BLOG How Long Is A Piece Of Writing?

SFX reader blogger Lee Harris considers the dilemma facing authors who don’t want to write multi-volume doorstops

Less than two weeks ago I attended FantasyCon in Nottingham, and co-presented one of the trophies at the British Fantasy Awards. My co-presenter was the irrepressible Alasdair Stuart, who (despite giving me a funny line to say) managed to get the biggest laugh of the presentation due to a perfectly-timed ad-lib aimed at some commotion in the audience at the time.

Swine.

My love for this particular convention and these awards is well-documented elsewhere, so I won’t bore you with the details again, as I’m really writing today to discuss story length.

I have an interest in all lengths of fiction, from drabble and flash, through short stories, and all the way up to novels and beyond.

Tucked away in the middle, are novellas and short novels. There aren’t any definitive word counts as to what constitutes most of these story types (except for drabbles, which have to be exactly 100 words long), but for a novella, anything between 15,000 and 40,000 sounds about right. Some would argue that the novelette lies at the upper end of this wordcount, but I’ve always disliked that term for some reason.

This year’s Best Novella category at the British Fantasy Awards had the strongest shortlist I can remember. All finalists were worthy of the title, and I certainly couldn’t argue with the selection of Sarah Pinborough's “The Language of Dying” which – when I read it last year – affected me so much, that when I finished it, I started reading again from the beginning straight away, something I’ve not done in more than a decade.

My day job is as Editor for Angry Robot – a scifi/fantasy novel imprint. A couple of weeks ago I was sent a submission for a story type I don’t normally enjoy, but I kept an open mind when I opened the file, and was so impressed, that as I was nearing the end of the sample I was sent I asked the author to send me the full manuscript. His reply both delighted and disappointed me. The file I had was the full story at a touch over 40,000 words. Delight, because here was another excellent novella (and the world needs more excellent ones); disappointment because we don’t publish novellas. Outside of the thriving Small Press market in the UK, hardly anyone does.

So, the author has two choices. Keep his wonderful story at 40,000 words and sell it to a specialist publisher (who will treat it lovingly, but sell copies numbering in the dozens or hundreds to discerning fans of the format) or expand it by at least another 30,000 words in the hope of acceptance by a mass market publisher (with no guarantee of success, even after all this extra work). The challenge with the latter option is to expand the book to novel length, but not simply pad it out; to add new characters, new scenarios, new conflicts that gel seamlessly with the existing prose, so there are no joins to see.

I’ve offered suggestions and presented some options, and I’m absolutely fascinated to see what choice this author makes. I’ll write a follow-up post at some point, and let you know what happens.