What is long enough?

Thanks to Sarah for filling in for me yesterday. Family always takes precedence over blogging and my son is home on leave.

This morning, as I was talking with Kilted Dave about what to blog about, I came across a post from an author wondering if they should change how they write. No, they weren’t talking about their writing process but more the length of what they sell. They were noticing how some authors are releasing titles every month or so but that those titles are shorter works. So they were wondering if they needed to move away from novel-length work to shorter work in order to sell more.

My first response, after beating my head against the proverbial wall, was shake my head. Yes, it hurt to pound it against the wall and I needed to clear the cobwebs. But also because you can’t judge what is right for your work by what other authors are doing. You have to look at each individual work and decide what length best serves the story.

Oops, there I went and did it. I said the icky word: story.

Let’s face it, story is what we need to be worried about. Have we written enough, well enough to not only give the reader an enjoyable and engaging story or plot but also characters they can identify with and cheer for or against? If we haven’t, it doesn’t matter how long or short the piece is. Without that development, it won’t sell for long and you certainly won’t garner the sort of reviews that help other readers decide to buy your work.

There is something else to consider when you are looking at how long a story should be and that is the way you write. Not everyone is a natural long fiction writer and not everyone finds writing short fiction easy. I can take almost as long to write a 12,000 word piece as I do a 100k word novel. Why? I’m not really sure. Well, in one way I am. You can’t go into as much detail, have as many scenes and sub-plots in a 12k word piece as you do in something longer. So you have to pare it down to the essentials — plot, character, message (if you have one).

Now, Amanda, you can release a novel in serial form.

Yes, you can. But what about the reader who accidentally misses one installment? Or what happens when your reader realizes that those $0.99 installments or episodes are suddenly costing them as much — or more — than a traditionally published e-book? I quit doing episodic fiction as a reader when I realized that the novel when and if it ever finished was going to cost me much more than I am willing to pay for an e-book.

I also realized that a number of authors releasing their work as “episodes” really didn’t get the idea behind serials. They hadn’t spent time reading the serials from magazines like If and Analog back in the Golden Age of SF. They hadn’t watched serialized shows like Flash Gordon and others (no, I’m not THAT old but they used to play them late at night on the weekends). There is an ebb and flow to a good serial that most of those trying to do them now simply don’t get.

The basic lesson is you have to give the reader a reason to come back and pay you more money to keep reading your work. Going hand-in-hand with that, for me at least, you have to prove you are going to finish the serial. I do NOT want to spend $0.99 or more per episode only to have the author decide in the middle of the thing that it isn’t worth finishing. Then there is the problem of making sure your reader remembers to go grab the new episode when it comes out. Unless you have figured out a way to make a subscription to the serial work, you run the very real risk of losing readers simply because they don’t remember to go back each month to grab the new title.

So I will repeat the rule we’ve all been told who knows how many times. A book or story is as long as it needs to be. Quit putting artificial word count limits on yourself without taking the plot of your book into consideration. Anyone who has been around short story writers knows the agony they go through after writing a story and then having to cut words to meet a word count requirement for one publication or another. There are times when they have to say the market they initially wrote the story for won’t work because they can’t cut it any more than they already have.

Also, don’t go into a project with the mindset that you think you only have so many words in you for it — ie, you don’t think you can write more than x-number of words — and then limit yourself to that number. I have known writers who, before they have put the first word down on paper have said they really don’t think they have more than 40k words in them for a certain project. What always happens is they either wind up not giving the reader the description the reader needs to truly enjoy the book or they rush the ending — something that is very noticeable. If you have spent 38k words building up to the climax of the story and then you have the final showdown and the cigarette moment in 2k words, you have probably just done your reader a disservice.

In other words, don’t worry about what other people are doing. Yes, there will always be writers out there who write faster than you do. They may write long fiction or short fiction. It really doesn’t matter. All that does is putting out the best work you can.

And now, for the mandatory author promotion. Nocturnal Rebellion will be released in the very near future. To help ramp up for its release, I have lowered the price of Nocturnal Origins, the first book in the series to $0.99.

Some things can never be forgotten, no matter how hard you try.

Detective Sergeant Mackenzie Santos knows that bitter lesson all too well. The day she died changed her life and her perception of the world forever.It doesn’t matter that everyone, even her doctors, believe a miracle occurred when she awoke in the hospital morgue. Mac knows better. It hadn’t been a miracle, at least not a holy one. As far as she’s concerned, that’s the day the dogs of Hell came for her.

Investigating one of the most horrendous murders in recent Dallas history, Mac also has to break in a new partner and deal with nosy reporters who follow her every move and who publish confidential details of the investigation without a qualm.

Complicating matters even more, Mac learns the truth about her family and herself, a truth that forces her to deal with the monster within, as well as those on the outside.But none of this matters as much as discovering the identity of the murderer before he can kill again.

I have also started working on the “Special Edition” version of Vengeance from Ashes. I’m really excited about this project. These special editions will include new material and it has been fun planning them and, once Rebellion is out, I’ll be working on them in the evenings after the days are spent writing the next book in the series. Well, not really writing as it has been drafted already but taking a very rough draft and making it publishable. Then it will be on to the next project, whatever it might be.




  1. Good advice. Wrote one short story (about 3k words) and a reader told me it was too short, needed more detail, and a couple other things. Have to go back and fill it in when I get some time. Still will be a short story. Other works are still “write till done” so there are a couple that I don’t know what they will turn into. Limiting a story length doesn’t sound like a good plan. Only arbitrary limit I set on myself is how many words a day I write.

    1. Yep. I can’t tell you the number of “short stories” I’ve read that were more like a novella or novel waiting to burst forth. Usually, there are too many plot elements in them to be covered adequately in the short format. When I comment on it, I very often get the response of “but I can’t write long”. Of course, the person saying that never has been able to explain why they can’t write long other than their own fear that the words won’t come.

      1. I can’t write long, yet, because I’ve never managed to write story fiction longer than a vignette, except to outline, and I’m still learning how to outline longer things.

        1. It’s a skill, and if your metier is short, it can be a hard skill. I made several attempts at novel length that crashed and burned before I accidentally succeeded in A Diabolical Bargain, which snuck up on me pretending to be a novelette. . . .

          Stories can be weird about telling you their length.

    2. I never trust “it’s too long” or “it’s too short” feedback. (Though almost no one tells you that a story should be shorter.) You’ve probably put stuff in there that didn’t get fleshed out (or the story doesn’t conclude) but the solution could be longer: flesh that stuff out, or the solution could be shorter: take that stuff out. Most peer critquers won’t know what will solve it.

      1. If that is all they say, yeah, I usually don’t pay too much attention. But if they can say why they think it wasn’t long enough or was too long, I consider it. That’s especially true if several others say basically the same thing.

    3. One advantage of indie is that you can publish a novella. There are virtually no markets for that length.

  2. A lot of the length a story needs depends on the complexity of the plot. And frequency of publication . . . is often a matter of how high, wide, and thick the backlog is.

    I’ve got one that the first draft–on this machine–is seven years old. I might get it out this year. I’ve got others that are older that aren’t quite abandoned, yet. But that particular one will give me another book to publish with very little time commitment.

  3. I used to worry that my book would be too short. Now, I worry that my fingers will wear down to little nubs because my characters won’t shut up.

    1. My character Charlotte just raised her eyebrow at me. Argh. I’m so weird these days.

    2. Hahahahahaha. Wait until you get to the scene where they are supposed to die and they just stand there and look at you, tapping one foot and going, “Nope, not gonna happen. I’m not dying and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

      1. I didn’t even bother with that. Nobody dies in my books, not even the bad guys. I’m unwilling to put up with it, as a general policy. Such fatalities as may be required to set the stage take place off-screen, in a place where the heroes can’t know about it or stop it. Then they go and fix it.

        Because otherwise, Charlotte would kick my ass.

        1. Oh you poor thing. You do realizing you just jinxed yourself and now you are going to have to write a huge, glorious death scene, don’t you? VBEG

          1. Admittedly, I do have a bad guy about to be cast into the Shadow realm, and a good guy who sacrifices himself to make it happen. So they have to die first. Kind of.

            But the good guy waltzes in and out of the Shadows whenever he likes, and the bad guy is begging for it. I mean, he’s been seriously naughty. And there is the possibility of redemption, if the bad guy ever decides to stop being an a-hole, because even the nassstiest demon can get over it…

            Hmm. I just realized this thing is turning out a lot more Sunday School than I had intended going in. All I wanted to do was give the Valkyries something worth shooting at, and I end up with all these other themes jumping up.

            Stupid brain. Now Nammu Chen is laughing at me. Darn characters.

      2. I’ve definitely had a character look at his death scene, roll his eyes, and say, “Oh, please. I’m not that stupid. You would think that, given the fact you created me, you would have some basic understanding of what I’d do in a hopeless situation.”

        I tried to explain that it was necessary and if he didn’t throw himself into a suicidal battle I’d have to rewrite the entire story, but he just raised his eyebrows and said, “That sounds like your problem, not mine. I’m not dying that way.”

        1. That’s the good writer in you objecting to something contrived. “That guy would never do that!” is something I find myself screaming at the television all the time.

          The Iron Fist tv show on Netflix is a perfect example. They have the Danny Rand character doing all kinds of dumb teenager shit that even a kid trained up in the local karate club would never do. Much less the Iron Fist of Kun Lun.

          This indicates the writers, as usual, have no respect for or understanding of the character. They’ve never tried martial arts, and they never met anyone who has. They don’t understand the gravitas and restraint that martial artists inevitably develop, even the ones who are jerks.

          I’ve been watching Face Off lately, the movie FX contest show. Listening to the judges on the show is amazingly enlightening. They dissect each makeup effect by anatomy, characterization, and “performability.” Does the makeup convey the idea and the character? Does the makeup look like a creature or a rubber mask? Can the actor convey character while wearing the thing, or is it a rubber dummy with a guy inside?

          When my characters are laughing at me, that’s a clue that I’ve lost respect for my own story.

          1. it seems to me their knowledge of martial arts comes from The Karate Kid and their friend that took American Freestyle for a year in 8th grade.

        1. Effectively, I had a good chunk of the cast point out that them getting into a certain fight isn’t super compatible with them surviving the later ones due to differences in characterization. I eventually found a possible work around,

    1. Interesting lunch-time quest. According to the quote-y folks, “how long should a man’s legs be? Long enough to reach the ground” is often attributed to Lincoln, but they seem to doubt it. One version, with long enough to touch the ground, seems to be attributed to Salinger. Twain seems to have produced a story about a dachshund http://www.twainquotes.com/Dachshund.html but that’s a different tail?

      So… what was the question? Oh, yes — if your dog’s legs aren’t on the ground, relax the leash!

  4. This post spoke to my soul!

    I write short stories/novelettes faster and better than novels. I never worry about word count, just getting the story told. When I try and aim for word count, I end up getting distracted and frustrated. I also go off on tangents and lose my momentum.

    While others can churn out books on a monthly or bi-monthly basis, lol I’m still working on a 12k story. Fast doesn’t always mean good. I feel happy for those who can produce quickly, but that won’t ever be me. I accepted that fact long ago, and it works for my writing process.

    1. Good for you! So many people try to mold their writing process into what others do. They don’t understand that what works for one person might not work for another. They also don’t understand that the process that works for one project might not work for another. I’ve told my crit group for years that it isn’t unusual for me to have to switch writing locations, way I write, etc., from one project to another. There are no absolute rules when it comes to how you write except to just write. That’s it. Nor more and no less.

  5. I think that indy and electronic publishing has revived the short novel because not too many years ago everyone *knew* you couldn’t sell anything shorter than 80k words. I suppose we’re still human and still looking for the magic formula, but this is the first time I heard of someone worrying that they need to write short.

    1. Also, there are those who like a quick read, something they can read and finish on the bus or train on their way to work/home.

  6. As a reader, I really don’t care. I prefer novels to novellas, but I don’t care much for tomes (looking at you, Mr. Jordan).

    What is important is that the price matches (is well correlated with) the length.

    Since Amazon pays KU authors by pseudo-pages read, it sure would be nice to have that count in the book description; I have been unpleasantly surprised.

    1. As a reader, I’m pretty much the same. But I am finding some short stories and novellas I enjoy — because the authors do them right.

  7. Hi Amanda; Jack here.
    I usually won’t buy an ebook that is less than 300 pages [Amazon count/ebook] And, i detest an author, even one i like, that suddenly shifts from those really nice 350 to 400 or more pages to something too shore [like 200 to 250 pages] At that point I will, usually, give up on that author and their marketing strategy.

    1. Damn, Jack. That means you won’t read some of my stuff. 😉

      I hear what you’re saying but there are some stories that simply don’t need that many pages. A lot of it depends on genre and sub-genre.

      1. That’s what omnibi… omnibuses? omnibus collections! are for! Take two or three 200 pagers, smack them together, and pow! You’ve got a goatgagger to tempt Jack!

  8. Tell your son, “Thank you for taking up the standard, and for his service” for me.

    Michael D, Houst
    MSgt, USAF, (Ret.)

  9. I’m a reader, not a writer. So I bring a different perspective, I suppose.

    A story, to me, should be as long as it takes to tell the story. If it’s too short, it leaves me unsatisfied, because the story feels incomplete. And if it’s too long, I’m likely to put it down in the middle, because I don’t have the time to waste reading padding. If it’s needed to tell the story, no matter how long, it’s not padding — but I’ve started far too many 600 page books which really have a first rate 300 page story trying desperately to crawl out.

    And everything else is just what you need to tell the story. Characters, setting, style, … — to me, those are all tools that the author uses to tell the story in his head to me, as the reader. And this is true in books, movies, etc. It means that Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven are really the same story — but both are different and interesting ways of telling that story (as is Battle Beyond the Stars, to pick the SF version of the same story).

    Fredric Brown’s short short story, “Answer” is a page long. It has essentially no characters. It tells the same story as Asimov was later to tell in “The Last Question” (which took a dozen pages). But it clearly suceeded — it first appeared in 1954, and has been reprinted 50+ times, in 8 languages according to ISFDB (which is missing the Spanish reprint) most recently early this year. It didn’t need characters that the reader cared about, so it didn’t bother with them.

    So, as a reader, all I can ask is that you, as writers, tell me a story. Make it interesting. Make it one where I want to keep reading — for whatever elements you need to make the story interesting, and to tell it to me. Do that, and I’ll buy it, and tell people about it, and that’ll make me want to buy your next story.

    1. You can see that with certain writers out there. There’s one (name doesn’t matter) for whom most of their books are the proper length, but there’s one set that just drags. It’s not longer than any of the others (though it is fairly early in this writer’s career), but for some reason, it feels three times as long. Oh well. That author has enough other work that it’s easy enough to avoid the dragging set.

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