Measuring Length by Tom Rich
For the most part, the internet is a drain on my creative efforts. Despite online journals providing a wealth of places to get published and online submission systems allow me to send out stories without leaving the couch, the time saved is dwarfed by the time piddled away on re-reading my favorite Wikipedia articles*, playing flash games, and checking how many people have viewed my Linkedin profile. There is one sliver of light in this bleak wasteland, though: Duotrope, and more specifically its submission tracker. Updating my submission tracker is compelling in a way that taking the necessary steps to succeed as a writer never was; I don't send things out to get them published anymore, but rather so that I can add a new entry to the tracker, watch the ETA for a response tick down, and eventually close it out when a rejection arrives. It's all satisfying on a very crude level.
Duotrope is handy in other ways, of course. One neat feature is the ability to sort venues by the length of work they'll accept. When I first tried this, I was surprised by the number of categories they offered. When I was a kid, I only had two categories:
- Books: A narrative that has a whole set of covers to itself.
- Stories: A narrative that has to share a set of covers with its friends.
It turns out you can break things down a lot more objectively. Here's how Duotrope does it for fiction:
- Novel: More than 40,000 words.
- Novella: Between 15,000 and 40,000 words.
- Novelette: Between 7,500 and 15,000 words.
- Short story: Between 1,000 and 7,500 words.
- Flash fiction: Less than 1,000 words.
Good stuff, but surely we can do better. Here are my suggestions for additional distinctions:
- Novelephant: More than150,000 words.
- Novelocerous: Between 100,000 and 150,000 words.
- Novelosaurus: Written in an archaic or outmoded style.
- Novelesque: Like a novel, but not quite. Alternatively, a novel which takes its clothes off.
- Novelite: A novel which passes through the atmosphere and falls to earth.
Awful jokes aside, I think the length of a story is roughly as useful as its genre: a handy tool for booksellers to organize their shelves, and as a rough guide as to what the reader is getting into, but not particularly useful anywhere else.
A more useful distinction might be the amount of time one requires and expects the reader to dedicate to the story. Obviously a work with more words will require more time, but the nature of those words can make a considerable difference: Moby-Dick and For Whom the Bell Tolls are both very long (around 210,000 and 170,000 words, respectively), but Hemingway's writing makes for a quicker, smoother read than Melville's. I don't mean that as a negative; both books are among my favorites. The point is that Melville's work takes longer.
You could also argue, though, that the amount of re-reading that a story requires ought to be counted. I've read a lot of 800+ page doorstoppers in my day, but if you tally up all the time I've spent reading, discussing, and writing about A Clean Well-Lighted Place it blows any of them out of the water . And, of course, you have books like Ullyses that are not only incredibly long, but demand extensive re-reading and, ideally, a course of doctoral studies.
I could go on—I think you can also consider how much the story benefits from being read in a single sitting—but this is a column on creative writing, not criticism. Does this distinction have any benefit for the author? Probably not early on in the process, but I think there's a place for it during revision. Consider, for example a story that flows really smoothly: every sentence is simple and clean, and everything rolls along to the end. It's not demanding that the reader slow down and chew over every word, except during one scene two-thirds of the way through, where the wordplay gets convoluted and your reader will probably want a dictionary. Might be a good spot to revise things.
Unless we're putting everything in a safe deposit box, we're writing for an audience, and that means giving them a fair shot at reading the story in the most appropriate way. It's worth taking a few moments at some point and asking yourself “how much time do I want my readers to spend with this, and have I made it worth their while to spend that much of time?”
Personally, I've been trending toward novella-length, relatively straightforward stories lately; I imagine them being appropriate to fill a Saturday afternoon, or perhaps a middle-length plane ride. Whether you're working with a symbol-dense short story or an all-plot Goliath of a novel, happy writing!
*”Battleships,” “Harry S. Truman,” and “Phenomenology.”
Tom Rich is a writer, itinerant academic, and flannel enthusiast. His work has appeared in the Midwest Literary Magazine. Since graduating from Northern Michigan University in 2011, he has gone professional in filling out applications.