Writing to the Right Length

I think this may be one of the hardest things to master.  It’s not necessarily needed when you first start writing.  When you first start writing, just getting words onto paper in a coherent order that tells a story is hard enough.  But, at some point, you have to start thinking about the length of what you’re writing.

Either you sign a trade publishing contract that sets the length or you’re trying to target certain short story markets that have length requirements or you self-publish and have to deal with reader expectations.

I’ve been experimenting the last couple months with self-publishing a series of related stories.  And, for that to work and provide readers with a predictable experience, I’ve aimed to keep each of those stories around 5K words.

It was easy enough for the first few.  (That’s how I determined the length I was aiming for.)

But I’ve really been struggling this week.  Twice now I’ve had stories get out of my control. One now wants to be a novel and one wants to be more of a novella or novelette.

It’s very frustrating.

Writing to the right length is an essential skill to learn, though.

It’s funny. I’ll see people discuss the length of a story and explain why it is the length it is and think to myself, “But that has nothing to do with how long the story’s needs to be.”

As an example.  I went to critique group this week and we had an author read pages that were very descriptive, which was fine for the author’s genre.  But when we asked how long the finished novel was going to be we were told it was going to be X pages long because it covered Y months of story.  Given the level of detail in the pages we saw, I think we were all very skeptical that the novel was going to be X pages long and at least two of us agreed that how much time passed in the story world was irrelevant to answering that question.

Don’t believe me?  Try it for yourself. Sit down and tell a story that takes place in one year.  Do it in one page, five pages, and ten pages.  You can.  You can tell the exact same story at any length.  It may be a better story as a short story or novel, but you can tell it at any length you want.

John was born, he lived a long and happy life where he did many interesting things and met many interesting people, and then he died.

There.  I just told the story of a man’s life in a sentence.

No one would pay me money for that, but you get my exaggerated point, right?  I could write a novel about one day in John’s life.  Or one hour.

(Could doesn’t mean should, however…)

The writer is the one who chooses how long the story is.  So, if real-world time doesn’t determine story length, what does?

1. Where you start the story.

How close are you to the climactic end?  Is the nuclear reactor melting down in the opening scene?  Or after two hundred pages of other story comes first?

The novel I finished a few months ago started as a novella.  The beginning point for the novella was very different from the beginning point for the novel.  Both worked for what they were.

2. How narrow or broad your focus is.

Some short stories (like flash fiction) are focused on one character in one point in time.  Some novels (like GRRM’s Game of Thrones) are sprawling epics that follows tons of characters over years.

Some novels tell you about the entire world the story is set in.  Some just focus on one particular character’s experience of his world.  You can write about the world in 1950 through the eyes of ten characters or you can write about Joe Smith in Small Town USA in 1950.

3. The level of descriptive detail you choose to include.

You can say that a building was dilapidated or you can choose to spend two paragraphs describing its sagging ceilings and weathered walls.

Every sentence you get to choose what you show, what you tell, and what you omit.  Do you need to describe every single thing Mary does on that fateful day?  No?  What do you describe?  At what level?  What doesn’t even make it into the story?  What makes it in, but just in a summary paragraph?

As writers, all of the above choices are under our control.  It’s our story to tell and we get to tell it however we want.

I was lucky with the novel that it came in within 500 words of my target.  But that obviously doesn’t happen all the time.  And, unfortunately, sometimes you can’t just tweak one of the three items above to make it work.

The stories I’m trying to write have certain genre expectations that I can’t get around.  I could write 5K words about the characters, but it wouldn’t include what I need to include.  For my purposes, I chose the wrong characters.  Their relationships are more complex than can be addressed in five thousand words.

Because that’s one place where length isn’t in the author’s control: the evolution of the relationship between two characters.

I think it was Orson Scott Card who said it, or he may have been quoting someone else who said it: You can write anything you want and make the reader believe it.  The question is how many words you have to write to get there.  The more unbelievable the change, the more you need to write to get them there.

As an example: If you have two people who hate each other, that will take a lot more words to get them together than if you have two people who’ve secretly lusted after each other for years.  Hell, in the second instance, you could get those two people together in the space of a paragraph or two.  In the first?  It could take a whole novel.  Or a series of novels, for that matter.

Of course, as always, you should take anything and everything I say with a grain of salt, because what the hell do I know, right?  I’m still on that bottom rung of the ladder with a long ways ahead.

(Well, maybe not the bottom rung anymore…But towards the bottom.)


About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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