Tuesday, February 7, 2012

What Am I Buying?

Chalk this up under the "Public Service Announcement" heading. In the rapidly changing world of commercial ebooks, there are a whole lot of "new" terms being bandied about. I quotationalize (Yeah, that's not a real word. But it should be) "new" because the terms may only be new to me. Even so, as a long time, avid reader, I suspect I'm not the only one scratching my head a bit when I hear these labels.

What am I talking about? The classification of a story's length, of course.

At top, we have novels. Easy so far. Then, the novella. Okay, got that. Then, the novelette... is this like a cutesy novel? And, finally, the short story (eschewing the "novel" theme we had going). Every once in a while, you may even see flash fiction, too. Frankly, these are all just terms for story, long story, longer story, even longer story, and so on. But which falls where on the spectrum? Or, more importantly, I'm about to plunk down $5 straight cash for this bundle of words... is it worth it?

If you claim to know the exact length parameters for each of these works, I'll assume you're either a publishing insider, agent, or professional writer. As a reader, I never really had a reason to care. Before now, 99.9% of what I consumed were novels. In more recent digital days, however, shorter works seem to be gaining a lot of popularity, and it's easy to understand why. Now that things aren't so expensive to produce and easy for readers to find/download, why not check out shorter works? No two readers are exactly alike, and some may prefer quicker stories over the time-investment of novels. What's more, this preference may vary minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour.

As a learning writer, I've struggled to understand the distinctions. Maybe I'm breaking every rule known to writerly man, but I'm pretty sure you don't have to know exactly how long a story is going to be before you tell it. In fact, I've experienced some stories (especially verbal ones) where I'm pretty sure the teller didn't consider length before starting at all. (Also, quite frankly, I'm probably guilty of this one often.)

Now, I've known from the outset that a novel is basically anything over 50k words. Even that is debatable, but it seems a good rule of thumb. What I wanted to do here, then, for both myself and anyone else who may read this, is to write a quick-and-dirty guide to help all of us understand just what exactly am we're getting if we buy a story type we have little experience with.

This is by no means definitive, but I think it'll suffice for most readers and probably most writers as well. The "validity" of your length may vary widely on genre, so this is more specifically targeting science fiction and fantasy writers (I'm using mostly the SFWA definitions here).
  • Novel - Anything larger than 40k (so 50k is a safe assumption, it seems).
  • Novella - 17,500 and 40,000 words.
  • Novelette - 7,500 and 17,499 words.
  • Short Story - Up to 7,500 words. Anything under 1,000 can also be referred to as Flash Fiction, which is a subset of the Short Story.
Simple, right? Not really, since all of this is completely subject to personal/group opinions. Different writing groups may define things with different slices. At the very least, though, we can get a general idea of what the length of the work will be. This puts us in the proverbial ballpark.

For instance, I say I'm writing a short story dare, but what I really should be saying is "novelette" dare. I've just crossed the 7,500 word threshold and have a bit of story left. I anticipate being around the 15k mark. That's totally "short" for me, but almost double a typical short story. If I'm going to be fair to my reader, I should be sure to call it a novelette. (To be double sure, I'll also list the word count, though most readers will end up asking for pages. The problem with pages is that they vary widely based on the consumption medium. Printed pages can be very different from ereader pages. Word count is really the only consistent measurement.)

Anyway, I hope this helps a bit. At the very least, I'll feel more comfortable when I see these terms slung about. In an ideal world, ebook descriptions will contain this information. After all, if you can physically see the book, how do you have any clue how long it is? I think classifications like these will only increase in importance as the consumption of digital books rises.


Anonymous said...

Matt, your definitions seem pretty much on the money. I've always thought a short story was up to about 10,000 words, but that was before I realized there was a such thing as a novelette. I did kind of get annoyed at a reviewer one time because she called my novella (around 25K) a short story.

Nadja Notariani said...

I agree with Lauralynn. From what I've been reading, your numbers/titles seem spot on. Before recently, I had no idea that a novella and a novellette were two different things...Ha!

My second 'book' is a novella, coming in around 30K. The current WIP has yet to be counted...but I'm thinking around 40K or so. I've had great success with the novella, and will probably write another one, despite the fact that I'm drawn to longer length writings. I will write novels, but I want to publish a few things first.

Matt said...

@LLE - Right. I think readers will need to learn more about word counts than they ever have in the past for just this reason. Before, I think we'd always talked about pages and thickness of the book, but that just doesn't mean as much as it used to.

@Double N - "Publishing a few things first" is a great idea. One I'm trying to work on (hence the dare). I am going to shoot for a more healthy mix of some shorter works while I'm working on the larger ones. It's a delicate dance, because my main push will always be novels, but as a beginning author, it is also important for there to be some quick and cheap samples of your work out there. Shorter formats are perfect for this.

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