Writing the Perfect Length
When I began writing “Befriending the Beast,” I planned on it being a short story. Then it ate a few too many words and gained a little too much weight, so I thought of it as a novella. Now that I’m finishing up “Protecting the Poor,” I’m knocking on a novel-length’s door. Oops.
One of the questions that has haunted me in the past is determining what to label my project. Does it fall under a novella category—or a novel? Is it really a novella, or should it be a short story? How do I even know (especially as an indie author without the criteria of a publishing house)?
A quick internet search will give you a conglomeration of opinions of word count and categories—some so detailed as to have micro-fiction, flash fiction, novelette, etc. It is pretty easy to find a standard for word count lengths, so I’ll let you do the searching on your own. But I would note that I’ve never noticed a mainstream publishing house that advertises “novelettes” and such sub-categories, so I would personally choose either short story or novella.
Something not often mentioned in simple word count charts is genre. In adult fiction, 20,000 words are considered a novella. In children’s fiction, 20k fits comfortably in proper length (there are no children’s novellas that I know of). Now, if “Tales of Faith” were an adult fantasy genre, they’d probably be viewed as mere short stories and novellas. Why? Because fantasies tend to be epic (think 100,000+ words) and “Befriending the Beast” falls at 14,500 words, “The Secret Slipper” at 24,800 words, and *sheepish grin* “Protecting the Poor” at 41,400 words.
So, while word count charts can be helpful, don’t forget genre plays a vital role in determining the definition of your work (Writers’ Digest has an excellent article which goes into more detail on word counts and genres). Now, if you noticed in my examples, I have a difference of almost 27,000 words in the “Tales of Faith” series. Yeah, probably not ideal but hey, according to one article, some of your best-selling authors today have great variances in their lengths. I’ll just use this experience to learn from, and maybe in the future my series will be more consistent (no promises…).
This leads to the big, controversial question of the day: to aim for a specific word count or not. Every time I start a new project, I toy with the idea of whether or not to pin down a word count goal. NaNoWriMo challenges writers to reach 30k, which has been very vehemently discussed in many circles. For me, I cling to some of the best advice I’ve heard: “Write until your story is finished.” If it’s a short story idea, just write a short story. If it’s a novel idea, write your novel. The danger in aiming for a specific word count is two sided: adding fluff instead not substance or being too vague and rushed.
But what if you are trying to aim for a specific word count and you don’t have it? Let’s talk too-long first (which isn’t a problem I’ve had so far, but there are those…). Let’s say your historical fiction novel is at 120,000 words. According to various sources, that is too long for its genre (ideal is 80-90k). You have two choices before you: cut your story in half (60k and 60k), add about 20,000 words of substance each, and voila: a two-part story. Or you can just let your manuscript go on a diet. Most often, as writers we get idea-happy and don’t know how to say “no” to new ideas that want to weave twenty threads into one storyline. Cut it. Just cut it. Hone down on your theme and message and if a specific thread doesn’t apply to it, chop it off. Maybe save it for another idea (a bonus novella to accompany your novel?), but take a step back, view your work with a detached and critical eye, and ask yourself, “Is this really relevant to the story?” Because when your book hits the shelves, no one but you is going to know that 15,000 words of an irrelevant subplot were cut out.
Now for the poor stories that fall short of their goal. The solution is not to just add words. And here I insert a long, accusatory glare toward all of the college students out there who believe it to be necessary to add extra words such as “that” and “well” and “so” and “very” and other filler words just so that you can make sure that your essay is the required three pages (and yes, I could have just said, “accusatory glare at college students who add filler words to make their essays reach three pages”—see what I did there? If you didn’t count, I used fifty-four words for a sixteen-word sentence). Again, I repeat: do not add fluff. You don’t need to add six new paragraphs of description (unless the description is relevant to your story). Your characters don’t need to engage in more conversations (unless it moves the story forward). Instead, consider a new plot line. It doesn’t have to be a major thread, but something that adds depth to what you have. Your goal is always to add substance. What will make your message more powerful? What will get your reader to really embrace what you’re writing? Go on a brainstorming trek and ask “what if’s.” You’ll likely come up with just what you need to add those words.
Now that I have surpassed my goal of a 500-word article by about 444 words (note: 500 words was my minimum; aren’t you glad I added those 430 words on fluff and substance? Totally teasing…)… Do you have ideas for how to solidify or expand ideas to fit a certain length? What is your average word count goal?
About the Tour
In anticipation of the release of “Protecting the Poor” (book three in the Tales of Faith series), Amanda is guest posting or being featured on over a dozen blogs each month. Each post is unique to the blog—an inspirational post, an article on the writing craft, an excerpt from one of the Tales of Faith books… you’ll just have to visit each blog to see what comes up. ;) Amanda will link to each blog on With a Joyful Noise, so check in every week and see what blogs have a special Tales of Faith feature!
Amanda Tero began her love for words at a young age—reading anything she could get her hands on and penning short stories as young as age eight. Since graduation, she has honed her writing skills by dedicated practice and study of the writing craft. She began her journey of publication with a few short stories that she had written for her sisters and continued to add to her collection with other short stories, novellas, and novels. It is her utmost desire to write that which not only pleases her Lord and Savior, but also draws the reader into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.
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