time to devote to my novels. Alas, it is coming to an end far too quickly and next week I will once again take my place among the hard working class and step back into my classroom, leaving only bits and tiny specks of time to devote to my writing.

As I reflect on the monstrous number of pages and thousands of words I have compiled on my latest novel this week, I notice there are still so many more pages, so many more words to write before I can call my work complete. This gave me reason enough to pause and do some research. Could I call it complete now and still get the thing published? What more do I truly have to do to call it finished?

Short story, novella, novelette, novel. I’ve heard these terms often, but never knew how to tell which I am writing. What separates these classifications of narrative prose? How many pages are enough for a single published book?

Well, it turns out that to put a number of required pages or a specific word count in the definition is hotly debated. “So, I only have to write three sentences then?” I hear one of students asking me when I assign the task of writing an introduction paragraph for their persuasive writing piece. The need for set, obtainable, concrete parameters in our productions, even writing, is innate as evidenced by my second grader’s question.

There are more opinions on length considered to be right for a short story, novella, or novelette than there seemingly are stars in the night sky. In the mid nineteenth century, for example, it was thought that a short story should be no longer than one could read in a single sitting. This is a fair enough assessment. However, times have changed so much since then. Though one could read the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in one sitting when it was newly published, today’s reader’s attention span, not to mention available free time, is so much shorter.

This article, for instance, to be considered by any money making publication would most likely be restricted to approximately 500 words. Any less and it wouldn’t be worth the ink to print it, any longer and the average reader would not bother reading it all the way to the end. At one point the reader would either lose interest, run out of time, or just simply employ the skill born out of necessity in the fast paced life of twenty first century living: skim. Skimming, the worse thing that can happen to a writer. It’s like looking at the Mona Lisa and only noting that it’s a painting of some common woman.

So what is a writer to do, especially a writer like myself who thinks if it’s worth saying, it’s worth saying with twice the number of words needed? Write. That’s it; just write. When you start your story, know the fundamentals: characters, problem, solution, time frame. Then ask yourself a few simple questions: Does your story happen in a brief span of time: a week, a day, an hour? Can the problem be quickly ascertained and just as quickly solved? Are there but one or two or at most a small handful of characters? If you can answer yes to all of these questions, you have a short story on your hands, a story that can satisfy a reader in just a few thousand words.

If not, keep writing. You may well have a novella, novelette, or even a full fledged novel for your readers to sink their teeth into. Something they can look forward to reading the next time they have a moment to spare, right up to the very satisfying end. I know now that my current work can be nothing less than a novel, with more than one problem and slightly more than a handful of characters there is still so much more to explore and experience before the whole story can be told.


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Naomi Baltuck
    Mar 22, 2012 @ 16:51:02

    This is a really good post and it raises important questions. I think it is easier to write a novel than a short story, because you have to make every word count. When I sent in the manuscript for The Keeper of the Crystal Spring, my agent told me to cut a hundred pages. I cut two hundred, and it was a better book for it. I am a ruthless editor. I instinctively ask myself, “Is this redundant? Can it be said in one word rather than three or ten? Does this move the story forward or give insight into a character?” Too many words discourage readers, who don’t want to sift through to find the essence of what you are saying. Elmore Leonard said, “I leave out all the parts that the readers skip through anyway.” You do also have to know when to stop, so that you do not lose the rhythm of the language, or leave out necessary information. But that usually isn’t as much of a problem as being willing to break out the red pen and cut down the word count. Mostly it just requires a healthy emotional separation from your words, which is different from distancing yourself from the story. And practice really makes a difference–you develop an eye for it.


  2. TheOthers1
    Mar 22, 2012 @ 18:22:32

    First, I read the entire article. Second, I always wonder about length when I write. NaNoWriMo says 50K is a novel though some say that toes the line of novel length. Other things say 60K puts you at true novel length. I like your thinking on how to figure out which length to go to. Ive never thought about it that way, but know it could be a valuable tool. I usually aim for length to hit between 55K and 70k. My two long manuscripts both hit about there.


    • makergoddess
      Mar 22, 2012 @ 19:45:13

      I am honored you read all 743 words, CC! That truly means a lot to me. 🙂

      I’m so glad you found my post useful. It does my teacher’s heart good to give someone an ah ha moment. 🙂

      Thanks for the comment!


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