The Length Debate

Lately I’ve been wading into a debate that I thought merited some discussion on. And as you can probably tell from the title of the post, it has to do with length. The length of different pieces of fiction, to be exact. For years, I’ve subscribed to a particular set of guidelines for fiction lengths that go something like this:

•Flash fiction: 1-1000 words
•Short Story: 1000-10K words
•Novelette: 10K-20K words
•Novella: 20K-40K words
•Novel: 40K+ words

(The definitons above are based on many self-help writing books I’ve read and on the submission guidelines for National Novel Writing Month’s online contest.)

Until recently, I had no idea that there was an actual controversy on the lengths of the various forms of fiction listed above. Some people consider flash fiction only goes to five hundred words, while others argue that a short story can’t exceed 7,500 words without becoming a novelette. Most discussion is saved for novel lengths, with many arguing that forty-thousand is too small and leaves readers feeling robbed when they’re promised a novel that turns out to be too short for their tastes.

When I asked a writing group I belong to on Facebook what their thoughts on this issue were, especially when it comes to novels, I got a number of responses. Some said that fifty-thousand was a novel, though they thought it was a short one. Others said sixty or seventy-thousand was an appropriate minimum for novel length, and a few said fifty-five thousand was a good compromise as it’s right between the lowest minimum and the highest maximum values often cited in the debate. (For now, I’ve revised my definition of novel lengths to fifty-five thousand words at minimum, both for the reasons listed above and because my work usually runs much higher than that, so it works for me.)

To be truthful though, instead of making me worry if I’ve been using a bad definition for what constitutes a novel all this time, I’m pleased that authors are having this debate, especially self-published authors. One of the benefits often touted for self-published authors is that they get to write what they want, and this debate is a reflection of that in some ways. Authors are free to use their own definitions of novels and short stories and novelettes and whatever they write, rather than having to listen to what publishers and agencies believe a novel should be. It’s just another form of the freedom self-published authors are afforded.

However if in November you want to take part in the NaNoWriMo contest and decide that the threshold they give for a novel’s length works for you, then go right ahead. You’re just as welcome to exceed it and write as many words as you feel constitutes the creation of a novel. It’s your choice.

What are your definitions for the various lengths of different kinds of fiction? Why do you think that?