Since I started writing fiction again late in 2009, I’ve mostly concentrated on writing shorter stories, in the 3,000 to 5,000 word range. My fellow writers will have a sense of what kind of length this indicates. For readers, figure 10-15 paperback book pages.
The main reason I’ve been concentrating on this length is that it seems to be what most editors are looking for, at least from newer/emerging writers. I might have preferred to write something, say, 8,000 or 10,000 or even 12,000 words long — and some of my story ideas might have been best expressed in such a length — but there are very few places that will accept such long stories. When you’ve just started trying to get published, I believe it increases your chances if you write stories that can be submitted to many different places.
Most short fiction venues seem to prefer stories in that 4,000 to 5,000 word sweet spot. Some will express this outright. Others will say they accept work up to maybe 8,000, but everything they actually publish is much shorter.
Say you’re a science fiction writer, and you write a 14,000 novelette. Once you’ve sent it to Asimov’s, Analog, and Fantasy and Science Fiction (which mostly take stories from established big-name pros, and are tough to break into otherwise), there are only 2 or 3 more places that you can send something that long. So once you’ve sent this novelette around to 5-6 places, your story’s at a dead end.
I felt it was a bad risk to spend months writing something so long, only a few places would consider it. Write a story of 4,500 words, though, and you have dozens of places you could send it.
Lately I’ve been getting more of my work published. That’s wonderful, and not only does it encourage me to keep going. It also makes me more confident that if I try something, it will probably work. Better yet, I’ve received a handful of invitations to write specifically for a given magazine or anthology or small press. If I’m planning to write a story for an invite, I can ask the editor what kind of length is OK. So far it seems as if 5,000 to 8,000 words is no problem.
I’ve even had a couple of editors tell me, “This story would work better if you fleshed it out.” In other words, time to write longer. This turns out to be something I enjoy. My last three completed stories average over 7,000 words, and I’m nearing completion on a novella in the 18k to 20k range.
I now realize how much I was constraining myself in order to fit what I thought the market wanted. I still think it was a good idea to start out this way, but it’s a relief to be able to stretch out a bit.