Guessing Your Length

Right, firstly get your mind out of the gutter with that headline because that is not what I mean! No I am talking about story length and how long we perceive a story will be at the time we write it. Do you have an idea when you start a piece of work whether it will be a short story, novelette, novella, novel or the doorstop next to Songs of Ice and Fire on the shelf?

When I started The Weight of Reason, I knew it was going to be between 10,000 and 15,000 words (published version is something like 12,500 and most readers complained it was too short). On reflection, it should probably have been released in a collection such as I released last year: Herrenvolk and other Stories.

I enjoy writing novelettes and I expect that my zombie story, the snippets I posted last week and the weekend before I expect will become novelettes when I get around to working on them, I’m just not sure that they have enough steam in them to be full-length novels, but I could be wrong about that – last week’s perhaps has a bit more scope though.

I referred to my zombie run story (now titled DNF) as a novelette right from the start. In this post I said I expected it to be 12-15,000 words in length. A couple of weeks later in this post I estimated it would be 20,000 words. This weekend, and seemingly not even halfway through, it hit 12,000 words. I am now aiming for 25-30,000 words. The best thing about this though is that I am editing as I am going. When I started, I had the premise and no real sense of who the characters were but this weekend, that has come to me – at least for two of the four – and I’ve gone back to flesh them out.

My as yet untitled Romans Vs Aliens novel is about 25,000 words so far and has only just got started. To me, that was always going to be a novel and the careful back stories and intricate characters I already had in my mind from before even writing page one made it clear in my mind that I couldn’t keep it shorter than novel length, even if I wanted to.

I firmly believe that a story is as long or as short as it needs to be, but I also usually have a good sense of how long it will be when finished. What about you, do you know how long a story is going to be when you start it or do you set out to write a short story, novelette or novel? Have you ever surprised yourself in thinking you were writing a short story that became much longer, or a novel that ended up much shorter?

4 thoughts on “Guessing Your Length

  1. Dylan Hearn

    I never have an idea how long a story will be from the idea itself. Once I’ve outlined I have a better idea because I will have identified the component scenes and roughly how long each should be (usually between 1500 word – 3000 words). However, once the writing starts in earnest I often find my individual estimates to be off but the overall word count to be pretty accurate.

    1. I should probably outline and plan more than I do, that way I could figure out if an idea has more staying power than initial expectations.

      But then like you, I’ll probably we way off:-/

  2. cjmoseley

    I never have any idea.
    Paradox War was meant to be a novel, but got so big I split it in three (although I’m now making an Omnibus edition so…). Mostly because one of the characters was so easy to write that he got away from a bit:)
    My short stories tend to be very compact, although occasionally they turn into novelettes (or even novellas).

    I haven’t even looked at the length of my next book, yet as although 1st draft is completed it is a collection of shorts and novellas rather than chapters, and I haven’t collated it to see how big the book will be.

    I tend to aim over and cut down later, but that’s no guarantee that it will make the length I want…

    1. That’s more or less how my first novel worked out, but I only started a second book because of one character who had no intention of staying within the shackles I intended for him.

      Now, it has become his story but I have put it aside while I am working on DNF and my Romans novel.

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