Going to Great (or Minimal) Lengths

When I first got serious about turning my writing into more than just a hobby, there was some confusion as to what constituted a “novel.” Or a novella, a novelette, a short story, and – oh what in the world is flash? About this time last year, I took a couple of online classes on writing, and, curious if any of my WIPs were long enough, I asked my instructors.

I never got a clear answer. The common answer was “as long as it needs to be to be told properly.” Or a paraphrased version of that anyway. So what is a novel?

A novel, according to Wikipedia, is a written work 40,000 words or longer. What? Not defined in pages? Uh-oh. Okay, well… how many words fit on a page? I’ve gotten answers anywhere from 250 words per page, all the way up to 450 words per page (and just recently saw somewhere that it was 200.) I pulled a few books off my shelf – standard paperback romance size and a couple of espionage thrillers (since that’s what’s on my shelf) and came up with about 300 words per page on average, and that was averaging ten random pages from ten random books. (To clarify, that’s 100 pages of counting.)

I opened up one of my WIPs and checked the word count. Then I did some math. 37,113 words turned into 124 pages. Well now, that’s a little shorter than I was expecting.

This information deflated me a little bit. I wanted to be a novelist. How could I be a novelist if I didn’t have enough words to create a novel? But that brings me back to that general comment about “how long should it be.” “As long as it needs to be to be told properly.”

Now that we’ve got the technical length of a novel defined, each genre has its own standards. So let’s discuss those.

According to a post by Chuck Sambuchino on Writer’s Digest, where I found this information, if you’re writing a novel in basically any genre except Sci-Fi/Fantasy, YA and under, and westerns, your butter zone is in that 80,000-90,000 word range.

Ignoring science fiction and fantasy for a moment, typical lengths for the remaining genres are going to be shorter, and range anywhere from 500-600 words for a children’s story book, all the way up to 80,000 for a western.

Back to SF/F, and then I’m down off my soap box. These two genres tend to run into the six-digit range. But that’s because we’re building worlds that don’t actually exist. Chuck says the optimal range is from 100,000-115,000 words. We have to define the inhabitants of those worlds, how they travel, what kinds of medicine and religions are practiced, the government system and laws, the currency system, their weaponry, what their level of technology is, and is magic involved? For a detailed list of questions every science-fiction or fantasy writer should ask – and answer – before they embark on a journey through their new world, you can click here.

But wait! There’s more! Out of curiosity, I looked up the lengths of the other “sizes” and checked those out too. So here it is, just for you! This information was gleaned from the depths of Wikipedia.

Novella: a written work between 17,500 and 40,000 words.

Novelette: 7,500 up to 17,500 words.

Short story: under 7,500 words.

Flash fiction is 100 to 500 words.

Hopefully, this eases some of the pain of trying to figure out where your story falls, or what you need to do to get it into the butter zone for your genre. But whatever you’re writing, don’t worry about the number of words you’re putting down on the page. Worry instead about telling your story the best that you can, and focus on your vision for the story. Write it for yourself first, and let the paper-pushers worry about counting words.

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