Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Final, Definitive Guide to Word Counts for Short Stories, Novellas, Novels, and More

How many words make a novel? It's an age-old question. I have done a seriously ridiculous amount of research and have the definitive answer for how many words in a short story, novella, novel, and everything else.

We start where everyone always starts, with Wikipedia. The four-part breakdown is pretty simple. Short story to 7,500 words, novelette to 17,500, novella to 40,000, and beyond that is a novel.

Piece of cake, right? But what about flash fiction? Where's that fit? One source suggests anything between 53 and under 1000.

But wait, that same source says short stories have at least 3,500 words. Anything between 1,000 and 3,499 has just fallen into a forbidden void. That's dangerous, because nature and writers alike abhor a vacuum.

A second opinion comes to the rescue with a refinement on short stories, separating them into short-short and long-short stories. The short-short is a very awkward name, so I propose we call it the Old Mac Donald (like the farm, with a short-short here, a short-short there, etc.)

There's still some void, but it's small and containable.

A long-short is just as problematic. Using the writer's favorite tool, creative synonyms, we could call it a big short. Big Short? That's a movie! It was a book first, but with all respect to author Michael Lewis the most famous name here is Christian Bale.


 We have to add in an important pivot point in the graph. McSweeney's submissions famously said submissions of exactly 742 words used to get accepted to the site as if by magic. That golden rule is, alas, no longer true, but the magic number remains.

But that presents a logical problem, with two different lengths both called "flash". We could separate them into microflash and macroflash, but with that perfect Goldilocks zone in the middle, literary history calls out for Mama Bear Flash and Papa Bear Flash. For consistency, we also have to dump the reference to McSweeney's in favor of baby bear (we can't name the just right length after Goldilocks; she's a burglar and a thief).

Now we have some problems on the low end. The unsubstantiated story of Hemingway's "For sale: baby shoes, never worn," slots in nicely at six words.

Shorter than that and you don't have a story, you have a byline. As for 1-2 words, frankly, you're staring at a screen, trying to figure out how to start. You've got writer's block.

After 6, we get into a murky area. You've got a couple handfuls of syllables, but you haven't gone very far. Up to, say, 17 words, it's probably just a haiku. It's not a sure thing, but wise gambler takes the best odds.

Finally, we can get to the novel. Hand-waving everything over 40k is far too open-ended. For one thing, 40k is too short for modern times. "Old" novels might fit there, but not new novels. Heh, that's ironic. "Novel" means new. Old novels are "old-new." Who's the expert on old-new things? They Might Be Giants, with the lyric, "Old New York was once New Amsterdam."

As everyone knows, books are metric. That gives us an important milestone at 100,000+. And finally, if we've gone past 120,000, we're definitely into fantasy (or rarely sci-fi) epic territory.

There are deeper milestones. "Ulysses", at 262,869 words, makes one complete Odyssey.

By the time you've reached 350k, you have clearly (and coincidentally, since this famous author's top 7 longest novels roughly average this length) written the Dickens out of a book.

When we reach the length of "Gone with the Wind" I think it is frankly safe to say we have given a Damn.

Beyond that, and I admit I'm getting tired here so I'm going to stop with the fancy naming and just let the titles speak for themselves, there are several clear roadmarks.


 Two exceptions, because we need more granularity. In a Chabon book, one character is working on a 2,611-page novel, which at 250 words per page sets fine boundary for a "Wonder Boy" of a book.

Then there is a saying, sort of like Gladwell's somewhat debunked 10,000 hour rule that a writer's first million words are practice. Once you hit that, it's go time.

In summary, the final, definitive, universal, totally accurate and un-arguable for all time list of how many words does it take to have a short story, novel, or any other kind of non-poetic (except haiku) literary work:

Wait, sorry. I have clearly made some mistakes. Kilo is 1000, and Old Mac Donald is 1000. A Kilo-Mac Donald ought to be a million. Also, I have failed to recognize the squidgy Balette space, where the Bale and the Novelette overlap. That plus a typo where flash went to 9,999. Still, every system is imperfect. It would be foolish to scrap all this hard work and start over, right?

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

My Inspiration for Writing "The Great American Novel Returns"

The Great American Novel Returns exists to celebrate the public domain. Art belongs to the world as a part of our shared culture. For practical business reasons we let the creators hold on to their inventions for a time, but it's a temporary monopoly. Eventually all great stories become part of our collective experience and should be free to re-use, adapt, and build upon.

The book is a "mashup," blending an old work with something new. The idea has been around forever. How many myths have been reworked, how many classics retold? Shakespeare, maybe the most-referenced writer from the past, was himself working from stories that were old in his day. But the idea has taken on a life of its own in recent years. Since I first heard about Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies I knew I wanted the chance to take an existing work and treat it like a LEGO kit: break it apart and reassemble in a way that featured both old and new.

One problem was I didn't want to tackle the same books everyone else was already tinkering with, so Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, and most other writers from before the twentieth century were out. Also, I didn't want to go that far back in time. Weren't there new-old books being freshly put in the public domain? For twenty years—my entire adult life—the answer was no. The last copyright extension, the 1998 "Mickey Mouse Protection Act," created a gap, putting creative access to artistic works on pause for two decades. That ended this year, with a crop of works from 1923 finally entering the public domain in 2019.

Among them was the song "Yes, We Have No Bananas." I couldn't make a book out of that, but I hope for the life of me someone eventually does. Then I found The Great American Novel by William Carlos Williams. I knew little about Williams and nothing about the novel, but I have always loved the half-jesting, half-striving implications of that phrase, and immediately knew that was the one to work with. Williams still inspires many poets, but I think his books, and this one in particular, are mostly forgotten. It deserves to be revisited and recalled as a piece of our history and culture. That is part of what I hope to do by dragging his old words along on a road trip with my new ones.

How did I do it? The final result contains three roughly equal portions:

One third is text from the original The Great American Novel by Williams. The parts quoted represent maybe half of his original work and are presented with only minor modifications.

Another third of the book is a conversation with Williams’s text, adding commentary, playful discussion, and a century’s worth of insight and events.

The remaining third is a straightforward story, a road-trip buddy adventure of a car and a computer who set out together to discover America. This part came about because Williams's original satire had hundreds of scenes and talking points, but basically no over-arching story, and the best way I could conceive to make a satire of a satire was to put a story back in, but one that has machines exploring man-made world.

Now available on Amazon.