Ideally, a writer should make their story as long or as short as it needs to be, but practically, market realities nudge us toward certain lengths. Sure, if you’re Neal Gaiman you have no problem finding a home for a story, a novel, or a poem. Stephen King could write an 1,100 page novel and nobody would say, “Sorry Steve, maybe you wanna trim this a bit.” We know this, because his last novel was 1,100 pages and plenty of people bought it. I did.
If you’re a novelist without an existing mega-audience, though, you shoot for between 80,000 and 110,000 words, depending on genre or publisher preference.
When it comes to short fiction it may be tempting to look at all the different lengths of stories being published — everything from 600 word flash pieces to 40,000 word novellas — and conclude there’s a market for any length you want to write.
It’s true that markets exist for longer stories, but there are only a few, and they tend to publish almost exclusively established professionals. If there are 30 places I might normally consider sending a story, and only 5 of those takes stories over 6,000 words (and those 5 also have much longer odds against less established writers), then a writer in my situation has to recognize that the likelihood of getting a story published is much, much higher if the story is on the shorter side. Many more markets are available, including most of the ones that give emerging writers a realistic shot.
When you look at it this way in terms of pure probabilities, it makes sense that someone like me should write a lot of 3,000 and 4,000 words stories, because pretty much ALL magazines, webzines, anthologies and e-zines take that length. The difficulty with that is that sometimes a story wants and deserves to be longer than that. What do I do with an idea that would be best told in 8,000 to 10,000 words? Strip it down like crazy, go super-minimal and try to make it into a 5,000 word piece? That’s probably what I’d do, yeah. But I don’t like it.
There has been a nice side benefit to this need to cut words, which is that my natural over-writing style is something I’ve had to recognize and learn to overcome. No more spending 10,000 words on an idea that can be done just as well in half that. But on the flip side, I’d love to be able to stretch out a little with some of my story ideas. This morning I gave my wife a 7,500 word rough draft to read, and I really don’t think there’s a lot to cut out. Yet if I go down the list, I’ll find that 9 out of 10 of the places I’d consider sending a story won’t take something that long.
Really the nicest thing about reaching that next level (OK, let’s face facts… it’s more than one level up) of receiving anthology invites, and getting stories into places like F&SF or Asimov’s or Subterranean will be not only the exposure and the sense of having “made it,” but the freedom to stretch out a little.