As I threatened last week, offering a few definitions to my writing and non-writing friends has now become a question I feel called to answer. In this installment, an explanation for why books of certain sizes merit certain “length” labels. Hearkening back to the literature classes I took for my German and French majors, we spent time studying everything from aphorisms (I’m recalling La Rochefoucauld’s Maximes, which could almost be equated with Flash fiction for their super-short constraints) to plays and novels. However, because of the time constraints of a semester, most frequently we read novellas. In fact, one memorable professor spent almost all of my freshman year fall term waxing lyrical about Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kroeger as the pinnacle of the novella. It was written in sonata form (a composition in three segments exploring two themes). We translated almost every word to wring out the slightest nuances of the internal struggle within the protagonist for the ascendancy of the passion of his Italian side versus the repression and logic of his German side and searched for all the instances of themes slightly recast. Ian McEwen of the New Yorker would probably have found my professor a kindred soul when he wrote “Some Notes on the Novella“.
A memorable class for many reasons. But in college, none of my professors discussed the reason for the distinct lengths of the various works we read.
That didn’t become a topic until I started writing. Because I write in the speculative fiction genres, I follow the guidelines the Science Fiction Writers of America outlined for their Hugo and Nebula awards:
- Short Story: less than 7,500 words;
- Novelette: at least 7,500 words but less than 17,500 words;
- Novella: at least 17,500 words but less than 40,000 words;
- Novel: 40,000 words or more.
This seems clear-cut enough (to me) to have closed the door on the definition of how long a novel is–or at least what the lower boundary for a novel length is. Professional editor Rob Bignell reiterates the SFWA guidelines, and then expands on them with a list of pros and cons of what can be achieved at each length.
Where things get tricky: Not all authors write in this genre. If you start poking the corners of the Internet, you can start with the humorous: what is the average book length, and what are examples of the outliers on the spectrum? Then move to the entirely commercially focused lengths of what the major publishing houses will produce (where that site’s advice also includes avoiding the term novelette, which it considers a derogatory term). And finally to a man who casts himself as an expert at helping get authors published, who goes into the variations in different markets for commercially focused publication.
Even the SFWA allows for some novellas to be submitted as novels, creating further fluidity and options for misunderstanding. I can tell you as an author, there’s nothing more disheartening than having advertised a work as a novelette and been told my novel is too short.
So my educational point of the day: When I include word counts and length descriptors with my stories, they will follow the SFWA guidelines, and have been constructed (to the best of my ability) understanding the pros and cons Bignell outlines. Shorter works will necessarily have a smaller cast of characters and fewer subplots, but should still feel complete in themselves. Longer works have the space to develop additional subplots and themes, as well as a larger cast of characters. I tend to prefer spare prose, so doubt I’ll ever reach the epic (to me) length of 100,000+ words, but I will let readers know what my word counts are in my book descriptions with the understanding that this small bit of context may also help set expectations about the length of entertainment I’m offering in a given title.