So You Want to Commit Novel #9: Short vs long

Are you writing a short story or a novel?

Science Fiction Fantasy Writers of America, SFWA, defines fiction lengths for the purpose of their Nebula Awards.

Short Story: less than 7,500 words.

Novelette: between 7,500 and 17,500 words

Novella: between 17,500 and 40,000 words.

Novel: 40,000 words or more

I am in the middle of two projects.  Both started as a dream–not my usual process.  Both are in response to anthology invitations, no more than 7,500 words each.

Both really, really want to become novels.  I’m trying very hard to produce short pieces of fiction from the many pages of notes I’m collecting.  This is harder than I thought.  Both short stories and novels need a beginning, a middle, and an ending.  Both need a theme of some sort.  Both need world building and character development.

In the case of one project I found four scenes among the notes that together produced a plot line that the characters could finish offstage after the dynamic scene I chose as an ending for the short piece but acted as a major transition point in the novel outline.

In the second project, I stalled at about the ¾ point because I know how much more I need to write to complete the pared down plot line.  But I really want to have this piece included in the anthology.

These two projects illustrate my problem with writing short fiction.  I don’t think short, or simple.  I like bringing in a variety of plot threads, multiple characters with their own point of view, and taking the time to build a new world unique to the story.  All that takes words, lots and lots of them.  Tens of thousands of them.  Often 150,000 or more.

I truly admire people who can dash off a complete, self-contained short story, especially the ones with the sucker punch to the gut at the end that makes the reader think.

I have to really work at it.  I will spend weeks on a short piece when the same number of words in a novel takes a matter of a few days.

So which do you do?

Many writing teachers push the idea that new writers should develop writing skills with short pieces.  This is good advice for those who think short.  You need an economy of language.  You need to be able to visualize the story in one capsule with that all important ending that makes a point.

Starting with short fiction and successfully marketing it builds a professional resume and a degree of name recognition for editors when the writer moves up to novel length.

But I don’t think short.  Indeed, I had 5 novels in print before I sold my first short story.  To date I have never sold to a major fiction magazine.  All my sales have gone to anthology invitations.  Through shear perseverance I have a collection of twenty + short stories.  I have more novels in my resume.

The choice to write short or long is up to the writer.  There is no one way to start your career.  We all have to be true to our individual styles.  We all have to listen to the story and characters and decide if they will make their point better in short form, or if they need more words to develop.

Given a choice I will shoot for long whenever I can.

Phyllis Irene Radford blogs here regularly on Thursdays, the same day her cozy mystery “Lacing Up For Murder” by Irene Radford is serialized on the front page rotation.

For more about her and her fiction please visit her bookshelf here on BVC

Or her personal web page


About Phyllis Irene Radford

Irene Radford has been writing stories ever since she figured out what a pencil was for. A member of an endangered species—a native Oregonian who lives in Oregon—she and her husband make their home in Welches, Oregon where deer, bears, coyotes, hawks, owls, and woodpeckers feed regularly on their back deck. A museum trained historian, Irene has spent many hours prowling pioneer cemeteries deepening her connections to the past. Raised in a military family she grew up all over the US and learned early on that books are friends that don’t get left behind with a move. Her interests and reading range from ancient history, to spiritual meditations, to space stations, and a whole lot in between. Mostly Irene writes fantasy and historical fantasy including the best-selling Dragon Nimbus Series and the masterwork Merlin’s Descendants series. In other lifetimes she writes urban fantasy as P.R. Frost or Phyllis Ames, and space opera as C.F. Bentley. Later this year she ventures into Steampunk as someone else. If you wish information on the latest releases from Ms Radford, under any of her pen names, you can subscribe to her newsletter: Promises of no spam, merely occasional updates and news of personal appearances.


So You Want to Commit Novel #9: Short vs long — 8 Comments

  1. My theory is that each writer has her natural length. The way horses have their natural race, so that some are bred to win the Kentucky Derby in a matter of minutes, while others are bred to win cross-country marathons that can take a day. So, if you are born to write long, you could probably write something short — but it won’t come as naturally as your native 200,000 words. Furthermore, some writers are more versatile than others; an Asimov can write both short and long, while a Kate Elliott (to select a noted 500K talent) seems locked into fat fantasy trilogies.

    How do you recognize your natural length? Unfortunately the only real way to do it is to try them. If everything you write comes out to novella length, that’s a sign. Or if all your short stories are snappy award winners while all your trilogies are like lead, get a clue! I find my natural length is about 100 to 120K — one novel.

  2. I hear a lot of writers talk about their fondness for certain links lengths, and I know any number of novelists who swear they cannot write short fiction. Me, I like all lengths, though I do admit that once I figured out how to write a short story, I fell it love with the form. I like the discipline of telling a story in the fewest possible words.

    But I do think the idea dictates the length. Most of the ideas I use for flash fiction would not work if I tried to expand them into something longer (though I think of a couple of exceptions). My steampunk stories, though, seem to want to be longish, partly because of the need to work in all that world building and to create a 19th Century feel to the story.

    And the more complex the world, the longer the story needs to be.

  3. I sold my first short story after selling six novels. Definitely bucked that bit of common wisdom.

    Like Nancy, I’ve learned to love the short form. One freelancing gig required me to write extremely short pieces in all forms and genres, to very strict specifications, for an educational publisher. Wow, did that concentrate my mind! Now I find my novels getting shorter and the ideas more concise–probably as a result of that training.

    The steampunk stuff does want to be longer. I thought I had a 5000-word idea for the last one, but it came in at twice that. It needed the extra space for worldbuilding and the background. It’s much easier to write short in a contemporary or near-future setting: concepts need fewer explanations, and a word or phrase is enough to get the point across.

  4. I agree with Brenda: people have their metier.

    But I also think that novel ideas pull in more ideas than short stories, making them more complex.

    (This is the “Sticky Ideas Theory of Story Length”. 0:)

  5. OTOH, if you write a 40,000 words novel you probably better make the character young nowadays; as an adult novel it would fall squarely in the Unpublishable Void where there are no markets.

  6. Yes, unlucky is the writer whose Natural Length is the novelette. The demands of the market are paramount.
    There is also the point that you can -learn- to write different things and different lengths. and there are plenty of us who are deft at many formats. I think that looking at a writer’s first pubilshed work tells you what they’re natural at.

  7. I don’t think one length works for me better than others. I’ve written several short stories that worked just fine as shorts and gave me no trouble about wanting to be bigger boys. My writing technique does push me to longer fiction, since I start with the characters and see what they do. I don’t have a defined plot or story end point, so the story can be as long as it needs to be to get wherever it wants to go. Many times I’ve tried to write short stories and failed because of this. But if I do have a defined endpoint and it’s not so far away I have no problem.

    Marc Vun Kannon

  8. I’ve had a few ideas that presented themselves as short. And they worked. But they are very few compared to the number of novel ideas that are floating around my head.

    Part of my problem was that for a long time I read a lot of ordinary short fiction and didn’t learn to appreciate the art form past Guy de Maupasant (sp?)

    Then I started editing for BVC and proofing for Fairwood Press. I’d been reading the wrong short fiction. I’m learning. But I still have trouble fitting my own ideas into that format.