Monday, October 27, 2014

Does Size Matter?

Something I get asked from time to time, when people find out I’ve written a book, is how many pages it is. This question tends to come from younger adults, perhaps students who are still in the world of 10-12 page essays and 25-30 page research papers. But length becomes a consideration for writers, too, usually at the point when you’ve finished something and you have to decide what to call it.
A quick perusal of the internet and you’ll find guidelines:
Micro-Fiction (up to 100 words); Flash Fiction (100-1000 words); Short story (1000-7500 words); Novelette (7500-20K); Novella (20K-50K); Novel (50K-110K); Epics (everything over 110K).
This is an answer from one source but overall, it’s a good general sense of what people think. (And for the record, I don't think I've ever heard of a "novelette.") Of course, an instant clamor will arise, as you all think of books that are exceptions to these guidelines. Here’s an article from the Huffington Post that shows the word count of some classics. Examples: Slaughterhouse-Five (47,192 words), Mansfield Park (159,344 words)—both outside of the range.
And what about short story collections? My clicking around has revealed that they should be at least 40,000 words, but the range varies. But...what if it’s a linked collection that reads more like a novel? What if your novel is a saga? What of historical fiction? Sequels? First in a trilogy? Etc., etc.
I was thinking about this issue of size from the consumer side, the reader. Recently, I wrote about reader expectations here, in terms of the buzz and marketing that may precede something you pick up at your local bookstore. But what about the tangible considerations, the actual heft of the book in your hand (or the number at the bottom of your Kindle screen)? When you choose a slim book with widely spaced sentences, might you commence reading at a more leisurely pace, expecting dense and poetic prose and vivid, immediate scenes? When you grab an 800-page biography (with both hands), do you light up a separate, more analytical and patient part of your brain before starting Page 1? And what of the sweet spot—that 60K-80K range that probably most contemporary novels fall into? (Note: this is my unscientific, un-researched presumption.) Might this be a range where we can keep a more open mind? Using Amazon’s Text Stats feature, it’s been found that the median length for all books is about 64,000 words. This would seem to be a good goal for any project, I’d say. Playing it safe.
What’s the long and short of this? Should you concern yourself with size before firing up the word processing program or grabbing that pen? I’d say it’s much like considerations of genre—best to save your decisions for later. Then you can deliberate as I am now, about my project that came in under 50,000 words, which I like to call a story collection but which others think may be a novel (novella?). And which, no matter what I or anyone calls it, is still just what it is. Hopefully, once it’s published, a few readers will be attracted to the look of it, the feel of its weight in their hands. And of course, hopefully, they'll like what’s inside.


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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka