Size Matters
By Scott Nicholson

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Bigger is better, fatter is good, supersized is best. Unless you’re on a diet.

If you study the market guidelines, you’ll notice the most-requested length for short stories is 3,000 words. Usually the editor will describe a range of acceptable length, say, between 3,000 and 5,000 words, while some markets keep a much narrower range, such as the “short short” or flash fiction markets that usually want 500 words. However, some of the very top markets such as the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Realms of Fantasy will look at works of over 10,000 words. Whatever size the editor wants is what you give her, or so you would think.

If you applied that philosophy to your sex life, you’d get lucky about as often as an inflatable doll, with about as much satisfaction. One of the most common questions I get from new writers is, “How long should my novel be?” Or they’ll come out with, “My story is only 2,000 words. Should I stretch it to have more markets?”

The short answer is simply write to whatever size the story requires. Some veterans learn they can “write to market” and can consistently come up with stories of a particular size without even consulting the word count function on their word processing program. The form will naturally fit your thinking if you practice enough. You can become the genre’s most reliable 3,000-word plotter and probably earn a steady place in the stable of a few editors, assuming you have all the other requisite skills of the craft.

But, really, who wants to be so easily pigeon-holed? Sometimes the idea gets a little broader, or you discover a secondary plot while writing. Perhaps the protagonist takes on a little more hue and saturation as he emerges from the chrysalis. Maybe you discover a new type of stylistic trick or voice you want to explore that alters your natural storytelling rhythm.

Whatever it is, go for it. Let the story walk if it has legs, rein it in if it gets too uppity, and don’t fear that you’ll reach one of those awkward sizes like 1,800 or 6,000 words. Novelettes, generally considered between 8,000 and 15,000 words, are harder to find homes for, but in some ways are easier to write. Horror has more markets for long-form fiction than any other genre, due to the number of small and specialty presses that will publish a 30,000- to 40,000-word novella as a limited edition book. But possibilities exist for science fiction and mystery stories as well. And, of course, some timeless classics like The Time Machine, The Old Man and The Sea, and The Red Badge of Courage are around novella length.

I wrote a 10,000 word detective-dark fantasy, sent it to the five or six possible markets, and shelved it for a while. A new company launched that accepted the story and asked me to make it a little longer and set it during the Christmas season. I didn’t have to stretch the story; merely introducing that new element and its accompanying effect on the plot was more than enough to add without padding. As usually happens when a publisher asks for substantial changes, the company folded shortly afterward. Now I’m converting it to novella size for a small press, but instead of just dumping in meaningless description or mindless sex scenes, I added a parallel story line that makes the whole piece much more satisfying to me.

Novelists don’t have to be as concerned with word length. Mass market horror novels generally run between 80,000 and 100,000 words, but the dirty little secret is that by the time the pages are laid out, varying lengths can look mighty similar on the shelves. Book jobbers, those who fill the wire racks with our disposable works of art, make purchasing considerations based on the number of books that can fit in a standard rack. If they can fit four six-buck novels in the same space as three seven-buck novels, they’ll go for the profit margin of the four, all other things being equal, such as the three not being Stephen King and the four not scribed by Ruby Jean Jensen.

The publisher can easily manipulate font size and line spacing to fit novels into a more or less standard size. My shortest published novel, The Manor, is around 95,000 words or so and came out at 320 book pages. The Farm, due out in July, is nearly 160,000 words but is targeted at 384 pages. The most efficient cutting of paper yields 16 pages, so it’s not uncommon to see most books running to similar lengths, because the publisher is sizing them to multiples of 16 or 32 pages: 320, 352, 384, 416.

So don’t worry if you think your 200,000-word manuscript is “too long for a first novel.” True, some subgenres have particular conventions in place regarding size: cozy mysteries, action sci-fi novels, and literary realism tend toward shorter lengths, while thrillers run into the six-figure word count, and high fantasy gets downright bloated, with three-book series often topping a million words. Yet one can find exceptions for each of these “rules.”

The truth is, there are few firm and fast rules. A good book is a good book, a good story is a good story. Many magazine editors will consider a story that’s not too drastically beyond their posted guidelines, though it’s a good idea to query first. Better yet, edit the story so that you trim all the unwanted parts. It’s much easier to cut a slightly lengthy piece down to market size than to stretch one with meaningless words.

In the end, let the story find the right fit for itself, and that will best help it earn its rightful market.

(Scott Nicholson is the author of seven books, including the recently released The Farm and They Hunger in April, 2007. He is a freelance editor as well as a published writer. Email him at harvestbook AT yahoo.com to inquire about his editing services. His web site is http://www.hauntedcomputer.com)

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