When I first started writing, I sat down, pounded on my keyboard, and wrote until a story was done. I didn’t consider word count or length. It didn’t occur to me that 3500 words might sell better than 15,000 words in some markets. I quickly learned to pay closer attention. If I was interested in getting a story in a certain magazine, I looked up the submission guidelines before I ever wrote the first word.
When I worked on short stories for Alfred Hitchcock’s mystery magazine, the guidelines stipulated stories not over 12,000 words. I looked at Ellery Queen mystery magazine, and the guidelines were 2500-8,000 words. At a mystery writers’ conference, someone said that the slots for longer stories usually went to writers with “names.” That made sense to me. Editors use the names of well-known writers to help sell magazines, so I tried to keep my stories in the shorter part of the word range, usually aiming for 3,000 to 3500 words, and I think that gave me an edge.
When I started concentrating on writing novels, I looked up guidelines for those, too. At the time, mysteries often ranged from 70,000 to 90,000 words for mid-list writers. Most still do. Big writers don’t have to worry as much about going too long or too short. They don’t have to follow as many rules as beginning writers do. The first book they published is worth a look, because they weren’t famous when they sold that one, but usually, it’s safer to study books that are selling now. I look online to get a general feel for how many words/how many pages most writers in a genre are aiming for.
Rules have changed now that authors can self-publish on amazon or other online sites, but it still helps to be aware of basic expectations. Some publishers are specific about what they want. Most picture books are 32 pages and total 500-600 words. Harlequin lists its various lines and how many words it wants for each. For example, Harlequin American Romance wants 55,000-60,000 words. Harlequin Nocturne wants 80,000-85,000. For most novels, 80,000 is a safe length. Flash fiction is usually under 1,000 words, some publishers asking for only 250-750 words, so it’s safer to look up specific publications. Short stories are defined as 1500 to 30,000 words, and novellas as 30,000 to 50,000 words. But the rules have changed a bit for those online. Many authors offer 60 to 100 page stories and list them as novellas. For a while, authors even offered shorter stories (about 40 pages), like I did, and labeled them that way. It’s always safer to study the market and see what’s out there, and the market changes, so an author needs to stay current. My agent, Lauren Abramo, told me that she likes books on Kindle to be shorter than print books. She suggested 70,000 words for books online.
Story length isn’t the only thing to think about when a writer starts a first draft. Chapter lengths and scene breaks are something to think about, too. They affect the feel and flow of a story. I’ve been told by a few writer friends that they write shorter chapters for their online novels. Short chapters make a book feel like it’s moving faster, that the pace is quicker. The other alternative is to write longer chapters with several scene breaks. Long, flowing chapters slow the pace. A writer can use short chapters to add a sense of action or movement and then slow the pace for moments when he wants the reader to “sit” for a moment.
A writer friend once told me that when he starts a story, he writes whatever length is needed to bring that story to life. Artistically, I agree. Realistically, I’d rather have something specific to aim for. Rules can be broken, but why break them unless it’s for a good reason?