As young or new writers, we often write where the spirit takes us. We may not think about genre, word count, or the Hero’s Journey. We write what we know and love, even — or sometimes especially — if it defies conventional labels.
As you start to think about becoming a published author, you’ll need to adopt a few constraints. And you’ll need to learn how to answer the question “What are you writing?” in concise, easy-to-understand terms.
This is not just to up your small talk game. If you don’t how your work fits into the industry, you’ll have a very hard time publishing and selling it.
You need to know it to sell it.
First and foremost, you need to know if you’re writing a book or…something else. Fiction writers’ projects fall into a few major length categories:
- Flash fiction: usually under 1,500 words
- Short fiction: under 7,500 words (many publications limit to 5,000 or even 3,000)
- Novella: 17,000-40,000 words
- Novel: over 50,000 words (adult fiction starts closer to 80,000)
However, just because you have 80,000 words doesn’t mean you have a viable novel. Each genre has its own word count guidelines. Even if you write short stories, you should aim for common word count ranges for the markets where you’d like to publish. You don’t want to spend months polishing a story only to find it’s 500 words over your dream market’s word count limit.
But isn’t there any flexibility?
The short answer here is no. You may wonder, what about [Famous Author]? They broke all the rules with [Blockbuster Book]. What’s the point of having all these rules as yet another way to keep new writers out?
A writer with no prior publishing success represents a risk. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone clocks in at a relatively slender 77,000 words. By the time J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — all 198,000 words of it — publishers knew fans would line up at midnight to get their hands on a copy. Big books cost more to print and take more time to read, making them a bigger commitment for publishers and readers alike. That commitment — and risk — makes more sense after an author has proven their ability to drive sales.
What to do if your piece is far too long or too short.
If you have 25,000 words but want a novel, or you’re clocking in at 200,000 words for your first book, you have some work to do. First and foremost, find a critique group, critique partner, and/or beta reader(s) you can trust. Look for excellent critical readers who know how to give constructive feedback. I made almost 18,000 words of major cuts in my first book, mostly thanks to spot-on advice from my writing group. Most writers need an outside perspective to take their writing to the next level.
If your project is polished and still far outside the word count bounds, you have a few options. Novellas can be hard to place, but some literary magazines take them. They can also make good additions to a short story collection (think Jane Smiley’s Age of Grief). If you can split it across several books, a long story can be an asset in series-heavy genres like science fiction and fantasy. Just make sure the first book stands alone. You never know if or when the rest of the series will get published. It can be a struggle to find a home for a project with a non-conforming word count, but it’s not impossible.
No matter the length of your project, it’s a good idea to start working on the next one as soon as you finish the first. The market changes all the time. If you want to up your chances publication success, keep refining your editing skills with a wide range of projects.