Sizing the Story

by Chris McMahon

After working on novels for quite a while now, I found myself surprised by a the desire to write a new SF short.

It got me thinking about the size of stories. Size is always an issue. For novels shorter is better for a first novel – some say even as low as 55k, but mostly in the 60-90k range. For a first novel 120k is a big. It seems you need to graduate to the fat fantasy epics after a few punchy (hopefully award-winning) shorter novels. Of course there are always exceptions – look at the Name of the Wind (Rothfuss) or the Eragon books. Those are big, big books.

My own experience with short stories has been that they seem to find their own shape and size. Mind you, if you need to write a shorter work, it helps to begin with that in mind. I find if I aim to write a 2k piece, it helps to focus and sharpen my ideas. It’s like the ‘story supplier’ back there in the subconscious takes a look at the box it needs to go in, scratches its head and shoves in what it can. That said, this helps me a bit – but there is not getting away from my natural tendency to bloat up the word count. It seems if I just look at something sideways words appear. I go in to edit, diligently remove 500 words then add 2000 fixing some other problem.

Still, if I aim for 2k, I will end up with a tight 3k, with the storyline appropriately focussed.

Mind you, I find starting with a word length against my natural process. I like to go on the whiff of an idea – to let it all unfold as it will. Usually it revolves around one core idea and the feeling of one or two key characters and everything sort of unwinds from there. I often end up with the ‘on the nose’ length of 6-7000 words, which has to ring bells and play an accordion to get an editor to take it over two or three shorter pieces. And don’t even get me started on my supremely unsaleable novellas. Hey. Most things see the light of day eventually – just a matter of being in the right place at the right time – waiting for an anthology with the right theme to come along.

So do you start with a specific word length in mind for shorts? How about for novels? Or do you walk the risky path of letting it develop how it will?


  1. I have so little experience with writing shorts that the target word count only comes under consideration after the story is done. I “naturally” seem to write flash fiction at about 1200 words, or I have all the worldbuilding a novel or series would need in a 20K+ lump. I’ve successfully chopped out the worldbuilding and tightened up the plot to get a decent 8K word short out of such a lump _once_.

    1. Hey, Pam. Don’t knock the short work! If you can write to that flash fiction length, that is a real asset. There are so many more markets for short work – go under 5k and a huge market opens up; under 3k and it opens up even more. I guess flash is specialty in a certain sense, but there are also markets for under 1k.

      The 20k+ ones are a little more problematic – at least for traditional markets. It’s strange though – I love to both write and read this length of fiction. I think the issue from a print publishers PoV was really one of competing space in the anthologies. Maybe now that things are moving electronic this long short/novella lengths will come into its own.

      Chris McMahon

  2. Hey Chris,

    I started writing short shorts and flash 500-2000 words and had no trouble getting accepted. Now I’m adding an extra degree of complexity and throwing in with everyone else who wants to write 2000-6000 words, not so much.

    But – I’m enjoying some of the ideas I’m coming up with and also coming to terms with layering complexity in the second and third drafts (which is essential for a pantser like me). Fingers crossed for next year.

    I definitely have a word count in mind when I begin a story. After all, you can pretty much tell any story in any number of words, it just depends on how many characters and how much complexity you want. Well – that’s the way I look at it anyway.

    Chris Large

    1. Hey, Chris. Sounds like you are working your way through the ‘barrier of pain’ adding the extra length. I personally find a good short story that is a little longer much more satisfying, so I think it’s worth the effort to craft a longer short story with that extra degree of complexity. Two or three major characters is certainly plenty to handle in a short story format. I love worldbuilding and getting into the ideas surrounding a new world, so I have to watch myself. When someone who reads the story says ‘I think you are heading into novel territory here’ it’s like the damn kiss of death – and something I have heard more than a few times.

      Congrats in the successes with the shorter shorts & good luck with the new ones!

      Chris McMahon

Comments are closed.