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[process] On predicting story length - Lakeshore — LiveJournal
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Jay Lake
Date: 2009-09-09 04:55
Subject: [process] On predicting story length
Security: Public
Tags:process, writing
bridgetcoila asked in comments here:
Do you generally have an idea of how long something will be when you start writing it?

It's an interesting question. The answer, to some degree, is related to the concept of "span of control" which I've previously discussed on a number of occasions. That is to say, in my admittedly subjective experience every story has a natural size.

That natural size arises from a number of factors, and can be deliberately distorted for reasons of muse or craft, but I think it always underlies the text. Some of this has to do with the structure of the idea. So, for example, consider the following:

Flash fictionup to 1,000 wordsTypically deals with a single aspect of character, setting or plot, highly economical prose
Short story1,000 to 7,500 wordsOne or two point of view characters, moderately realized setting, a single plot arc, tight prose
Novelette7,500 to 17,500 wordsDetailed or multiple point of view characters, detailed or multiple settings, more than one plot arc, tight prose
Novella17,500 to 40,000 wordsDetailed or multiple point of view characters, detailed or multiple settings, multiple complex plot arcs, expansive prose


These are at best rough approximations the story lengths and their characterizations, but they do express a sense of natural size — in other words, the general richness and complexity of the idea going in gives me pretty significant hints about how long the story (or novel) will be.

For what it's worth, I also find there are "golden lengths" for certain types of stories. I have no idea if this is broadly true, but it seems to apply in much of my own work.

Short story4,000 to 6,000 words
Novelette10,000 to 12,000 words
Novella18,000 to 22,000 words


Note that I frequently violate the above considerations of length and complexity, even in my own work. For example, my SFnal short story "The Cleansing Fire of God", a 4,500 word alternate history space race with heavy religious and political overtones, was described by my first readers as an entire novel jammed into very few words. The story completely overruns the above matrix. It's dense.

Contrast that with "The Sky that Wraps the World Round, Past the Blue and Into the Black", another SFnal short story which at 4,200 words is about man sitting in a room with a paintbrush in his hand. There's very little character development, only two pieces of action in the whole plot, and the story hinges on a simple decision. Structurally, this one could have been written as flash. Yet it's one of my most popular and successful short stories. And the story falls short of the above matrix by most measures.

Another way I think about story sizing is market requirement. If I'm asked to submit a 4,000 word short story, my first draft will typically be 3,800 to 4,200 words long. That's a span of control effect (per my comment at the head of the post), and definitely a learned behavior on my part. But it's very useful, as it ensures I'm doing the right work for the right market, without wasting effort or undershooting.

And sometimes I'm just flat wrong. I've occasionally embarked on short stories and written novellas. Likewise, I was rather notably wrong on the first draft of Endurance, which fell almost 30% shorter than I expected it to, missing that initial mark by 40,000 words.

The tension here is between muse and craft. That's a dynamic tension, not a destructive one. Almost all consistent commercial writers (and I very much include myself in this category) have achieved a pattern of craft that grants considerable conscious control over the writing process. The muse drives the idea and the voice that make that process come alive and become engaging. Sometimes the muse gets out of its cage and rampages across the page. Those are often the most difficult and interesting stories, but also the most unpredictable.

The arc of my career has been the slow fusion of muse and craft. One of the best signifiers of this is my ability to (usually) predict the length of a piece of fiction just as I start writing it.

Your thoughts?

ETA: Important note. As with all my analyses of process and the craft of writing, this is post-facto. When I'm approaching a text in initial draft, it's just words on a page. None of this sort of thing is consciously in my head, at least not after an initial decision as to what sort of piece I'm writing — ie, flash, novelette, novel. I very strongly believe it to be a mistake to overplan work before the words hit the page. This thinking can be very useful on revision, or for contemplation of the writing process as a general rule, but for me at least, it poisons the draft to self-consciously write.

Originally published at jlake.com.

Post A Comment | 7 Comments | | Link






fjm
User: fjm
Date: 2009-09-09 13:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Ok, so I seem to be writing a novella. Interesting.
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girlie jones
User: girliejones
Date: 2009-09-09 13:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm finding I prefer reading short stories at the 5000 word length. More than 6000 feels too long for a short story.
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cathshaffer
User: cathshaffer
Date: 2009-09-09 14:07 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Your span of control concept has been influential in how I think about my own process.

One thing I had trouble with as a young writer was that I had picked up the habit of throwing in new plot twists and characters when I got "stuck" in a story. That made my stories spiral ever longer, and I was always getting feedback that my stories should be novels. I totally agree with all your guidelines above, and I think short stories are generally hard because you have to be so economical with your prose and so focused, and you can NOT dodge plot problems by throwing in complications. Sometimes a story of 1000 words can be very easy, if you have a very clever idea. You can write a HAITE, get in and out quickly before your reader gets annoyed. (HAITE=here's an idea the end)
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Kenneth Mark Hoover
User: kmarkhoover
Date: 2009-09-09 14:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I suppose if you press me I could ballpark how long a story will be when I start it. But mostly I just let a story be as long as it needs to be. I wish I could know at the outset how long it will be when I start, but I really don't.

I do agree with you about those "golden lengths" or sweet spots. They do seem to work well for those categories, at least for me, too.
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manmela
User: manmela
Date: 2009-09-09 14:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I've sort of flip-flopped around on the idea of story length. My all-genres writers circle was such that pieces above 1500 words were too long to be read out, so I started writing to cater to that limit.

However, I felt that was holding me back from telling longer more elaborate stories, so migrated to a "it's as long as it is" mentality.

Yet I've recently found that my pieces where I've had a word limit have been more successful than those without. I put a lot of that down to the growth and development of my internal editor, which works harder (or at least, culls more ruthlessly) on those pieces with word limits.

Currently I'm finding that my flash fiction is the area I'm showing most progress in, and I'm trying to apply some of the editing methodology I'm learning there to my longer works.

**Basically, I'm not sure what I'm doing and trying hard not to care and just "go with it"
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Josh English
User: joshenglish
Date: 2009-09-09 18:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks, Jay, I'm already feeling bad about my 18K story and my 40K (est) work in progress. I hate feeling like I'm writing to unpublishable lengths.

Just kidding. I gave up a long time ago to guess how long a story was going to be as I write. Turns out I was wrong every time. I can only estimate the WIP because my story bible tells me what scenes to write.
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Peter Hollo
User: frogworth
Date: 2009-09-10 02:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I love The Cleansing Fire of God.

Oh, this isn't a comment on your post, because IANAW (Writer). I Am a Reader, though :)
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